The Death Wank

Wednesday 26 April

I always believed that something to do with sex would be the death of me. I dunno man, just a funny feeling. Like I’d turn my head while driving a car to look at a huge pair of boobs and wrap the vehicle around a lampost. Or step into the road while staring at an ass and get hit by a bus. Or fall out of a tree while peeping in a window. Little did I know, that masturbation was to be the catalyst to change my entire life around. If you’ll permit me, allow me to explain.

I was languishing in a hostel bed, somewhere in the shit-hole that is Siem Reap, wasting away. Breakfast was a can of beer and a bowl of rice. Dinner was more beer. Siem Reap has become Siem Reap because of its proximity to Angkor Wat – the world’s largest, religious monument and all round tourist magnet. The local town has boomed(?) into a dump of a place, catering for the enormous influx of foreigners of all shapes and sizes. Much like Aguas Calientes – the mini-America resort that serves Machu-Picchu – it’s just as much blue-rinse coach tour as it is know-it-all backpack destination. Consequently, you’ll find all sorts here, all ages, all nationalities, all manner of humanoids, all turning the place into the mess you see today.

So, when in Rome right? I was going off the rails again. I hadn’t even seen the monument that brought me (and everybody else) here in the first place, and instead, I was donning the kilt pretty much every night, snorting cocaine and getting smashed until dawn. At least, it might have been cocaine – I couldn’t tell at that time of the morning, as I was hoovering a suspicious looking white powder up from an outdoor hostel table as other guests left to catch the sunrise over the temple. I’m a classy guy.

Around about this time I’d managed to finally score an online job. After traveling for 6 years, spending my inheritance money seeing the world, searching for something I could do remotely so I’d never have to work a desk job again, I apply for and get offered a position as a ghostwriter. Now, that isn’t telling ghost stories – as a few people have already enquired – it entails writing copy for a travel blog website which they then claim as their own. Standard practice for most blogs really, travel or otherwise, with extremely large readerships. Hell, it takes me almost a full day to write one post with pictures – so it’s a full-time job if you’re one of the big boys on the block. I’m just small fry – and as I don’t particularly want to put in the work to get any bigger than this, I’m alright with my word-of-mouth pseudo-fame.

I digress. So, I’m writing travel blog articles for this website, and finally getting paid for my work. I’m officially a published writer. Of sorts. I am coming to the point of this story – I promise. One particular weekend a short time ago, I was yet again drinking myself into oblivion, but with the necessity to write four articles by Monday hanging over me. This was to become something of a struggle, as I wrestled my way back into routine and working practice. I’ve not had a proper job in seven odd years.

Anyway, I decided to sober up for the remainder of the weekend, and plow through the articles, staying up all night to do so. It was around 4 o’clock in the morning, two pieces in, that I began to feel a little frisky. You know what I’m talking about – you’ve all been there. A cheeky little sneak attack of the horn. I decided to take a break and rub one out.

As subtly as I could I slipped my laptop into the toilet (which is a common occurrence in hostels – if you see someone taking their laptop into the toilet, it’s not to skype their mum) I pulled up a selection of choice pictures and began to do the deed. Stroking away like there was no tomorrow, shortly before the big finish I experienced one of the worst pains I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing – across the right side of my head. A searing, fiery headache that came out of nowhere, and pounded my brain into submission. I all but collapsed on the floor – but not before finishing off; it was a lot of effort to get that far and I wasn’t about to waste it.

In a pool of cum and pain, I struggled to my feet, cleaned off, and staggered back to my dorm bed. With the ache crescendoing into an unbearable affliction, my hands were shaking as I frantically dosed ibuprofen, and then self-diagnosed with a google search. There was no doubt in my mind I have a brain tumour – and indeed WebMD confirms my worst fears. I’ve got moments to live, apparently.

