An unattainable country

The first act of this journey can be called: “Fighting against destiny.” I arrived at Gatwick airport significantly earlier than my usual half-hour before departure. Calmly, I approached the Emirates Airlines desk, and that’s where the problems began. I showed my passport, which, due to an unfortunate event (rain in the UK, very likely but also unlucky), had my picture partially ruined. Nevertheless, I had never had problems flying with it and crossing borders so far. This time, however, I was blocked from entering the plane. Nothing could change the Emirates’ ground attendants’ minds, not even my Letter of Invitation from the Turkmenistan Government, endless explanations that I was only transiting in Dubai (where I was supposed to meet my friend Jasir), or the fact that every security check had access to the Interpol system where they could see my original picture.

At that point, there was no time for panicking. I knew the only other airport connected to Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, was Istanbul. Thus, I went straight to the Turkish Airlines desk. There, I asked whether I could fly to Istanbul and then to Ashgabat with my passport. They also cast doubts, but they told me that with an ID card, I could have flown to Istanbul. From there, I would be on my own, even though my ID card was expiring just three days later. I summoned my strength and decided to go there. In the meantime, Greta, one of the friends I was supposed to meet in Uzbekistan (after Turkmenistan), called the general embassy of Italy in Istanbul. They told her that I might have more than one problem once at the Istanbul airport if Turkish Airlines there wouldn’t sell me the ticket to Ashgabat. Indeed, with an ID card expiring so soon, I couldn’t leave the airport.

While already on board and flying over Europe, my mother was fortuitously in Rome to a conference where the Turkish ambassador in Italy was also present. Without any hesitation she went to him to ask for help. In the end, I didn’t face any problems in Istanbul because the Turkish Airlines desk sold me the ticket to Ashgabat for the day after. In conclusion, the morale is Turkish Airlines >> Emirates. I would have arrived one day later in Ashgabat, but I had the chance to visit Istanbul, a bridge between the East and the West. Walking around, crossing the Bosphorus, staring at the millions of mosques and minarets, and listening to the Ottoman band celebrating some historical event of the Ottoman Empire was undoubtedly excellent compensation for all the troubles I needed to go through to get there.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

I then visited Topkapi Palace, the imperial palace, with its luxurious rooms, where sultans administered the empire, decorated with colorful carpets and tiles, the harem, the treasury, and the reliquary. The latter contains everything one can imagine about religion: the staff of Moses, the sword of David (the one used to fight Goliath), a box that belonged to Abraham, the beard hair of the prophet Muhammad, footprints of the prophet Muhammad, letters of the prophet Muhammad, and swords of the prophet Muhammad. The Ark of the Covenant was the only thing missing there. I must admit, I have doubts about the authenticity of all these reliquaries. Anyway, the palace also had an incredible terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, dominating both the Asian and European sides. After that, I attempted to enter the Hagia Sophia mosque, but there was an incredible queue, longer than 1 km. Given my limited time, I decided to skip it and just admire it, along with the Blue Mosque, from the outside.

Nevertheless, I have been able to visit the underground basilica, a Roman cistern used to store water for the imperial palace, incredibly similar to the mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings for its dark atmosphere. A fascinating statue of Medusa is hidden in one of the corners, projecting her shadow on the wall and petrifying the observers from her beauty. I concluded my brief trip in Istanbul by walking through the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. These are huge markets, as large as a whole village, where merchants from all over Turkey and nearby countries sell jewelry, fabrics, sweets, food, games, perfumes, and everything the human mind can think of. I like merchants, and I love observing them in the art of selling as they are truly the engine of every country, with their industriousness and enthusiasm.

Turkish people are very friendly, and I had the sensation that they appreciate Italians. I have been stopped many times, and people walked with me along the Bosphorus or in the streets and alleys around the city, talking about our countries (sometimes also about women) and cultures. I have also been invited to share a beer. Even though I was alone visiting, I never felt alone in this town. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy this beer because I had a flight waiting for me (this time for real). While in my taxi to the airport, looking at the sun setting over the city, one thought filled my mind: I need to come back to Turkey; it deserves much more than a single day.

I arrived in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, late at night. It was 3 am, actually. I had a COVID test inside the airport, but it was really just a formality; the swab was never truly inserted into my nose, just softly touched it. I had to go through the visa process, where they issued a visa for me, and then I paid for my visa and COVID test. After the passport control, there is also a luggage check at the airport exit. My flight was full of local people, and one thing that one can immediately notice (especially if one comes from the UK) is their inability to queue. They just amass in front of the desk and push and pull until it’s their turn.

