Looking out at the horizon, my thoughts consumed by the ubiquitous dunes, by time and the ephemeral. What better landscape to ram home this metaphor for life. The sands of time, evanescent, but still somehow tangible, not quite illusory. My reverie is interrupted by a loud guffaw. Right mate! comes a voice piercing the silence.
We need some shots for my Raya profile.
When Cowper my friend of 27 years, Harry by name, said mate come stay with me in Singapore, I told him as much fun as he found it, dominating VIP tables at nightclubs where they play trash music sitting among a harem of beautiful Asian women, was not my idea of a stand-up time. Fine, he said, not remotely offended.
And like the lairy guy from the Ghostbusters II painting he stared me down.
There is a plan B.
Turkmenistan is high up on the list of the weirdest places on the planet. Even among the countries that make up that enormous expanse east of the Caspian Sea, bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, 90% of which is desert, Turkmenistan holds its own. A place so off the beaten track only one guidebook in the last ten years is in print, written by some brey called Simon Proudman, published under his own imprint, ‘Far Flung Places’.
My eyebrows raise two inches.
We’ve got to go mate!
I am wary. His enthusiasm has all too often meant my downfall.
A once distant territory of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has a brow-furrowing recent history. For press freedom, it rates second only to North Korea. Post perestroika in 1991, having fallen into a dictatorship Saparmurat Nizayov aka Turkmenbashi (leader of Turkmen) began sharpening up his shit. He renamed the months and days of the week after himself and his relatives, wrote his own Bible the Ruhnama, named bread after his mother, banned beards, erected gold statues of himself in every public space. His minister of health took over, and then his son.
Not your average long-weekend holiday spot.
This is child’s play to Cowper. Two decades in the oil industry, amassing the carbon footprint of a small village, the guy has seen a lot, too much maybe. He’s set foot in North Korea, melded into the tribes of the Congo, brokered oil deals in Novosibirsk, seduced large women at hotel bars in Port Moresby, Papa New Guinea. What he lacks in basic empathy, he makes up for in unending appetite for new experience. Cummon mate, you’ll love it! Why not, I figure.
Eight months later, visa secured, we touch down at Ashgabat International Airport. It is 1.30am. Destiny awaits. Not before a covid swab test that touches no part of our nostrils, two visa windows, an unmoving two hour queue where a face off between members of separate ethnic clans takes place, four security bag checks, five passport controls later, at last through customs we meet Raslaan, our long-suffering guide. He welcomes us with a tired smile.
We cruise into town.
The place is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is hard to get my head around. Half exciting, half terrifying. Along huge empty highways, lit up by endless street lamps, we arrive at Hotel Yldyz. The jewel in the crown of Ashgabat guesthouses. We walk in, a lobby the size of Hackney Town Hall and twice its height. Columns of brown marble rising up six floors. Not a soul in sight.
We get shown to our rooms. See you tomorrow! Cowper clamours.
Thunk. My door closes.
What in the world is going on.
I’d had a bit of a dreary summer. Broken my shoulder, been bed ridden for three weeks, then fallen into one of my episodes, which had dragged on far past its calling. I’d actually emailed Cowper a month before asking if we could postpone. He was like, look mate, the fact we got a visa is a miracle, and I can’t come again til April 2024, but also said very sweetly, don’t think you have to be on sparkly form, I’m sure it will do you good, think of it as a therapy. No pressure to be anything other than you. I got a bit better, not a-okay. Shakily, I got on the plane.
The next morning I wake up, in the enormous suite, and literally think how am I gonna get through this. Text from Cowper. Get to it mate. See you at breakfast in ten. I roll over and try to suffocate myself with a pillow.
There’s something of the Bryan Johnson about Cowper.
You know the guy who spends millions a year on longevity hacks and looks like an alien. Something is selling Cowper short. He’s literally his idol. Why are you so obsessed with living longer? Why aren’t you, he retorts. Why isn’t everybody. I dunno the fact we are eternal souls endlessly reincarnating in search of Atman? His eyes roll back in his head.
Check out my regime, he chortles.
We have a strict itinerary. You aren’t actually allowed to go anywhere in Turkmenistan without a guide. There is no wandering aimlessly to the local bazaar. The bazaar, if there is one, is 20km away along their equivalent of the M4.
On the list for today, an ancient fort. And then a whistle-stop tour of the magnificent monuments of the new city. The Presidential Palace and Parliament buildings where photos are forbidden, the Monument of Neutrality, the Independence Monument, the Ruhnama Monument, the Alem Entertainment Centre, an enormous ferris wheel that isn’t working, the Wedding Palace, the Hippodrome, the enormous Mosque of Turkmenbashi Ruhy, fit for 15,000 people and empty, because Turkmenbashi insisted on writing excerpts of his bible the Ruhnama on the walls, putting off most practicing Muslims.
