After a difficult climb up a rough road from Iran to the border crossing at 2000 mtrs, getting through the mountain of paperwork and passed suspicious officials (they eventually revealed their sense of humour when we showed them through Claude and we left after four hours the best of friends), we arrived in the weird city of Ashgabat. For those of you who can be bothered try googling 'Turkmenbashi' or 'Niyazov' or even 'Ashgabat' and see what comes up. President Niyazov is the ex local republic Communist Party Chairman who has managed to reinvent himself (converted to Islam in 1995) as the spiritual leader of Turkmenistan following the collapse of the USSR. There are enormous posters of his smiling face everywhere in a sort of North Korean way but it is this city that surprises. He has ordered the total redevelopment of the city, personally approving all the designs and city layout. Almost monthly a monolithic new, white (it's all Italian marble) building is completed by the French and Turkish construction companies or a huge new park opened full of water sculptures and fountains. Vast areas of the old city have been knocked down to make way for this project all paid for from the new revenues from oil and gas. It is to be hoped that some of the revenue filters down to those displaced by this rather pointless exercise. There are police and army everywhere and road blocks every 50k and this gives the place a slightly sinister feeling. Regardless, it is a remarkable sight on the edge of the Karakum, the hottest desert in Central Asia. Matt and I had to abandon our walk today as the wind came through at over 40 degrees. Tomorrow we skirt around its southern edge on our way to Merv.
Although always keen to keep moving, we were sorry to leave Iran. If this trip is a delivery trip for Claude and the countries we pass through only sampled, then Iran is a country I'd like to come back to. There was such a lot we couldn't see of course but everywhere we did go, we were welcomed. Our friend Cathy sent us a great email yesterday. She said after her visit in 2002, she had read that Islamic people believe that a "visitor at your door is a gift from God". For her and for us it explained everything. Plus Oultre ! Glenn and Matt.