OK, so I might have been a somewhat hypochondriacal with my prognosis, but I do discover that I’ve experienced something called a “thunderclap headache”. The checklist was a rap sheet of my condition:

1. You’ve never experienced pain like it before.

2. It comes on incredibly fast, usually localised to one area, and increases in severity over the next 60 seconds.

3. The pain might not fade for an hour or more.

4. You were engaged in some kind of physical activity at the time.

Well, the last one was pretty obvious. I was having a wank. Flaying the emperor. Punching one’s clown. Bucking the slobbering donkey. Etcetera, etcetera.  I’m going to have to explain to a doctor that my masturbation session was the catalyst for getting a CT scan.

And explain I do. At around 5 am I email a local British doctor and spill my guts. He responds quickly and insists I go to have a brain scan immediately. I’m booked in to get my noggin looked at that afternoon.

I remember distinctly the moment I walked to that appointment dear readers. I’ll never forget it as long as I live – which I hope isn’t just a couple of weeks. You see, my mum died of a brain hemorrhage. She called my name, and I waited ten minutes before going to see her – because I thought it was just the dog getting out. But there she was, lying face up on the kitchen floor, gone before she hit the ground. As a result, I have extreme anxiety at the slightest pain or obscure feeling in my head. I lie awake at night wondering what that must have been like. I hear the fear in her voice echo in my memory. I hear her voice. I hear her voice.

“STUART!”

Walking to that clinic, I convinced myself of two things. One – that given my obvious family medical history, I was going to be given the worst news possible. And two – if that wasn’t the case, I would stop traveling immediately. At least, this kind of traveling. I know better than most how short life is, and it’s too short to be fucking around in this shit-hole, surrounded by a load of 19-year-old children, people who don’t give a rats ass about you, snorting cocaine and pissing up the wall.

I was tired. I was jaded. I had lost the will to continue this hitchhike. And even before the lascivious events of the night in question – I knew it. I’d been two weeks in Siem Reap and I hadn’t even worked up the energy to go and see one of the most beautiful ancient sights in the world. My enthusiasm spoke volumes.

As I lay back on the scanner bed and moved inside the machine to watch the little blinking lights do their work, I felt a peace I’d not felt in a long, long time. I was still anxious yes, but whatever the result, a decision had been made, and either way – maybe I could finally rest. Some time later, my heart beat in my throat as the doctor approached with two x-rays of my brain. She diagnosed me with nothing more than sinusitis.

I must have looked a strange sight as I danced my way back to my hostel down dimly-lit Siem Reap streets. I didn’t care – I had been born again. And, unlike a gambler who finally pays his dues and immediately goes back on their promise to change, I was going to stick to my guns. I’d made a decision, and I’d be damned if I was going back on it. Returning to my hostel, and without a word to anyone, I went straight online and booked a flight.

As soon as I had done so, I burst into tears. I felt an enormous weight lifting from my shoulders. I felt years of running were finally being laid to rest. I felt my depression and anxiety ease. I was going where I actually wanted to be.

I was going home.

Quite where that home is, however, you’ll have to wait and see.

I was 200 bucks down for the most expensive souvenir I’d ever bought – two x-ray copies of my brain scan. You can’t put a price on life though, can you?

I reckon I'm going to make this my new tinder profile picture.

I reckon I’m going to make this my new tinder profile picture.

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Hitchhike to India leg 61: Phuket to Khao Sok National Park

Wednesday 21 December

If it had been up to me, I’d probably have been sleeping in a bar in Phuket town instead of writing this somewhere close to completing a round trip from Bangkok to Singapore.  Currently, I’m not wearing the trousers.  Alex has a bee in her bonnet about a day visit to the Khao Sok National park – which is along our way (and a little to the right) to where we’re actually meant to be spending Christmas and New Year.  Who am I to argue?  My hitchhike has been hitchjacked.

Alex makes her first ever hitchhike sign.

Alex makes her first ever hitchhike sign.

