A Travellerspoint blog

Turkmenistan

Ashgabat - Dubai - Heathrow - home

The long journey home


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After breakfast we wander down to the lobby – partly to access the internet, and partly to get away from the drab room. An English-Danish couple approach us, asking if we know anywhere around the hotel to change money. They are very well travelled, and we hit it off immediately; so much so that they end up sitting there chatting to us for nearly three hours, sharing travel stories.

By this stage we manage to arrange a room swap, and thankfully return to something more comfortable. While we have stayed in very much worse rooms on our travels, they were never part of a four-star hotel!

With the help of a porter, we move out stuff over, followed by another room picnic using up all the leftover snacks. This room is a big step up from last night, with two chairs, a nice rug on the floor, two sets of towels, extra loo paper (that's a first in Turkmenistan!), two dressing gowns, extras pillows, a bolster on the bed, pretty bed spread, and two bottles of complimentary water.

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We take a nice long nap, followed by a shower, and get ready for dinner at 18:30. The restaurant is deserted. We are the only people there (yet they couldn't find us a decent room yesterday?), and the menu is limited.

We both order chicken in cream sauce and I ask for a Fanta. No Fanta, only Coke. Not being particularly keen on naked Coke (without rum or vodka, that is), I ask for an apple juice instead. As with everywhere else, they don't seem to provide individual cartons, so I end up with a whole litre of the stuff!

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They have no Berk beer (but there was some in the mini bar in the room earlier), only Zip Light. Light? At 11%? As Boney M says: “Oh, those Russians!”

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The waitress brings over a huge basket of bread while we wait for the food. It is very fresh, and would be delicious with lashings of butter. No butter.

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After a few minutes the surly-looking waitress comes back to explain that they have no chicken. I ask for beef stroganoff with rice instead, while David chooses beef in cream sauce with chips (or rather fries, we've made that mistake before here in Turkmenistan). When the food arrives, David's dish comes with rice and mine is accompanied by chips. Oh dear. The chef had TWO meals to make this evening.

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Locals do not eat with a fork and knife like we would, only a fork, using the bread to push the food onto the fork. The food is quite tasty, albeit a little greasy. We don't linger in the restaurant after the meal, but return to the room for a very short night.

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Tonight's sunset

Friday 20th September

We're up at 01:00 for a 02:00 pick-up. There is quite literally no traffic, so we reach the airport in just ten minutes, ready to start the rigmarole of getting through the bumbledom of official pomposity and nonsensical regulations.

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In order to enter the airport terminal, we are scanned and the luggage is X rayed, and passports are checked. As soon as we are deemed suitable to be able to get inside, we request a wheelchair for David. Airports in general are such huge places with miles of corridors to make even the most able-bodied traveller weary.

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At check in, we yet again have to show our passports, and by the time we reach the pre-security passport check, we are waved through in front of the queue waiting, without anyone even looking at out passports.

The security check is much the same – the carry-on luggage goes through the X ray, which detects what the official suggests might be a knife. I show him my nail file and again we are just waved through.

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By the time we reach the boarding gate, our passports have been checked five times, and we've been through three X rays. Should be safe then. One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair, is that you do get priority boarding. Pushing David in the chair down the slope to the plane is hard work, not made any better by the fact that the rubber handles come off the chair where I have held on so hard to make sure it doesn't run away from me.

The plane between Ashgabat and Dubai is nowhere near full, and we get to have a row of three seats each. One poor chap has paid for two seats in order to have the extra space, and not only could he have got that without paying, the two seats he has been allocated are actually far part! Doh!!!!!

The second flight from Dubai to London Gatwick is full, however, and we end up with the two middle seats in a row of four – our least favourite seats. Arriving at Gatwick, we are amongst the first off the plane, and the porters point to a bunch of wheelchair just inside the tunnel “pick a wheelchair, any wheelchair...” It even comes complete with a porter to push this end, so I don't have to. In fact I struggle to keep up with them, and when the lift is not big enough for the three of us, I end up taking the escalators and have to run to catch them up again. We end up in a holding area, which has a great atmosphere, and while we wait for the electric buggy to come and collect us, we bond with fellow kindred spirits (ie other invalids).

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In the buggy

At immigration, the buggy driver gathers up all the passports and takes them over to an official, who brings them back as soon as he has checked them out. The buggy drops me off at the luggage carousel and takes David right through customs to a pre-agreed meeting area while I collect our bags. After helping a girl who is on crutches get her bag, I meet up again with David outside Marks & Spencer for the short walk to where the Valet Parking chap is meeting us with the car.

The journey home takes almost twice as long as it normally does, due to series of traffic jams every few miles. David has booked an appointment with the chiropractor this afternoon, but we have to ring him and cancel, as we won't make it. Which is probably just as well – for the last few miles David's stomach has been feeling increasingly unsettled, and as soon as we walk through the door, it explodes both ends. It must have been something on the plane, as mine follows half an hour or so later. Welcome home!

Posted by Grete Howard 14:46 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged flight airport security dubai passport luggage plan wheelchair gatwick ashgabat diarrhoea room_picnic grand_turkmen_hotel delsey_dining fanta Comments (2)

Mary - Ashgabat

The beginning of the end


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I had another dreadful night last night, with terrible insomnia, and when I did nod off, I was plagued with horrendous nightmares. But at least my upset tummy does seem considerably better this morning.

We try to check in on line for our flights home tomorrow, but get an error message saying “request failed, unable to access your details, please visit our desk at the airport”.

It's the last leg of our journey through Turkmenistan today, making our way back to Ashgabat. We start by trying to find a petrol station that sells 95 Octane petrol, but have to settle for 92 in the end.

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An enormous yurt leftover from the Nowruz celebrations in March (Persian New Year)

The roads are straight, there is very little traffic, the scenery is flat, with no trees, only small shrubs. It is all so, so, so, so dull, and I soon drift off into a lovely snooze, only to wake up when we arrive in the town of Tejen, where we are stopping for lunch.

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As we get out of the car, the heat hits me like a slap in the face; after the efficient A/C inside the vehicle, it comes like a shock!

Ak Öyli Restaurant

Made out to look like a yurt camp, albeit one that is sheltered from the strong sun by a make-shift roof, this place offers an option of eating inside one of the yurts, or on tables at the back. We choose the latter, for two reasons: the yurts have no seating, but serve the food on rugs on the floor; and the heat inside the yurts is stifling compared with the outside where there is at least a little cooling breeze. We are also able to sit on chairs at a table, which is essential with David's poorly leg.

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I order some kefir, in the hope that it will be good for my stomach.

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The reason Meylis and Artem have stopped here, is that the restaurant specialises in the local dish known as 'manty' – a dumpling similar to the kinkali in Georgia, momos in India and the Chinese gao.

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I check the thermometer as we get back into the car; and it starts off at 36 °C, and continues to rise as we carry on towards Ashgabat, soon reaching 43 °C. No wonder I was feeling hot and bothered.

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Having been complaining through the trip at the lack of vegetables served with meals in the restaurants, I am not surprised to see that even at the huge fresh produce market, there appears to be a total lack of vegetables for sale – the only ones we see, are a couple of stalls with squash.

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Sand Storm

Suddenly a huge wind blows up, bringing with it sand from the desert and reducing the visibility considerably.

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Tumble-weed blowing across from the desert makes it look like a scene from a film, and when a whole load of camels stroll down the road, that scene becomes even more bizarre.

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Maylis was planning on stopping at the Silk Road site of Abywerd, a hitherto unexcavated Bronze Age settlement. At the moment it consists mainly of 180 earthen mounds, and Meylis figured it would be too windy to be worth a stop, with all the sand blowing everywhere in the desert.

We are very close to the Iranian border here, we can see their flag in the distance, and I receive a “Welcome to Iran” text on my phone.

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You can just about make out the flag in the dust storm

As we get nearer to Ashgabat, the wind seems to drop, and the air becomes clearer.

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Ärtogrul Gazy Mosque

Built in 1993, this was the first mosque constructed after Turkmenistan's independence from the Soviet Union as a gift by the Turkish government and became a symbol of freedom and virtue. It is named after Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire.

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Reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul (especially the view from the rear, which we did not see); this, the largest mosque in Ashgabat, can accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers at a time. We see two.

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It is said that the lack of worshippers dates back to a bad reputation acquired during its construction, when several unexplained deaths occurred. This has resulted in making some people believe that there is a dark force connected to the mosque, bringing misfortune to those attending prayers.

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Inside the mosque there is a large courtyard with a fountain, and its prayer hall abounds with paintings, gilding and stained glasses.

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We stop nearby to pick up some take-away samsa for dinner – Artem has to drive to Darwaza this evening after dropping us off, to pick up some tourists who came in from Uzbekistan. We are more than happy to have another room picnic this evening.

Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex

For our very last stop of the day – and indeed that of the tour – Meylis takes us to a memorial site known as 'People's Memory' on a hillside overlooking Ashgabat.

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The entrance is grand, and with the late afternoon sun reflecting off the gilded arch, it looks like the roof is on fire.

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The complex consists of three separate memorials, and was officially opened on Turkmenistan Memorial Day in 2014.

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Ruhy Tagzym
Ruhy Tagzym is the most remarkable monument of the three, and is dedicated to the victims of the 1948 earthquake in which 90% of the Ashgabat population died. It is a bronze sculpture depicting a huge bull, supporting the Earth on his mighty horns.

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Ancient legends tell of a bull holding the earth, with earthquakes caused when the bull shakes his horn and its deep bellowing being the underground rumbles; the monument symbolises the deep impression left on Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov by the disaster, in which he was orphaned.

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It's a poignant sculpture, giving a vivid description of the situation during the earthquake. We see bodies coming out of the cracks of the earth; and what is said to be Niyazov's mother's desperate last attempt at saving her son, holding him over the rubble of the city.

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Baky şöhrat
Also known as the Eternal Glory Monument to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War (a term used in Russia and some other former republics of the Soviet Union to describe the conflict fought between 1941 and 1945 along the the Eastern Front of World War II, primarily between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany)

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Five tall steles with a base in the form of an eight-pointed star (the symbol of Turkmenistan, taken from the Islamic Star Rub el Hizb) surround the eternal flame.

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Milletiň ogullari
The Sons of the Nation monument is to remember the heroes who died during the battle near Geok Depe; as well as commemorating those who fell in other battles for the Motherland. It depicts a mother waiting for her husband and sons.

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Along the walls of the Museum of Remembrance are friezes with scenes from the conflict in Turkmenistan from 1879 to 1881, known as The Battle of Geok Tepe.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

After two weeks on the road together, it is sad to say goodbye to our driver Artem, who, despite the language barrier, has become a very good friend. Meylis, however, will be taking us to the airport the day after tomorrow.

The hotel only has wifi in the lobby, so while we are in the reception, we check out our emails and find we have received an message from Mark at Undiscovered Destinations, which includes our boarding cards! It seems our attempt at checking in for our flights on line this morning worked, but I guess that as Mark was the one who booked the flights for us, they were sent to him rather than us. Oh well, it's all good.

Our room features two very nice and comfortable chairs, but the A/C is not working. Reception send up an engineer to try and fix it, but he tells us it is "kaput”. He speaks no English and just walks away, so we prepare ourselves for a very hot night. Not long after, however, a porter arrives to take our luggage to a different room. Oh good.

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David's leg is no better

The new room, however, is very much inferior to the first one, and indeed to the one we stayed in at the start of the trip. There is only one chair, the room smells heavily of smoke, there is no carpet covering the bare floor boards, a tiny TV, just old and rough brown blankets covering the hard single beds with no fancy bedspread, only one bottle of complimentary water, one bedside light, and one set of towels. But at least it's cool! I get the distinct impression this is either part of the drivers' quarters, or an emergency room. We complain to reception, who inform us that they have no more twin rooms. Really?

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We are too tired to argue, so we eat the samsa we bought earlier, washed down with vodka and Coke, and go to sleep.

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Yet again Undiscovered Destinations have arranged a fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:13 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque memorial sculpture road destinations camels mary petrol silk earthquake islam dumpling wwii yurt nowruz ashgabat insomnia antibiotics central_asia manty undiscovered nightmares grand_turkmen_hotel geok_depe ex_ussr turkmeninstan ärtogrul_gazy_mosque kefir sand_storm iranian_border iranian_flag airport-check_in tejen ak_öyli_restauranthot milletiň_ogullari baky_şöhrat eternal_flame ruhy_tagzym halk_hakydasy_memorial_complex samsa Comments (1)

Türkmenabat - Mary

Not a good start


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Having taken an early night last night, I wake up with a jolt at 01:30, panicking that I can't breathe and sit bolt upright in bed. Feeling extremely nauseous, I quickly rush to the bathroom, only to stumble straight from the bed into the wall opposite. By now I feel totally disorientated, unsure of where I am and what is happening; I am still struggling to breathe as I finally make my way to the bathroom to be sick.

I stumble back into bed, too knocked out to worry about anything, and slip into a deep and seriously disturbed nightmare. Half an hour later, I find myself back in the bathroom bending over the toilet to be sick. This cycle goes on for the rest of the night, with ghastly dreams and hallucinations worthy of any Stephen King horror film. By morning I feel like a wrung-out dish cloth, and after the night-from-hell, I decide to look up some information about the tablets I took last night.

Easier said than done. The writing is in Cyrillic (interestingly enough, they are produced in India), and I received no leaflets or information with them, not even a box. The pharmacist spoke no English, and the instructions she gave Meylis were scant.

My first port of call is Wikipedia to translate the Cyrillic characters into Roman letters, then I use Google to access information about the medicine.

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It seems I am taking Tinidazole and Ciprofloaxacin. I have plenty of experience with the latter, so it can only be the Tinidazole that has affected me. Further research discovers that the list of side effects basically described my gruesome experience step by step. Only coma evaded me last night – or at least as far as I know.

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I then read on and discover that my rum and coke in the room and beer in the restaurant most likely exaggerated my malaise last night.

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“...unpleasant side effects...” is the understatement of the year!

Breakfast

We wander across to take the lift from our room on the 2nd floor up to the 4th floor for the restaurant. The lift door closes, we press the button, and the lift drops six inches then kaput. After pressing a few more buttons, with the lift refusing to budge, we (thankfully) manage to open the doors and walk up the stairs.

The lift in this hotel takes a little getting used to – we are in room 102, which is on the first floor as far as British people are concerned but the second floor in Turkmen terms (and Norwegian). For those not in the know, in Britain we talk about the main lower floor as 'ground floor', the one above that is 'first floor', the next one 'second floor' and so on. In Turkmenistan (which is also what I grew up with), the lower floor is called 'first floor', the one above 'second floor' and so on. The lift seems to be confused between the two different ways of denoting floors: the push button for our floor says 1, whereas the LED display above the door when we get there, displays 2. The first time we went up in the lift, we ended up on the floor above us and had to walk back down again.

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Like the rooms, the restaurant is also simplistic modern, but with a white grand piano; and the waiter arrives climbing in through the window. Obviously.

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To start, we are served pancakes with a thick opaque liquid which appears to be some sort of syrup or toffee sauce; with brightly coloured bread rolls.

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The main part of the breakfast is the usual meat, cheese and eggs, served with olives, tomatoes and cucumber.

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Every bar and restaurant we have been to in Turkmenistan have been showing highly sexualised music videos on huge TV screens, even at breakfast time!

Cotton

Having changed our itinerary as a result of David's leg injury, we are heading back to Mary today, passing through areas with cotton plantation, something that is a bit of a curiosity to me.

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Wedding

We also come across a wedding cavalcade with both western style decorations and one with a lot more local flair.

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Merv

We see remnants of the 15th century walls of this famed Silk Road oasis long before we reach the main archaeological site.

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Merv, a definite highlights of this trip, was one of the most important cities of the Silk Road, and served as the capital of a number of empires and kingdoms over the course of its more than 4,000-year-long history.

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Greater Kyz Kala Fortress.
Locally known as the Maiden Castle, as a result of the hair pin found here during excavations, whereas tourists have colloquially named it the Tiramisu Fort on account of the sides being reminiscent of the finger biscuits used in the famous dessert. The corrugated look is in fact designed to prevent erosion. It has obviously worked!

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It is believed that the Kiskala was built in the 7th century AD, when the Arabs invaded Merv, reinforced by the discovery of Arab coins. National Geographic suggests it was used as an elite rural residence. The structure is the largest ancient monumental köshk (castle mansion) in Central Asia

Lesser Kyz Kala
Known as the 'Boys Palace', legend tells that young men wishing to marry the girl of their dreams should use a slingshot to fire an apple from this much smaller castle, for the girl to catch it in the Maiden Castle. Given the distance between the two, it is no wonder the city died out.

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There are plans to restore and reconstruct this UNESCO Heritage site, and we can see a number of mud bricks ready to be used.

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Gäwürgala Town Walls
Reputed to be founded by Alexander the Great, Merv first became a significant centre under the Achaemenian Empire in the 3rd Millennium BC, and It was subsequently ruled by the Sassanids, Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Persians. It was from Merv in the 8th century that Abu Muslim proclaimed the start of the Abbasid revolution. At the height of its importance as the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, it was a vital centre of learning. Here Omar Khayyam worked on his celebrated astronomical tables. Meylis points out where each of the rulers have left their mark, sometimes through extensions of the same construction.

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By the 12th century, Merv was the largest city in the world. At this point I have to admit my ignorance, and confess that until I started researching for our trip to Turkmenistan, I had never herd of Merv. As one article states, it is “one of the most famous cities you’ve (probably) never heard of.” Archaeologists have found evidence in this older Merv of a cosmopolitan urban society, boasting communities of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, Christians and Jews.

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But only a decades later, in 1221, Tolui Khan, the fourth son of the notorious conqueror Genghis Khan, entered the city with his Mongol army. Tolui promptly ordered his soldiers to kill every single one of Merv’s inhabitants after they refused to pay tribute to the great Mongol warlord. In all, it’s said the devastating Mongol destruction of Merv left between 700,000 and 1 million people dead, including several hundred thousand refugees that had been seeking shelter nearby and were swept up in the carnage.

The hole in the wall you can see in the image below was created during the devastating attack by the Mongol army.

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Abdullah Khan Kala
Not much remains of the fortress erected by Timur's son Shāh Rukh in the 15th cent. In its heyday, it was covered with mud bricks on the outside, with 44 watch towers. The fortifications were surrounded by huge water filled moats up to 30 m wide, with the only drawbridges in Central Asia at that time.

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Tombs of the two Askhabs
The Askhabs were 'standard bearers' of the Prophet Mohammed. The 7th century tombs belong to al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Gifari on the left, while the larger toms is that of Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Aslami, who was the first Arab to arrive in Merv in 651, to convert the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Persians to Islam. At the time, Merv was known as 'The City of Infidels'

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The two large portals (known as iwans) behind the tombs are much newer, constructed by Shāh Rukh (Tamerlane's son) in the 15th century.

We are both really feeling the heat this morning. While the thermometer in the car says a mere 36 °C, it feels more like 46 °C. Keep drinking that water, girl, keep drinking!

Sardoba
Built in 1140, the underground reservoir, designed to keep water cool, has been lovingly restored. The original dome was clad in blue tiles, reported to be visible a day’s march away.

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Restored bricks

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We can just about make out water at the bottom

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Detail on the original stucco

The Tomb of Hodja Yusuf Hamadani
Born in 1048, Hamadani is regarded as one of the founders of Sufism. He died in 1140 on the way between Herat and Merv, after which his body was was carried to the city and buried here.

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The mosque was built in his honour in the 16th century by the Timurids and was one of the very few mosques in Turkmenistan that was allowed to operate, albeit under tight control, during the Soviet period.

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This site is one of the most important places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan, and we see members of the Buluk tribe, who are refugees from Pakistan. While illegal, they apparently live peacefully in the village by bribing officials.

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Local people are very superstitious, and many come here to make a wish for a new car, more money, better job, good health etc, by placing bricks leaning against each other, much as western people may create spiritual rock cairns.

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Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar
Hailed by UNESCO as a “unique artistic and architectural achievement comparable in importance to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Taj Mahal”, the mausoleum is also known as Dar-al-Akhyre (" The Other World").

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The Sultan, who died in 1157, is revered as 'Alexander the Great of his time', and the mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage of thousands of believers and a main tourist attraction, yet we have the place to ourselves.

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Unusually, the mausoleum was built while he was still alive, and was restored in 2002 by the Turkish government as a gift to Turkmenistan. The building would have originally stood, not in its current isolation, but as part of a complex of religious buildings, including the city’s main mosque. The monument's foundations and walls were built so strongly that Mongol invaders were unable to destroy the tomb even after setting it ablaze.

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The tomb prior to restoration

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Stele commemorating the Turkish efforts in the restoration

The cenotaph on the floor of the mausoleum was a 19th-century addition, and is not the tomb of Sultan Sanjar.

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There is a legend attached to Sultan Sanjar (oh, how I love such legends!). Despite never having seen her, but having heard all about her great beauty, Sanjar fell in love with a girl known as Peri (the name for a Persian supernatural being). Upon asking her to marry him, she stipulates three conditions:

1. You are not allowed to watch me walk or look at my feet.
2. You may not watch me comb my hair
3. You must not hug me

One day when Sanjar opens the door, he accidentally spots her walking, and it appears that her feet do not touch the ground. When curiosity gets the better of him and he later opens the door again, the Peri is combing her hair, having removed her head from her body. As soon as she spots him, she puts her head back. Dismayed by these revelations, the Sultan exclaims “I don't care how you are, I want you!” and promptly embraces her, only to find her body is devoid of bones.

With the Sultan having broken all three rules, the Peri immediately turns into a dove, soaring high in the sky. Sanjar tearfully begged her: "I shall die if I don't see you again”, to which she replied: “in order to see me, you must construct a building with an opening in the dome so I can fly in; then come every Friday to see me”.

Sultan Sanjar promptly started construction of the building which was later to become his mausoleum, and every Friday devotees still come to see the Peri, in the incarnation of a dove, fly through the structure.

Despite today not being a Friday, we are delighted to spot a dove flying in through the hole in the roof; although I wasn't quick enough to grab a photo.

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The sheer size of the city and its ruins makes Merv among the most impressive and complex archaeological sites on Earth, and there is so much more to see. Artem has been driving us all around the walls, rather than David trying to walk on his poorly leg. It is now time to head back to Mary and a free afternoon for David to rest that leg.

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Meylis is trying to persuade us to stay one more night here in Mary, and then travel from here straight to the airport for our flight home, partly because he really likes it here, and partly because he is concerned that he'll be immediately sent off with more tourists on another trip if he returns to Ashgabat tomorrow. Our flight home is in the evening the day after tomorrow, and it would undoubtedly be better for David to rest his leg up in the hotel in Ashgabat before the long flight rather than to sit in the car for several hours that day. We therefore decide to stick to Plan B and move on tomorrow (Plan A was to go trekking in the far north east of the country, obviously totally out the question as a result of David's injury).

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Modern bus shelter in front of a Soviet style apartment block in Mary

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I love the fact that the bus shelters are fully air conditioned to deal with the hot Central Asian summers

Aladdin Café

But first, lunch. We head back to the Aladdin café near our hotel in Mary, with its great food, reasonable prices and good atmosphere.

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We get all this, plus 1.5 litres of Fanta (most restaurants in Turkmenistan do not have small bottles or cans of pop, only these big ones), bread and watermelon for less than $30. With prices like these, which are cheap for us, but expensive for the locals, we have been paying for Artem and Meylis' meals every day.

After a much welcomed snooze, we have a room picnic this evening, also known as 'Delsey Dining' after the famous suitcase, once the luggage-of-choice for any self-respecting air crew who would often bring foods with them from home to eat in the room, and pocket their daily dining allowance. No alcohol for me today, though – I don't want to go through that experience again tonight thank you very much!

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One of the main benefits of eating in the room tonight is that David is able to elevate his leg, which seems to be turning more purple by the minute.

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Even without alcohol, I start to struggle with my breathing, develop hot flushes, and the diarrhoea has returned this evening, despite staying away all day. It does seem that the body knows when there are no toilets around, such as in Merv this morning. Like most other hotel rooms we've stayed in, this one only offers one nearly empty spare toilet roll.

Many thanks to Undiscovered Destinations who have yet again arranged a fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:18 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque ruins tomb muslim unesco greek dome pilgrimage mary archaeology ancient_city vodka mausoleum zoroastrian islam cotton dove pharmacy turks superstition wikipedia lift turkmenistan legend refugees tiramisu cyrillic merv silk_road cipro arabs antibiotics reservoir medicines peri stucco central_asia mongols undiscovered_destinations turkmenabat wedding_cars nightmares room_picnic leg_injury aladdin_café sardoba -ex_soviet bruising google_translate tinidazole ciproflaxin ciprofloaxacin dizzy side_effects grand_piano cotton_plantations kyz_kala omar_kayyam achaemenian_empire sassanids persians abu_muslim seljuk tolui_khan ghengis_khan mongol_sacking mongol_army andullah_khan_kaka askhabs ice_house sufism hodje_yusuf_hamadini timurids rock_cairns sultan_sanjar delsey_dining Comments (2)

Mary - Türkmenabat

Another city, another museum


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I slept well last night, until 5am this morning, although I did have lots of strange 'fantasy' dreams. David's leg is worse today, despite spending some considerable time last night with it elevated.

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The barman from two nights ago, recognised me as I walk through on my way to breakfast, and even smiled – which is quite something, as Turkmen don't generally appear to smile much.

We are checking out of the hotel in Mary this morning and continuing to Türkmenabat in the north east near the border with Uzbekistan.

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As soon as we leave the confines of the built up area, we are struck by the huge disparity between the clean, modern, wealthy looking cities in Turkmenistan, and the countryside where life still carries on in a much more traditional and simplistic way.

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Cotton transport

Police Checkpoint

Every few kilometres there is a police check point. The police, like so many other places in the world, are not only devious and hiding behind bushes and trucks when speed checking, they are also open to bribes. Many vehicles have speed check radars, and cars going the opposite direction practise 'positive reporting' by flashing their headlights and signalling: 1 finger in the air means there is a radar ahead, while waving of the palm means the road is clear. With so little traffic on the road, we see most oncoming drivers do this.

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PYGB refers to the department looking after exit and entry between the separate provinces, whereas PYGG is the regular police service.

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We are stopped and Artem is asked for his driving licence, our official tourism permits (checking that is has been stamped), plus Meylis has to give all his personal details such as name, address, guiding licence and phone number).

Türkmenabat

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Türkmenabat City Hall

Being so close to the Uzbek border, Türkmenabat would have been the first city merchants reached within the country when travelling along the Silk Road from Uzbekistan. The name means “city built by Turkmen”. In the old days, the place was known as Amul.

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Wedding Palace

Restaurant Praga

We stop at a very nice restaurant for lunch, in a style of how I imagine a 'Gentleman's Club' in London looks like, with all dark wood and a giant old-fashioned globe.

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When we arrive, Artem notices that the tall clock in the background is not working, but by the time our food arrives, Artem has fixed it.

Scattered around the place are eclectic decorations, such as a toy Mini car, a Routemaster double decker London bus and a scale model of the Parliament in Budapest.

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The cutlery is wrapped in individual monogrammed cloth pouches.

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Even in the toilets, there are single use monogrammed terry towels, as well as flashing mirror lights.

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Meylis and Artem both have fajitas for lunch, with the latter complaining about there being too many vegetables on his plate: “I'm not a cow!” he says, and proceeds to eat the meat and tortilla, leaving all the veggies on the side. The guy seems to live on meat, bread, vodka and cigarettes.

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Artem is a terrible flirt – or should I say an 'excellent' flirt, and despite not understanding what they are saying, it is obvious that there is some pretty magic chemistry between him and the waitress.

I order chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, and supplement it with Artem's discarded vegetables.

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Unlike our driver, I am of the opinion that a meal without veggies is not a proper meal. That is one of the downsides of eating out when travelling – they rarely serve enough vegetables for my liking. Side vegetables are almost unheard of here in Turkmenistan, and although most menus offer a selection of salads, they are mostly made up of tinned vegetables and mayonnaise.

Türkmenabat Museum

After lunch Artem takes us to the local museum. As we arrive, Meylis looks a little concerned, and asks us to wait in the car while he checks it out. After a few minutes he comes back laughing, explaining that the museum has recently moved to a new purpose built place in another part of the city, and this somewhat run-down pre-Soviet building that we are pulled up in front of, now houses the Pensions Department.

The new building is stunning, in keeping with the majority of modern Turkmen architecture, and boasts the largest diamond-shaped roof in the world.

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The museum has not been open very long at all, and they are anything but organised: they have no English speaking guides and have 'run out of' even Russian and Turkmen speaking ones. They also don't have any change when I pay 50 manat for the camera fee (just over £10), but they promise to let me have the other 50 manat by the time we leave. I am told "no photos of our leader" - numerous exhibits show images of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

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Sheep and camel wool, including the black karakul, which we can see in the photo on the wall behind

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Medicinal plants

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Chemicals produced in a factory here in Türkmenabat: Sulphur, Bentonite, Ammonium Superphosphate, Meliorant, Granulated Superphosphate, Chalk.

The Silk Road
The museum focuses heavily on the fact that Türkmenabat – or Amul as it was known then – was an important city on the ancient trade route.

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Map of the famed Silk Road routes within Turkmenistan. The name 'Silk Road' is a bit of a misnomer, as it was not just one single road, but a network of trade routes from the 2nd century BC until the middle of the 18th century.

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Map showing the main routes (from Wikipedia)

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Diorama depicting a camel train on the Silk Road

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These domes, known by their Persian name of Sardoba, are cupolas built over fresh water sources and areas of rainwater accumulation, to ensure that the water does not evaporate and stays cool. These installations were built every 30-35 kms along the Silk Road and are indicative of a unique hydro-engineering ability.

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Similar to those found in India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the irrigation systems of the ancient Central Asian civilisations rely on a water-dipping device consisting of a wheels and gear train operated by draught animals walking in a circle. The ceramic vessels are known as chigìr’.

The Silk Road covers a distance of some 12,000 kms, and was a well developed merchant trade route. Caravanserais were built along the route, featuring rooms for relaxation or overnight stays, as well as space where the horses and camels could be fed and watered and provided with shelter from the weather and any wild animals.

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Diorama featuring Daya Khatyn Caravanserai

Many of the caravanserais also doubled as 'shopping centres', where goods from China, such as silk, iron, nickel, fur, and paper were traded with local Central Asian goods: woollen fabrics, carpets, jewels, ceramics and thoroughbred horses; as well as tea, perfume and incense arriving from India.

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In the Middle Ages, Turkmenistan was well known as a centre of education, and book-trading was widespread throughout Central Asia. The diorama shows a cleric in a madrasa (Islamic religious school)

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Pharmacy

On the way to the hotel, we stop to get some stronger tablets for my upset tummy.

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Yupek Yoly Hotel

A strange mix of minimalistic modern and classic Turkmen luxury, the hotel has an interior atrium with the rooms off a central gallery overlooking the reception area from each floor.

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While the lobby is fairly traditional, the rooms remind me of a cheap European motel.

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Except the bathroom, which has an ultra-modern power shower with more bells and whistles than I know what to do with; and huge mirrors on two of the walls. Thank goodness for steam!

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The shower runs out of hot water before we are both able to have finish our ablutions, however, and while we have two hand towels, they have only provided one bath towel.

The door, on the other hand, is in the same ornate style we have seen elsewhere.

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By now, David's leg is beginning to show some serious bruising. Should we be worried? We try and contact John, our chiropractor, which is easier said than done from Turkmenistan where all social media is banned, along with several popular websites offering emails. We have no mobile signal on our phones either, but we do finally manage to get through via gmail.

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Restaurant-Club Traktir

Looking more like a brothel than a posh restaurant, this place is one of the two best eateries in town (the other one being Restaurant Praga where we had lunch). When I see an American Embassy car outside, I realise it can't be all bad. Or can it?

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Entrance to the restaurant is down a long corridor with flashing light nets.


Seating is in individual booths, with glistening black flock wallpaper, and black and gold ceiling. (it's an awful photograph, but it gives you some idea of what the restaurant looks like)

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I notice a couple of little amusing translations on the menu, such as “second blouses”, “chicken on a green cushion”, and “beef in gold ring”

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The food – descriptions below as it appears on the menu – is extremely good.

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Roast beef with mushrooms and potatoes, with garlic aroma and fresh cut herbs.

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Pallo-Segretto – meat balls with cheese filling

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Toretta – gastronomic tower of chop veal and chicken filet, laid by layers with vegetable streaks of eggplant, tomatoes and rennet cheese.

Artem wants to stay in the bar, drinking, but both David and I are feeling less than enthusiastic this evening.

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The garish-looking bar - apologies for another rubbish mobile phone photo

When we get back to the room, or in David's case, hobble back to the room, I still have diarrhoea, and take some of the tablets I bought earlier. We can hear loud music which appears to be emanating from just the other side of our room; with what sounds like a live stage with a boy band and screaming girl fans, almost rioting.

On that note, we go to bed, after another interesting day here in Turkmenistan, as arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:20 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged police museum russia mary pharmacy turkmenistan caravanserai soviet_union ex-soviet permit central_asia undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy turkmenabat diarrhoea police_checkpoint drivers-licence tourism_permit türkmenabat_museum silk-road amul restaurant_praga sardoba yupek_yoly_hotel restaurant_traktir flock_wallpaper bad_ankle swollen_leg Comments (4)

Mary City Sightseeing

A leisurely day


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite being up three times in the night, I managed to get nine hours sleep last night. I still feel tired though.

After a breakfast of egg, salami and bread, we head out to explore the town of Mary.

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As in Ashgabat, everything seems to be white and gold here too.

Mary Museum

The map shows the different areas of Turkmenistan, and Meylis points out the route we took across the desert. All the images from the museum are taken without flash, and from behind glass, so are mostly of very poor quality.

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The first part of the museum is dedicated to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the current leader of Turkmenistan, featuring photographic evidence about his super-powers, with such amazing qualities and abilities, such as football, tennis cycling, horse riding, rally driving, target shooting, martial arts, running, cooking, cotton picker, factory worker, even a qualified surgeon!

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The next section is a display of the animals found in this region.

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7th century lamps found at Merv archaeological site

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14th century jewellery featuring serdolik stones

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Sugar and tea - essential trade items along the famed Silk Road

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Gold medal from 5th Asian Games

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Weighlifting medals

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Viktor Sariyanidi, the man who discovered Gonur Depe archaeological site

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Painting using just red and white colours by A Akyyev called Guljemal Khan

A number of dioramas show traditional life in Turkmenistan.

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Showing the traditional bread oven

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Needles for making holes in the bread

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Traditional Central Asian felt making

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A traditional Turkmen wedding

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Desert hunting dogs - still used today. No weapons are allowed while hunting, only dogs

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Traditional yurt

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Inside the yurt

The most interesting section of the museum, to me, is the part dedicated to the items found during excavations of Gonur Depe, the archaeological site we visited yesterday. These exhibits completely blow my mind – it is almost incomprehensible to take in the fact that they are FOUR THOUSAND years old!

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It is believed that life ended in Gonur Depe as the river changed course and deprived the inhabitants of a water source. As they left, they practised the scorched earth policy, setting fire to the town before departure.

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How historians believe the people of Gonur Depe looked like.

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Model of Gonur Depe in its heyday

While the items unearthed at Merw – which we will be visiting tomorrow – are nowhere near as old as they ones from Gonur Depe, they depict a rich mix of cultures as Merw was known as the heart of the Silk Road.

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The intriguing mythical bull figure

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Artistic interpretation of Merw

Mary Library

We leave the museum to explore more of the town of Mary. The roof of the library opens up to reveal tulip-type petals, hiding a powerful telescope. This is a nod to the famous Observatory in ancient Merw, where dozens of scientists, including Omar Khayyam studied the universe.

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The library holds three million books and can accommodate 600 readers at any one time. It was opened in 2011 and cost $36 million to build. The library is a reminder that Merw was famous for the world's largest library that was once the centre of science, education and culture.

Gurbanguly Hajji Mosque

The mosque was renovated during Ramadan last year, replacing the previous orange dome with the current gilded version.

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The prayer hall can hold 3,000 male worshippers, with a further 2,000 women on the second floor. Unlike the previous mosques we have visited, where the writing has been in the local Turkmen language, here the scripts are all in traditional Islamic calligraphy.

