The Ashgabad Gazette Issue 25

Four hikers walk along a stream bed in the Kopet Dag mountains. Note the pitted and gouged walls.

--Monday, 09 November 98-- $1 = 8,300 manat
Today we heard that the rumors are swirling that the head of the Central Bank will be sent here to take over the Ministry. We cannot tell if he is being sent here as a punishment or a reward. All we know is that the Central Bank is more powerful than the Ministry.

They reject damaged money here whether it is their own currency, bills in manat, or US currency. They also reject US bills that are dated before 1990. Did you know that there is a date on all US bills? They sure do here.

--Wednesday, 11 November 98-- $1 = 8,500 manat at Noon and 8,700 by 3 PM and 8,900 by 5 PM.

This morning we discovered the statue of Turkmenbashy atop the Peace Arch. They must have put it up at night secretly which is a bit of achievement since the statue must be five meters/yards high. There he stood in all his glory with his arms stretching out to the side and his hands cupped upwards. God-like, beaming beneficence. Meanwhile nothing is being done about the exchange rate.

There will be a ceremony on December 12, Neutrality Day for the unveiling, the day they will flip the switch and set the statue turning. Will it spin out of control along with the economy?

We heard that the KGB was nosing around the Ministry under the theory that the current financial problems were caused by someone who wasn't doing his job. If they take that approach, they'll have to arrest the better part of the building and if they really take their task seriously, the better part of the government.

Party for Vlad.
He turns 19 today and is quite a find. Handsome, intelligent, hardworking and charming. We toasted him and ate salami and had a good time. He didn't get my toast: "May you be in Heaven a half an hour before the Devil knows you are dead." It doesn't translate into a non-Irish, non-religious culture.

--Saturday, 14 November 98-- $1 = 10,000 manat
Lilia, my translator, had mentioned that she knew someone who could give us a guided tour of some of the trails in the Kopet Dag mountains south of Ashgabad. It sounded good to me and to Grant and it ended up that a group of seven Americans (two Canadians, one Albanian, and two of us from the States) and two drivers were off on an adventure to the Kopet Dag mountains that separate Turkmenistan from Iran. I knew it was an adventure because, although it was Saturday, I had to get up earlier than I do during the work week.

We drove toward Firuza and turned off the road to the camp that used by the Peace Corps for their Summer intensive English camp. We left the drivers with the cars and headed up a dry wash and turned off on a trail that led steeply up around a brown, grass covered hill. Up, up we walked, snaking around one hill, then up over another only to discover yet another beyond.

After 40 minutes of this we reached an undulating plateau -- at least it looked that way but on closer examination, and more walking, we could detect narrow gashes. As we approached the first, we could see a near vertical drop of hundreds of meters/yards. At the bottom, a gray gravel bed was visible in places. The sunlight painted the plateau golden brown while leaving the gash in shadow.

On we went, curving, turning, rising, following a clear trail until we peaked and could see the trail running along the edge of a precipitous drop. Walking along the canyon edge and beyond, we found a narrow defile and descended to a point where the river/creek/stream made a U-turn in only 50 meters/yards.

We arrive at the U-turn in the stream bed. The hike continues up to the left.

Once on the gravel bed we walked upstream marveling at the pitted, pockmarked walls, gouged, scored and hammered by intermittent and incredibly violent floods. The walls were like pieces of raison bread with the raisons removed by some perverse and hungry giant.

The canyon bed was wide here and narrow there but it was generally open, although we had to scamper over or around partial obstructions once in a while.

The vertical rock walls made grotesque imitations of gothic cathedrals, displaying here, grottos there. In the shadows you thought you saw graven images, ever changing, all carved in a conglomerate rock of a muddy brown color. It was a fantastic, satanic montage that spoke beautifully of unimaginable violence.

Above the freakish rock formations that were locked in day-long shadows floated a serene blue sky. Down below, my camera batteries were dead. I had wisely bought and brought a replacement set of Sony batteries that I had purchased with great satisfaction in the Russian Market. I had unwisely forgot to test them: They were dead too. There was a perversity about this place!

We ground on to the first spring. It definitely had enough water to keep a thirsty man alive for at least 45 minutes. On to the second spring. We came to a fork in the stream and we took it. Soon the trail left the stream bed ascended the canyon wall. Now there were risky crossings of wannabe side canyons. Our guide led the way and used his ski poles to help us get a footing in loose debris that only awaited an opportunity to cascade into the gap below. "Don't look down!" became our watchword. I did, just to be able to say that it was as bad as they didn't know and it was. Rather pretty too, in a reeling, spinning, whirling kind of way.

At the second spring we shared lunch and fellowship in the cool shade. I had brought my best health food for hiking: Pringles for salt so that I wouldn't become dehydrated and strawberry filled chocolate bars for quick energy. For long lasting energy, I brought orange filled cream cookies. It is the only way to hike in the Kopet Dag mountains. Trust me, I know.

The shadows had turned from cool to cold so it required little incentive to get the group going again. We returned on an easier path along a lower trail. Regrettably there were fewer vertiginous views but something must be said for safety -- whatever that something might be.

On the way back we found a pair of goat horns but no goat and a pile of long feathers but no bird. Food doesn't last long in this environment.

We retraced our steps, rising out of the stream bed, returning along the cliff face to the plateau in time to see the spur of the mountains tinted in pink-lavender. We descended to the wash and I could see huge piles of debris at steep angles on steep sides waiting for that moment when they will cascade to the bottom. I hope I am not there when it happens.

The trail out of a day's hike in the Kopet Dag mountains.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley