Sunday, April 12, 2015

To Ashgabat!

Lunch or sleep?  Looks like Pat's ready for her nap :-)

We had gotten such an early start today that by late morning, we were ready for lunch. Jabbar took us to a local restaurant - a very nice place compared to the roadside one that we ate at yesterday for lunch.  It served tradtional Turkmen food which is pretty much like traditional Central Asian food. I know there are differences but for me, Uzbek plov vs. Tajik plov vs. Turkmen plov is all beginning to blur.  Ditto for their *fresh* salad of tomato and cucumber.  But, the one thing that does differentiate Turkmen food from the other two cuisines we've had so far is that there is some Turkish influence here.  I started my meal with that Turkish classic - lentil soup.  It was quite delicious!  Then it was the salad but here they added some bits of lettuce and cubes of salty cheese - similar to what you would have in Turkey.




Dolat was seated next to me and he enjoyed a pide aka Turkish pizza.  Had I known they had that, I would have ordered it - it looked very tasty!


Of course, while I was at the restaurant, I took the opportunity to use the facilities.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a towel rack.  You use one and then toss it into the bin below.  Again, nothing disposable here so minimal amount of trash to have to get rid of.


After lunch, Dolat dropped us off at the airport. We thanked him for his service and gave him his tip which included an NYC t-shirt. So far, we've given four of them out - one in each of the stans we've been in so far. One more shirt to go!


We had arrived very early for our 4:20p flight to Ashgabat. Jabbar got us checked in and we headed for the departure gate to wait. As our flight time neared, the room filled up with more passengers. Pat and I could not help admiring the Turkmen women - all elegantly dressed in that long dress that we had come to recognize as classic Turkmen. Well, the Soviets did them well. Jabbar told us that the women typically wear a flat top cap, atop with the head scarf is wrapped. The result is that they look like they're wearing their hair up in a really large bun! We noticed that they all wore really nice looking broaches to close off the gap in the neckline of their dress. Many finished off the look with rings, bracelets and a nice pair of heels. The only slouches in the room were Pat and I and a young Turkmen woman dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. According to Jabbar, the way that Turkmen women today was designed for them by the Soviets! I don't know what they wore before the Soviets came along but to the credit of the Soviets, they did Turkmen women a big favor.

As I had expected, there was no announcement that departure was about to take place. We just noticed people making their way towards the door. We followed suit. By now, we have gotten into our Central Asian groove which says there is no such thing as a line. So, we pushed ourselves forward along with everyone else.

We boarded a brand spanking new Boeing 737. Apparently, energy rich Turkmenistan could easily afford to toss out the previous fleet of Soviet manufactured planes and replace them all with new ones from Boeing. Unbelievably, the cost of our ticket was only $20 USD. Dirt cheap for the 40 minute or so flight from Mary to Ashgabat.

We took off an landed on time. Our luggage came out with barely any waiting required. On the other side of the terminal doors, our driver, Rustem was waiting for us.

We all followed him to where he had parked the car. It wasn't a large airport but it seemed like we had to walk quite some distance before reaching our wheels which turned out to be another Toyota mini-van. Another thing about energy rich Turkmenistan - they drive very nice cars here. From the airport, the guys dropped us off at the hotel. On the way, Jabbar pointed out a restaurant we could go to for dinner. Rustem pulled the van out front of a very fancy looking hotel - the Ak Altyn.

Jabbar got us checked in and then left us for the night. We would meet back up with him tomorrow at 9a. From our room, we had a wonderful view of a domed building which turned out to be the circus building. We'll have to find out if there are any performances taking place. I have a feeling there aren't any and so far, it seems that when there are performances, they typically take place on a weekend day when the kids can attend. Tomorrow is Monday and all the kids will be in school.

Good news is that the room is a good size, the beds are comfortable and the bathroom nice and clean. The bad news is that although I can connect my devices to the WiFi router, the bandwidth is so slow, molasses slow, snail slow, glacier melting slow, it's pretty much unusable. Oh well.

We settled in for a bit and then decided to head out for dinner. It was an overcast day and we debated whether or not to take our umbrellas. I opted to go without. I figure, if I have to, I can run back from the restaurant - it's not that far away.

We set off in the direction of the restaurant. At the intersection, we noticed another restaurant but since Jabbar had not recommended it, we decided to skip it. I was thinking it would be our Plan B place. We continued our walk.

As we neared the place that Jabbar had suggested we go to, we could hear music blaring from the speakers. There appeared to be some sort of an event taking place inside the restaurant. We decided to walk a bit further to see if there were any other dining options nearby. We saw some people seated at picnic tables, eating and drinking. That looked promising so we decided to check it out. A waitress approached us and when we asked,"restaurant?", she motioned for us to follow her. She took us to a kiosk where we could purchase food, looked like fast food items, and drink. Fast food at a picnic table under an overcast sky did not appeal to me one bit so we left. Circling back by the first place, it looked a wedding party was happening. Now, why didn't we get an invite to that meal? :-)

We headed back to the hotel. On the way, we popped into a mini-market/convenience store. Buying something to eat here was going to be my Plan C in case the Plan B place didn't work out.

We soon made it back to our Plan B restaurant. There was a man, standing behind a refrigerated counter, grilling up meat. Earlier, we had asked Jabbar how to say the word *pork* in Turkmen. He told us to just say something that sounded like *seven nina*. Later, I found out that that is the word for pork, not in Turkmen but in Russian. With that useful information in hand, we walked up too the counter, got the man's attention and asked, "seven nina shahslyk?" Yes, we have been obsessing about pork shashlyk ever since eating it in Termez. You can't imagine just how thrilled we were when he nodded!!

We followed a young man inside the restaurant. It looked and felt like a bar rather than a restaurant. Pop music videos were playing on the flat panel TV hung up on the wall. A waitress led us to a table, right underneath that TV. She spoke no English and we didn't speak any Turkmen so I was guessing that she would at least know *salad* and *seven nina shashlyk*. She even got beer and Coke. Surprisingly, I thought our meal was pretty delicious - that pork is to die for! We paid our bills with US dollars - we simply assumed the 3.5 conversion rate for manat to dollars. The waitress took the money and didn't return indicating we needed to pay more so we left...happy we found a place that served food we enjoyed eating.

Back in the room, it was the usual nightly duties. Tomorrow, we have a full day of sightseeing so time for good night's rest!

Goodnight from Ashgabat!