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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


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

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)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

Port au Prince: Fet Gede / Day of the Dead

Party in the cemetery, believers possessed by their dead ancestors and sacrificed goats - it is all happening today!

36 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Fet Gede

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Today we are setting out to see, experience and photograph the Fet Gede – the reason we made this return journey to Haiti.

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As a photographer, I have never perfected the art of travelling light.

Fet Gede, the 'Feast of the Ancestors', is a traditional Vodou festival which celebrates the Lwa (spirits) of death and fertility; a time when believers honour the ancestral dead who they regard as walking with us all our lives. Gede (the sacred ancestors) is considered an important part of every living person as we will all join them eventually.

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Fet Gede can be described as the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all rolled into one incredible ritual with enough drumming, singing, alcohol and laughter to quite literally raise the dead. The Fet Gede celebrations are unique to Haiti, a blend of traditions brought over from Africa during the slave trade, mixed with colonial Christianity and a dash of ritual from the original Taino inhabitants of the island.

Haitians believe that the frisky Vodou spirits helped them win independence and become the world's first black republic. Tradition marks the beginning of the revolution at a vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, where the call to arms was issued by a Houngan (Vodou priest), and within hours, the northern plantations were in flames. The rebellion spread through the entire colony and the rest is history as they say.

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Grand Cimetiére

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We start the day with a visit to the main cemetery. As you do. The Grand Cimetiére in Port au Prince is like a city for the dead within the living city. Like many cemeteries, it mirrors real life in its layout. Here you find various 'neighbourhoods': crowded slums with rotting tombs and muddy graves; stately communities with fabulous mausoleums, middle class suburbs and even a main boulevard.

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We can't get anywhere near the cemetery by car due to the enormous crowds of people. After a lot of hassle, Wilson (today's driver) manages to find a spot where he can stop long enough for us all to get out. We are joined today by Sam from New York and a group of five international architect student who are here to learn the art of building bamboo houses. After shuffling our way through the crowds, we enter the necropolis through the main gate which reads “Souviens-Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere” (remember you are dust).

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The cemetery is teeming with life and people thronging through the narrow alleyways. We make our way along the main boulevard, along with thousands of others. The atmosphere is convivial and friendly, with not a hint of sinister or threatening undertones.

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Kwa Baron (Cross of Baron)

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Vodouists come in a spiritual pilgrimage to the cemetery to pay their respect to the dead, but first, permission of passage has to be obtained. The grave of the Papa Gede, the first man who ever died. Ancestral services are held at this 'crossroad', considered to be the bridge between life and death. Kwa Baron is the Lwa guardian of the cemetery and head of the Gedes.

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So, who is Papa Gede?
The corpse of the 'first man' can in many ways be compared to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who is revered at memorials throughout the world - he may not necessarily be Haitian - just like the Baron is not Haitian nor African, he may be 'other' (foreign). Papa Gede is a psychopomp who waits at the crossroads to take departed souls into the afterlife, although he does not take a life before its time. Papa Gede has a very crude sense of humour, and a cunning ability to read people's minds, knowing everything that happens in the worlds of the living and the dead.

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Skulls and bones are removed from the crypts and turned into a makeshift shrine

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Pimam

Making an offering of Pimam (a mixture of raw rum known as clairin and 21 habareno chillies) is said to help the Gede (ancestral spirits) become warm and passionate again. Having been 'sleeping in the cold', the rum and chillies helps to 'heat them up' so that they can offer advice on such things as job hunting, love and marriage.

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The floor is awash with rum (and also coffee, which has been offered by the cup-full too). The smell is quite overpowering, and the bottom of my jeans are soaked in the stuff. I guess I'd better wash those before going on the flight back to the UK. We brave the crowds to venture further into the maze of alleyways in the cemetery.

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Baron Kriminel ('Baron of Criminals') is the enforcer of the Gede. As the first person to commit murder, he is Gede of murderers and perpetrators of violence against others; thus victims' relatives pray to him for revenge. His 'chevals' (possessed followers) are said to have an insatiable appetite for food, biting and chewing on anything and anyone (even themselves), they will attack those around them until they get fed. Thankfully none of the chevals present today seem to be possessed, as I don't fancy becpming breakfast.

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There is nothing formal about any of the celebrations here, people push and shove, stand on the graves to get a better view, and even put their feet on the altar.

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All this, and the enormous crowds everywhere, makes photography a real challenge! I am impressed, however, at how the sea of people seems to magically open up as I try to get closer to the action – spectators actively move aside and even encourage others to do so in order for me to see what is going on. Lots of locals are photographing the event too, and even the TV and radio stations are out in force.

