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Entries about central asia

Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell


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

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

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

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Discussing Plan B

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

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

Pharmacy

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

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

Konya-Urgench

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

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

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

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Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

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

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

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

He does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The tomb chamber

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

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This drawing shows you how.

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Kutlug Timur Minaret

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

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

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

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

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum

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

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum

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

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Kufic Arabic letters

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

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

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

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

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Lunch

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

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Desert Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darwaza Gas Crater

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

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

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

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

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The back story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We get a chance to taste it as well.

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

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

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

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

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Chez nous on the right

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

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

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

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The kitchen and dining area

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Vegetable soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.

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

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 and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
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As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

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

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

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

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

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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

White Marble Buildings

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

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

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

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Owadan Tourism

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

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

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

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

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

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

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

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

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Nisa

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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

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

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

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Museum

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

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

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

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

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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

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

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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

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

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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

Flag

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

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

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Arch of Neutrality

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

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

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

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Wedding Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol - Gatwick - Dubai - Ashgabat

We're on our way


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

At this point I will admit that I put very little thought into this trip. It was only much later it became obvious that at the time of booking, I was a little scatterbrained, my mind still very foggy following my dad's death. I would have done some things slightly differently if I had really thought about it, but more about that as we go along.

There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to go to Turkmenistan:

1. The main draw was the “Gates of Hell” burning gas crater that I had seen photos of some years ago and really wanted to visit.

2. I was in need of a 'proper adventure' after a few 'vanilla' trips recently – I wanted my trip to be a voyage of discovery, not a ritual of reassurance.

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Getting very excited when seeing a group tour advertised on line, I asked our agent Undiscovered Destinations if they could arrange something similar as a private tour for the two of us. Turkmenistan is a highly regulated country, akin to North Korea in many ways, and independent tourists are not permitted to enter: you have to travel with a tour company.

After a few minor adjustments to the itinerary, I booked it, flight inclusive as I didn't have the time, nor the inclination to sort out logistics myself.

It wasn't until I started to read up about the places we were going to visit that I realised just how much the country has to offer and how incredibly unique it is. Even Undiscovered Destinations, who obviously (from their name) arrange tours to some pretty unusual places, claim that “this is one of our most exciting trips”.

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What I learned about Turkmenistan before I left:

With only 7,000 visitors a year, it ranks as the 7th least visited country in the world.

Turkmenistan is one of the richest countries in the region as they have the 4th biggest natural gas reserve on earth.

The country is 3.5 times the size of England and slightly larger than California, with a mere 6 mill inhabitants.

Fewer than 1% have (highly censored) internet access, with all social media and mainstream news channels banned. Even my chiropractor's website was blocked!

90% of the workforce are employed by the government

80% of the country is covered in desert

The country's first president after independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov, made a number of demands as part of his dictatorship:

Banning:
lip syncing at public concerts
recorded music at weddings
dogs from the capital
long hair and beards on men
TV presenters wearing make-up
opera, ballet and circuses
gold teeth (very popular at one time in Central Asia)
cars not registered in Ashgabat from entering the city
any cars that are not white from the capital

Renaming:
the word for bread with the name of his mother
names of the months based on other family members
days of the week
a meteorite
the airport
cities
a breed of horse
a canal

He also closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat, as well as the libraries, stating that the people only need two books: the Quran and the book he wrote himself (the Ruhnama, a spiritual guide made mandatory reading in school. Knowledge of the book was also required in order to get a driving licence).

He also decreed that all public buildings in the capital should be made of white marble – the city now holds the Guinness World Record for the most white marble buildings in any capital city (5 million cubic metres of marble mostly imported from Italy)

Continue reading if you'd like to find out how my pre-trip perceptions match up with reality.

In order to enter the country, we needed a letter of invitation, a pre-booked guided tour and a visa.

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As I mentioned earlier, my planning was a little off for this trip, and it wasn't until a couple of weeks before we were going that I realised that the flight was very early from Gatwick the morning after the opening night at my camera club. Normally we'd go up to the airport the night before and book into a hotel, but as I am the chairman of the local camera club, I felt I really ought to be there for the first meeting of the season. Hence we're up at 02:00 and on the road by 03:00.

At least Gatwick Airport is quiet at this time in the morning, with no queue for check in at Emirates. That is fuddled brain quandary number two – as we are flying with Emirates, why did we not try to get a flight from Heathrow? Even more perplexing – as we found out through a Facebook post - is that there are direct flights from Birmingham to Ashgabat five time a week. Really? With only 7,000 tourists a year (and only a small number of those would be British), and not a great deal of trade between the two countries; how can they fill those planes?

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Anyway, we are here now, and there is nothing we can do about it. The lady on the check-in desk insists that we take our bags to the 'Oversized Luggage' counter as they have wheels on them. Really? Those bags have travelled on three dozen flights already without their wheels being called into question; several on them on Emirates. Who are we to argue with her logic, so we do as asked.

The main terminal and eating area is very, very busy, and we struggle to find a table in any of the restaurants for breakfast. Eventually we unintentionally queue-jump in the Sonoma restaurant, by arriving from a different direction than the main entrance (where there are around a dozen or more people waiting). I do feel a little guilty when I realise, but not guilty enough to give up my seat.

London – Dubai

The first flight goes without incident or excitement, and we find ourselves with a long walk to the food court at Dubai T3, where we grab something to eat at the Hard Rock Café.

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Beef Sliders

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Pulled lamb roll with a delicious kale and beetroot salad, coleslaw and chutney

We spend some time chatting to the very friendly Brazilian waitress who promises to cook for me if I ever make it back to Brazil.

