May 30, 2016

Awaza and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan

Awaza, the pride of Turkmenistan

Awaza! The main and the only tourist resort, the oasis on the shores of Caspian sea, local Dubai, Maldives and Antalya. I don't know what the locals haven't compared it to. A lot of money was poured in over 10 years, tens of hotels were built in the desert, a forest was planted and a channel dug so that the tourists could ride boats.

All local state medias praise M. Berdimuhamedow's genius for the creation of the international tourist resort, despite the building contracts with the Turks was signed during his predecessor's reign. So the Arkadag just took the idea and continued it. The total land area of the resort is 5 thousand hectares; it stretches for 26 km (16 miles) along the sea shore.

The first three hotels were opened in 2009 by Berdimuhamedow. He promised to turn Awaza into “new Las Vegas”. It was known then that the state had invested 1,5$ billion over two years. In 2013 there were talks of 5€ billion in investments, as Slon magazine mentions. The investors were probably attracted by promises of oil exploration and extraction on the Caspian shelf. It is not really known how much the state itself spent on Awaza. The opposition media estimated in 2013 about 2€ billion was spent.

The government ministries are the main customers for the hotel buildings in Awaza. Just like in the Soviet Union every ministry had its own sanatorium. Apart from the hotels, there was a power plant and a water desalination plant built, and Turkmenbashi airport was renovated so that it could accept all types of aircrafts. During the last years cottages began to appear around the hotels, probably destined for the state elite since there is really no one capable of buying such houses here.

By 2020 the authorities promise to build a dolphinarium, a planetarium, SPA resorts, football stadiums, race tracks, velodromes and an open air museum with miniature versions of all the Turkmen landmarks. If all these plans are realized, it will truly look like something in between Las Vegas and Dubai.

For now Awaza is empty. Totally. Well, it's not yet the high tourist season and the sea is cold. It is said that in May it is flooded with people. Where do they come from ? Locals actually. The thing is that the majority of state workers, policemen and military simply can't leave the country. Awaza is the only place for them to spend their holidays. So there is no problem here with clients.

Awaza is not really known world wide, there are no foreign tourists here. You can't really get here without a special voucher due to high prices. A regular hotel room costs about $70 a night, while $300 is considered a good salary.

The customer service level is not very inspiring:

“Awaza is special. What's the point of it, if the prices are the same as in Turkey or Thailand and the service level is zero?”

Awaza's publicity

The first and formerly best hotel of the entire resort. The building is still decorated with Turkmenbashi's face. He was the one building it.

A more modest hotel

Architecture style

There are no masterpieces here. The majority of buildings look like they are copied from early 2000s computer games. Like SimCity of some sort.

As usual, no foreign architects were invited. All was done by court architects of M. Berdimuhamedow.


Customer's feedback:

“It just happened, god knows why I decided to go there in summer. Never again. Service is zero, food is shit, prices are like in Antalya. Every foreigner will have the same opinion after visiting the place. Wait a couple of years and all this will become a huge dump. The locals know about it and thus are not really keen on letting foreigners in, they might spread the news world-wide. Well, then everyone knows what was the real point of building all of this. Anything you want, but not for international tourism that's for sure”.

The stimulus to Awaza's development could be the flow of Russian tourists. Last year Russia and Turkmenistan had some talks about it. One member of the Federation Council even proposed Turkmenistan as a substitute destination for Turkey and Egypt, referring to the Awaza resort obviously. He asked Turkmen authorities to simplify the visa procedures for Russian tourists. They promised to think about it, but somehow it didn't work out.

By the way the governor of the Astrakhan region (the region in Russia on the north coast of the Caspian sea) visited not so long ago. He and Berdimuhamedow discussed “the growth in interest from the Russian side towards the Awaza resort”. But firstly, the Russians are more interested in Crimea now and secondly Turkmenistan is still one of the hardest-to-reach countries in the world.

It's worth reminding that during the whole year of 2015 less then a thousand foreigners visited Turkmenistan. The consulates issued only 913 visas. The level of visa demand rejection is approaching 98%. The border opening would be beneficial for the economy, but dangerous for the regime. Who knows what those foreigners will photograph?

