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Mary - Ashgabat

The beginning of the end


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I had another dreadful night last night, with terrible insomnia, and when I did nod off, I was plagued with horrendous nightmares. But at least my upset tummy does seem considerably better this morning.

We try to check in on line for our flights home tomorrow, but get an error message saying “request failed, unable to access your details, please visit our desk at the airport”.

It's the last leg of our journey through Turkmenistan today, making our way back to Ashgabat. We start by trying to find a petrol station that sells 95 Octane petrol, but have to settle for 92 in the end.

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An enormous yurt leftover from the Nowruz celebrations in March (Persian New Year)

The roads are straight, there is very little traffic, the scenery is flat, with no trees, only small shrubs. It is all so, so, so, so dull, and I soon drift off into a lovely snooze, only to wake up when we arrive in the town of Tejen, where we are stopping for lunch.

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As we get out of the car, the heat hits me like a slap in the face; after the efficient A/C inside the vehicle, it comes like a shock!

Ak Öyli Restaurant

Made out to look like a yurt camp, albeit one that is sheltered from the strong sun by a make-shift roof, this place offers an option of eating inside one of the yurts, or on tables at the back. We choose the latter, for two reasons: the yurts have no seating, but serve the food on rugs on the floor; and the heat inside the yurts is stifling compared with the outside where there is at least a little cooling breeze. We are also able to sit on chairs at a table, which is essential with David's poorly leg.

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I order some kefir, in the hope that it will be good for my stomach.

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The reason Meylis and Artem have stopped here, is that the restaurant specialises in the local dish known as 'manty' – a dumpling similar to the kinkali in Georgia, momos in India and the Chinese gao.

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I check the thermometer as we get back into the car; and it starts off at 36 °C, and continues to rise as we carry on towards Ashgabat, soon reaching 43 °C. No wonder I was feeling hot and bothered.

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Having been complaining through the trip at the lack of vegetables served with meals in the restaurants, I am not surprised to see that even at the huge fresh produce market, there appears to be a total lack of vegetables for sale – the only ones we see, are a couple of stalls with squash.

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Sand Storm

Suddenly a huge wind blows up, bringing with it sand from the desert and reducing the visibility considerably.

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Tumble-weed blowing across from the desert makes it look like a scene from a film, and when a whole load of camels stroll down the road, that scene becomes even more bizarre.

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Maylis was planning on stopping at the Silk Road site of Abywerd, a hitherto unexcavated Bronze Age settlement. At the moment it consists mainly of 180 earthen mounds, and Meylis figured it would be too windy to be worth a stop, with all the sand blowing everywhere in the desert.

We are very close to the Iranian border here, we can see their flag in the distance, and I receive a “Welcome to Iran” text on my phone.

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You can just about make out the flag in the dust storm

As we get nearer to Ashgabat, the wind seems to drop, and the air becomes clearer.

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Ärtogrul Gazy Mosque

Built in 1993, this was the first mosque constructed after Turkmenistan's independence from the Soviet Union as a gift by the Turkish government and became a symbol of freedom and virtue. It is named after Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire.

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Reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul (especially the view from the rear, which we did not see); this, the largest mosque in Ashgabat, can accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers at a time. We see two.

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It is said that the lack of worshippers dates back to a bad reputation acquired during its construction, when several unexplained deaths occurred. This has resulted in making some people believe that there is a dark force connected to the mosque, bringing misfortune to those attending prayers.

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Inside the mosque there is a large courtyard with a fountain, and its prayer hall abounds with paintings, gilding and stained glasses.

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We stop nearby to pick up some take-away samsa for dinner – Artem has to drive to Darwaza this evening after dropping us off, to pick up some tourists who came in from Uzbekistan. We are more than happy to have another room picnic this evening.

Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex

For our very last stop of the day – and indeed that of the tour – Meylis takes us to a memorial site known as 'People's Memory' on a hillside overlooking Ashgabat.

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The entrance is grand, and with the late afternoon sun reflecting off the gilded arch, it looks like the roof is on fire.

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The complex consists of three separate memorials, and was officially opened on Turkmenistan Memorial Day in 2014.