The airport from the outside has the shape of a white eagle made out of marble. I was carried to my hotel, an avocado-shaped, astonishingly luxurious palace, where, unfortunately, I could only spend 4 hours. My friend Jasir was waiting there (actually sleeping). We were supposed to meet in Dubai, but life is sometimes surprising. Early in the morning, we were picked up by our guide to visit the capital. One immediately gets struck by the extensive presence of “White” everywhere. All the buildings are white, cars are mostly white, and if not, they are gold or silver-colored. This is not by chance. The government aimed to achieve many world records, including something like the whitest city in the world. So cars are only allowed to be of those colors, and buildings are all made with marble (the fanciest ones with Carrara marble from Italy). Cars not from Ashgabat must be left in one of the huge car-parks just outside from Ashgabat.

We visited the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world, the monument to the constitution, the monument to independence from the USSR, a monument to liberty, and a monument to a book. Apparently, the first president of Turkmenistan wrote a book about how to be good in the world; they translated it into countless languages and also made a statue for it. We went in front of the presidential palace, but it is not allowed to take pictures of it. Surprisingly, the Department of Physics and Mathematics was located in front of it. In my whole life, I have never seen such a fancy department. Usually, my department was always relegated to the corner of towns. We were supposed to visit the fortress of Nisa, an ancient Parthian fortress from the third century before Christ, at the border with Iran, but the Turkmen secret services blocked us because a “delegation” was visiting it at that point.

We went to eat in a local cafe, where we had Pilaf and dumplings, typical of this region. After that, we aimed for the desert, to the north of the country. The road soon after leaving Ashgabat wasn’t a road anymore; it was a mined field. Many camels crossed it freely; they are the real owners of the road in the desert. After 2 hours, we stopped inside a village to buy food for the night. Villages in the desert are poor; you can spot USSR trucks left there and used by the locals. The mini-market was selling unpackaged pasta and biscuits without any brand. The Coke wasn’t the original one, but there was everything one needs for immediate needs. We also bought a Turkmen beer to celebrate my birthday, which would have been the day after. We visited two craters, the result of Soviet gas excavations in the 1970s, one filled with water and another with mud to stop the gas from leaking, before reaching the Gate of Hell.

Bubble of gas methane and propane are visible as a foam on the surface of the water

The Gate of Hell is a crater, which was also created by Soviet scientists while looking for gas in the soil. The ground collapsed due to a void underground, and gas started leaking out. In the beginning, no one cared, but after some time, the nearby villages started to smell it, and one night, two shepherds with their sheeps were found dead near the crater. Therefore, the Soviets decided to light it in an attempt to stop the leaking. They calculated that in a few days, maybe weeks, the crater would run out of gas, but 40 years later, the crater is still burning, and one cannot be if not astonished by its effect. I had the chance to read and study next to the crater while looking into its burning flames, and this is an image that will always stay with me.

Once darkness arrived, the temperature in the desert fell steeply. So, we went back to our camp and prepared our Yurt, a typical West Asian large tent where we would spend the night. It is very comfortable and also had a wood heater inside. We heated our food next to a fire that the camp guardian lit to cook food for some other tourists. They also shared two baked potatoes with us. In turn, we gave them some Turkish delight I bought in Istanbul to celebrate my birthday, happening that night. After dinner, we went back to the Gate of Hell to enjoy it during the night. The atmosphere is completely different, and the crackling and popping of the flames filled the air. I offered the Turkish delights to a couple of Mexican tourists there and exchanged some words before heading back to the camp. When walking back, we lost our way in the desert, just at the moment when we were talking about the fact that if anyone were to be lost, they could always spend the night next to the crater where the temperature was higher (I would say around 30 degrees Celsius). Luckily, the Mexican tourists and their guide were still there at the crater, which emits a reddish light when looked at from a distance, so we reached them and went back to the camp together.

Our Yurt was a sauna at that point because of the heater, but 2 hours later, by midnight, the fire ran out, and it started freezing inside. The sleeping bags were warm enough, but when one needed to get out of them for any reason, the suffering was real. I woke up around midnight and went outside the Yurt to stare at the starry night. Nights in the desert are amazing. There is no point in the celestial sphere left unlighted. Stars completely fill every corner, and the Milky Way crosses the dark like a river through the fields. Whenever I look at a sky like that, I wonder about the questions that the human race has been asking since the beginning of time: why are we here? Are we alone? Is all of this created? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is time and space? What is my role in all of this?

I started getting anxious, and I had the sensation that I wasn’t doing anything worthy with my life. But at that point, the cold was biting me, and the survival instinct took over, driving me back to the Yurt. The night at that point didn’t pass so smoothly, and when Mercury decided to lead the sun out from the dunes of the desert, we finally woke up and had our quick breakfast. It was 3/4 degrees, and the shivers were uncontrollable.

In the end, we jumped in the car and headed towards the border with Uzbekistan. After a double passport check, a passage on top of a Soviet-era bus, some troubles with my passport, and some small talk about Italian football (which helped me divert attention from the passport; sometimes being Italian has its perks), we managed to cross it. Although there were many problems to reach Turkmenistan, this trip has been one of my favorites, and I would like to go back to Ashgabat to explore it more than I was able to do. Now, let’s enjoy Uzbekistan though.