So off we set at a moderate pace to try our luck at getting out of Phuket town without the need to take public transport to the city limits.  Hitchwiki and other sites of information are careful about confirming that this is a good idea – as there have been some horror stories of hitchers getting into what they think is a free ride only to be robbed blind by a taxi driver under threat of being taken to the police.  Still, odds were in favour of us attracting the sort of ride we need, and during our march towards a decent spot on the highway, our gamble pays off.

Cars are not supposed to stop on the red and white lines, apparently.

Cars are not supposed to stop on the red and white lines, apparently.

The first ride of the day is a lovely young lady who can’t take us far, but certainly out of the city build up and well on the road.  Once there it should be easy pickings, but not before being told a couple of times that we need to move away from the red and white painted curb – as it is illegal for vehicles to stop there and police will come down heavy.  That being said, our next ride takes the risk and can give us a lift almost to the airport.  We’re there by 11 am and we saved 8 bucks for our trouble.

Alex tries her luck.

Alex tries her luck.

We’re waiting only seconds before our third hitch swings in – and he’s an absolute hoot.  Addy was an engineer who used to build bridges.  He built the bridge across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain amongst others, but at around 55 years of age admits that he is slowing down in his quest to see the world.  A polyglot by nature of his travel and work, he’d lived in San Francisco for a long time as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and here he was giving us a ride before starting work at a local construction site. Certainly an entertaining character and one of my most interesting hitchhike drivers to date, Addy drops us just over the bridge outside Phuket on highway number 4.  Home straights already, cooking on gas.

Leave it to the pro...

Leave it to the pro…

About two minutes after we’re back by the side of the road following lunch at a nearby hawker stand, and we’re in the back of our fourth ride of the day.  And it looks like for the first time it’s the driver that hasn’t made the decision.  The young lady in the passenger seat is a business woman going to a meeting in Ranong (our destination in a couple of days’ time – it’s a shame she can’t pass by again) and has clearly told her driver to pick us up.  Not only that, but she commands him to drive us off the highway and at least 30 KM out of her way in order to get us to a good spot for our destination.  This is getting ridiculous – and Alex and I have not murdered each other as a result.

It’s a quieter road now as we’re off the main drag, deep into the jungle and into the national park.  There’s barely a whisper of traffic, and we’re also joined by a local woman who needs a ride to the next town.  Yet low and behold – round the bend comes one of those lovely 4x4s, and with the Thai lady in the cab and the two of us in the truck bed, we’re dropped right outside the entrance to the village.  It’s not even 4 pm.

Super.

Super.

Walking about a kilometer into the town we find comfortable dwellings amidst the backdrop of the jungle.  It’s here that the Raffelisia is to be found – the largest flower in the world.  It can grow up to three feet across and weigh up to 15 pounds.  Unfortunately, we’re a little too late to go off in search of it, as the national park is shutting its doors for the night, and hopefully shutting nasty things in.  Although I’m somewhat relieved, I’m less than a little excited about the amount of crawling and flying activity in and around our accommodation upon our return and wrap myself in the mosquito net just to be on the safe side.

5 rides, 5 hours, 176 KM.  It’s been an easy, leisurely hitch, taking our time and spending no more than a few moments actually on the side of the road with thumbs out.  Now to visit the beautiful Cheow Larn Lake, and take in a jungle trek with lots of things that can kill you.  I hope she’s happy.

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Hitchhike to India leg 58: Malacca to Kuala Lumpur

Thursday 15 December

Just as I’m preparing for my triumphant return to KL, the vile, sickly, green, snotty fingers of the man flu take hold.  This I attribute to one thing and one thing only – air conditioners.  Consistently walking around in 40 degree heat only to be then thrust into minus 20 every time you enter a 7/11 (which is an alarming amount) does not suit the fragilities of the human body.  What starts as a sniffle erupts into a full-blown pandemic in every cell of my being, hacking a sputtering everyone awake in the dorm room.  Watch The Exorcist in reverse for the sounds my nose was making as I tried to breathe.