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Ruhy Tagzym
Ruhy Tagzym is the most remarkable monument of the three, and is dedicated to the victims of the 1948 earthquake in which 90% of the Ashgabat population died. It is a bronze sculpture depicting a huge bull, supporting the Earth on his mighty horns.

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Ancient legends tell of a bull holding the earth, with earthquakes caused when the bull shakes his horn and its deep bellowing being the underground rumbles; the monument symbolises the deep impression left on Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov by the disaster, in which he was orphaned.

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It's a poignant sculpture, giving a vivid description of the situation during the earthquake. We see bodies coming out of the cracks of the earth; and what is said to be Niyazov's mother's desperate last attempt at saving her son, holding him over the rubble of the city.

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Baky şöhrat
Also known as the Eternal Glory Monument to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War (a term used in Russia and some other former republics of the Soviet Union to describe the conflict fought between 1941 and 1945 along the the Eastern Front of World War II, primarily between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany)

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Five tall steles with a base in the form of an eight-pointed star (the symbol of Turkmenistan, taken from the Islamic Star Rub el Hizb) surround the eternal flame.

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Milletiň ogullari
The Sons of the Nation monument is to remember the heroes who died during the battle near Geok Depe; as well as commemorating those who fell in other battles for the Motherland. It depicts a mother waiting for her husband and sons.

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Along the walls of the Museum of Remembrance are friezes with scenes from the conflict in Turkmenistan from 1879 to 1881, known as The Battle of Geok Tepe.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

After two weeks on the road together, it is sad to say goodbye to our driver Artem, who, despite the language barrier, has become a very good friend. Meylis, however, will be taking us to the airport the day after tomorrow.

The hotel only has wifi in the lobby, so while we are in the reception, we check out our emails and find we have received an message from Mark at Undiscovered Destinations, which includes our boarding cards! It seems our attempt at checking in for our flights on line this morning worked, but I guess that as Mark was the one who booked the flights for us, they were sent to him rather than us. Oh well, it's all good.

Our room features two very nice and comfortable chairs, but the A/C is not working. Reception send up an engineer to try and fix it, but he tells us it is "kaput”. He speaks no English and just walks away, so we prepare ourselves for a very hot night. Not long after, however, a porter arrives to take our luggage to a different room. Oh good.

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David's leg is no better

The new room, however, is very much inferior to the first one, and indeed to the one we stayed in at the start of the trip. There is only one chair, the room smells heavily of smoke, there is no carpet covering the bare floor boards, a tiny TV, just old and rough brown blankets covering the hard single beds with no fancy bedspread, only one bottle of complimentary water, one bedside light, and one set of towels. But at least it's cool! I get the distinct impression this is either part of the drivers' quarters, or an emergency room. We complain to reception, who inform us that they have no more twin rooms. Really?

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We are too tired to argue, so we eat the samsa we bought earlier, washed down with vodka and Coke, and go to sleep.

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Yet again Undiscovered Destinations have arranged a fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:13 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque memorial sculpture road destinations camels mary petrol silk earthquake islam dumpling wwii yurt nowruz ashgabat insomnia antibiotics central_asia manty undiscovered nightmares grand_turkmen_hotel geok_depe ex_ussr turkmeninstan ärtogrul_gazy_mosque kefir sand_storm iranian_border iranian_flag airport-check_in tejen ak_öyli_restauranthot milletiň_ogullari baky_şöhrat eternal_flame ruhy_tagzym halk_hakydasy_memorial_complex samsa Comments (1)

Türkmenabat - Mary

Not a good start


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

Having taken an early night last night, I wake up with a jolt at 01:30, panicking that I can't breathe and sit bolt upright in bed. Feeling extremely nauseous, I quickly rush to the bathroom, only to stumble straight from the bed into the wall opposite. By now I feel totally disorientated, unsure of where I am and what is happening; I am still struggling to breathe as I finally make my way to the bathroom to be sick.

I stumble back into bed, too knocked out to worry about anything, and slip into a deep and seriously disturbed nightmare. Half an hour later, I find myself back in the bathroom bending over the toilet to be sick. This cycle goes on for the rest of the night, with ghastly dreams and hallucinations worthy of any Stephen King horror film. By morning I feel like a wrung-out dish cloth, and after the night-from-hell, I decide to look up some information about the tablets I took last night.

Easier said than done. The writing is in Cyrillic (interestingly enough, they are produced in India), and I received no leaflets or information with them, not even a box. The pharmacist spoke no English, and the instructions she gave Meylis were scant.

My first port of call is Wikipedia to translate the Cyrillic characters into Roman letters, then I use Google to access information about the medicine.

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It seems I am taking Tinidazole and Ciprofloaxacin. I have plenty of experience with the latter, so it can only be the Tinidazole that has affected me. Further research discovers that the list of side effects basically described my gruesome experience step by step. Only coma evaded me last night – or at least as far as I know.

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I then read on and discover that my rum and coke in the room and beer in the restaurant most likely exaggerated my malaise last night.

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“...unpleasant side effects...” is the understatement of the year!

Breakfast

We wander across to take the lift from our room on the 2nd floor up to the 4th floor for the restaurant. The lift door closes, we press the button, and the lift drops six inches then kaput. After pressing a few more buttons, with the lift refusing to budge, we (thankfully) manage to open the doors and walk up the stairs.

The lift in this hotel takes a little getting used to – we are in room 102, which is on the first floor as far as British people are concerned but the second floor in Turkmen terms (and Norwegian). For those not in the know, in Britain we talk about the main lower floor as 'ground floor', the one above that is 'first floor', the next one 'second floor' and so on. In Turkmenistan (which is also what I grew up with), the lower floor is called 'first floor', the one above 'second floor' and so on. The lift seems to be confused between the two different ways of denoting floors: the push button for our floor says 1, whereas the LED display above the door when we get there, displays 2. The first time we went up in the lift, we ended up on the floor above us and had to walk back down again.

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Like the rooms, the restaurant is also simplistic modern, but with a white grand piano; and the waiter arrives climbing in through the window. Obviously.

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To start, we are served pancakes with a thick opaque liquid which appears to be some sort of syrup or toffee sauce; with brightly coloured bread rolls.

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The main part of the breakfast is the usual meat, cheese and eggs, served with olives, tomatoes and cucumber.

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Every bar and restaurant we have been to in Turkmenistan have been showing highly sexualised music videos on huge TV screens, even at breakfast time!

Cotton

Having changed our itinerary as a result of David's leg injury, we are heading back to Mary today, passing through areas with cotton plantation, something that is a bit of a curiosity to me.

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Wedding

We also come across a wedding cavalcade with both western style decorations and one with a lot more local flair.

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Merv

We see remnants of the 15th century walls of this famed Silk Road oasis long before we reach the main archaeological site.

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Merv, a definite highlights of this trip, was one of the most important cities of the Silk Road, and served as the capital of a number of empires and kingdoms over the course of its more than 4,000-year-long history.

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Greater Kyz Kala Fortress.
Locally known as the Maiden Castle, as a result of the hair pin found here during excavations, whereas tourists have colloquially named it the Tiramisu Fort on account of the sides being reminiscent of the finger biscuits used in the famous dessert. The corrugated look is in fact designed to prevent erosion. It has obviously worked!

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It is believed that the Kiskala was built in the 7th century AD, when the Arabs invaded Merv, reinforced by the discovery of Arab coins. National Geographic suggests it was used as an elite rural residence. The structure is the largest ancient monumental köshk (castle mansion) in Central Asia

Lesser Kyz Kala
Known as the 'Boys Palace', legend tells that young men wishing to marry the girl of their dreams should use a slingshot to fire an apple from this much smaller castle, for the girl to catch it in the Maiden Castle. Given the distance between the two, it is no wonder the city died out.

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There are plans to restore and reconstruct this UNESCO Heritage site, and we can see a number of mud bricks ready to be used.