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The occult has always fascinated me, and voodoo is no exception. In reality, voodoo is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world, something I became more and more aware of as I did my research some ten years ago before our trip to West Africa. The word 'Voodoo' is in fact a bastardisation by Hollywood of 'vodoun', the original West African religion (also known as vodun). (One interesting observation here is that ‘voodoo’ passes the spellchecker in Word, ‘vodoun’, ‘vodun’ or the Haitian version of the religion, known as vodou, do not.) Hollywood also gave the world the idea that vodoun (or voodoo) is an evil black magic cult setting out to spread death and destruction. Films like the James Bond ‘Live and let Die’ also fuelled this misapprehension with its violence and bizarre rituals. Ask an average member of the public what they first think about when they hear the word ‘voodoo’ and they are most likely to answer something along the lines of ‘black magic’, ‘zombies’, ‘human sacrifice’ or ‘sticking pins in dolls’. I would love to be able to say “nothing is further from the truth”, but of course there are some associations to all of these within the vodoun religion, but there is so much more to it.

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Vodoun is a religion that can trace its roots back at least 6,000 years; some sources claim 10,000. It is freely practised in West Africa, and was in fact accepted as the state religion of Benin in 1996 where 80% of the population is followers. It is believed that over 60 million people practise vodoun worldwide, 30 million of which are thought to be in West Africa. Vodoun is widespread throughout the Caribbean, notably on Haiti where vodou was proclaimed the state religion in 2003 where is is popularly stated that the people are 80% Catholics and 110% vodouists. It is also found in Brazil, the Guianas, Dominican Republic and parts of USA, introduced by the slaves.

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Vodou in Haiti

There are also an awful lot of misconceptions that vodou originated in Haiti. Yes, it is the state religion in Haiti, but it was brought here by the slaves from West Africa during the French colonial time, when it mixed with local Taino religious beliefs and European mysticism, taking on a camouflage veneer of Roman Catholicism after it was outlawed by the slave masters.

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Vodou (a derivation of the West African Vodun and the New Orleans Voodoo) is mysterious and complicated, inherently mistrusted, frequently maligned and often misunderstood religion. Its reputation was badly tarnished by the 1960s dictator Papa Doc, who encouraged his people to believe he was Baron Samedi, the vodou spirit of darkness and dead. Most westerner's exposure to Haitian Vodou is through Hollywood portrayals such as the 1973 James Bond's Live and Let Die blockbuster (in which Baron Samedi featured as a villain), something that has created further suspicion and discredit in Vodou as a serious religion.

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Having witnessed a Vodun ceremony first hand in Benin in West Africa a few years ago, I was keen to find out a little more about how this enigmatic, cabbalistic doctrine plays out for the Haitians.

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Vodou ceremony in Benin 2006

I have tried to gain some sort of understanding of Vodou, and here I will try and give you a very brief synopsis of what I have gleaned from talking to our guide and other Haitians, as well as various websites.

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Lwa

Their top dog – the Supreme Creator – is called Bondye but doesn't really want to have anything much to do with mere mortals, so the people direct their worship towards one or more of the many spirits, known as Lwa. Each Lwa has a particular aspect of life which they are responsible for – much in the same way as Christian saints, Hindu deities and Greek gods. Voduists create altars, participate in ritual ceremonies involving music and dance; and make offerings to appease their chosen Lwa.

There is no one definitive form of Vodouism, each priest has a different style of worship, depending on the Lwas his 'house' honours. Priests can be either male (houngan) or female (mambo) and are said to have supernatural power to hurt or kill people in addition to doing good by helping and protecting others from spells of course. A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour or Peristyle.

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The Lwa and the humans belong to each other and are interdependent – the humans supply food, the Lwa provides protection from evil spirits, health and good fortune.

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In Vodouism, your soul is said to take the form of two parts – the Big Good Angel (gros bon ange) or Little Good Angel (ti bon ange). Big Angel is in charge of the more physical aspects of your life, such as breathing and the flow of blood; whereas Little Angel is the ruler of your personality, nature and willpower – basically, the Big Angel decides what to do and the Little Angel works out how to do it.

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Unlike the evil portrayed by popular media, Vodou moral code of conduct focusses on the vices of dishonour and greed, on love and support within the family, respecting your elders and giving alms to the poor. Much like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and most other religions.

Baron Samedi

The ruler of the graveyard and the Lwa of the Dead and is known for disruption, obscenity, debauchery, and having a particular fondness for tobacco and rum. Sounds like my kinda guy.

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Baron Samedi is a very sexualised Lwa, frequently represented by phallic symbols such as this skeletal hand between his legs.

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Fet Gede celebrations are huge here in Haiti and everywhere we go in the cemetery there are people taking photos and videos; plus all the TV and radio stations. Here Baron Samedi is interviewed for the daily TV news.

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While most devotees are merely here at the cemetery out of curiosity, some come to worship, and a small number of believers actually become possessed by the Lwa (spirits). As this guy goes in to a trance, he loses control of his senses, flails his arms and legs around and staggers about as if he has been given a hefty push in a drunken stupor. As we are all on top of a crypt at this stage, with steep steps and a throng of people, there are a few hairy moments as he tumbles down through the crowds and onto the ground below. Fortunately no-one is hurt on this occasion and he is helped by a number of bystanders as he recovers from his bewildering state of possession.

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Erzulie

This tree represents Erzulie, the Haitian African Lwa (spirit) of love and passion. She is fond of money and clothes, but especially of doll, and she enjoys receiving them as gifts.