So I put my initial plan on hold and waited it out.  This gave me ample opportunity for procrastinating, including binge watching Broadchurch and Black Mirror.  I am forever late to the game with TV series, oft having to rattle through swathes of episodes that people have been banging on about for years; but I’ll get there eventually.  These two I highly recommend.

When my near death snotty nose experiences are finally ousted, once again I set out intrepidly to make the return hitch to Kuala Lumpur.  Now this really should be in the bag from the get-go, and I’m overconfident with my predictions that I’ll get a ride right outside my hostel.  Indeed there is a road sign for the capital not 50 yards from the door, and it’s towards this that I step out in the late morning.

Staggered along here for miles.  The sun was BAKING.

Staggered along here for miles. The sun was BAKING.

Of course these things never turn out to be as easy as one would have hoped/thought.  I’m following the green KL highway signs through the town, holding my KL sign out to every driver that passes – but nobody is biting.  I’m not too worried, but walking to the outskirts of a city in blistering heat isn’t healthy.  The problem always comes from being in city centres – nobody is going your way, and you get far too much local traffic.  My T-shirt is clinging to me as I finally make what could be a decent hitching spot, with some good tree coverage, and space for drivers to pull in.  The volume of traffic is comforting.

Shade.  But I was stuck here a fair while.

Shade. But I was stuck here a fair while.

But I’m there for an eon.  I say I’m there for an eon – but it’s probably only about 45 minutes.  This is a lifetime by Malay hitch standards, and I’m not really sure the reason why.  It’s especially upsetting when two young boys on a push bike trundle curiously past, and then turn to gawp at what I’m doing.  This is where I desperately want to get picked up – to inspire them to have similar adventures – mesmerised by the Indian Jones type I am.  But even after changing my sign to read highway “E1″ (and then turning to show the lads my handywork), not a sinner pulls in and I’ve got egg on my face again.  Then it dawns on me – I’m not wearing my Superman T-shirt!  I dash to the side of the road, do a quick swap – and BOOM!  It still takes another half an hour but I do eventually get a ride to my beloved toll booths.

One of my biggest pet peeves in hitchhiking in these countries – and indeed why I struggle on certain roads such as this one – are the fucking scooters.  I HATE SCOOTERS.  They’re dangerous to me, they’re dangerous to their riders, and they’re dangerous to other drivers.  Every time a fresh batch of traffic pulls away from the green light, hundreds of scooters and crap motorbikes zip past, effectively forming a barrier between me and the four wheels I want to attract.  Sometimes the little bastards are coming the wrong way too – so I have to keep checking behind me to see if I’m going to get run over – or if some arsehole has shot by and snatched my gear.  Then you’ve got the ones who (bless their hearts) will stop in front of you and suggest you go to the bus station (as if you’d never thought of that) – meanwhile twenty odd potential rides are zooming past. GAAAAH! I know they’re trying to be helpful but if I’d wanted a fucking bus I’d go to a fucking bus station and I wouldn’t be standing at the fucking side of a road with a fucking cardboard sign would I?!  Infuriating isn’t the word.

Apologies dear readers.  I needed a vent.  To continue – eventually I’m picked up by a lovely chap who’s actually an Uber driver – but jokes there’s no need to worry for this one.  He’s driven past me once before – and returned round the block to pick me up.  I was to find this to happen on more than once occasion in Malaysia – people are very keen to help strangers and will go out of their way to do so.  My host is actually going to KL – but not until tonight after his wife is finished at work.  We have a constant natter all the way to the highway toll.  He’s a prison officer in the city – so it gives me a chance to pick his brains about the conditions – and although Thailand is notorious for the “Bangkok Hilton” style big house, he claims Malaysian slammers are even worse. He’s a screw in a facility built for 3000, but holding 5000 plus inmates.  Either way, Southeast Asia isn’t a place you want to find yourself on the wrong side of the law.  I’m sweating just crossing borders carrying 1000 L-Lysine capsules and ten paracetamol.

