The Windsurfing World Tour allows us to visit some exciting new place around the world; places I wouldn’t necessarily have thought about travelling to before. After a long series of negotiations, the PWA World Tour organised an event in Turkmenistan, the first of the 7 Stan’s I had visited; a country that’s arguably quite difficult to get an entry visa too and one that I doubt too many have visited before.
As one of the biggest stops on the Tour is in Alacati, Turkey, a prominent wealthy business man from Alacati, with various building contracts in Turkmenistan (Turkmenistan employs many Turkish workers and companies as their languages and cultures have similarities and are closeby neighbours) with an interest in windsurfing, took it upon himself to organise a world tour windsurfing event as a way to promote the Yelken Yacht Club in Awaza, Turkmenistan. This yacht club, is part of a number of huge hotel and property developments along the Caspian Sea, which in my opinion are mostly targeted towards wealthy Russian holiday makers, keen to sea what the other side of the sea (the Caspian Sea is actually a lake!) looks like from their Russian homes. The prices to stay at the club’s resort aren’t cheap! And I doubt too many local Turkmen could afford to stay here.
We were treated like royalty throughout the event, the hotel catering to all our needs, and an opportunity for us sailors to meet the current President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who you will recognise from every single building, home, school and hospital in the whole country having a picture on the wall of him. Turkmenistan has a bad wrap, mostly due to the former President, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the country as a dictator from 1985 until his death in 2006 and was famous for many UN Human Rights violations, erecting gold statues of himself all over the country and writing a book which re-wrote and fabricated the entire history of Turkmenistan to include all sorts of people (not from Turkmenistan), promptly awarding himself the National Award for Literature and erect a 50ft statue for said book. During his reign, Turkmenistan’s culture and infrastructure struggled, and the entire country became basically ostracized from the rest of the world…
The new President, Berdimuhamedow, has tried to change all this. He still has a long way to go but many rumours about Turkmenistan we had heard weren’t true. The internet for example, isn’t banned there, in fact, the only thing we couldn’t get on was Facebook, but all the locals we met had VPN’s on their iPhone 5’s so this didn’t seem a problem; and there were many internet cafe’s in the capital of Ashgabad with fairly decent connection speeds.
The yacht club hotel complex was basically a gated city and as such we had limited opportunity to see outside. On our short ventures in to the nearby towns, still full of ancient culture aliken to when, thousands of years ago, Turkmenistan was an important stop on The Silk Road, an ancient trade route joining China to Europe we were banned by our tour guide from taking photos. I’m not sure how strict this rule really is in reality, but as guests in a country for sport, I didn’t feel like breaking rules when I am representing my own country here. Suffice to say, no photos of the towns but I can say they look like rural towns in Oman or the UAE; relatively poor, mostly farming villages, concrete-Soviet style buildings with hundreds of sattlelite-dishes on the roof (common all through the Middle East).
On the windsurfing front, the Caspian Sea is pretty funky to sail on. It’s fresh water and not so buoyant for our boards and the wind is quite light due to the extreme temperatures of +45 degrees. The event was a success though and I managed to finish tied-13th overall which is my best result on the Tour so far; happy with that!