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Asia Travel Liquor

Drinking with Russians and Other Bad Ideas

I stand on the inside of the fence at the edge of the fire crater, because there are no real laws here at the Turkmenistan Gates of Hell, specifically. Because Turkmenistan is binary. Either it’s boxed or it’s wild.

Turkmenistan Gates of Hell
Sobutyl’nitsa and Sobutyl’nik at the Turkmenistan Gates of Hell

He stands on the outside of the fence and we pass the bottles back and forth over the fence. It’s dark. The fire penetrates every sense. I breathe too much natural gas. The Turkmenistan Gates of Hell burn into my eyes. As the night at Darwaza goes on he speaks more and more Russian to me, none of which I understand, except our usual refrain:

“Sobutyl’nitsa!” he declares.

“Da! “Sobutyl’nik!”

“Da!” he raises the bottle of Turkmen cognac, the glow of the gas crater visible through the brown glass and sloshing liquid inside. 

Turkmenistan Gates of Hell

“Чтоб хуй стоял и деньги были!” he toasts.

“Chtoby hui stojal i den’gi byli!” I toast, raising the bottle of Turkmen vodka. It smoothes the very slight burn from the gas.

Roughly translated – the Russian toast says “to hard cock and lots of money”. Before visiting the Stans I reach out to my Siberian friend Andrey asking him to remind me of it’s pronunciation, slowly and clearly. He sends me this beautiful audio of him and who knows who else that he just happened to be with at the time clearly saying my favorite Russian toast:

Russian Toast

When Sergei and I first raise a drink and I’m able to recite it, it cements our friendship.

The drinking dulls me enough that I don’t realize that it’s a bad idea where we’ve camped. Only the next morning do I realize the folly, when Sergei tells me that the Russian drivers have told him that these dumb foreign people camp down in the depression, but they always stay up at the top. It’s not burning off 100% of the gas. Live and learn.

Darwaza – Turkmenistan Gates of Hell

Thus begins the mission to try every local vodka and every local cognac in every former SSR before they no longer are tied together by vodka and cognac more than anything else (except maybe carpets. They all make carpets). Perhaps a worse idea, even, than sleeping in sight of a flaming gas crater. 

Turkmenistan Gates of Hell
Turkmenistan Gates of Hell

I haven’t finished the mission. I’ve managed to sip locally produced vodka and cognac in 6 out of the 15 former Soviet Socialist Republics so far.

Turkmen cognac is surprisingly good quality. There’s a sweet moment of introduction between myself and Sergei as he first tries it and is impressed and beaming, then turns to the group of some 15 others, and offers the bottle to each.

“It’s really good, would you like to try it?”

I watch him get through 10 nos. These idiot beer-drinking British-influenced tourists don’t understand connection. He’s the only Russian here. Finally he gets to me, who I think before this moment he had pigeonholed.

“It’s really good, would you like to try it?”

“DA! Spasibo!” I smile widely. I see the little boy in him come to life, someone in kindergarten finally said yes to his request of being their friend. 

“Very good!” I remark. From then on, we are buddies.

Sergei is from some small town in Siberia. He goes on every other trip alone, and the in between trips with his wife and kids. He’s got more countries than I do at the time, which for a Russian passport is astonishing. He never leaks sexual energy onto me, nor I onto him. We are instead “bottle-share-partners”. sobutyl’nitsa and sobutyl’nik, for most of my tour of Turkmenistan. He sneaks vodka and cognac in everywhere, putting them in small collapsible foil bags that hold maybe a shot and a half.

We drink at the Independence Day Concert, sneaking sips while I play footsie with the hot Turkmen sitting next to me, who I am damn sure has never seen a white woman in person before, let alone one wearing a Turkmenistan tracksuit.

Turkmen Footsie
Turkmenistan Independence Day Concert 2019

We drink at the Horse Race, where we bet on the races profusely, I win $14 USD in Turkmenistani Manat, and we exit with the ministers through the human corridor.

Later, Sergei helps me quickly navigate purchasing supplies for the desert trip to Darwaza, the Turkmenistan Gates of Hell, including food, liquor, and generic Viagra. He’s found the secret bottle shop and showed me the way. Now we’re late, and I find myself running across a parking lot at a mall in Ashgabat, with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a fistful of generic Viagra in the other.

What else does one need in the desert, really?