The state media reports:

“The national tourist resort Awaza situated north of the city is a first of its kind sea-side resort with modern leisure infrastructure created by the initiative of the President Berdimuhamedow. Almost 30 km of the finest sand beaches, generous sun, healing air and warm sea attracts many Turkmen and foreign visitors.”

Shopping mall

Inside there is the Tsar on the carpet.

No visitors here.

It’s not the season yet.

The shopping mall is empty as well.

Quite a modest selection of products.

I thought at first that such poor selection of products is the result of lack of people. But locals tell it's always been this way.


The fruits

Yummy [Yummy]

Locals mocking the secret service:

“We all will have heart attacks if several thousands tourists are allowed in the country!!! How on earth would we follow all of them?”

The bus stop

More simple

Amusement park

Here is the tale of a typical trip to Awaza from Коmsomolskaya Pravda Magazine:

“Once upon a time a family — husband, wife, child and their granny all decided to go to Awaza. They had been there already couple of years before, nice climate for children, nice healing muds. But this time the permission for a trip was given only to the mother, child and her granny. The father was turned away. “Why?” he questioned. “I've been there before, nothing bad happened”. He received an (unofficial) explanation in the Turkmen tourist office (although they don't usually explain) that he is a lawyer, and who knows, maybe he will start practicing there? And many were punished for letting him in the last time.”

The best hotel, built by Turks. In 2013 president Berdimuhamedow decided that the opening of the yacht club “Elken” shall coincide with his birthday. The singers Philip Kirkorov and Jennifer Lopez were invited (Lopez then sang to him “Happy birthday Mr. President!!!” like Marilyn Monroe to Kennedy) and fireworks for 1,5€ million were ordered. After those events some knowledgeable peole explained to Lopez where she had actually been and to whom she had actually sang, so she chose wisely to apologize in front of the whole international public and suppressed Turkmen people.

The hotel by the way is rather ordinary, with no miracles.

In spite of only 30 % occupancy nothing worked. Even the pool wasn't filled in. Although it could have been done, even with heating.

You can live in houses like that.

The rooms are small.

Judging by the photos the other hotels seem better. No idea why “Elken” is considered the best around here.

The popular Russian blogger Sergey Dolya took this picture from the neighboring hotel. As you can see the infrastructure is so-so... Incomparable to hotels in Turkey or Emirates.

Book of suggestions (Written in Russian: “An instructor girl lacking.., — preferably a fat-assed one!”)

Honestly, you can only visit the Caspian sea as an act of despair. Shallow, dirty... yuck ! Locals never used to go here. During soviet times the city of Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi) was the resort for the poor. All who could afford something better either flew to the Black Sea or to Crimea. But now, the Turkmen have no other choice but Awaza.

Most of the time it's the state media that writes about the resort. Usually it looks like that:

“Unprecedented in the history of Turkmenistan, the project that is being developed is a part of fundamental social-economic reforms,” said the leader of the nation. “The state grants enormous investments with the goal of forming modern infrastructure. Not only have hotels appeared on the Caspian shores during the last several years but also complete recreation and leisure centres. Every structure built is based on the most advanced modern ideas of engineering and city planning,” underlined the president.

Sport arena

Then, looking at the Arab Emirates they wanted to pour on artificial island in the form of an eight-fingered star. For those of you who are not aware, everything in Turkmenistan is built in the form of an eight-fingered star. It is considered a huge failure if an eight-fingered star is not somehow squeezed into the design. But about this particular star, there was an objection from Iran (“Ah, those yokels spoiling our Caspian Sea, dirty already without them? We'll do it ourselves!” they said), so Berdimuhamedow decided that the friendship is more important and dropped the idea.

So to have at least something resembling an island they dug up a channel of 7 km, cutting through the territory of the resort. And huge geysers from 40 to 100m appeared on the quay of Awaza.

They also planted 40 000 trees, but it is still far from a green city.