Shower time.

Shower time.

It’s a shame to see him go as he drops me under a bridge just as the heavens open and the daily monsoon is deposited from on high, but he’s promised me to pick me up should I still be there when he passes by later.  This I’m confident I will not be – for as much as the day has begun a struggle, once I’m in these kind of locations it’s a walk in the park.

Sheltering with the enemy.

Sheltering with the enemy.

And as predicted – when the rain subsides and the scooters (bastards) sheltering with me take flight, I’ve walked for less than a minute towards the toll before a young couple pull in and say they can take me all the way to KL.  See!  I told you this was gonna be easy!  I’m gonna be home in time for tea and crumpets.  MMmmmmm crumpets.  I do miss crumpets.

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Halloween, birthday weekend and the visit of someone who looks like me

Saturday 29 October

Pictures say a thousand words.  With that in mind, here’s my post update for the week ending the 30th October.  Partly due to the fact I’m so damn lazy to write much about it, and I want to get on to my current adventures and where I am right now.  My twin came out to Bishkek to visit me.  Why she did that I’ll never know – it’s not like it’s a nice place – and she missed nearly a year of me in the far superior country of Croatia.  Still it was nice to see her after nearly 3 years apart, and I missed having someone to ball my eyes out with to Jennifer Rush – The Power of Love.  This was a special birthday.

Twins in town - exploring Bishkek with the sibling

Twins in town – exploring Bishkek with the sibling

Birthday laser tag!  Heaps of fun - especially since I won.  Or I would have won if I checked it

Birthday laser tag! Heaps of fun – especially since I won. Or I would have won if I checked it

Proof!  Actually I think it was rigged

Proof! Actually I think it was rigged

Margot was particularly taken with Lindsay - probably because she thought it was another me

Margot was particularly taken with Lindsay – probably because she thought it was another me

Crafting halloween costumes

Crafting halloween costumes

 

Which resulted in this!  Edgar Allan Poe and The Raven!

Which resulted in this! Edgar Allan Poe and The Raven!

 

...and this!  Nightmare fuel princess Mombi from Return to Oz.  Not convinced anyone would know who she was, Alex bet me 1000 som that at least 5 people had to guess correctly or I'd lose.  We managed to get 4.  Not happy

…and this! Nightmare fuel princess Mombi from Return to Oz. Not convinced anyone would know who she was, Alex bet me 1000 som that at least 5 people had to guess correctly or I’d lose. We managed to get 4. Not happy

This year's pumpkin effort.  It's a little shoddy because pumpkins are grown here to eat rather than carve.  On the upside it explains why that pumpkin pie I made years ago was rotten, and this year the soup was delicious

This year’s pumpkin effort. It’s a little shoddy because pumpkins are grown here to eat rather than carve. On the upside it explains why that pumpkin pie I made years ago was rotten, and this year the soup was delicious

 

Bar decorations

Bar decorations

 

Quoth the raven: eat my shorts

Quoth the raven: eat my shorts

 

HEEEEREEE'S WILLY!

HEEEEREEE’S WILLY!

 

Possibly the finest costume on the night

Possibly the finest costume on the night

 

Or Bambi's mum...

Or Bambi’s mum…

Or maybe this...kept shitting myself every time I turned around

Or maybe this…kept shitting myself every time I turned around

But not this...because of the zero effort - he looks like that anyway

But not this…because of the zero effort – he looks like that anyway

Olivier Le Blanc was doing a 40 portraits in 40 days challenge and was looking for volunteers!  I thought it would be nice to get a decent photograph of the two of us not looking shabby

Olivier Le Blanc was doing a 40 portraits in 40 days challenge and was looking for volunteers! I thought it would be nice to get a decent photograph of the two of us not looking shabby

And so there you have it!  A wonderful weekend and a good time was had by all!  Even when Alex drunkenly punched me in the face!  Ahhhhh we’ll all look back on that one day and laugh.  Oh how we’ll chortle.