Darwaza is a flaming gas crater. Turkmenistan has like the 6th largest supply of natural gas in the world. When the Soviets were doing gas exploration in the 60’s and 70’s they created a lot of craters. This one killed a few Turkmen shepherds by knocking the air out of them as they camped nearby, so probably in 1971 the Soviets lit it on fire, thinking that it would burn out in a few months. 50 years later, still going. Estimates say hundreds of years. Oops.

Turkmenistan Gates of Hell
Turkmenistan Gates of Hell

So – this flaming gas crater around which my Russian bottle-mate and I stand is now one of Turkmenistan’s greatest tourist draws. The Turkmenistan Gates of Hell.

We’ve already experienced the other tourist draws. The monuments.

Wedding Palace Ashgabat
Wedding Palace Ashgabat
Monument or Independence, Turkmenistan
Monument of Independence
Monument to the Constitution
Monument to the Constitution
Monument of Neutrality
Monument of Neutrality, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The largest bird-shaped airport in the world (a bizarre expanse of never opened gates and stores, some 300+ gates for fewer than a dozen flights per day).

Ashgabat International Airport
Ashgabat International Airport

Various avenues lined with housing assigned to ministers and businesses that both have grandiose front entrances – yet everyone must enter through the back.

Ashgabat Bank
Halkbank

The largest enclosed ferris wheel in the world.

Largest Enclosed Ferris Wheel
Largest Enclosed Ferris Wheel, Ashgabat

Which, in the basement, contains an arcade, and a space museum. Because why not? Turkmenistan has never taken part in the space race, even during Soviet Times it wasn’t centrally involved. However, according to the museum: Turkmenistan has been to the moon.

Ashgabat Space Museum
Turkmen astronaut, Ashgabat Space Museum

They simply attached a Turkmenistan patch over the NASA patch on this spacesuit, and on the front they didn’t even bother to change it.

The ministries themselves, as well as many other buildings, are shaped like what they represent. There is a dental hospital in the shape of a tooth. The Ministry of Education is shaped like a book, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a globe at the top of the building.

Turkmenistan Ministries
Turkmenistan Ministries

The current president likes Guiness World Records, and so Ashgabat also has the most fountains of any capital city in the world, and the most white marble clad buildings.

Ashgabat Avenue

We’ve eaten at the best restaurant in Turkmenistan at the top of Ashgabat’s best hotel on Independence Day, which was moved from its original day because the new dictator is into numerology (all the above monuments are also built and measured according to auspicious dates and numbers).

Yyldyz Hotel
Yyldyz Hotel

We drank crappy Turkmen vodka out on the veranda of the restaurant, high above the fireworks, looking down on the strange Sim City design of Ashgabat, with its formidable ministries dotting the avenues. 

Ashgabat at night

The bizarre personality cult of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow still seems funny, in some tragic, reflexive way. There’s nothing to do but laugh. And spread the word.

I can’t do the injustice of Turkmenistan justice. It’s something out of a comic book. Evil villains and the Wild East.

This isn’t the literal beginning of the SSR vodka/cognac mission, it’s just when the mission is declared. It involves a lot of drinking with Russians. And skipping through time.

My first sample of real Soviet vodka and cognac is in Moscow in 2012, which still wins for both. Mother Russia.

I am in Moscow for a week visiting a friend and lover. It is where I learn what immediately becomes my favorite toast and embarrasses many Russians. I am enamored with trying all the different kinds of vodka that we don’t get in the US, and the one that tickles me most is “Jewish Standard”.

To this day, passports from Russia either say “Russian” or “Jewish” on them. At different points in history this has been either favorable or not to both groups. The vodka brands play on this with “Russian Standard and “Jewish Standard”. The “Jewish Standard” is better.

It also has a label that would never be tolerated in the United States for the stereotypes of drunken shtetl Jews it portrays.

With each sample of vodka brands I try to have the traditional Russian fixings – usually something pickled. It is -40 outside (conveniently where Celcius and Fahrenheit meet) so sometimes I have to use whatever is on hand. Salted cucumbers are an easy pairing.

Cognac isn’t really my drink of choice. I only have a few swigs of it as I force my Russian friend to walk around Moscow every day all day in the aforementioned -40 weather. I wear arctic gear. He doesn’t, but he does carry a flask of cognac to keep warm. Mother Russia.

Drinking with Russians, Moscow, 2012

And then one night somehow we end up drinking with Russians at a bar and then in a limo. It’s a terrible idea.