“During last several years, according to the greenery planting program meticulously developed in Turkmenistan by the leader of the nation Berdimuhamedow, millions of seedlings are planted yearly. The national resort Awaza thus too becomes the land of beautiful parks — the symbol of growth and rejuvenation of ancient yet forever young Turkmen homeland.”

It's not so well with the ecology here either. It is precisely in the west of Turkmenistan where most of the oil refineries are. To put it mildly — it's quite dirty here and the air stinks of sulfur in the suburbs of Turkmenbashi city.

The city of Turkmenbashi

I want to tell you about the city of Turkmenbashi, named after the previous great sovereign and the father of all Turkmen — Turkmenbashi. One funny detail: almost all Russian-speaking Turkmen still refer to the city by its old name Krasnovodsk. The new name is hardly used. This practice, by the way, is common in Turkmenistan. Even though all main streets and cities have been renamed [since the early 1990s], local people use the new names with reluctance. Until recently they used Lenin street instead of Turkmenbashi street or Moscow street instead of... Ah, no matter what they call it now, three Turkmen people I asked in the streets couldn’t recall its new name.

But let’s get back to Turkmenbashi. It is a young city. It was established in 1869 by Russian military forces. In the twentieth century Krasnovodsk became the transport, trading and refining center of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenbashi attracts interest because it’s not a touristic city; there, you get a chance to see how ordinary people live. This is especially useful for people who are starting to drink Berdimuhamedow's [(or Jim Jones')] purple Kool-Aid, and believing that the germ free facade of Asgabat is the norm for the country. Take a look at how real people live.

For at least the last 5 years Turkmenbashi has been on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. A major recreation and tourism zone called Awaza is being built right next to the city, and this project has consumed most of the water, electricity, and government attention normally given to Turkmenbashi. Its people regularly face shortages of both critical resources.

The Turkmen opposition media explain that citizens of Turkmenbashi suffer from water deficits on a daily basis. Utility systems haven't been repaired in years, sewer and water pipes are kept in awful condition. People may not have access to water for weeks; last summer it was turned on for 3-4 hours in the evenings, but not every evening. To compensate, a typical feature of the city is tanks of water in every court.

People don’t know whom to complain. They try to reach officials in Asgabat through calls and letters, but they say they cannot do anything to help. One local woman told journalists that she sends her laundry to her relatives in the capital, since she lacks the resources and means to do it herself.

Locals I met confirmed that the water situation is dire, and it’s even worse with electricity and roads. Critical resources and infrastructure are withered and dying.

The state has erected a new, nearby airport, but it’s made for tourists heading to Awaza. They even call it international, even though no international flights operate there. A crowd of Turkmen people meet you at the airport exit, imposing their taxi services.

The city is small, scattered on the seaside hills.

As everything else in Turkmenistan, the city is divided into two parts. The first one is a façade, and what tourists see. Perfect roads, impeccable cleanness, the whole nine yards. A dream city coming from fairy tales. The second part is the truth — it’s dirty, destroyed and poverty-stricken.

One of the few historical buildings still surviving — a railway station.

The station was restored and, for some reason, was given ugly plastic windows.

Soviet monuments were left in their places, but with subtle differences. First, they were all painted gold. Second, some monuments have changed heads: heads with Slavic features were changed to heads with Turkmen features (if you can say so).

The monument of the fisherman. Local people call it the monument of the poacher.

The main street retains a Soviet era design.

Here a Turkmenian window-dressing beautifully is showcased in the photo. Only the main façade of the building is painted, just so bypassing visitors could see.

The side which tourists don't see doesn't matter.

The gates

An old Soviet hotel kept untouched until now.

The real streets look like this.

And this. This woman is bringing water back to her house. This is the center of the city, and already the water has been off for 3 days straight.

The main street [looks like a utopia]: the road is perfectly straight, the houses are clean, and street lights are everywhere. Two janitors are on the left. When they spot a piece of paper or a stub of a cigarette on the street, they rush to this garbage as a hungry student rushes to a bowl of microwaveable macaroni and cheese.