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Devotees come here to attach dolls to the tree, in order to send messages to their dead loved ones and ancestors; which in turn will then ensure that Erzulie brings them luck. This practice is thought to have been the base of the misunderstanding and misinformation (perpetuated by popular media) that Vodouists stick pins in dolls to cause harm to their enemies.

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Peristyle - The Vodou Temple

From the cemetery we continue (via the supermarket for water and toilet stop) up into the hill towards Petionville to attend a vodou service to commemorate Fet Gede, the Feast of the Ancestors (or Day of the Dead).

Wilson drives the minibus as far as he can up roads that become narrower and more uneven as we climb higher. Eventually we reach a point where the road has been washed away (possibly by the recent hurricane?) and the surface is down to the bedrock. We scramble up further on foot and enter a series of tight alleyways occupied by children and goats. There is no sign of the Vodou Temple until we are right upon it and even then it is unrecognisable as a place of worship as we know it.

The immediate area outside the temple is full of people hanging around, smoking, drinking and chatting. There is an 'off-licence' by the entrance where worshippers can buy their rum for offering and personal consumption.

The temple itself can best be described as a small wooden shack, the inside of which is beautifully adorned with white and purple balloons, Halloween-style decorations and an altar awash with offerings - people bring with them food or drink particularly enjoyed by their ancestors when they were alive.

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Music

A group of special people, known as houn'torguiers, provide the music in the form of shaking rattles, playing drums and blowing a trumpet. Three drums, covered with ox-hide, provide the rhythm. They represent the three atmospheres of the sun: the largest represents the chromospheres, the middle one the photosphere, and the smallest one the solar nucleus. The instruments have to be purified prior to the ceremony.

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Everyone seems to be taking photos or recording video, and the TV crew are in attendance with their huge camera and microphone. As was the case in the cemetery, we are the only white people here.

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Maman Brigitte

Soon after we arrive, the ritual reaches a crescendo as (a devotee possessed by) Maman Brigitte (Baron Samedi's wife), frees the souls of the followers. She is a colourful character, both in appearance and speech, and is known as the guardian of the dead. As a psychopomp, she leads the dead to the afterlife.

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Dancing

Dancing is an expression of spirituality, and is seen as a connection with divinity and the spirit world. The dancing and drumming intensifies repeatedly and repetitively until the dancer is possessed by their Lwa, by which stage they appear to completely lose control of their body and some even appear to lose consciousness. Their limbs go stiff, they appear to fall backwards of they flail their arms and legs about, thrashing anyone and everyone in their way. This is the Lwa’s way of having a bit of fun with the devotee.

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Vodou devotees believe that everyone has a soul which is made up of two parts: a gros bon ange or 'big guardian angel', and a ti bon ange ('little guardian angel'). The ‘little angel’ is the one that leaves the body when the Lwa possess the dancers during a ritual, and it can be quite scary at times to watch. The Lwa will take over every movement of that person, they become the spirit and are no longer themselves, and the spirit will talk through the possessed – sometimes in a language they do not understand or even knew before they were possessed. The Lwa will convey – through the possessed – advice, desires and warnings.

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During the Vodou service, prayers are offered to the Lwa, followed by songs for the Lwa accompanied by shaking a calabash rattle (asson) filled with rattlesnake bones, as well as hypnotic drumming. Like many Hindu devotees, most Haitians have a 'favourite' Lwa, and as 'their' song is played, they believe that the spirit takes possession of their body and is thereby able to speak and act through them. They trust that by following the directives and taboos imposed by their particular Lwa, the Lwa will help them in life, enabling them to discard any toxic influences from the past as well as offering thanks to the ancestors and accepting beneficial help for the future. Fet Gede is a celebration for reconnecting with the past, and preparing for the future. By offering insight into the past, Fet Gede frees people from any futile or unacceptable patterns and habits that they may inadvertently repeat, thus preparing them for a better future where greater happiness can be achieved. Conversely, by ignoring the advice of the Lwa, all sorts of misfortunes will befall the worshipper.

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Other worshippers help the Houngan (Vodou priest) to stay cool (if that is at all possible in the stifling heat inside the Peristyle) while he is possessed.

The Gédé spirits are lewd and raucous, and those possessed by them during ceremonies can be wildly provocative and sexually charged – like this guy tying a goat to his belt by a rope, and simulating sex with it on the dance floor.

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Chanting

Chanting is also an integral part of the Vodou ceremony. The chorus is made up of a group of people, led by a strong spiritual devotee. The idea of the chanting is to attract the Lwa on the astral plane in order to draw them down to earth.

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Pimam

Pimam is an 'altar wine' made from klarin (Haitian moonshine) with habareno peppers – it can quite literally be described as 'fire water.' Once a worshipper is 'possessed', he (or she) drinks or rubs themselves with the pimam as a signal that they are really a Gede (spiritual ancestor), in other words: dead and need warming up.

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Devotees also sprinkle alcohol on the ground to attract the spirits.