Limo, Moscow

At this time every car in Moscow doubles as a taxi after midnight, so after our limo ride we just drunkenly stand in the street vaguely flagging cars until someone stops. My Russian friend negotiates the fare, and I again learn that knowing a Russian toast is no excuse for drinking with Russians.

Flame Towers Baku Azerbaijan
Flame Towers, Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is the next on the list before Turkmenistan. They have the best carpets of all the countries listed here, likely because they used to be a part of the Persian Empire before taken by the Turks.

Azerbaijan Carpet

Aside from carpets, the only thing memorable about Baku (other than stealing my flight there) is the winds. Just constantly buffeted. My skin tingling from the assault.

I remember asking my Azeri friend if the torrential winds were normal. He responds by telling me that “Baku” means “wind-pounded hills”.

Turkmenbashi
Turkmenbashi

And then Turkmenistan, which blows my mind. I cannot describe it enough, nor can any of my descriptions do it justice. The Turkmenistan Gates of Hell are the least odd part.

Fictional history designed to carve out a post-USSR identity is not unique to Turkmenistan. All of the Central Asian former SSR’s have that going on. But Turkmenistan’s is just the definition of a personality cult. Two equally crazy yet different dictators determine the culture, the first whose legacy fades away into the current. It’s so random, and so full of details, that I cannot include them all.

Arkadag
Arkadag

Isolated streets. Gold statues of the current (Arkadag) and former (Turkmenbashi) dictators. The Ruhnama.

Ruhnama
Ruhnama

Arkadag’s obsession with Akhal-Teke horses and Alabai dogs and writing books.

Alabai dogs
Alabai dogs

The Turkmenistan tracksuits. The human corridors. The 5 Turkmenistan regions that have 5 separate carpet designs, all made up and imposed.

Most hotel lobbies, cafes, and clubs double as brothels. Strange wilderness where the attractive women have all found husbands and the prostitutes are who cannot. This and other sexist ideas brought to you by Central Asia.

There are only two things I like about communism – and that is that it gets rid of religion, and it gets rid of outdated gender roles and introduces a new paradigm around gender. However, this has all but slipped away already in the Stans. Rigid, fixed ideas about gender. 

Turkmen Woman

Tough as fuck Turkmen women with gold teeth think I’m crazy for not wanting kids. Single women over 50 are usually the only Turkmen who can get exit visas. So they fly to Istanbul or Dubai and come back with as much product as they possibly can – which is what you find in stores in Turkmenistan.

The Parliament of White Beards, who have no power other than being the only men in Turkmenistan allowed to have facial hair. They show up at public events to lend an air of authority to the dictator’s brand.

Parliament of White Beards

In Kazakhstan I am told by my Kazakh friend that it’s a puppet dictatorship, but that there is still no freedom. She takes me for Tashkent tea and vegan Kazakh food in Astana/Nur-Sultan (the capital city now shares the first name of the former dictator who still controls the country).

Astana, Kazakhstan
Astana, Kazakhstan

I enjoy the food in Kazakhstan and the odd echoes of Turkmenistan in the tendency of Central Asian dictators to build gold and marble castles in the sky.

Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan
Baiterek Tower

After millennia in yurts, I can understand why.

At Baiterek Tower, you can go up to the top in an elevator, where there is a gold handprint on a pedestal. If your palm is the same size as the former dictator, it will play his anthem.

Baiterek Tower
Handprint of Doom

The Kazakh vodka and cognac are decent, but not memorable, which is how I feel about Kazakhstan itself. I am not sure why Borat was set there, Borat is much more Uzbek than Kazakh. 

Kazakh vodka and cognac
Kazakh cognac and vodka

I have a taste for the Russian Kazakhs that plays out in a lovely way. Kazakhstan is a wonderful place to visit, and easy to leave behind.

Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

Both on the way into and out of Turkmenistan – a Turkmen lights a cigarette on the airplane. On the way in, I am flying Lufthansa, and the German, male flight attendant barks “no” like he’s talking to a dog, waving his finger at the Turkmen until he crushes it under his heel. On the way out, I am flying Turkmenistan airlines, and the female flight attendant just spits in her hand and crushes out the guy’s cigarette with her fingers. Wordlessly. 

Turkmenistan Airlines
Turkmenistan Airlines

Different rules, different cultures.