The façade of the house facing the main street is decorated with new tinted windows, so no one can see the apartments. “Are transparent windows allowed?” I asked a local couple. “If your windows are on the side of main street, then they are not allowed, you can only use tinted blue ones...” a guy answered sadly. “It would be better if they used pink ones!” his spouse joked. The couple laughed. Note the water tanks on the left side of the house.

The same house from the rear. This is true Turkmenistan which you’re not normally shown. Yet again, take a look at the giant tank of water on the far right end. Note that there is no pavement here.

This is life behind the scenes! Life with no water, electricity and paved roads. When water graces the distribution pipes, citizens stop whatever they are doing and rush to build up water reserves. The water coming from the pipes is usually muddy, but no one cares since this is the only option. Basins, pots, baths and of course special reservoirs are put to use. People jerry-rig self-made pipes from these reservoirs directly to their apartments, so they can enjoy running water in their homes.

Everyone has a satellite dish.

Residents of the lower stories occupy some patios.

Here the water tanks again, with water pipes going to apartments.

Here it’s a matter of survival.

Instead of repairing water pipes, authorities erect palaces and golden statues to their leaders. All for readers to envy the dream life in Turkmenistan. Who cares about water or electricity in households – it’s far better to slap together a new palace!

Here is a typical, pristine school which faces the main road.

And here is an exemplary kindergarten. I didn’t see children there though, although it was a week day. But it will be surely shown to tourists as a symbol of prosperous and flourishing Turkmenistan.

This is the hotel “Turkmenbashi”. Yes, this is the hotel which jokes are built around: “You can go to Turkmenbashi (city) in Turkmenbashi (month) via Turkmenbashi (street) at the Turkmenbashi (hotel).” All of which you can do through the airport Turkmenbashi.

How beautiful! Pay attention to the banners.

Banners obscure unsightly buildings along the road from view.

The real Krasnovodsk.

A car with wedding decorations.


They say kebab instead of shawarma here (

The fish is being sold right on the sidewalk.

Women are dressed in national clothes.

School girls throughout the country wear green uniforms.

The youth

Boys are necessarily wearing suits.

I wanted to visit a bank...

What a bummer! One cannot simply enter the bank! Entrance is not permitted for people in sneakers! Yes, this is not a joke.

There is a lot of old Soviet vehicles running around in Turkmenistan. I’ve never seen so much retro junk on the roads as there is in Turkmenistan. If you scratch through the surface of gilded decorations, you find that the country is remarkably mendicant.

The market

Last summer citizens of Turkmenbashi complained to journalists that prices at the local market were too high. They blamed migrant workers involved in infrastructure construction in Awaza:

“There are so many of them that they now count up to half of the population of our city. People say: if you send all migrant workers back to their homes, prices at the local market will be back to normal and you can more easily find work.”

All vegetables are imported from Turkey, almost nothing is produced within the country. Tomatoes go for 100 rubles. Not too expensive.

Everything looks like plastic, like in Moscow.

Golden teeth ;) Just a reminder: Turkmenbashi banned them at some point.

Here it is — the real Turkmenbashi.

To be continued...

Written by Ilya Varlamov
Photos by Ilya Varlamov
Translated by Ilya Ignatkin, Serdar Kurbanov and Sean Kalafut
Edited by Serdar Kurbanov, Sean Kalafut and Olga Ronchinskaya

I will publish fresh chapters of my Turkmenistan reportage every night at 0:00 AM Moscow Time (10 PM WET; 5 PM EST).

You'll learn all about:
The dark side of the moon (Hidden Turkmenistan).

Previous chapters:
Ashgabat: the city of the living and the city of the dead

Prohibitions in Turkmenistan

Cult of personality in Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan


Месяц назад я побывал в одной из самых закрытых стран мира — Туркменистане. Репортажи оттуда вызвали небывалый отклик и стали самыми посещаемыми в моем блоге за последний год. Так как тема оказалась интересна не только русскоязычным читателям, но и иностранным, я перевел посты на английский язык. Ближайшую неделю буду публиковать английскую версию постов про Туркменистан. А вы распространяйте ;)