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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)

Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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

White Marble Buildings

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

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

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

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Owadan Tourism

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

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

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

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

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

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

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

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

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Nisa

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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

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

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

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Museum

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

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

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

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

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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

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

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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

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

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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

Flag

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

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

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Arch of Neutrality

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

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

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

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Wedding Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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