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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


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

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)

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