We drive from monument to monument in the beating midday sun, get out and take photos, get back in the car. Apart from the military manning checkpoints and women in head scarves gardening, there is not a soul in sight.
I find it very strange.
Cowper keeps shouting fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. We learn there is a ‘new town’ the current president is building. He has designs on making Ashgabat the Dubai of the east. In the last ten years the country has been the largest importer of Italian marble in the world.
We hit the bazaar. To a carpet shop. Cowper springs for some pretty ropey local designs in the Turkmeni style, they are master carpet weavers, I spring for the leftfield option. Yes, says the owner, this is from the Köpetdag region.
That evening we meet Sona, Raslaan’s wife, also a tour guide, at a restaurant roof bar. They are wonderful, and very open to answering our questions. They tell us more fascinating stuff about the country. Only white cars are permitted on the roads. Women under 40 cannot drive, or leave the country. A foreigner requires a USD10,000 deposit if he wants to marry a Turkmeni. Out of the corner of my eye, Cowper’s interest piques.
We drink cocktails, looking out over the huge lit-up expanse of Ashgabat. It is very beautiful in the neon haze. At one point Sona mentions, if we are referring to presidents don’t call them by name, just say 1, 2, 3. Do you think there might be people spying, or listening to us right now, I ask. You never know, says Sona smiling. Cool. I feel quite East Berlin in the 60s.
The next day after a visit to the carpet museum where I see absolutely no evidence my carpet is from any region at all other than maybe the Turkmeni version of Ikea, we get a in a car for our four hour excursion into the desert. We are both excited.
The Door to Hell, the second biggest tourist attraction in Turkmenistan is a massive hole in the middle of a natural gas field, that has been burning constantly since it was ignited by Soviet engineers in 1971, thinking it would burn out in a couple of days. Big mistake. For 52 years the fire has continued to rage.
It was the number one reason Cowper wanted to come. To get his Raya profile shot. A divorcée, the man has set his sights on meeting someone and settling down. And like everything he puts his mind to, he will go about it with a Batemen-esque psychotic drive.
Mate, you sure Raya is the right place to meet someone cool, I ask. He matches these otherworldly looking females, Vogue cover type girls, and then complains yea mate there isn’t often much connection.
What about you. I tell him I am in a barren no man’s land and as a result somewhat missing my ex-girlfriend. Okay mate, he says, and I smell trouble. As we cruise the bumpy roads 300km outside Ashgabat, to our left a freight train chugs along through the desert at 13km an hour. A year driving that to get her back. Fuck off I say. Give me some other options.
It becomes the gag of the holiday. Schadenfreude, finding pleasure in other people’s misfortune, runs thick in the blood that courses through Henry Sherard Cowper Coles. In hysterics, he proposes different scenarios. Working at the burger joint in the mall we’d been to the day before for five months. No! I protest. Leave me alone…
How many months did you say.
Harry is a strange cat. Charming, unendingly animated, disconcertingly curious, ruthlessly judgemental, spending four days with him is something special. It is the therapy he’d suggested in his email. We could’ve been in a padded cell and he would’ve made me feel better. His stories are so far-fetched you can’t tell if he’s talking shit or not. Maybe he can’t even tell.
I tell him about Big Fish. The Tim Burton movie, where Albert Finney spins these incredulous yarns, so in-credible, that his son on his deathbed wants to know if it was all baloney, if there was any truth to it at all, or just an invention of a playful mind. And then gloriously, at the end of his life, all the characters of his made-up stories come out and gather round to say goodbye. You can’t believe somebody has got up to all the shit he has. And yet maybe it’s true.
Cowper seems pleased.
We get some good profile shots, sit in the desert at night talking shit for an hour, and bed down in the yurt. I look forward to falling asleep, the wind through the dunes, camels, adventu-… MATE. Do you mind a bit of History Hit, I actually can’t fall asleep without listening to a podcast. What about when you’re seducing these Raya chicks, I mumble through the dark. Yea, they deal with it. I put my eye mask on and hit play on Elizabethan England. They love it.
We wake in the morning and have breakfast as the sun is rising.
My favourite part of the trip! I say to Harry. What. Sat around some plastic chairs outside a yurt. What is wrong with you? But I am at peace for the first time. I feel I am travelling. Looking out across the endless sand, to the east the Silk Road, and vast nothingness. I feel deep in an adventure.