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The beautiful dome

Pokrovskaya Russian Orthodox Church

The church was built around 1900 by Russian forces after they seized the city in 1884 and guarded it against frequent attacks by British forces and Afghan armies.

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Following the Russian Revolution and the Establishment of the Soviet Union, religious freedoms were curtailed and by the 1930s, the church was closed, the priest executed, the cross torn down, and the building repurposed as a club and later a military warehouse. The church returned to its original function in 1947, following the end of World War II, though religious activities remained tightly controlled under Stalin's officially atheist regime.

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Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was atheism no longer encouraged by the state. Following the breakup of the USSR, the various Republics were free to form their own religious policies. In Turkmenistan, the Russian Orthodox church is officially recognized as about 3% of the population are Orthodox believers.

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Just like Doubting Thomas, devotees touch the crucified feet of Jesus, as can be seen by the flaking worn-out paint.

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Outside the church we encounter a group of beggars, the first we've seen on this trip. I ask Meylis if I can give them something, and how much. He suggests 10 manat (less than £3), and that I tell them to “deletes”, which means share. They appear very grateful. (bad photo from inside the car as we drive off)

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Aladdin Café
Today's lunch restaurant, located near our hotel, is a funky retro-style café (Turkmenistan's answer to the Hard Rock Café chain) with quirky charm and good, mostly Turkish, food.

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Tavuk Döş – a tasty and tender chicken dish, here shown with Dymok, a smoked vegetable salsa

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Karişik Pide – Turkish pizza with minced lamb

Shopping

After lunch Meylis takes us to the supermarket for 'essential supplies' for a room picnic this evening. We buy some local wine (against Meylis' advice – he says it is “no good”. I always like to try local food and drink, so at just $2, I take a chance), cheese and various snacks. I am out or rum, so we look at the Bacardi in the wine store, but when we compare the price of the imported rum (460 manat, a very steep £100) against that of the local vodka at 26 manat (just over £5), it's a bit of a no-brainer. The supermarket, like many other shops in this part of the world, has no small coins, so gives us back sweets and chewies in lieu of change.

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We continue to the pharmacy for a cold spray for David's leg. The only thing they can offer is a cream, and he gets headache tablets as change.

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Free afternoon

Back in the room we find that there has been no maid service while we have been out, which means there is no toilet paper. We anticipated a shortage, as this seems to have been the norm so far on this trip, so we bought some earlier in the grocery store.

Having ended up with a bit more time here in Mary than anticipated due to the change of itinerary after David hurt his leg, there is nothing planned for us for the rest of this afternoon. There are no book stores nearby, nor a hotel shop, and I didn't bring my kindle, any books or magazines, as I didn't expect to have any time to read them. Most western websites are banned – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, BBC and other news outlets, even my chiropractor's site is unavailable. I can get gmail, that's my only way of keeping in touch with the outside world, and the VPN I purchased before leaving home, is not working either. There is a pool, but neither of us brought swim wear. Not only can David barely walk, it is also over 40 °C outside , so exploring the surrounding area on foot is out of the question. A snooze it is then.

Room Picnic

Our room here in Mary is spacious and well furnished, perfect for a room picnic. Using my sarong as a tablecloth and the lids of our Tupperware containers as plates, plus we always bring plastic tumblers and sporks (combined spoon+knife+fork) – we are well equipped.

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As always, we have bought way too much food, and also some surprising stuff – what we thought was a savoury snack, turns out to be sugar puff cereal! Oh well.

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David's doorstep cheese sandwich!

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The wine. What can I say about the wine? It smells, looks and tastes like medicine, or a really bad Muscat wine. Maylis was right, it is D.I.S.G.U.S.T.I.N.G.! One mouthful and the rest goes down the loo!

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The vodka makes up for it though, this was a brand recommended by Artem. When the locals drink vodka and Coke, they have it in two separate glasses, and will take one mouthful of neat vodka followed by one mouthful of Coke. We mix it together in the same glass, however.

That bring us to the end of another day in Turkmenistan, on a fascinating trip arranged by Undiscovered Destinations. If you are into unusual travel destinations, check them out, they have a number of great itineraries, as groups or private tours.

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Posted by Grete Howard 23:32 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque church shopping museum wine picnic pizza mary library vodka hard_rock_cafe rum supermarket pharmacy cheese yurt turkish_food merv vpn russian_orthodox_church pide orthodox_church undiscovered_destinations room_picnic gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow leg_injury gmail golden_dome mary_library merw mary_museum gonur_depe felt_making serdolik archaeological_finds gurbanguly_hajji_mosque spork sore-leg aladdin_café pokrovskaya Comments (2)

Murzachirla - Gonur Depe - Mary

Leaving the wilderness behind and heading back into civilisation


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I slept surprisingly well last night, and only got up once in the night to use the latrine tent. I struggle to get up off the floor this morning, however, with my knees giving me some trouble.

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When we emerge from the tents, Meylis points out jackal marks in the sand.

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Artem is still asleep in the back of the car, and is not too amused when I point my phone at him to take a photo. “Why you wake so early”?

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Breakfast consists of bread with a local hard cheese and Nutella.

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Breakfast is accompanied by a beautiful sunrise with some spectacular clouds.

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Two men on donkeys accompanied by three dogs appear on the horizon, and proceed to circle around us, menacingly. We quickly pack up and leave.

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I see one of the tyres is bulging, I hope Artem gets that changed before we get to the fast roads back in civilisation later today. If that blows at 120 km/hr it could cause a bit of mayhem!

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The first part of the journey is along rough, sandy tracks.

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Gonur Depe

Covering a huge area, the UNESCO protected archaeological site of Gonur Depe dates from the early Bronze Age (2400-1700 BC).

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It is believed that this was the home of Zoroaster, the founder of the religion Zoroastrianism. Excavations have revealed four fire temples, as well as evidence of a cult based around a drug potion prepared from poppy, hemp and ephedra plants. This potent brew is almost certainly the haoma (soma elixir) used by the magi whom Zoroaster began preaching against in Zoroastrian texts.

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Some of the buildings have been reconstructed, and Artem gets permission from the curator to drive us around the site due to David's inability to walk more than a few steps.

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Each of the citadels had three walls, with the servants living outside, the oligarchs in the middle and the royal family in the centre.

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Defence holes where spears would have been fired to stop invaders climbing the walls.

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The inner courtyard

Much of the site is still unexplored, and there is no doubt a great deal of fascinating history yet to be found. The ruins were not discovered until a Russian archaeologist flew over the area in a helicopter in 1972.

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Margoush, the oroginal name of this city, is of immense historical importance, and is believed by some historians to be the fifth major civilisation (the four others being Indian, Chinese, Mesopotamian and Egyptian). UNESCO, however, do not accept that line of thought as there is no evidence of a unique alphabet.

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In a couple of ramshackle sheds we find a dark and dingy museum which belies the significance of this site (although some of the more important and well preserved pieces are in the National Museum in Ashgabat).

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Many items of pottery have been unearthed, as well as an entire row of potteries being found on the site, certifying that earthenware was in high demand.

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We all get momentarily distracted by a snake, believed to be the venomous telescopus fallax, known locally as the Arrow Snake.

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The King died in battle, and when the city elders heard the news, they buried all his possessions in a shallow grave, including his two horses, a camel, dog, his chariot and so on. The king's body has never been recovered.

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I find this completely mind blowing – these items are over 4,000 years old!

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Supposedly the original Bronze Age spade!

It is believed the city was slowly abandoned during the Bronze Age as the Murgab River changed course, depriving the city of water.

We too abandon Gonur and head for Mary, our overnight stop. We still have some more rough tracks to negotiate before we get there, however.

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The bumpy ride doesn't seem to stop Meylis falling asleep.

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We see a huge black desert spider on the track, as well as a marmot crossing, which makes Artem stop rather abruptly, waking up Meylis and causing the water I am drinking quirt up my nose!

Once we hit the sealed road, we are held up by a herd of camels.

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Lunch

Meylis takes us to a restaurant with specialises in what they call Afghan Salad. Side vegetables are not really the thing here in Turkmenistan, but every restaurant has a choice of 6-10 different salads, mostly made with tinned vegetables: peas, corn, beans, mushrooms etc, and often smothered in mayonnaise. Some are very good, others less so, and I do miss fresh vegetables.

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The salad is made with tomatoes, crispy lavash (a type of thin buckwheat flatbread) and meat. The meat is cooked very well and not at all greasy, and the mix of textures is nice.

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David orders Kakmach (meat in sauce) with chips (and very good the fries are too), whereas I have buckwheat with a meat sauce.

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Both the boys choose the lamb chops - as you can see, just a bit of garnish, no side veg.

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There is always plenty of bread to accompany every meal, however.

From here it is an easy journey to the modern town of Mary, where we will be spending the night in the luxury 4* hotel of the same name.

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After the last three days of desert driving, a hot, powerful shower and clean bed is very welcome indeed. We take a much needed nap.

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As with all the other hotels we've stayed in so far, toilet roll is in short supply.

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David's leg is still very painful, swollen and bruised.

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Dinner

Like so many other places, the restaurant is completely empty this evening. We order Goulash which comes with mushrooms, mashed potato and onions; a portion of samsa (savoury pastry) with a side of what they describe as a piquant salad. I ask about chips. “You want chips?” “Yes please”

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The beers come reasonably quickly, but it seems like an eternity before the waitress comes to tell us the the samsa “is off”. I select something called 'macaroni and meat' instead.

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Then the chips arrive. Oops, it didn't occur to me that they would speak American English here rather than British English (in the UK, what Americans – and obviously Turkmen – call chips, we know as crisps; and chips to us is thick potato fries.). Oh well, we enjoy this nibble with the beers as we wait for the food.

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When the food arrives, we are pleased that the portions are reasonably small compared with what we have been served at times on this trip.

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David's goulash - which he describes as "OK".

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My macaroni with meat is decidedly heavy on the pasta, which is overcooked and the whole dish is tasteless

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The piquant salad is anything but piquant.

Paying the bill we are surprised that it is quoted in Dollars, a first since we've been here. We certainly can't complain at the price though: $17 to include the beers. In a four star hotel.

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We take the 'chips' back to the room with us, as the restaurant not only has zero atmosphere, but we get the impression they don't want us to linger any longer as they are ready to close up. I feel really quite drunk at this stage, probably from the large bottle of 14% beer, or maybe the unknown Russian tablets I am taking for my upset tummy has something to do with it.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this unusual and exciting trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:44 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (4)

Darwaza - Karakum Desert

Our wild desert adventure

After a night disturbed by a dog howling at the moon, I wake before sunrise.

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The campervan and a lone tent at the crater edge

Thankfully my stomach feels a lot more settled this morning, and I tuck into a breakfast of egg, bread, butter, jam, yogurt and cake.

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Today we are spending the day crossing the Karakum desert, starting off on tracks that waltz their way through, over and around soft dunes dotted with low tufts of grass and small shrubs.

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'Track' is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, these are mostly just a few tyre marks in sand.

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A couple of times we get stuck in the soft sand and have to reverse to take a 'running jump' at the dune.

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Camels

Here and there we see camels. They are not wild, but most certainly free range.

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The soft dunes give way to hard, compacted earth and for an hour or so we drive across a flat, featureless landscape.

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Once gain we climb to the top of a classic sand dune. The sand is fine and soft and beautifully sculpted by the wind.

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Lizard

We see a little lizard on one of the dunes. Artme stalks the little guy, trying to creep up on it to catch it, but all he manages is to grab hold of its tail before it escapes.

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As the day goes on, my diarrhoea returns and we make frequent stops for me to fertilise the small bushes along the side of the track.

Damla Village

We stop at the small village of Damla for a pre-arranged lunch. The 100 or so inhabitants are mostly subsistence farmers, with meat featuring heavy on their menu. Rice and vegetables are brought in by truck and bartered for goat and camels.

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The wells are dug to a depth of six-seven metres below the ground.

It's a windy place, and David imitates the Desert Wind statue we saw in Balkanabat.

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Lunch

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Lunch is a simple affair, with a goat plov. Surprisingly enough, it is the first plov we've had on this trip.

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We sit and talk to a small group of Belgian and Dutch travellers as we eat. A couple of the girls are wearing indecently short shorts, and I feel so embarrassed for them in such a conservative country (they, however, seem totally oblivious to it).