Dubai - Ashgabat

We have plenty of time here at the airport, but once we have bought our Duty Free rum for pre-dinner drinks in the room, we decide to move on to the gate for our next flight and just chill.

Heading for the Connections board, we check out the gate details for flight EK2214 at 23:55.

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No sign of the flight. This is rather worrying. Gate F7 is printed on our boarding card and was showing on the Connections board as we stepped off the previous flight, but now it seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

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When asking the lady at the Information stand for confirmation about our gate and she is unable to find it on the system using her tablet, and asks for our boarding cards instead, we really do start to get a little concerned. Has the flight been cancelled?

We follow the directions she gives us (a very long and convoluted route including a train and numerous escalators up and down) and finally see the arrows point to F Gates, but nowhere to get through the barriers or the X-ray machines which are all for arrivals, not departures. We ask the man at the end of one of the security lines. He points us through the opposite direction X-ray arch (which beeps but they still wave me though), and when we get the other side we have to move some barriers in order to continue. Eventually we make it to where we see an affirmative sign for F gates.

There is a bus to take us to the departure lounge (which is in the other terminal), but the doors from the waiting area refuse to open until someone with a key comes along. Stepping outside, it's like stepping into an oven at 36 °C, and we are grateful for the A/C bus. We now embark on a sightseeing tour of Dubai Airport. Driving around, under, and across the runways, we regularly have to stop and wait for planes to cross, and by the time we get to the actual gate, the bus journey has taken us 25 minutes.

Much to our relief, we see F7 with our flight mentioned as soon as we enter T1. Phew. The flight is just starting to board (there was us thinking we had a lot of time to waste), and a long queue has formed. An official is shouting “One line please, one line” over and over again, but organising the passengers is like herding cats. He spots us, and beckons us over. We, and four other westerners, are taken to the front of the queue and led on to the bus first. Much as it is nice to be treated like VIPs, this sort of cringeworthy segregation always make me feel uncomfortable.

This bus journey takes a mere ten minutes, but we spend a further 15 minutes waiting for the plane to be ready for boarding. We are in the row behind the Emergency Exit, and the plane is not full. The chap next to David has bought a huge display of chocolates on a wooden tray with legs, about the size of a dustbin lid (for those of you who can remember the old fashioned dustbins), and a good 18” tall. It won't go in the overhead locker. He therefore places it on one of the emergency exit seats. The air steward tries to explain that it has to go on a spare seat (but NOT on the exit row), and in the window, not the aisle; and that he has to strap it in and sit next to it; or it goes in the hold. He does not understand, or maybe chooses not to understand. The 'discussion' goes on for at least ten minutes, and finally he walks down the aisle with the display and comes back without it.

The ladies behind us are talking extremely loudly and when the announcements come on, they just up the volume to drown it out. There is a constant sound of cellotape being torn and applied, and a chaotic battle for the overhead lockers. We eventually leave 20 minutes late. As soon as the flight has taken off, the chocolate-man goes back down the plane to retrieve his display and places it in the emergency exit seats again. The same crew member comes over and the argument starts all over again. And again. And again. Eventually he reluctantly returns the chocolates to the back of the plane and sits down in the emergency exit row for the rest of the flight (which we find rather annoying as David asked if he could move there but was told he had to pay extra for the privilege).

As expected, as soon as the plane touches the ground in Ashgabat, we hear the sound of seatbelts being unclipped, and seconds later 95% of the passengers are standing in the aisle (while the plane is still moving) despite repeated announcements asking for them to sit down. I swear the pilot makes a couple of deliberate jerky stops, sending the offending passengers tumbling.

Ashgabat Airport is clean, bright and very modern. At the Visa counter we hand over our passports and are given a printed form in return which we take over to the cashier at another window.

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Once we have paid our dues - US$109 for me and US$129 for David, we are given back the form and return to the first counter where the visa is now issued.

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Armed with the visa, we are totally taken aback when we are faced with automatic passport control stands like they have in some airports in the US. Wow! I really didn't expect that. We still have to go to a manned booth too, but it all seems to be a formality and we are soon in the luggage hall awaiting our bags. A number of locals have enormous amounts of luggage, including the lady in front of me at customs. Like so many places throughout the world, there is an X-ray on entry to the country, and she has been asked to open her huge cardboard box. Inside there must a hundred pairs of trainers. All white. I am beckoned to bypass her, and I am whisked through without even as much as a peek. I had been warned that I would have to show them all my medicines as they have a very strict policy of drugs – we were sent a complete list of 249 banned drugs with our booking confirmation – and I have heard of other travellers who have been asked to produce the original prescription for certain pain killers. The customs officials didn't even mention drugs to us – they barely looked up from their screen.

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A last cursory glance at the passports and luggage tickets, and we are out. Or is that in? Maylis is waiting for us just the other side of the barriers, and leads us to the car park. As I said earlier, all the cars in Ashgabat are white, and finding our driver is proving a little difficult.

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After a short ten minute journey we arrive at the Grand Turkmen Hotel, check in and collapse into bed. It is now 04:30. Welcome to Turkmenistan: our 141st country and the last of the 15 ex-USSR states we've visited.

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged travel flights aircraft hard_rock_cafe emirates_airlines dubai_airport turkmenistan gatwick central_asia undiscovered_destinations visa_application visa_on_arrival check_in flydubai fly_dubai ashgabat_airport grand_turkmen_hotel Comments (14)

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