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Gäwürgala Town Walls
Reputed to be founded by Alexander the Great, Merv first became a significant centre under the Achaemenian Empire in the 3rd Millennium BC, and It was subsequently ruled by the Sassanids, Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Persians. It was from Merv in the 8th century that Abu Muslim proclaimed the start of the Abbasid revolution. At the height of its importance as the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, it was a vital centre of learning. Here Omar Khayyam worked on his celebrated astronomical tables. Meylis points out where each of the rulers have left their mark, sometimes through extensions of the same construction.

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By the 12th century, Merv was the largest city in the world. At this point I have to admit my ignorance, and confess that until I started researching for our trip to Turkmenistan, I had never herd of Merv. As one article states, it is “one of the most famous cities you’ve (probably) never heard of.” Archaeologists have found evidence in this older Merv of a cosmopolitan urban society, boasting communities of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, Christians and Jews.

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But only a decades later, in 1221, Tolui Khan, the fourth son of the notorious conqueror Genghis Khan, entered the city with his Mongol army. Tolui promptly ordered his soldiers to kill every single one of Merv’s inhabitants after they refused to pay tribute to the great Mongol warlord. In all, it’s said the devastating Mongol destruction of Merv left between 700,000 and 1 million people dead, including several hundred thousand refugees that had been seeking shelter nearby and were swept up in the carnage.

The hole in the wall you can see in the image below was created during the devastating attack by the Mongol army.

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Abdullah Khan Kala
Not much remains of the fortress erected by Timur's son Shāh Rukh in the 15th cent. In its heyday, it was covered with mud bricks on the outside, with 44 watch towers. The fortifications were surrounded by huge water filled moats up to 30 m wide, with the only drawbridges in Central Asia at that time.

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Tombs of the two Askhabs
The Askhabs were 'standard bearers' of the Prophet Mohammed. The 7th century tombs belong to al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Gifari on the left, while the larger toms is that of Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Aslami, who was the first Arab to arrive in Merv in 651, to convert the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Persians to Islam. At the time, Merv was known as 'The City of Infidels'

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The two large portals (known as iwans) behind the tombs are much newer, constructed by Shāh Rukh (Tamerlane's son) in the 15th century.

We are both really feeling the heat this morning. While the thermometer in the car says a mere 36 °C, it feels more like 46 °C. Keep drinking that water, girl, keep drinking!

Sardoba
Built in 1140, the underground reservoir, designed to keep water cool, has been lovingly restored. The original dome was clad in blue tiles, reported to be visible a day’s march away.

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Restored bricks

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We can just about make out water at the bottom

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Detail on the original stucco

The Tomb of Hodja Yusuf Hamadani
Born in 1048, Hamadani is regarded as one of the founders of Sufism. He died in 1140 on the way between Herat and Merv, after which his body was was carried to the city and buried here.

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The mosque was built in his honour in the 16th century by the Timurids and was one of the very few mosques in Turkmenistan that was allowed to operate, albeit under tight control, during the Soviet period.

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This site is one of the most important places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan, and we see members of the Buluk tribe, who are refugees from Pakistan. While illegal, they apparently live peacefully in the village by bribing officials.

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Local people are very superstitious, and many come here to make a wish for a new car, more money, better job, good health etc, by placing bricks leaning against each other, much as western people may create spiritual rock cairns.

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Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar
Hailed by UNESCO as a “unique artistic and architectural achievement comparable in importance to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Taj Mahal”, the mausoleum is also known as Dar-al-Akhyre (" The Other World").

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The Sultan, who died in 1157, is revered as 'Alexander the Great of his time', and the mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage of thousands of believers and a main tourist attraction, yet we have the place to ourselves.

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Unusually, the mausoleum was built while he was still alive, and was restored in 2002 by the Turkish government as a gift to Turkmenistan. The building would have originally stood, not in its current isolation, but as part of a complex of religious buildings, including the city’s main mosque. The monument's foundations and walls were built so strongly that Mongol invaders were unable to destroy the tomb even after setting it ablaze.

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The tomb prior to restoration

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Stele commemorating the Turkish efforts in the restoration

The cenotaph on the floor of the mausoleum was a 19th-century addition, and is not the tomb of Sultan Sanjar.