The local kids are rather nonplussed.

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And so am I as to why a small black cat is tied up with a thick rope near the kitchen area.

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We leave Damla village and the little bit of civilisation behind, entering deeper into this beguiling world of sand.

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Eagle's nest

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Camels at a waterhole

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Murzachirla

At 3pm, we stop in the small village of Murzachirla, where it had been suggested that we camp for the night. Artem asks if maybe we would like to carry on driving for a bit, which suits me fine. I would very much prefer to camp wild in the desert rather than in a village, for two reasons: I still have an upset tummy, and I would hate to have an audience; and I like the romantic notion of setting up camp in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand dunes and not much else.

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It feels unbearably hot here when we get out of the car. The thermometer says 33 °C (91 °F), but it feels so much hotter. Even the goats are hiding in the shade.

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The desert appears to go on and on and on and on. Not surprising really, as the Karakum Desert covers 80% of the land in Turkmenistan.

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Here and there we see evidence of gas production, but no human life for hours. Just the odd desert squirrel or lizard.

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Wild Camp

Artem finally spots a suitable area that is flat enough to pitch the tents, and stops the car.

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Within minutes Artem has erected two tents – one for me and one for David. The two boys will be sleeping in the car tonight.

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Despite this being a 'wild' camp, it is far from roughing it: we have a table, camp stools, a large gas cylinder to cook with, even LED lighting on a lamp post run from the car battery!

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Picking up a shovel, Artem tries to find a suitable place for our toilet. Much to my delight, he then collects a metal frame from the car, upon which he places a regular toilet seat and finally erects a tall tent around the whole thing. Ta da! A latrine tent! This is a new experience for us, and far preferable to taking a shovel with us each time we want to crouch behind a bush.

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There is lots of food and drink and even more laughs as we polish off two bottles of vodka between the three of us. Artem keeps trying to teach me the Russian word for "cheers" - "za zda-ró-vye" - but as soon as I have said it, it goes straight out of my mind again. I just have to keep drinking until it sticks! After a while everything is so, so funny - every time I look at Artem we just both start giggling.

When we have finished eating, the leftover food is buried deep in a hole in the ground. Still a stray dog manages to find it and dig it out! Doh!

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We don't even need the LED flood light as the moon is so bright.

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With just one person in the tent, it offer plenty of space for the inflatable sleeping mat as well as the luggage. Artem complains we are party poopers when we retire to bed at 01:30

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Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this wonderfully exciting trip to Turkmenistan.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:20 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (4)

Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell


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With David still being unable to put weight on his leg to walk, we take a serious discussion about the programme this morning; and when Meylis and Artem arrive, we tell them about our suggestion for Plan B:

Instead of driving from Turkmenabat to the village of Koyten where we have two days of walking in the Kugitang Mountains at the end of the trip, we propose that we return to Mary for a night, then continue to Ashgabat for the last night here in Turkmenistan. It seems totally pointless to travel all the way to the far north east of the country, seven hours drive each way, when David would be unable to do ANY walking when we get there.

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Discussing Plan B

It also means the journey home won't be so arduous, as the original plan saw us driving seven hours to Turmenabat, flight to Ashgabat, a few hours for change and a shower in Ashgabat, then fly home via Dubai – making it a heck of a long day.

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The boys think it should work, but obviously they have to check with the office, whose immediate reply is “of course”. The service from Owadan Tourism, the local agent here in Turkmenistan has really been excellent!

Pharmacy

Before we leave town, Artem takes me to a pharmacy so I can get something for my upset tummy, as the Ciprofloaxin isn't working. I am given some capsules and told to take one of the green ones and two of the silver. Getting it all mixed up, I take two of the green and one of the silver.

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I later find the green packet contains Tetracycline and the other one probiotics, so no real harm done by the 'overdose'.

Konya-Urgench

The UNESCO Heritage Site is the place of the the ancient town of Ürgenç, and the capital of Khwarazm Empire, parts of which are believed to date back to the 5th century BC.

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Its inhabitants deserted the town in the 1700s in order to develop a new settlement, and Kunya-Urgench has remained undisturbed ever since.

Many ruined buildings of the former town are dotted over a large area, and most tourists walk between one site and the next. With David's bad leg, however, we are given special permission to drive, and the barrier is lifted up for us to enter.

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Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

This is the largest and most impressive of the surviving monuments at Konye Urgench, the mausoleum is final resting place of Türabek Khanum.

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The story goes that a renowned architect was madly in love with Türabek and asked what it would take to win her love.

“Design me a unique building, like no-one has seen before” she said, “and I will marry you”

He does.

Still not satisfied, she stipulated: I need you to jump from the top of the building to prove you love me. Then I will marry you.”

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After he made his leap of love and broke both legs in the process, the cruel heartless woman stated with disdain that she couldn't possibly spend the rest of her life with a cripple. Ouch!

Instead Türabek married the ruler at the time (1321-1336) - Qutlugh Timur.

Türabek Khanum Mausoleum is recognized as one of the earliest monuments to make extensive use of mosaic faience (multi-coloured ceramic tiles).

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The inner dome is of particular interest with its 365 stars (one for each day of the year), 24 arches with 12 of them open to the elements, and the other 12 closed (to represent the 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night time). The 12 larger arches below denote the months of the year.

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And lastly, four large windows stand for the four seasons.

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The tomb chamber

Another interesting thing about the mausoleum is that while the outside shows eight sides, from the inside you can only see six.

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This drawing shows you how.

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Kutlug Timur Minaret

Legend tells that the minaret once had a golden dome atop with a fire inside, and when Genghis Khan arrived at this site, he thought he was seeing two suns and fired his catapult at the minaret, causing the top of the tower to lean. A much more logical story would be that it was caused by the Mongolians breaking a local dam, creating a considerable flood which undermined the structure.

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In the photo below you can see the entrance door is a considerable distance from the ground. When the minaret was built the access to it was via a bridge from a mosque close by.

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Inside the mausoleum there are 144 steps (12x12) in a spiral fashion (anticlockwise, of course, as it would be in Islamic architecture). At 62 metres high, it is the tallest building in Central Asia.

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The site includes a few more reminders of its once great importance at the time when Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm Empire.

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum

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Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh was the founder of the Khwarezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200.

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum

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The mausoleum of famed Muslim theologian and philosopher (1149-1209) is one of the earliest surviving structures in Konye-Urgench.

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Kufic Arabic letters

Reading these intricately carved scriptures, taken from the heart of the Koran, is said to bring forth angels to protect you from the evil eye.

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

The façade of Kubra's mausoleum (on the left) is leaning toward the Sultan Ali Mausoleum which stands directly opposite it, in what is believed to be a show of respect.

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Pilgrims make an anticlockwise circumbambulation around a piece of wood sticking up from the platform of the gukhana - the building which contains Kubra's cenotaph. The post is said to mark the traditional place where Kubra's head was cut off and buried during the Mongol conquest.

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Lunch

We stop in Konye Urgench town for lunch in a very touristy place with several other westerners. Both David and I order samsa – a pasty-like snack which traditionally is made from a choice of meat, spinach or pumpkin. Today we have the meat variety.

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Desert Drive

Driving out of town we head for the Karakum Desert and the adventure that lured me to this country in the first place.

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I love these little three wheel tractors - I have never seen those anywhere else

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There are miles and miles of cotton fields along the side of the road

After a couple of hours, we leave the sealed road behind and continue on sandy tracks.

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I have to pinch myself at this stage, as it doesn't seem real. For so many years I have dreamed about the burning crater of Darwaza, expecting it to be out of reach for me, and here I am, on my way to see it, and in a few hours I shall be feeling its heat.

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I gasp as we reach the top of a hill, and there, spread below me, is the flat desert floor. With a huge hole. Darwaza Gas Crater. Wow.

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Darwaza Gas Crater

The crater – or more accurately sink hole – far exceeds my expectations. Although I thought it would impress me after dark, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude and drama exuded during daylight hours.

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Even the disappointment of finding the crater surrounded by a fence, does not take away from the extraordinary sight before me.

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The fence was erected within the last twelve months as The Mongol Rally made a stop here, and officials were concerned about drivers going over into the massive fiery hole. And quite rightly so: from a car it can be quite difficult to see the edge of the crater.

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I guess the fence is there more as a visual barrier than a physical one as such, as it has been broken down in many places, and is easy to climb across.

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The back story

Colloquially known as The Gates of Hell, the Darwaza Gas Crater was accidentally created in 1971 when a Russian drilling rig punctured a gas chamber which subsequently collapsed, taking the entire rig with it into the newly crated sink hole.

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Fearing the poisonous gases would create an environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight, figuring it would stop burning within a few weeks. That was 48 years ago.

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We chat to four German guys who have travelled down from their home country in their campervan, a journey which took some three months. I am concerned that they have parked so close to a flaming crater with a massive gas cylinder on the side of their van!

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The temperature in the centre of the fiery cauldron is said to be between 6,000 °C and 7,000 °C. That is mighty warm! Standing close to the edge (where the flames reach around 700 °C), is OK for short periods, apart from downwind from the crater, where it is unbearably hot!

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Although I could stare into the flames for hours, we reluctantly leave the burning crater to head to the nearby yurt village, owned by Owadan Tourism, our local agent.

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I must admit that while it almost seems like sacrilege to build a (semi) permanent camp here next to the crater, the thought of having a proper bed and toilet facilities does rather please me. But first we are shown how the local chorek bread is made in traditional ovens.

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We get a chance to taste it as well.

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The general director of Owadan, who we met in Ashgabat, is here, and he explains how he leased this land to build up a solid tourism business here for people who want that little bit more comfort.

Horses and camels have been brought out here, for tourist rides and photographic opportunities.

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Our accommodation is not part of the main complex (which is occupied by a larger Belgian / Dutch group); we have a small, select camp with is much more private, with just 3 yurts for the four of us.

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It is set up on a hill, overlooking the crater.

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Chez nous on the right

The yurt is spacious, with three beds and a set of drawers.

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There is also a toilet block with cold showers and flushing loos. Plus a massive pile of toilet rolls. Now I know why there has been such a shortage of paper in all the bathrooms so far on this trip – all the rolls are here!

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In a small communal area we are served dinner, and get chatting to a couple from Brazil who flew in from Almaty in Kazakhstan this morning and are continuing to Baku in Azerbaijan later this evening. They are obviously 'collecting countries' and boast of having visited 120 so far. Meylis takes great delight in informing them that we can beat that, with over 150 countries and overseas territories. They struggle to understand why we'd want to spend two weeks exploring the one country, rather than moving on to one we haven't been to.

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The kitchen and dining area

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Vegetable soup

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Grilled chicken with grilled veg, tomato sauce, [] smetana[/i] (Russian style soured cream), chips and salad

Artem has gone off to fill the car up with diesel for the long journey across the desert over the next two days, and once he is back and has had something to eat, we all go down to the crater for a party.

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And what a party! The boss gifted us a bottle of vodka earlier, and we are joined by one of the other drivers called Max, as we share jokes and stare into the eternal flames.

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The fire in the crater is made up of thousands of little flames, and is stunningly spectacular. Photographs cannot do it justice, and I give up trying to take pictures, and just sit by the crater enjoying the moment. After all, I have dreamed of this place for so long.

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We eventually retire to our yurts, where I promptly get locked in the toilet! Eventually, after no-one hears my screams (for what seems like an eternity), I figure out that there is a double lock and you have to pull the door towards you and lift it at the same time as turning the key.

David has more luck in the ablutions block and comes back terribly excited, having seen a three-inch long scorpion on the path!

Even after the generator is switched off for the night, the moon lights up the landscape beautifully, and I go outside for one last photograph of the crater, before going to bed feeling unbelievably content, having just fulfilled a long time ambition and dream.

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Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:15 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged desert horses party flames fire unesco tractor camels ancient gates_of_hell scorpion pharmacy yurt turkmenistan minaret timur central_asia gas_crater undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy sink_hole karakum toilet_rolls darwaza ex_ussr karakum_desert dashoguz ciprofloaxin owadan_tourism konye_urgench tetracycline urgenc khwarazm soviet_central_asia tubarek_khanum mausolem kutlug_timur soltan_tekesh fahr_ad_din_razi kufi_arabic_letters najm_as_din_al_kubra darwaza_gas_crater darwaza_crater locked_in_toilet vodka_party yurt_camp chorek Comments (5)

Turkmenbashi - Dashoguz

A day of travel


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I don't know what I ate last night that didn't agree with me, but whatever it was certainly aggravated an already unsettled tummy. I won't go into detail, as I am sure you don't want to know. Suffice to say it was messy. Very messy.