My time in Bishkek is almost through.  In fact it is.  I’m writing this sweating balls in Bangkok.   The story of how I arrived here will be coming next.  Stay tuned dear readers – it’s a doozy.

 

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The door to hell

Wednesday 02 December

Now this was one I’d been looking forward to for a long time.  You’ll have all seen it before – it’s one of those tourist oddities that crops up in lists of strange places you won’t believe are on this planet.  Or things to see before you die.  Or Sovietfuckups dot com.  Not sure that’s a real thing, but it should be.

The so-called “door to hell” or “gates of hell” has been on my radar for sometime, simply because of how cool it looked, one of those alien landscapes you don’t think exists here.  It’s visited by more than 50,000 tourists each year, and is actually number one on trip-advisor for Turkmenistan.  That’s not really anything to be proud of – that a burning hole in the ground is your number one attraction – the country really must have bugger all else.

The vast nothing

The vast nothing

And judging from our three and a half hour journey into the desert, you can well believe it.  Because it’s best viewed after dark, we set off from Ashgabat mid afternoon, greeted by mile after mile of nothingness.  It’s just one long, monotonous slab of tarmac through scrub and sand, occasionally pitching up bleak remote villages and the odd herd of camels.  Some 98% of Turkmenistan follows suit.

The door to hell

The door to hell

The Darvaza gas crater is a man-made phenomenon, situated in a natural gas field in the Karakum desert.  The story goes that Soviet engineers were on the search for oil, when a drilling rig collapsed into a natural gas chamber instead.  Concerned with poisonous fumes, and in order to limit the emissions of toxic gasses, they decided to set it alight, estimating it would burn for a couple of weeks.  That was back in 1971.  Or 1950.  Because Soviets.

P1110335

Warming my hands by the gentle fireside

Since then it’s been a continuous flame, with the glow at night visible from over 40 km away.  Recent governments have been spit-balling filling it in, but nothing has happened to date.  And why should it?  It’s your country’s number one tourist attraction!  But Turkmenistan isn’t exactly a country pre-occupied with tourists.  You only have to look at the quality of the hotels and the difficulty in obtaining a transit visa to figure that one out.

CAMELS!  WILD CAMELS!

CAMELS! WILD CAMELS!

And yet still the crater attracts visitors.  Not all of these visitors are human.  Spiders are drawn in their thousands to their fiery doom by the warmth the flames generate, and it’s fascinating to watch birds dance and swoop above the heat.  During warmer climes, intrepid travelers set up camp in the surrounding desert and party into the night.  On one such occasion someone drunkenly fell in (I’m going with Australian) but surprisingly enough they were successfully rescued by a crane some time later.

Don't fall in

Don’t fall in

Still, you wouldn’t want to fall in, and indeed I’m a little apprehensive at standing too close to the edge.  When rallying through the sands in the dark and seeing the crater for the first time, it literally looks like a door into the underworld because you can’t see the bottom.  There’s something distinctly unnerving as you approach, with the thought that the ground is going to give way and suck the 4×4 and all its occupants into Hades.  I was happy to keep my distance, and happy another one is off the bucket list.

P1110376

In the teahouse. Too hungover for vodka and my glasses are stuck together with sellotape

Before beginning the long journey back in the dark, we stop for local food and refreshment at the famous remote tea house – a way-point for truckers and travelers.  My visa expires tomorrow, and I need to make a decision how I’m getting to the border I’m allowed to cross, some ten hours drive away.  Reluctantly I decide the best option is to leave at 4 am, and so snatch a little sleep in the back of the pick up.  It’s going to be a very long day.