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Sacrifice

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Fet Gede celebrations nearly always involve an animal sacrifice (never virgins I am assured!). Since the earthquake in 2010 goats and chickens are favoured over cows.

Unble to bear the heat inside any longer, we leave the temple for some fresh air (not that it is much cooler outside), and almost immediately Serge beckons me to come down a set of stairs with him.

There, without much pomp and circumstance, is a goat with his throat being slit.

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The blood is drained into a bowl as the head is severed off completely.

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The rest of the body is slung aside (still kicking) while the next goat is fetched.

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The goat is hit over the head with a mallet to stun it, then stabbed in the skull with a sharp knife.

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The blood from the bowl is smeared on the forehead and tongue of believers (who have paid 50 gourdes for the privilege). By drinking the blood whilst possessed by the Lwa, it is believed that the Lwa’s hunger is satisfied and the devotee will receive forgiveness for any wrongdoings.

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After the sacrifice has taken place, the animal is cooked and shared out amongst the villagers. This way, nothing goes to waste. The killing of an animal is believed to release life, which the Lwa receive to rejuvenate themselves during the rapture of the ceremony.

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Still overwhelmed and buzzing from the powerful experiences today, we return to our hotel to get ready for a night out with Jacqui from Voyages Lumiere.

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Jacqui brings along her friend Kelli from the US who has just adopted an adorable little Haitian girl called Vanedjina.

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We have a lovely relaxing evening with good food and great company – the perfect way to end a frantic but captivating day.

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Thank you Voyage Lumiere for making this happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:17 Archived in Haiti Tagged altar temple travel vacation skeleton cemetery halloween crowds holiday necropolis tv dancing drums photography coffee killing candles spirits graves bones goat skulls ancestors rum sacrifice crypt celebration voodoo dolls mardi_gras haiti offerings crossroads trance day_of_the_dead chanting peristil port_au_prince baron_samedi vodou possessed fet_gede fete_guede fet_guede fete_gede gede feast_of_the_ancestors lwa loa vodum vodoun grand_cimetiere kwa_baron cross_of_baron papa_gede tomb_of_the_unknown_soldiers pimam clairin clarin klarin maman_brigitte habarenos baron_criminal occult peristyle erzulie zonbiw erzulie_mayang vodou_temple voodoo_temple houn'torguiers psychopomp houngan mambo vodou_ceremony voodoo_ceremony Comments (0)

Butuceni - Capriana - Hincu - Chișinău

Our first canonisation


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The restaurant looks completely different this morning without the wedding party, decorations and DJ equipment.

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For breakfast we are on the same table as a group of eleven Finnish tourists, and like last night, there is way too much food.

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Some sort of rice pudding, doughnut-type pastries, feta-style cheese, yogurt and tomatoes more than fills us up.

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After breakfast we take a short walk around Butuceni Village, with its collection of cute old buildings, ornate gates and jumbled street furniture.

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I call in the village shop to get some water, and notice the elderly shopkeeper uses an abacus to add up the purchases. I don’t think I have seen one of those in use since we visited the old USSR back in the 1980s.

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I am also very surprised to see a British car in the village!

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Capriana Monastery

On our way to Capriana, we spot a number of police cars that increase in frequency and number the nearer we get to the monastery. The last bit of road leading to the complex is closed off with a police cordon, and parking is impossible anywhere near the area. There are people everywhere; most dressed in their Sunday best. The national TV station is present and there are food stalls and first aid tents set up. Somebody important must be visiting – other than us, I mean.

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Even from a great distance we can clearly hear the church bells and some beautiful chanting.

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Valeriu is as perplexed as we are, but his confusion soon turns to awe as he realises that the liturgy is being led by none other than the Patriarch of Moscow – who for those of us not in the know (including me and David), he is the 'head honcho' of the Moldavian Orthodox Church, held in the same esteem as the Pope is for the Catholics.

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The air is full of celebratory reverence, devoted admiration, and pious wonderment; and we soon discover the reason: Moldova is getting its very first Saint in the shape of Metropolitan Banulescu Bodoni who died 200 years ago. We, along with thousands of others, are in fact attending their – and our - very first canonisation. How cool is that?

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The Church of St Mary

The crowds are too great to do sightseeing justice, but we follow the throngs of worshippers into the church of St Mary. Dating from 1545, it is the oldest of the three churches that make up the monastery complex, and the oldest preserved church in Moldova.

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After falling into decline during the 17th century, the church was reinvigorated in 1813, and for a while thrived. In 1940, the whole monastic estate was confiscated by Soviet troops, the monks fled and the churches were desecrated and pillaged. During the 1960s and 70s, the monastery was used as a sanatorium for sick children and later as a dance hall. In 1989 reconstruction of the monastery began and Capriana once again became a place of religious services.

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It amuses me that a woman’s hair must be covered before entering the church, yet a tight, short dress is fine.

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Despite not being religious, I find the visit to the church quite emotional and very spiritual. Valeriu gives us a candle each as we enter the church, for us to say a prayer and then ‘plant’ the candle.