Typically, the breakfast buffet this morning, as you'd expect from a five star hotel, is superb, but all I want is some plain bread. At least the bread is deliciously fresh.

A couple of times during breakfast I have to make use of the toilets in reception. Beautifully clean and modern, they have motion activated light sensors in each cubicle. I am all for saving the environment, but these have been set to switch off after three seconds. Between me reaching out to pick some paper, and actually using it, the light goes off. I spend more time waving my arms around trying to see what I am doing than actually doing it. If it wasn't for my awful upset tummy, it would be rather amusing.

We have a slightly later than normal start this morning, and while David hobbles back to the room to rest his poorly leg after breakfast, I wander around the hotel and grounds taking pictures.

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Our room

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David elevates his leg on cushions on our balcony

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The balcony overlooks the grounds

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The leaves on the trees are just beginning to change colour for the Autumn

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The accommodation is in villas featuring four rooms per building. Our room is bottom right.

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The entrance to the hotel

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I find this Instagram swing totally surreal, especially since Instagram is blocked in Turkmenistan

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The front porch

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Reception

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The bar

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Lounge area

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Patio

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Swimming pool

It's a shame we don't have time here to enjoy all these lovely facilities, especially as David could do with resting his leg, and I would love to be somewhere with a toilet easily accessible, rather than spending the whole day travelling.

When Meylis arrives, he arranges a taxi to take us back to the car park where the driver will be waiting for us.

According to our programme, Artem - the driver who has been accompanying us so far on this trip - is to pick us up at the car park this morning, then drop us off at the airport for our flight to Dashoguz, where another driver will meet us. Artem, apparently, has had so much fun driving us around, that he has begged his boss to do the rest of the trip with us too. This of course means he has to drive from here to Dashoguz, a 14 hour journey, so he set off right after he dropped us off last night. We are not just feeling greatly honoured that he enjoys our company that much; we are also delighted to have him as our driver - we find his driving safe and comfortable, he is courteous and fun to be with, and he plays great music!

It does mean, however, that we have another, local, driver for our tour this morning. Because of David's inability to walk, we do our city sightseeing by car rather than as a walking tour.

The Port

Turkmenbashi is the second city in Turkmenistan and has an impressive modern port. From here oil and gas is exported, and passenger ferries run across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

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Oil depot

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Japanese Cemetery

During WWII, some 3,000 Japanese prisoners of war were incarcerated in Turkmenbashi; and even after they were 'liberated', they were never permitted to leave the town and were employed as forced labourers. We see a number of houses in town that they built, distinguishable from the Soviet blocks and modern buildings by their architectural style.

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Turkmenbashi Airport

This modern terminal was built for the 2017 Asian Games and is desperately under-utilised now, almost empty.

In order to enter the terminal building, all our luggage has to go through a scanner while we enter through an X-ray arch. The machine bleeps ominously as I walk through, yet I am dismissively waved on. Much as it makes my life easier, it is frankly quite a ridiculous and futile exercise and no way to conduct a security screening.

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Two trolleys turn up laden with snacks, and for a while we watch the Tuck Shop Wars in the terminal as they both vie for customers. There is only our flight departing this morning, and we see only one person purchasing something.

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As usual we receive VIP treatment here, as Meylis takes our passports, tickets and luggage to check in for us. The same thing happens after we land in Dashoguz – we are ordered to sit down while Meylis collects our luggage.

My tummy is still troublesome, despite taking Ciprofloaxin antibiotics earlier. I hope I can get rid of the problem before we venture into the desert tomorrow.

Hotel Dashoguz

Having stopped off at the supermarket for essentials (water, vodka, coke and ice cream), we continue to our hotel. As we make our way along the wide avenue, I spot an impressive large marble structure, and exclaim: “Wow, look at that fab building”

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“That's your hotel” Meylis states, wryly.

Like other hotels here in Turkmenistan, the lobby is palatial, with polished marble and grandiose furnishings.

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The room is of a good size, with a comfortable armchair complete with foot stool for David to rest his poorly leg on.

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Dinner

The restaurant is equally grand, with padded seats, cloth-covered tables and fancy drapes. But no diners. Nor staff. We hang around for a bit, coughing and talking loudly hoping to attract someone attention, but although we can see people in the kitchen, no-one appears to greet us.

Having seen that there are several people in the bar as we walked past (including the first two westerners we've seen since we left Ashgabat), we decide to head back there instead. We find a small table as far away from the party of six Russians as possible – four of whom are smoking while the rest are eating. Having been used to non-smoking establishments for so long now, I find second-hand smoke quite revolting. It does, however, bring back memories of the good (bad) old days of my nightclubbing era, especially with the dim lighting and loud music.

Most bars in this country have a huge TV screen, and in the evening can be found showing Russian and western music videos. The music tonight is excellent, and the raunchy videos are bordering on being pornographic; which I find quite surreal in a Muslim country where the vast majority of women are dressed conservatively with headscarves and long flowing dresses which cover the arms and legs.

We order two small pizzas, and a drink – David has beer, but I have to have a Pepsi as they don't have Fanta or anything similar.

The pizzas, when they arrive, are huge; and here there is no napkin snobbery – we get neither a cloth nor a paper one!

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We retire to bed feeling as ready for the adventure ahead of us as we can be considering David can't walk and I have the runs. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour of Turkmenistan.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:05 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged flight cemetery port pizza turkmenistan turkmenbashi ig instagram undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy yacht_club domestic_flight caspian_sea yelken yelken_yacht_club dashoguz torn_calf_muscle turkmenistan_airlines japanese_cemetery tuck_shop ciprofloaxin Comments (6)

Balkanabat - Yangikala - Gözli Ata - Turkmenbashi

One of our more surreal days: camel jam, bizarre rock formations, ancient pilgrimage site, agonising leg injury, restricted tourist zone, 5* yacht club, self-locking doors


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Continuing the trials and tribulations of a cloth napkin this morning, the waitress surprises us by NOT removing it when she brings our breakfast out. She does, however, make a big point of giving us paper serviettes. We let sleeping napkins be, and stick with the paper ones.

Breakfast just appears this morning, and a very substantial affair it is too, with egg, sausage, bread, cheese, jam and pancakes. We are not going to starve on this trip, that's for sure.

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Picnic Lunch

Last night Meylis ordered a picnic lunch from the hotel restaurant for today's journey; to be ready for 09:00. When he goes to collect it, they say it will be another 25 minutes before it is ready, as it is “just cooking now”.

25 minutes later, and he is told “it has just cooked now, another 25 minutes for steaming”.

They were correct about the timing – 50 minutes late we pick up the food and can leave for the next part of the journey.

As we drive out of the town on Balkanabat, we spot some cool horse riders at the side of the road. They look so right here, like something out of a historical Silk Road movie. This is the first time we have seen anyone on horseback out here.

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Wild Horses

These are of course not the valuable and sought after Ahel Teke horses, but rather amore common breed known as Yomut.

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Eurasian Griffon

A large bird is circling quite low overhead, and Artem stops the car so that I can get out to take some photos.

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Camels

We share the road with a small herd of free-range camels. There are infinitely more camels than cars on this stretch.

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Sand

As I have said before, 80% of the country is covered in desert, and we soon see some classic dunes along the side of the road.

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And not just beside the road, it is blowing across it too.

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The sand is remarkably deep considering the wind apparently only started yesterday – if this is what it can do in a day, I dread to think what it will look like by the end of the week. It is obviously quite a common phenomenon, as we see a sign warning of SAND BLIZZARD.

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More camels

As we climb higher into the barren mountains, we come across a huge herd of camels. These are not free-range, however, they are being guided along the road by a camel herder on a motorbike.

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For the last few hours we have been driving along a flat stretch of land, with wide open spaces on either side, and no ditches or other obstructions on the side of the road. This section, however, has barriers either side of the road, so we end up having to travel at camel-speed until we can get past this jam.

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A few of the camels have somehow ended up on the wrong side of the barriers.

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Two of the animals clumsily try to cross to the road-side of the fence, and totally fail.

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It seems that the stray camels are somewhat stuck, as the embankment and part of the road have slipped down into ravine below. Not sure what they will do now if they can't cross the barrier – go back I guess.

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Footnote: I don't know what they did in the end, but when we drove past again a few hours later, there were no dead camels at the bottom - I checked.

Yangikala Canyon

Having passed the camels, we climb to the top of the cliffs with amazing views of the plateau below. This completely flat area that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, was once the ocean bed of the pre-historical Parathetys Sea.

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It is not the empty and barren lowlands that are spread before us that we have come to see, and soon we catch a glimpse of a series of surreal rock formations rising mysteriously from the planes below: The 'Badlands of Turkmenistan'.

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I am fascinated by the crusty layer of rock on top, which has kept its shape and hardness while everything underneath it has been eroded away.

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I wish I knew more about geology and could identify the different rocks and their formation / age.

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Erosion, wind, weather, and tectonic shifts over the last 5.5 million years have all contributed to carving out the curious landscape we see today: Yangikala Canyon. Rose coloured rocks, tainted by the presence of iron, vie for attention with ribbed white limestone folds and alluvial fans in this extraordinary range of cliffs stretching some 15 miles across the desert to the Garabogazköl Basin.

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Crocodile’s Mouth

Continuing across the top of these rock formations seems almost like a sacrilege. There are no roads or tracks, we just drive along the flat surface, until we come to a formation known as the Crocodile's Mouth. From its gaping overhang, it is easy to see how it got its name.

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Both Meylis and David go to the top of the snout of the croc to have their photo taken, but as I am none too fond of heights, I flatly refuse. After a bit of persuasion I start walking out towards the edge, and find that it is not as terrifying from the top as it looks from across the small ravine.

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I am not as brave as Artem, however.

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The view in the opposite direction is much more picturesque, and not so terrifying.

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We decide that this is a great place to have our picnic. With the temperature being in the mid-thirties (centigrade) and no shade for miles around, it makes sense to sit in the air conditioned car to eat. Overlooking one of the most sensationally striking landscapes imaginable, we tuck into cold manty while the music is blaring out Ra Ra Rasputin by Boney M. Could life get any more surreal? This surely has to be one of the main highlights of our trip and a memory to cherish forever!

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Manty - traditional Turkmen beef dumplings

Adding to the bizarre feel of this place, peculiar spherical bushes, reminiscent of tumbleweed, dot the flat plateau as far as the eye can see.

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Taking one last glance back at the multicoloured cliffs and the place I overcame my fear to stand on the overhang, we leave Yangikala Canyon behind and turn back the way we came.

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Gözli Ata

The mausoleum of Gözli Ata, a respected Sufi teacher in the early 14th century, is now a popular place of pilgrimage.

You can read all about him here:

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Visiting pilgrims walk around the mausoleum three times, always anticlockwise.

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Surrounding the mausoleum a cemetery has sprung up, with some unusual grave markers.

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This, a somewhat more traditional grave stone, features Persian writing, evidence that worshippers come here from far and wide.

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Many of the graves have hollows cut out or a cup at the base such as this one. It is not for flowers as we would do here in the west, the containers are for collecting water to quench the thirst of the souls who are resting here. In reality, the water is used by wildlife, meaning that even in death you are still supporting life.

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And here is that wildlife:

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Not only do pilgrims come here to pay their respect to the revered sufi leader, they also use this site to create cairns, such as these modest collections of stones, which they believe will act as vehicles for their prayers.

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A much larger and more formal structure has been created for worshippers to pray for children, health and wealth.

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Items left at the site indicate what the families are wishing for, such as this comb which indicates they would like a daughter.

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It seems this family were desperate for the addition of a son.

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The small cot means that gender is unimportant to the hopeful couple as long as they are bestowed with a child.

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Keys suggest that a new home is on the wish list.

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Other visitors will make their wish in a more traditional way, such as tying a piece of cloth around a stick.

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Injury time

A large building housing a guest house as well as a covered picnic area has been constructed on the site to cater for the pilgrims who visit here. We therefore make a point of utilising the facilities before we leave. While making his way back to the car and stepping up onto a 'platform', David misjudges the height of the step and takes am awkward tumble. I know nothing of this until I see him hobbling at a snail's pace across the car park.