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Ashgabat

Tuesday 01 December

Oh where to begin?!  Ashgabat is just crying out for a lampooning by an eloquent, witty wordsmith with biting prose and scathing humour – but unfortunately I’ll have to do.  Let’s all follow the impeccable brick road shall we?  The insanity starts when you ease into the city from the border checkpoints, on tarmac that looks like it’s never been driven on, underneath a pearly white gate…

Welcome to Oz

Welcome to Oz

 And so the theme continues.  The entire city (or at least the recently built and polished side) is one giant white marble reconstruction of the city of Oz.  It’s one dictators attempt at heaven on earth, a dazzling, gleaming, eat-your-food-off-the-floor utopia that almost doesn’t belong on this planet. Splice iRobot with Demolition Man directed by Tim Burton, and it’s the strangest place you’ll ever see.

The white city

The white city

And that dictator, is one Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov.  The self-titled Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmen), this eccentric leader imposed his ego and erratic whims upon the populous for over a decade, so much so that the wider world considered him one of the most totalitarian rulers of recent times.  He forced himself into power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and set about re-molding Ashgabat into the bat-shit crazy place it is today.

Hundreds of these.  There were thousands, but the new crack-pot in charge had a lot removed

Hundreds of these. There were thousands, but the new crack-pot in charge had a lot removed

His gold effigy is everywhere and unfortunately his infamous legacy cemented for eternity.  I didn’t manage to take a picture of the numerous giant portraits of him around the city, as I’d be in serious trouble if I did.  Police and guards appear to be the only people on the streets, and woe betide you if you raise your camera within eye-line.  Consequently most of these snaps are poorly shot from the hip or from a moving car, so apologies for that.

From the car - governMENTAL buildings

From the car – governMENTAL buildings

“His Excellency” died of cardiac arrest in 2006 (so we’re led to believe) having previously survived numerous assassination attempts.  A massive earthquake in 1948 killed around 110,000 – most of the population (although at the time Stalin owned up to only 14 to 40,000 – as ever when the Soviets made mistakes, nobody was ever sure of exact figures and dates).  Niyazov was the only survivor from his family, and he wasted no time in building a monument of himself as a golden baby on what appears to be a broken earth, being lifted into the sky by a bull.  Again, apologies for no picture.

An enclosed Ferris wheel

An enclosed Ferris wheel

The psychotic demands of a madman began, and following his admission to office (where he duly named himself president for life) he set about re-modeling Ashgabat largely with the money from Turkmenistan’s oil and gas reserves.  The Arch of Neutrality is a bizarre structure, similar to Thunderbird 1, and at the top stands a golden statue of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the illustrious leader.  And this statue – wait for it – rotates to face the sun.

Bonkers

Bonkers

I just can’t understand how someone didn’t stop him?  Obviously not the general public because they’d be thrown to the lions, but a close aide or family member?  “Errr yeah…about that rotating statue boss…”  Who was in the room when he demanded that?!  How could he say it with a straight face?!!  Did nobody just piss themselves?!!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one.

Other outrageous vagaries included banning TV anchors from wearing make up (because he couldn’t tell who was male or female), changing the names of days and months to his own family members, and forcing every student to read his book – Ruhmana – which he demanded was held in the same regards as the Qur’an.  So much so that you have to know it to pass your driving test, and if you read it three times you’ll get into heaven.  One public square holds a giant copy of the book.

Madness

Madness

Gold teeth were outlawed, and Niyazov suggested Turkmens chew on bones – and I quote -

“I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice.”

So if someone were to go missing passing through here you’ll know where they ended up.  There aren’t padded walls thick enough for this kind of lunacy.

