From Ashgabat there is a cable car into the mountains that make up the southern border of Turkmenistan with Iran. For 2 Minat (75 cents) once can ride the 3.5k cable car dangling over precarious rock gorges and pits of gazelle bones. The cable car, which cost an estimated US $20 million to construct, takes less than ten minutes to complete. At the summit there are several points that overlook the white city of Ashgabat. From this vantage point the pine tree forests that are being cultivated in the desert sands seems even more unreal, like planting pine trees on the moon. If you were to face towards Iran, you could see small shacks extending across the ridge line where Turkmen guards kept watch. There were no roads to these shacks and I was reminded of the movie Dances with Wolves, where the lone soldier was posted in the wild. These guards, we pondered, must do week long shifts in order to warrant the strenuous and dangerous hike from where the road ends to their precarious perches along the ridge line.
When looking north, the Kopet Dag mountain range, which constitutes the major land mark of the Turkmen-Iranian border, is also the perfect place to view the Health Walk. This structure is, perhaps, the most famous of Turkmenbashi’s pet projects. The health walk is a concrete staircase extending from the outskirts of Ashgabat, up the Kopet Dag mountains and then along the border before cutting sharply west and ending on the highest summit overlooking the city. The walk is 37k, although now they have built a more manageable 8k extension. Turkmenbashi insisted that in order to keep his ministers and parliament members honest they should do the health walk once a year. They, and thousands of other civil servants, school children and others, would set off in suits and ties as Niyazov waved. He would then jump in a helicopter and meet the exasperated climbers when they arrived. From the cableway you have a panoramic view of this idiosyncratic project, which looks like a white Great Wall spanning the desert. Keep in mind that average temperatures reach into the 100s daily, so the health walk is more of a health risk than anything else.
Perhaps keeping in line with Niyazov’s wishes that everyone dress in their finest to scale the Health Walk and cable way, two women who ascended as we did were dressed in skin-tight skirts and see-through shirts. These ladies were a marked contrasted to the normally modest and conservative Turkmen women.