Finally making it back to the car, he tells us the story, and admits that he is in a great deal of pain, fearing that he has torn a muscle in his calf. Right here right now there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, so he just swallows some pain killers as we make our way to our final destination for today.

Waterhole

Huge crowds of sheep and goats signal the presence of a waterhole.

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I always struggle to tell the difference between sheep and goats in this part of the world, as they both look very similar, unlike the sheep in the UK.

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The little brown and white blighter who is looking at us is a sheep, whereas the black one with his back to us is a goat. I have always looked at the coat to tell them apart – sheep are fluffier with curly hair, whereas goat wool is straighter and courser. Meylis informs us that the goats are the ones with horns, although I am pretty sure that this is not always the case.

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Looks like the sheep and goats will soon have company, as we meet a number of camels making their way towards the waterhole.

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They seem to be as curious about us as we are about them.

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I can just hear the conversation over a drink later:

Camel 1: “Did you see those tourists earlier?”
Camel 2: “I know, the woman even had bright orange hair”
Camel 3: “You don't get many of those around here do you.”
Camel 4: “I wonder which waterhole they were going to?”

We pass more areas covered with sand dunes on our way to Turkmenbashi.

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Awaza Tourism Zone

Turkmenbashi is a town of two halves and one of the more peculiar set-ups we have ever encountered. The large modern town (it is the second city after Ashgabat) is much like any other port town, with oil storage facilities and a large passenger terminal, plus the normal residential / shopping areas.

Then there is Awasha Tourism Zone. This is the bit that has me scratching my head (and shaking it).

'Normal' cars are not permitted into the area, so Artem has to drop us off at a huge covered parking area, which houses around two thousand cars. We see less than two dozen.

From here we have to take government approved taxis to our accommodation, which is around two miles away.

It all happens in such a flurry of activity that I end up not taking a photo of the enormous, empty car park. To try and redeem myself, I snap this through the taxi window as we make our way to the hotel.

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Yelken Yacht Club

This five star tourist hotel is in beautiful, green sprawling grounds, such a contrast to the barren scenery earlier today. I shall post more about this hotel with lots of pictures in tomorrow's blog entry. It is so big in fact, that we are taken to our room by a golf buggy; despite Meylis arranging for us to be in the nearest room to the main building as David can hardly walk on his damaged leg now.

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Drinks on the Balcony

We have a large, well furnished balcony overlooking the extensive hotel gardens, so we make the most of the remaining sunshine with a drink outside.

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Thankfully we have wifi here, so I email our trusted chiropractor (and good friend) John, to see if he has any suggestions what David can do to alleviate the pain in his leg. John recommends elevating the leg, taking Ibuprofen, putting ice on the painful part; and he also suggests some exercises that David can do to speed up the healing. I do love my chiropractor for providing instant remote consultation.

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Meylis pops his head around the corner and we invite him to join us for a drink. Being young and fit, he simply jumps over the bannister and on to the balcony. When I try to get a glass from the bedroom for him, I am unable to open the door. David tries, Meylis tries. None of us can shift it, which is odd, because I went back in earlier. The door was a little stiff then, but not insurmountable.

Jumping back over the railings, Meylis goes to the reception to get a card key for the room. Being the sensible, security conscious person I am, I double locked the door to the room when we arrived, so the key does not work. Back to reception for plan B. I am so grateful Meylis happened to turn up at the right time, as we'd never be able to explain this to the receptionist in Russian / Turkmen / sign language.

When he returns, Meylis explains that the self-locking door is a safety feature, so that you cannot enter the room from the balcony once the door is closed. How absolutely ridiculous! There are no signs warning us not to close the door when we go out there, something we are obviously going to do in order to keep the room cool and the air conditioning working efficiently.

Reception send a maintenance worker, who has to use his electric drill to take the handle and lock off in order to let us in. By now I can see the funny side of this, and cannot stop giggling.

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Dinner

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Turkmenbashi is situated on the Caspian Sea, so it seems logical to order fish for dinner this evening. I choose the speciality dish called 'sturgeon on a tile'. This is a new fish to me, and while it is pleasant, it is nothing out of the ordinary. It comes with lovely rich mashed potato, however. Not sure where the 'tile' comes into it though.

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The fried meatballs that David ordered

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An unusual dessert of pumpkin with tahini sauce and walnut syrup

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David's apple and raisin tart with (a very white) ice cream

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Meylis just has ice cream. As you can see, even here in this posh restaurant, all we get is café-style cheap paper napkins. I'm afraid I am a bit of a napkin snob and I do judge an establishment on whether they offer paper or cloth for their diners to dab their lips with. There, I've said it!

After dinner we retire to the room, reflecting on what an fabulously adventurous day it has been.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this great private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:23 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged horses canyon cemetery sheep sand balcony camels picnic dumplings sand_dunes rock_formations graves mausoleum badlands prayers vulture injury goats waterhole turkmenistan griffon turkmenbashi chiropractor sturgeon central_asia wild_horses manty yomut undiscovered_destinations yacht_club picnic_lunch ex_ussr caspian_sea paper_serviettes napkins horse_riders yangikala yangikala_canyon parathetys_sea garabogazköl_basin crocodile's_mouth bomey_m gözli_ata pilrgimage_site sufi_teacher grave+markers grave+stones persian_writing prayer_scarves prayer_cloths leg_injury awaza awaza_tourism_zone yelken yelken_yacht_club locked_out maintenance_man pre_dinner_drink Comments (6)

Serdar - Kopetdag - Magtymguly - Mollakara - Balkanabad

Moon Mountains and the Salt Sea


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast this morning in the guest house here at Serdar consists of yogurt, cherry jam, cheese, tomatoes and the ever-present bread. There can't be many nations on earth who eat as much bread as the Turkmen do.

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Later we are asked if we want fried egg and salami. It's an unusual combination, but rather enjoyable.

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This morning's drive takes us south through barren and desolate scenery, with no trees or even falcons, which we saw many of on our journey yesterday. Nothing. The place appears eerily devoid of life.

We are now nearing the Iranian border and arrive at a restricted area that requires special permission to enter. We have been warned that the checks here may take a while, and that we are to avoid photography at all costs. We hand over our passports, which Artem (our cute driver) takes to the police post along with vehicle registration documents, his driving licence and the tourist authorisation certificate; and wait. And wait. Meanwhile we listen to music in the car; Artem plays a good mix of popular western and Russian songs. The procedure takes just over 25 minutes in all, and we are on our way again.

Moon Mountains

The Kopetdag Mountains is a 600 kilometre long mountain range stretching along the Turkmenistan-Iran border. The landscape is distinctly lunar in appearance, living up to its local nickname of 'Moon Mountains'. The name Kopetdag, in fact, means 'many mountains' in the Turkmen language.

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Once located at the bottom of the sea, the heavily furrowed sedimentary rock slopes look like soft gravel or even slag heaps, but are in fact more akin to solidified mud, and very firm underfoot. We see evidence of crustaceans on the ground, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

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Stretching as far as the eye can see, the forbidding desert-like landscape is as curious as it is beautiful – seeing the arid remains of low-level vegetation, I can but wonder what it would look like in spring, after the rains, when plants and flowers come to life.

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This area is rich with pomegranate and walnut trees, and we see a number of the former along the side of the road.

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It's the first time we have seen pomegranates in their natural habitat, and I am keen to see how they grow and photograph them. That is one of the numerous things I love about travel – exotic fruits that I have only ever seen in the supermarkets, are commonplace somewhere in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that however much we travel, we still manage to get 'firsts' on every single trip.

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Magtymguly Museum

We make a stop at a small museum dedicated to a local hero, Magtymguly Pyragy, who was an Iranian-Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet in the 18th century.

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Looking at the copies of some of the books Magtymguly has written, I am intrigued by the frames within each page containing diagonal writing. Neither the guide nor the museum curator are able to shed any light on this peculiar aspect.

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Magtymguly was much more than a renowned poet; he also worked as a silversmith for a while.

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He even made a wedding ring for Mengli, the girl he loved and wanted to marry. Unfortunately her family forbade the union, and the ring remained unworn.

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Magtymguly had a number of strong political views, and fought to keep the Turkmen-way sacred, as well as maintaining the harmony and integrity of the Turkmen nation. He became a symbol of Turkmen unity but also a common voice of Turkish and Islamic world and is revered not only in Turkmenistan but also in neighbouring countries. The museum is very proud of the artefacts associated with his life and career.

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17th century ewers found during excavations

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Meat cooler made from sheep skin

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Kitchen implements, including a pestle used to make the customary small holes found in the traditional Turkmen bread

David is suffering from a severe cold he picked up on the flight out here, with his eyes being extremely sore and sensitive to light, so stays behind in the car while I have the museum, guide, and curator to myself.

The journey back through the border control is way quicker, just a mere three minute passport check and we're on our way, continuing further west. For a while the road is intermittently bumpy, with a number of potholes, and a couple of times I find myself caught unawares and bouncing off the ceiling.

Lunch

Yet another private room with a huge flat-screen TV. This one is not playing Lara Croft, however, but a very funny Russian slap-stick comedy about an incompetent chef in a restaurant. There is no need to understand Russian to appreciate the humour, although Meylis translates any dialogue of importance. None of us want to leave when we have finished our meal, as we are desperate to find out what happens next in the soap opera. Alas, we will never know the fate of the live goose the hapless chef bought.

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After the huge lunches we've had the last couple of days, and as my tummy is still pretty fragile, I order just a plain lentil soup accompanied by the ubiquitous bread

The road from here is long and straight, cutting through a vast flat area with the Kopetdag Mountain Range behind, and in the distance a mirage appears on the horizon. It must be soul-destroying boring to drive, and although the speed limit is 90km / hour, we are travelling a 'little bit' faster than that.

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Sand from the Karakum Desert (which covers 80% of the country) blows across the road for a few miles, offering some reprieve - and interest - from the previous monotonous view.

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In this arid and barren region we are surprised to see a flood plain. Apparently the water is still here since some heavy rain they experienced in April. I am absolutely flabbergasted that surface water can survive the oppressive dry heat in this region for five months without evaporating. That must have been some rain storm! It's not just a small puddle either, but covers quite a substantial area. Meylis tells us that at the time the road was deep under water for a couple of weeks. I can well imagine that is must have been pretty bad for there still to be so much flood water left now.

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We stop at a filling station to put fuel in the car, and are impressed by the Eco 93 petrol sold here. Apparently it is the first 'clean petrol' in the world, made from gas (of which Turkmenistan has rather a lot). At 2 manat a litre (57c / 46p at the official rate of 3.5 manat per dollar) it is more expensive than regular petrol. I wish I could take some home!

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Mollakara Sanatorium and Salt Lake

Opened in 2012, the modern health spa was built in a famous therapeutic mud resort on the shores of Lake Mollakara. The lake is fed by underground sources, and its healing features include chlorides and sodium sulphate, magnesium, iron, bromine salts and other minerals.

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Artem is trying to find a way down to the lake, but it seems the sanatorium wants to monopolise the salty waters, and has closed all gates and entrances that lead down to the shore. After trying a number of options, which include ignoring signs, attempting to pick gate locks, and driving off road to get around fencing; we finally manage to get near the water's edge, only to find the lake is almost dry!

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How astonishing! We passed areas of flooding just a few miles back, yet here there is very little water left in the lake! The sanatorium websites talk about swimming and floating in the alkaline waters - here it is so shallow that you'd be lucky if your ankles get wet!

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After driving around a little bit more, Artem finds another part of the lake, where, although there is very little water left, the salt deposits are easily accessible close to the road.

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The salt has formed little ridges on the surface, creating an interesting texture.

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Like little kids, all four of us go and play on and with the crusty salt formations.

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The benefits of salty water and mud treatments have been know to people from old times, and as long ago as 1900 there was a sanatorium built here.

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Who needs an expensive health spa to reap the benefits?

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Cemetery

It seems that different regions of Turkmenistan have different traditions and cultures when it comes to burying their dead. The grave markers at this cemetery consist of leaning plants of wood.

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Balkanabat

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This area is well known for its strong winds (which we saw evidence of earlier, with the sand drifting across the road), something that is reflected in this sculpture depicting desert people leaning in to the wind and shielding their faces from the blowing sand as they walk.