Not a sinner in the place.  Parks filled with ghosts

Not a sinner in the place. Parks filled with ghosts

And yet in the city you have to watch what you say.  With my CS-host having let me down, nearly a full day is spent trying to find a place to sleep, and I manage it only through air bnb.  My host kindly drives me around the city, but she herself is aggressively defensive when I challenge the infrastructure and way of life.  “WHY IS THIS BIZARRE?” She snaps, when I jovially point out how fucked up it all is.  In her defence, one mans dream is another’s nightmare, and she staunchly argues that what is strange to me isn’t strange to a local.  However one gets the impression of more than a touch of brainwashing, particularly when conversing with her more relaxed brother, who still lowers his voice anywhere and anytime he lambastes the “fake” city and former president – including in his own kitchen.

Shortly after I managed to snap this, we had to leg it out of the bazaar followed by an unhappy looking chap in a black jacket

Shortly after I managed to snap this, we had to leg it out of the bazaar followed by an unhappy looking chap in a black jacket

Try as I might, I only managed a couple of decent pictures, but they’ll give you some idea.  At one point I’m in a butchers market at one of the bazaars, and I request to take a shot of the sheep heads.  Given permission to do so, I duly snap away, only for an indignant man to scream bloody murder.  During this incredulous diatribe, my host’s brother – who I was with at the time – nearly gets into a fight because of it, and the whole market stops working to see what the fuss is over.  It appears that the deep-rooted suspicion and paranoia has filtered down from the tyrannical government onto the streets.  My crime was taking a picture of the heads of dead sheep.

National security concerns

National security concerns

But at least I’d found people.  The empty boulevards, shinning buildings and immaculate parks are sinister.  Enormous open vistas with thousands of white street lamps punctuating flawlessly cut lawns.  There’s more colour-changing fountains than Las Vegas.  I’m at a loss as to the nature and use of most of the structures, astounded at the sheer size of certain buildings for trivial uses – vast spaces “just because we can.”  There’s a post apocalyptic air, and the imagination doesn’t need to stretch far at being the only survivor in a quarantined location after a zombie outbreak.  Occasionally I catch a masked street-cleaner chilling out on the sidewalk, but when I approach, they stand and vigorously polish the road.  There’s not an apple core, a coke can, or a cigarette butt in sight.  The city isn’t lived in.  My host claims it is because nobody likes to walk in Turkmenistan, but effectively you have one giant sprawling mass of white marble (in the Guinness Book of Records) that nobody seems to use.  The only evidence of human beings are the trench-coated jobsworths masquerading as police.  Curfews are in place, spot checks are rife and outsiders eyed with suspicion.  It’s 1984 realised.

Sanitation ninja

Sanitation ninja

Vacant utopia

Vacant utopia – the city looks like a giant architectures model, complete with little trees

As luck would have it, I make a friendlier acquaintance in Igor, a 30-something bar manager working out in the Maldives.  He only comes home once in a while, but it’s my luck that he has, and we hit the town for a night out.  A night out consists of how much we can drink before 10 pm when what appears to be the only two bars begin to close.  He echos too the sentiments that you still have to be careful what you say – as previous US guests of his got into hot water for slandering the former leader in a bar.  Lucky for me then that on my first night back on the demon drink, I only manage to fuck up my glasses.  It could have been a lot worse.

Fourth pair in four years.  At least I'm consistent

Fourth pair in four years. At least I’m consistent

There are positives.  The streets are immaculately clean, there’s virtually zero crime, and citizens enjoy free gas, water and electricity.  But what a price to pay to live under a totalitarian boot, looking over your shoulder in a soulless, plastic city that nobody uses?  A city destroyed first with a natural earthquake and then a man-made one, the wrecking ball giving way to an instant facade?  And what happens when the oil money runs out?  Perhaps then they can melt the hundreds of golden Niyazov statues.

Bling bling

Bling bling

The pictures here are just a scratch on the surface of what this city holds in store.  I wish I had more time, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get photographs of some really strange stuff, but five days is barely enough to cover Ashgabat, let alone other sights and another mammoth hitch out of the country.  With a quirk round every corner, from the strangely beautiful to the downright fucking crackers, it’s a capital city the likes of which you’ll never see – mainly because you’re not really allowed to see it.

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