Raslaan and Sona are wonderful. But being honest I don’t like Ashgabat all that much. I don’t like not being able to get under the skin of things. I don’t like tours and monuments, enormous hotels at the end of vast highways. I want people, and goat stew, and dreams.
On our way back, bumbling along the endless desert road, Cowper goes in. Do you believe in fate, he says. I think he is tricking me, we have our run-ins about religion. He is a hardcore Big Bang scientist, I am increasingly a Big Man In the Sky convert. Ummm, yea I guess, I reply. The deterministic universe, you mean? Yes, he says. Yea, I think so. What about you.
Undoubtedly, he replies. Think about it. The Big Bang. It’s like a pool table, a cue ball hitting a pack of balls. They disperse in a certain way. From that moment, everything is expanding in a specific way. From then, from that very moment. So everything we do is merely acting itself out. Woah. I didn’t expect this. So you mean we really have no control over what we are doing. None, he says. Everything is merely playing itself out.
So my trip to Turkmenistan, to liaise with my old mucker, despite me being a little worse for wear, but having decided to get on that plane, was playing itself out. If I hadn’t come, that would’ve been also playing itself out. Everything is just playing itself out. Maktub. It is written. Ten months in the yurt we just slept in, eating goat stew, going to see the gas crater, he says guffawing.
Mate I’ll take the train.
We go clubbing on our last night, it’s great. Surprisingly western. Cowper as is his want insists on ordering the (second) most expensive bottle of champagne in the place, plus Coffee Patron. Can’t get this stuff anymore, he shouts around the table we are sitting at. I hit the dancefloor, throw mad shapes, only man on there. Wonder if I’ve just offended decades of Turkmen masculinity. Cowper takes two glasses of champagne over to some smokeshow in a hood, she looks at him horrified. Three weeks later, I remind him. Mate don’t, it haunts me still.
On the way downstairs to the loo, out of nowhere I get put in a choke hold. Fuck, must be the KGB, they been tracking me the whole way. Kinda exciting, I think. A Turkmeni dude is shouting in my face, but somehow friendly. It’s the carpet guy! He is off his tits. He bundles me into a karaoke bar, next thing I know I’m belting out Angels to 60 bemused Turkmenis. Cracking my voice on the and through it alllllllll….. I get a round of applause. It’s a moment.
What in the world is going on.
Mustafa our driver, cruises back through the night with us in the back. He drops us off. We chat garbage in a hotel room til 4am.
I remember once, after Cowper had said he was going out for a run, I asked excitedly ‘where did you go?’. I did five laps of the hotel roundabout, he said. Where else could I have gone. And in my room we looked out across the vast expanse of Ashgabat, at these endless new white marbled buildings, row after row, interspersed by monuments and beautiful topiary and lamplights, and I said, don’t you find it a bit depressing. Nope. It’s fascinating, he said.
But what he loved, didn’t do it for me. One thing wrankled me. I’d asked the guide, isn’t there a place in old Ashgabat, some tree-lined boulevard with cafés and music, where the real people of Ashgabat hang out? Because we never saw a flicker of that. No mate! Cowper would cry out laughing. Get over your dream. This is it.
But I didn’t buy it.
And that was my takeaway from the trip, a feeling off slight chagrin, that I’d never peered under the surface, peeled away a layer. The happiest I’d felt was by the yurt at breakfast, or driving through a local village in the desert, watching the kids run around the school yard. But maybe some places don’t want you to peer under their surface. Maybe they are there just to marvel at, to get out of the car, take a few steps, take the right photo, get back in, onto the next.
Four days in Turkmenistan.
Was a trip. It wasn’t even about the place, I mean it was great, just to get out of my head, to realise life is in the doing. Meeting and hanging out with Sona and Raslaan was almost the best bit about it. You can do shit at half mast and still sail on winds to see new sands. And spend time with my mate. As we get older that becomes more and more precious. Just to sit there and crack the hell up about absolute nonsense. That was the tonic.
On our last morning, hanging out of our asses, trying on some local garb, Cowper finds what he is looking for. Sometimes what you most need, appears stage left when you least expect it, right in front of your face. Instant connection.
He missed the flight back, as far as I know he’s still out there, arm in arm, by the gas crater, taking artistic shots for his Instagram profile. Who needs Raya anyway.
Someone said once contentment is not wanting to be anywhere else, doing anything else, with anyone else. I’d say our long weekend got close to that. A stand-up time.
Where next, he says, we have to do one every year now.
I dunno mate. Skegness?
Let me check Raya. Could be slim pickings..