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Ashgabat - Dubai - Heathrow - home

The long journey home


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

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


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

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)

Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

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

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

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