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The Church of St George

Dating from 1907, the church of St George is smaller and nowhere near as crowded.

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We leave the crowds behind and call Leonid to come back and pick us up for the journey to Hincu.

Hincu Monastery / Convent

Located in the picturesque Codrii Forest, reaching Hincu Monastery involves a very pleasant stroll up through the woods, although I didn’t expect to see a monk on a tractor along the way.

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Founded in 1678 by the daughter of the High Steward Mihai Hincu, Hincu is one of the richest monasteries in Moldova. The convent was then known as Parascheva. After the wooden church and cells were destroyed several times during Tatar invasions in the 18th century, the nuns left. The care of the convent fell on monks from a nearby monastery, who repaired the cells and eventually moved in.

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With the arrival of the Soviets in 1944, the monastery closed and the monks were 'asked' to leave. In 1978 the monastery was taken into use as a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers, while the church was turned into a club. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, Hincu once more became an active monastery, albeit short lived: in 1992, the community was abolished and the monks moved out. Later the same year, a few nuns returned and started the reconstruction of the monastery / convent – which just proves that if you want a job done, get the girls in!

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Next-door a new church is in the process of being constructed, but apparently they have run out of funds, so the interior is still fairly basic, without any of the usual adornments normally associated with orthodox churches.

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The grounds are beautiful, with beds bursting to the seams with brightly coloured flowers. I guess this is the female touch that comes from it being a convent now rather than a monastery.

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The nunnery has one of the best tended and colourful cemeteries I have ever seen!

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From Hincu we continue the short distance to the official visitors area of Codrii Forest.

Codrii Nature Reserve

At the reserve head quarters we have a picnic in a specially constructed ‘pavilion’, set in a serene and tranquil location in amongst the trees.

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Founded in 1972, it is the oldest scientific nature reserve in Moldova, and boasts some 1,000 species of protected plants, 43 species of mammals, 145 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and more than 8,000 species of insects.

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Natural Museum

Guided by the curator’s daughter Doina - who is keen to practise her somewhat limited English - we are shown around the small museum detailing some of the species found in the area.

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While David goes with Doina for a hike down to the lake, I join Valeriu in the ‘pavilion’, listening to Deep Purple and discussing palaeoanthropology. As you do.

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We leave the countryside behind and return to Chișinău, taking a nap in the car on the way.

Chișinău

Back in Chișinău we drop the bags off at the hotel and continue to the National History Museum.

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Chișinău National History Museum

The museum's large, bright, clean and modern rooms feature exhibits dating from pre-history, through various occupations to independence of this small country.

The visit feels a little rushed, but to be honest I am not at all unhappy about that as I am tired, it is uncomfortably hot and my back is hurting.

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Hotel Codru

As it is only a couple of blocks away, we walk back to the hotel (rather than let Leonid drive us) to pick up the luggage we dumped earlier and check in. We’re back in Room 313, and yet again we negotiate the tiny lift, just about 1m², where there is barely enough room for two (large) people with two backpacks, two wheelybags and two camera bags.

Dinner

After some chill time and a welcome shower, we wander downstairs to have dinner. The restaurant is closed for of a wedding reception (another one? That’s exactly what happened to us last night!), and the outside terrace is out of bounds because of a private party; which leaves us the bar. That suits us fine, as we really just want a small meal and a glass or three of wine.

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Chicken stew with branza (feta type cheese), smetana (soured cream) and mămăligă (polenta)

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Moldovan style roast beef in a clay pot
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Side dish of grilled vegetables and country style potatoes

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Wine!!!!

The food is delicious (especially the cheese) - and we are both very impressed with the wine - very, very smooth!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for another great day in Moldova!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:49 Archived in Moldova Tagged trees food flowers nature hotel cemetery museum woods wine monastery forest saint convent chisinau moldova nunnery natural_history codru_hotel pucari pucari_wine capriana capriana_monastery hincu codrii codrii_forest canonisation moldovian_food Comments (0)

Seyun - Tarim and Aynat

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


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Today is Christmas Day and we turn up for breakfast in our red Santa Hats, which the drivers willingly wear for us to take photographs.

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Heading east towards Tarim, we pass by many typical everyday scenes in Yemen. It is often these snapshots of daily life that remain the best memories from my travels. Much as Mohammed is not the best local guide we’ve ever had, his redeeming feature is that he does stop at various places he thinks might be of interest to us, such as these people carrying out building work during the dry season.

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The bricks are made nearby, and stacked up for drying in the sun, so at least the materials don’t have far to travel.

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The Hadramawt area is well known for women with large straw hats, either this type with a flat top or the conical shape. We don’t see many women out and about, mostly working the field or herding the goats, and all are covered from head to foot in black. Some with a small slit for the eyes, some with the full veil.

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Camels are a common sight throughout Yemen and are used for transport as well as food.

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Everywhere we go in Yemen; there are remains such as this, a rich man’s palace abandoned some 200 years ago. These are signs of the affluence which once reigned in this area.