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Balkanabat may be a modern city built on the proceeds of oil; but there are still unattended camels wandering around the streets.

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Nebichi Hotel

As with the hotel we stayed at in Ashgabat, Nebichi Hotel looks palatial from the outside and has a grand-looking lobby.

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What it doesn't have, however, is a lift. Nor does it provide more than one set of towels or spare roll(s) of toilet paper. This seems to be a common trend here in Turkmenistan, and we ring for Housekeeping to bring the missing items to the room. Thankfully Meylis helps carry our bags up the two flights of stairs. Having a strong young man for a guide, certainly has its advantages.

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Dinner

As he did last night, Meylis knocks on the door as he has been asked to come down to the restaurant to help us order as the waitress speaks no English.

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The restaurant is full of idiosyncrasies – lovely linen tablecloth, covered in tacky-looking plastic; and the beautifully folded cloth napkins are apparently just for decorative purposes. Once the waitress has taken our order, she removes David's napkin and places it on a storage cabinet next to us. As soon as she is out of sight, however, I recover the napkin and place it back onto David's plate. When she returns with our drinks, the server yet again removes the cloth napkin, and brings us cheap paper serviettes instead. By this stage I have already unfolded mine and put it on my lap, so the moment she disappears back into the kitchen again, I carefully re-fold it, thread it through the little serviette-ring and put in with David's on the side. I might as well comply with the unwritten napkin rule and enjoy a my beer.

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Too pretty to be used

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David's head cold is still making his eyes extremely sensitive to light, so he plays Mr Cool with his sunglasses on.

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Adana Kebab - meat in a wrap with vegetables and a tasty sauce.

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The beef stroganoff features the best meat we've had so far on the trip

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Russian salad. With ham. In a Muslim country. OK.....

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The food is good, and we go to bed feeling very satisfied after another fascinating day here in Turkmenistan. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 06:12 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged beer desert landscape cemetery scenery museum dinner tv flood camel salt gas petrol cold travel_photography mirage poetry fuel arid comedy poet turkmenistan salt_lake kebab central_asia undiscovered_destinations head_cold pomegranate karakum ex_ussr fried_salami border_checks moon_mountains kopetdag kopetdag_mountains lunar_scenery pomegranate_trees magtymguly magtymguly_museum private_dining lentil_soup karakum_desert mollakara sanatorium mollakara_sanatorium mollakara_salt_lake balkanabat petrol_station nebichi_hotel idiosyncrasy napkin napkin_saga serviette adana_kebab beef_stroganoff stroganoff russian_salad Comments (11)

Ashgabat - Bugdayly - Kipchak - Geok Tepe - Nohur - Serdar

Horses, mosques, and goat horn graves

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today we are leaving the city behind and travelling west, and we soon find the green parks of the capital replaced by dry, sandy conditions, which is not surprising as 80% of the country is covered with desert.

Bugdayly Ahal Teke Horse Stables

Our first stop today is a stable housing the famed Ahal Teke horses. Known as 'the gift from the desert,' this breed was developed for endurance and agility. Considered the art piece of the horse world - elegant and graceful in appearance and stride – Ahal Teke horses are among the rarest, most exotic full-sized breeds in the world, with only around 6,600 animals, mostly in Turkmenistan and Russia.

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We are treated to a fine display at the stables, with several specimens being brought out and paraded around for us. Most of these horses are bred for display and competition purposes, with each animal worth from US$10,000 upwards. The stable never purchases new horses, they breed from existing stock, and when they sell, they make sure that the stallions are unable to sire further offspring.

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The Ahal Teke horses have a reputation for speed and stamina, intelligence, and a distinctive metallic sheen. The shiny coat of palominos and buckskins led to their nickname 'Golden Horses'.

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Named after an oases in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan (Akhal) and the tribe (Tekke) that lived there, these horses are adapted to severe climatic conditions, having to tolerate sparse water and food supplies as well as extremes of heat and cold; and are thought to be one of the oldest existing horse breeds.

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The Akhal-Teke is distinctively fine-boned and flat-muscled. Its body—with its thin barrel and deep chest—is often compared to that of a greyhound or cheetah.

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This white horse is 30 years old – allegedly the oldest ahel teke horse in the country – but she still seems to be fit and frisky.

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After the display, we are taken to see the paddocks and stables, where we swoon over a young foal only born yesterday. The stables themselves, however, are surprisingly small, basic and somewhat dingy.

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David the horse whisperer.

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Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque

Our next stop is the village of Kipchak, and the huge, modern Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque.

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Built by Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president of Turkmenistan, the mosque courted controversy as a result of the president insisting that the walls be inscribed with scriptures from not only the Quran but also the Ruhnama , the spiritual guide to life written by Niyazov himself. He apparently hit back at his critics by explaining how he had talked to God and could confirm that anyone who read the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) three times would be guaranteed a place in heaven.

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The dimensions of the 40 metre high dome and 63 metre tall minarets are significant – Mohammed was 40 years old when he became the prophet and aged 63 when he died.

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The colossal gilded door leading in to the prayer hall weighs half a ton, but can still be opened reasonably easily, especially by a fit young man such as our guide Meylis.

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Look at those enormous knockers

The mosque is reputed to be the largest in Central Asia, holding a total of 10,000 worshippers – 7,000 men on the ground level and 3,000 women on the first floor gallery.

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Running in a circular fashion underneath the mosque is an entire 'ablution city', complete with marble, gold and chandeliers.

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There is also apparently an underground parking area with a capacity for 400 cars.

Niyazov's family Mausoleum

Next door to the mosque is the final resting place of Saparmurat Nyazov, (also known as Turkmenbashy the Great), who passed away suddenly in 2006.

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The entrance to the mausoleum is flanked by two guards in sentry boxes.

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We enter the mausoleum on the first floor and look down on the sarcophagi of Niyazov, his two brothers, his mother and his father (his dad died during WWII).

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The mausoleum, a miniature version of the mosque, was finished a couple of years prior to Niyazov's death. His mother and two brothers died in the massive 1948 earthquake that killed nearly 90% of the population of Ashgabat. The only reason Niyazov himself survived, was because he happened to be in the wooden outhouse at the time. The earthquake happened at 01:12, and the other members of his family were asleep in the brick-built house, which was razed to the ground in 15 seconds. The small wooden latrine was all that remained of his family home. This earthquake, measuring 10 on the Richter scale, was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the 20th century and destroyed nearly all brick buildings in the capital city and surrounding villages.

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The mosque and mausoleum were built in Kipchak, the home village of Niyazov and his family as well as the site being very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Niyazov's plan for the mausoleum was for it to become a pilgrimage site, although today we only see one other tourist with accompanying guide and a worshipper in the mosque.

We continue our journey west to the site where the historical battle between the forces of the Russian Tsar and Turkmens of the Teke tribe took place in 1881.

Saparmurat Hajji Mosque

Built on the site of the former Geok Depe Fortress, the mosque commemorates the 15,000 or so lives lost when the Russian army launched their bloody attack, killing all the soldiers and civilians stationed here.

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The mosque also honours President Niyazov’s pilgrimage to Mecca (hence the name of the president and the word 'Hajji' in the title)

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Constructed in 1995, Saparmurat Hajji Mosque was the first mosque to be built in the country following independence after the dissolutionof the USSR in 1991.

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As I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry, carpets are of great importance to the Turkmen people, and each region has its own design, the pattern associated with this area is featured here in the mosque.

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Lunch

Carrying on a little further, we stop at a somewhat nondescript roadside café for lunch. Meylis pops in to find out if they have any tables and chairs, rather than just the large bed-like frames, or carpets on the floor, as is the traditional way of dining in this part of the world.

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We are ushered into a private dining room with a full-sized snooker table as well as a huge flat screen TV showing Lara Croft and Harry Potter dubbed in Russian. It is all rather surreal, and I really regret not taking a photo of the room.

There is no menu, and after chatting with the waiter, Maylis suggests we order grilled fish as this is their speciality here. The chips, salad and spicy tomato dip arrive way before the fish. There is also a whole square tin loaf of bread on the table, cut into one-inch pillars.

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Not only do I not photograph the room, I also forget to take pictures of the food until we have almost finished.

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Unfortunately my tummy is giving me terribly trouble today, and I hardly touch the lunch, rushing to find the fairly basic local-style (hole in the ground) facilities. Oh, how I hate the 'squits on the squats'!

For the next part of the journey I mostly sleep, until we reach the spectacular Kopetdag Mountains.

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Nohur Village

Our destination here in the mountains is the isolated village of Nohur, where the inhabitants are not true Turkmen, but claim to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great. These mixed race people (Greek + Turkmen) have their own language, and according to Meylis, our guide, “live differently”. 'No' means nine and 'Hur' is princesses; as legend suggests that the tribe originates from nine princesses.

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Nohur Cemetery

The main attraction in this village is its cemetery, which is like nothing I've ever seen before (and trust me, I have visited quite a few graveyards in my time): a large number of the headstones have goat horns attached to them.

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The local inhabitants believe that goat horns fight off evil spirits and can assist the souls of the deceased during their passage to heaven. Goats have always been considered sacred in this region, revered for their strength and endurance.

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Another reason for goats being honoured here, is the legend that tells of their forefather, Alexander the Great, having horns on the side of his head. The Macedonian king was brought up with the belief that he was of divine birth, and claimed descent from the Egyptian god Amun, whose symbol was ram's horns. Archaeologists have found a large number of different types of ancients coins from around his time in 300BC depicting Alexander the Great with two horns.

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Here in Nohur (as well as many other places in Central Asia), traditional beliefs co-exists perfectly with the Islam faith.

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Driving back down through the village from the cemetery, we encounter an extremely arrogant and inconsiderate driver – despite there being a drive-way he could pull into right next to him, he refuses to budge and makes us reverse up the narrow, winding road for quite some distance.

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On reaching the main road, we joke that the traffic police are always in the wrong place, never there when you need them!

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Serdar Guest House

Having dozed off a little on the way, I wake up as we pull into the car park of the place we are staying tonight. It is described in the itinerary as a 'guest house', but it has all the facilities of a hotel, albeit a rather quirky one. We are on the ground floor right at the end of a corridor, and the carpet running along the hallways has obviously been bought by the metre from a roll; but instead of cutting it to size, they have just left the rest all rolled up against the wall at the end of the long thin corridor. The presence of a pair of slippers just inside the bedroom door indicates that we are expected to remove our shoes as we enter. It is, however, the curtains that has me perplexed when we enter; or rather the lack of. There are just nets over the windows, despite the fact that our room faces out onto the car park and road beyond; and the curtain pelmet is artistically wavy.

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After a quick shower and change, we settle in with a pre-dinner drink from our Duty Free when there is a knock on the door. Maylis has been told that the restaurant staff would like him to be there when we order dinner as they don't speak any English. Fair enough.

As we enter the restaurant, a tantalising aroma wafts from the kitchen. “I'll have whatever that smell belongs to” I say to Meylis.

But first to more important things: beer! Gotta love their weak larger here: 12%. It is very nice though and carries quite a punch as you'd expect.

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To start we have lentil soup, which is really quite peppery, rather thick and very tasty.

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After following his nose into the kitchen, Meylis comes back with the source of the mouthwatering scent from earlier: lamb with liver and kidneys. I am so eager to dig in that I forget to take a photo until it is nearly all gone (apologies for awful picture). I am happy to report that it tasted as good as it smelled.

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Returning to the room for the night, I look for an electric socket to charge my phone. Really?

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With a distinct lack of ladders to reach this one, we end up unplugging one of the bedside lamps instead. The hotel is hosting a wedding reception this evening (much to David's delight earlier, as he spent the entire dinner checking out the well-dressed and all rather attractive female guests arriving); and between the noise from the party, people coming and going, a barking dog in the car park and the pain from yet another blister on my foot (that is four blisters now, and this one covers the entire ball of my left foot. Thank goodness for Compeed!) ; I don't anticipate getting a lot of sleep tonight.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:48 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque cemetery horse muslim lunch mausoleum islam saparmurat_niyazov bugdayly ahal_teke horse_stable türkmenbaşy_ruhy_mosque niyazov kipchak saparmurat_hajji_mosque geok_depe snooker_table nohur nohur_cemetery serdar Comments (9)

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