Speaking of dogs and different rules and cultures – at a fuel stop out in the desert on the way to the Turkmenistan Gates of Hell I see a Turkmen get out of his car, open the trunk, remove an Alabai dog and a chain, put the chain around the dog’s neck, take it to pee, and then put it back in the trunk of his car.

Alabai Dog, Turkmenistan
Alabai Dog, Turkmenistan

Tajikistan, which other than my Buzkashi experience and the quest for the Tajik sheep horse – isn’t my favorite place. Yes, they have some nice carvings.

Tajikistan Carving
Tajikistan Carving

Their vodka is terrible and I can’t find anywhere to buy their cognac the entire week in Dushanbe. I guess it’s usually a family thing, and I am staying with the wrong family. A lawyer and social worker with three young kids. No time for Tajik cognac. If you can give me some Tajik cognac and are not located in Tajikistan I might come see you. Leave a comment.

Tajik Vodka
Tajik Vodka

There is one more note about Tajikistan, which is that this fucker is FOLLOWING ME:

Ain Ghazal Statue

Back in Turkmenistan, I learn that in Ashgabat every car must be white, undented, and washed. Car washes surround the city in a perimeter on every road in every direction, so that those coming in from the desert can properly cleanse. It is the same with haircuts – there is only one.

Bukhara
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

I only get haircuts in places that begin with B, and it’s Bukhara that claims my cut in Uzbekistan. I get shaved down by a male barber and pay him 10 times what he asks for. It’s a good cut. 

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is beautiful. Just stunning. Architecture, civilization, a history of the Silk Road embodied in the tolerance of the people. I catch it at the right time, it’s just changed governments, re-done its economic system, and banned forced labor in the cotton fields. It’s on the upswing. I have a blast in Bukhara and Samarkand.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand dome
Samarkand, Uzbekistan

I play tourist in Tashkent, soaking up all the former Soviet glory inside the Central Asian hub.

Tashkent was the city that people were sent to before being exiled from the Soviet Union, and it contains some super cool characters.

Uzbeks explaining their version of Plov
Uzbek Vodka
Uzbek Vodka
Uzbek Cognac
Uzbek Cognac

The cognac and vodka both are just like the country, varied, spicy, delicious, artistic, in flux. The men love me and want to take pictures of me. I still have fantasies about one of my Uzbek hosts. 

Uzbek Vodka

In the Turkmenistan newspaper – every article is about the dictator, also called “Arkadag”, which roughly translates to “Protector”. The propaganda videos he creates of himself DJing or doing sports and military feats are comical.

Turkmenistan Newspaper
Turkmenistan Newspaper

I won’t soon forget the hollow clapping of miles and miles of tens of thousands of Turkmen standing in the human corridor for 16 hours straight with no bathrooms and no shade just to cheer on the dictator as he passed.

We were the only ones at the Independence Day Concert and the Horse Race whose attendance was not mandatory. Some Turkmen are very grateful we swooped in to take their seats.

Kyrgyz Vodka
Kyrgyz Vodka

Kyrgyzstan feels the most East Asian of all the Stans. The Kyrgyz vodka is fine, standard, could be any exported Russian brand. The cognac is less sweet than the other Stans, and decent. I have a fun coffee date with a Kyrgyz who grew up in China, but otherwise it’s a pretty boring stay in Bishkek.

Kyrgyz Cognac
Kyrgyz Cognac

The mission to try all locally produced vodkas and cognacs of the SSR is not deterred by the fact that most of the Central Asian countries have embraced Islam as a part of their identity. After 50 years of communism, religion is all but dead. As it slowly comes back to life, it’s rife with extremist outside influences vying for allegiance. 

It’s in this way that my mission is truly culturally important (pats self on back). 

In the Stans, they call themselves “Soviet Muslims”. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but Central Asians drink it. They even drink it at Muslim wedding celebrations. A young Turkmen’s preference for drinking vodka over saying prayers may very well be the thing that keeps him from being radicalized by wahhabism.

And so, I’m doing G-d’s work here. A boozy missionary on a booze mission – saving their souls by raising my glass.

Sex and prosperity are also influences that stave away the evil forces. And so, the Russian toast: To hard cock and lots of money! “Chtoby hui stojal i den’gi byli!” “Чтоб хуй стоял и деньги были!”


Another story about regional Liquor

Another story about Kazakhstan

Another story about Tajikistan


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