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There is always surface water in the Wadi Hadramawt, even during the dry season. I can only imagine what this place looks like after the rains. The scenery everywhere is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

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Tarim

Tarim is best known for its mosques – 365 of them, one for each day of the year - and the skyline is dotted with minarets. The city is in a beautiful setting, on the valley floor of the Wadi Hadramawt, flanked by vast rock cliffs on one side and surrounded by palm groves on the other.

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Another of Tarim’s claim to fame is its collection of 19th century palaces in the Al-Kaff area. Mostly built by Javanese immigrants, they are now what you might call ‘ripe for restoration’.

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Many of the mansions here were built by Sir Sayyid Bu Bakr Ibn Shaikh al-Kaf, who used some of the fortune his family has amassed in Singapore to build roads, palaces and mosques in Tarim. This palace is also known as Ishsha Palace.

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This is the only palace we are able to enter, and it is partly made into a museum. Apparently, Freya Stark was entertained here on her visit to Tarim, by the owner himself.

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Many of the rooms are empty, but still offer some insight into what life must have been like in those days.

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There is a small but interesting museum within the building, mostly displaying firearms. I just couldn’t resist playing with the exhibits!

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One of the more interesting items is a passport issued by the British in 1963. It seems so recent, yet still a totally different world.

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The building itself is really quite elaborate; it is hard to accept that this is a mud-brick creation.

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Some of the rooms have decorated walls and ceilings, like this one with mirrors on the ceiling. It’s a shame there is no furniture in here, it must have been very grand in its time.

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One of the many things I love in Yemen is the beautifully decorated doors. Whether they are made of metal, such as this one, or carved wood, there seems to be such love and pride put into the creation of the entrances here.

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The most famous mosque in Tarim is the al-Muhdar Mosque, named after the religious leader Omar al-Muhdar who lived in the town in the 15th century. The minaret, the most prominent feature of Tarim, has been repeatedly renewed since the period of the Islamic middle ages. The current minaret, 50 metres tall and built of mud and brick, was added in the beginning of the 20th century.

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Walking around the town, we come across a stall selling artifacts and souvenirs. I am really taken with a niqab made from black velvet and beautifully coloured beads. I try it on and get encouraging comments from my fellow travellers. I try to bargain with the stall-holder, but he won’t drop below $40. I really want it, but walk away. Halfway down the street, I change my mind, and David goes back to buy it for me.

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I wonder what I would look like as a ‘real’ Bedouin woman, with brown eyes and dark skin?

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Isn't Photoshop fun?

We pass through a market selling fish, grains and fresh produce.

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Some fish looks better than others, although most of the produce I see in Yemen is fresh and looks appetising.

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Tarim has always been a very important scientific centre in the Islamic world, and the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islamic teaching, spreading the word in and around the Hadramawt area. The Al-Ahqaf Library was founded in 1972 to preserve the spiritual heritage of the region’s Islamic teachers, and the books were gathered from all over Hadramawt.

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In the library are 14,000 volumes, amongst which some 3,000 manuscripts could be classed as ancient.

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Many of the books are adorned with beautiful gold and colours in their pages.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch in Tarim at a small restaurant obviously aimed at tourists, as there is another group there. We are all shocked at how disrespectful these other tourists are to the local customs here in Yemen – women wearing close-fitting tops with short or no sleeves and not covering their hair. They quickly leave and we have the restaurant to ourselves. We order from the non-existent menu: fried fish, chicken, goat or camel.

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Fish

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Goat

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Camel

The chef is outside the restaurant cooking the meat on a large barbecue.

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While we’ve been eating, the drivers have been off to get their daily fix of qat, and Musad looks very happy.

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Lime Production

We stop to see how limestone is collected from the valley, placed in the large kiln and fired with wood for 3-4 days.

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It is then further soaked in water for another 2-3 days to soften the stone.

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Once it is soft enough to manage, the stones are beaten with a stick to break them up. Once they are the desired size, the lime powder is dried, bagged up and sold at markets.

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Bee Keeping

There was a time when Yemeni honey was almost as expensive as gold, and although the value of the honey has come down, it is still prized all over the world. Beekeeping methods have barely changed in Yemen over the centuries. Box-shaped hives are made of sukan wood, stacked and covered from the fierce heat of the sun.

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During extraction, beekeepers will use smoke to get the insects to move away, then draw out the honeycomb through the rear of the hive, which is sealed with mud and thus easily opened, causing minimum disturbance to the brood inside.

The honey is then strained to remove excess bee larvae and pollen. The first extraction is called balade and is sold directly to a traditional clientele. It is the most prized honey of all as it is considered pure.

Good Yemeni honey is so highly prized that its possession is considered a status symbol in Yemen. Being offered honey when welcomed into a Yemeni home means you are an honoured guest.

Yemeni folk medicine prescribes the use of honey for a wide range of ailments. For example, when mixed with myrrh it is said to provide efficient relief from constipation, with carrot seeds it is an aphrodisiac, with various plants it can be used against epilepsy.

Husn Dhiban Masilah

Everywhere we go in Yemen, there are relics of fortifications from a bygone era, such as this fortress called Husn Dhiban Masilah from where the name Wadi Masilah has come to identify the remainder of the route to the sea.

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Aynat

Aynat was once one of the largest and most famous towns in the Wadi, but recurrent floods have gradually washed away crops, houses and small dams. Still left is the white qubbas of the cemetery. Being on the pilgrimage route, this has become a site of worship.

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The main tomb is that of Sheikh Abu Bakr bin Salim, and there are other tombs of important sada close by, with hundreds of ‘lesser’ graves scattered around.

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Women all in black with the conical hats so typical to Wadi Hadramawt tend to their goats along the road. The women object to being photographed, and will throw stones at the car if they spot us. The secret is to slow down as we approach, take a couple of shots with a long zoom lens and then speed up again before they realise what we are doing.

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Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhjair

The Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhajir (‘the immigrant’) is a place of pilgrimage and is especially popular with women pilgrims, as it is also the burial place of a sheikha – a holy woman. Ahmad Ibn Isa was the sayyid who re-established orthodox Islam in Wadi Hadramawt about 1200 years ago. Originally from Basra in Iraq, he made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and continued south to spread the Sunni orthodox branch of Islam. He was the seventh generation descendant of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.

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At ground level is a mosque and ablutions room, alongside which is the domed tomb. Steps lead up the lower slopes to another collection of tombs and graves, those of members of his family. Stuck to the inside of the tomb walls and ceiling are hundreds of little balls of thread, placed by pilgrims hoping to be blessed with good luck.

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Christmas Party!

We return to the hotel in Seyun for a Christmas Party (it is after all Christmas Day). This morning we were given gifts by Emad – the gents all had futas, the Yemeni dress of choice for most men. They all sport their new fashion items and pose willingly by the swimming pool.

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Emad has a special surprise for us for dinner – the chef has killed a goat for us and cooked it whole. Some people feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that it still very much looks like a goat, complete with legs, neck and tail. I think it’s delicious.

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Emad carves the goat for us, we have plenty of other food, and a bottle of Duty Free Vodka does the rounds at dinner. Although Yemen is a ‘dry country’ per se, it is not illegal to bring in alcohol for non-Muslims, a fact that we’d taken advantage of.

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Somehow Emad has managed to arrange for a few jugs of cocktails to be delivered from the tea shop in the centre of town. A very special surprise indeed.

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David learns how to sit cross-legged on the ground with the help of the band that is so often worn by the local men. Now we know what that is for! For someone who has never been able to sit like this before, not even in assembly at school, it is quite a revelation.

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Also arranged for us, is some local entertainment, some music and dancers.

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Knowing how conservative the Yemeni women normally are, not wishing to be seen in public and certainly not photographed, we conclude that this must be the Yemeni equivalent of a strip club. This is the first woman in Yemen we have seen with her face exposed, all others have been wearing the niqab or the full veil.

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As with any dance display in any country, there is audience participation.

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It has certainly been a Christmas Day to remember!

Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged travel palace cemetery party christmas yemen library hadramawt christmas_day middle_east hejab seyun tarim niqab Comments (0)

Cairo - Sana'a - Seyun

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Emad is true to his promise and is waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall at Sana’a airport, whisking us off to the hotel for a quick shower and change before rushing us back to the airport for our short flight to Seyun. Despite being rather bewildered and disorientated from the long flight, I am delighted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of Shibam - a place I have dreamt of visiting for forty years - through the window as we pass by. I pinch myself: “as we pass by? Is this really us, just ‘passing by’ Shibam?”

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Seyun airport is absolute chaos. The conveyor belt is one small linear strip ending in an awkward corner. As everyone crowds around the belt waiting for the bags to arrive, pandemonium ensues. Trying to leave the airport is like an obstacle course, and a few toes get damaged in the process. Outside, three of the four Landcruisers are waiting for us. The fourth one is still making his way to Seyun, as Emad sent the driver back to Sana’a to wait for us with the car in case we missed the flight. There is not enough room for all of us in the three cars, so Emad rides on the running board.

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The hotel in Seyun is much more luxurious than I expected. From the outside it has a traditional look, but inside it is modern, with large rooms including a sitting area, and there is a central courtyard with a swimming pool. We collapse straight into bed after a 51 hour journey from Bristol, and sleep until lunch.

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Despite being classed as a four-star hotel, the services at the Samah Hotel are rather sketchy. They don’t actually keep any food in the restaurant, if you want to eat; you need to order a few hours in beforehand so that they can get the stuff in. Having requested a camel stew when we arrived in the morning, it duly appears at lunchtime. It is the first proper meal we have had since leaving Bristol, but I am not hungry and leave most of it.

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This afternoon is billed as ‘Free Time’, but Emad has arranged an excursion in the Landcruisers for us. I don’t think there is much of interest around this area other than what’s in the itinerary, and I get the impression they are scratching around to find attractions for us. We start off at a cemetery to Mr Alnabi Handala Asofiri. Between 1204 and 1323 this was the capital of Wadi Hadramawt, controlling all this area pre-Seyun. Now it is just the cemetery for the village.

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This is where we get our first introduction to Qat, the drug of choice in Yemen. The drivers have to have their fix every afternoon, and we stop most days to get some. It is said that most Yemeni spend at least 50% of their meagre salaries on Qat.

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Popping a few green leaves in my mouth and starting to chew, it is hard to understand why. The first impression is that of chewing a privet hedge. It tastes like, well, leaves. I spit it out in frustration. My second attempt some days later is more successful and I experience the slight euphoria associated with the Qat chewing. I can’t say I think it looks good or that it gives me enough of a high to spend 50% of my income on it.

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There is an ancient well on the site too and we drop a stone into it to see how deep it is. It’s deep. We wander about the ruins for a while before heading back to the cars.

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The drivers have turned up the Yemeni music on their car stereos to full blast and three of them are dancing around by the cars, waving their Jambiyas (ceremonial daggers) in the air. This is the Yemeni equivalent of male bonding, and something we would see a lot of during our journey through Yemen.

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Jo is a good sport and joins in, borrowing a Jambiya for authenticity. She certainly looks the part.

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Yemen is still very much a tribal culture, and nearly every man and young lad we see, carries a Jambiya in his belt. The sheath is usually made from either silver or copper, or as here, in a colourful material, and the handle can be crafted from a variety of sources, including ivory, Rhino horn, leather, wood or animal bone. They come in different sizes and colour and are a man’s pride and joy.

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All around us the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The wadi (seasonal riverbed) is huge, with a flat fertile area surrounded by towering cliffs reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The view is exactly how I imagined it and hoped for. Wadi Hadramawt is the largest wadi in the Arabian Peninsula and runs for 160kms west to east. Over 200,000 people eke a living from this fertile land, whose wheat is said to be the best!

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Even today, the vast majority of the buildings in the area are made from mud bricks in a style unchanged for centuries. The tower houses are the invention of the Hadhramis, and all over the area you can find similar constructions.

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Winter is their dry season and the local builders take advantage of this and everywhere you can see the making of mud bricks. Wet mud is mixed with some straw for added strength and then spread out on the ground to harden.

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A wooden frame with a long handle is used to shape the bricks. The bricks will dry fairly quickly in the sun and different thickness of bricks are used for the different storeys of the building – thicker ones on the ground floor and thinner ones near the top.

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We visit a local project where they are hoping to turn an old building into a museum for tourists. Many men are working on the development, but our photos are spoilt by a truck in front of the building. Emad asks the builders to move the vehicle, and they oblige.

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Who needs Photoshop!

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Al Hawta Palace Hotel is the only first class hotel in the world to be built entirely of mud and clay, and its origins date back 150 years. As Yemen’s only Heritage Hotel, it is the best in the area and very expensive.

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The grounds are superb, like a little oasis in the desert, with the only lawns we saw in Yemen, trees, palms, beautiful flowering bougainvillea and a swimming pool. Oh to stay here.

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Back in Seyun we discover the delights of Yemen’s alcohol-free cocktail. Made from Mango juice, milk and a thick, red syrup called Vimto, it is substantial and smoothie-like.

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Photographing the Vimto bottle

One is not enough!

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As dusk falls, we take a walk around Seyun. Our walk coincides with the call to prayer, and we watch the people stream into the mosque after having performed their ablutions.

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I love this time of day when the light begins to fade and the artificial lights start to appear. I am particularly taken with the colours of this mausoleum, the Tomb of Habshi. This respected holy man died at the beginning of the 20th century, and his death is still celebrated by pilgrimages lasting ten days every year.

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Attached to the mausoleum is a Muslim graveyard, where non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

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The imposing Sultan’s Palace dominates the skyline of Seyun day and night, but is most impressive at dusk. The present shape of the buildings dates from the 1920s, with the outer wall added in the late 1980s.

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Many of the stores are open way into the evening, including this jeweller’s shop, barber and store selling Vimto! Yemen is a lot more touristy than I expected it to be; don’t get me wrong, it is by no means overrun with tourists, but I have seen more foreigners than I anticipated. Being the height of the season, we are likely to see more than at any other time of year I suppose, but I was not prepared for the number of touts selling souvenirs and other trinkets. Honey is very popular here in Yemen, but not something either of us like. Some of our party visit a shop where they are able to taste the different types of honey.

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Whilst the rest of the group goes off for a meal, we make our way back to the hotel to try and catch up on some much needed sleep. I notice the moon is very big and bright on the horizon, almost eerie. I take in the scene for a while before collapsing into a deep, peaceful sleep, to be woken up by Emad who has brought us back some takeaway fuul. What a kind man. We devour the bread and beans, having regained our appetite.

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While we were asleep earlier this evening, staff have decorated the central courtyard of the hotel for Christmas.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:09 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged mosque travel cemetery tourists yemen souvenirs wadi hadramawt barber seyun shibam camel_stew qat call-to-prayer fuul samah_hotel Comments (0)

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