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There is a legend attached to Sultan Sanjar (oh, how I love such legends!). Despite never having seen her, but having heard all about her great beauty, Sanjar fell in love with a girl known as Peri (the name for a Persian supernatural being). Upon asking her to marry him, she stipulates three conditions:

1. You are not allowed to watch me walk or look at my feet.
2. You may not watch me comb my hair
3. You must not hug me

One day when Sanjar opens the door, he accidentally spots her walking, and it appears that her feet do not touch the ground. When curiosity gets the better of him and he later opens the door again, the Peri is combing her hair, having removed her head from her body. As soon as she spots him, she puts her head back. Dismayed by these revelations, the Sultan exclaims “I don't care how you are, I want you!” and promptly embraces her, only to find her body is devoid of bones.

With the Sultan having broken all three rules, the Peri immediately turns into a dove, soaring high in the sky. Sanjar tearfully begged her: "I shall die if I don't see you again”, to which she replied: “in order to see me, you must construct a building with an opening in the dome so I can fly in; then come every Friday to see me”.

Sultan Sanjar promptly started construction of the building which was later to become his mausoleum, and every Friday devotees still come to see the Peri, in the incarnation of a dove, fly through the structure.

Despite today not being a Friday, we are delighted to spot a dove flying in through the hole in the roof; although I wasn't quick enough to grab a photo.

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The sheer size of the city and its ruins makes Merv among the most impressive and complex archaeological sites on Earth, and there is so much more to see. Artem has been driving us all around the walls, rather than David trying to walk on his poorly leg. It is now time to head back to Mary and a free afternoon for David to rest that leg.

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Meylis is trying to persuade us to stay one more night here in Mary, and then travel from here straight to the airport for our flight home, partly because he really likes it here, and partly because he is concerned that he'll be immediately sent off with more tourists on another trip if he returns to Ashgabat tomorrow. Our flight home is in the evening the day after tomorrow, and it would undoubtedly be better for David to rest his leg up in the hotel in Ashgabat before the long flight rather than to sit in the car for several hours that day. We therefore decide to stick to Plan B and move on tomorrow (Plan A was to go trekking in the far north east of the country, obviously totally out the question as a result of David's injury).

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Modern bus shelter in front of a Soviet style apartment block in Mary

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I love the fact that the bus shelters are fully air conditioned to deal with the hot Central Asian summers

Aladdin Café

But first, lunch. We head back to the Aladdin café near our hotel in Mary, with its great food, reasonable prices and good atmosphere.

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We get all this, plus 1.5 litres of Fanta (most restaurants in Turkmenistan do not have small bottles or cans of pop, only these big ones), bread and watermelon for less than $30. With prices like these, which are cheap for us, but expensive for the locals, we have been paying for Artem and Meylis' meals every day.

After a much welcomed snooze, we have a room picnic this evening, also known as 'Delsey Dining' after the famous suitcase, once the luggage-of-choice for any self-respecting air crew who would often bring foods with them from home to eat in the room, and pocket their daily dining allowance. No alcohol for me today, though – I don't want to go through that experience again tonight thank you very much!

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One of the main benefits of eating in the room tonight is that David is able to elevate his leg, which seems to be turning more purple by the minute.

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Even without alcohol, I start to struggle with my breathing, develop hot flushes, and the diarrhoea has returned this evening, despite staying away all day. It does seem that the body knows when there are no toilets around, such as in Merv this morning. Like most other hotel rooms we've stayed in, this one only offers one nearly empty spare toilet roll.

Many thanks to Undiscovered Destinations who have yet again arranged a fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:18 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque ruins tomb muslim unesco greek dome pilgrimage mary archaeology ancient_city vodka mausoleum zoroastrian islam cotton dove pharmacy turks superstition wikipedia lift turkmenistan legend refugees tiramisu cyrillic merv silk_road cipro arabs antibiotics reservoir medicines peri stucco central_asia mongols undiscovered_destinations turkmenabat wedding_cars nightmares room_picnic leg_injury aladdin_café sardoba -ex_soviet bruising google_translate tinidazole ciproflaxin ciprofloaxacin dizzy side_effects grand_piano cotton_plantations kyz_kala omar_kayyam achaemenian_empire sassanids persians abu_muslim seljuk tolui_khan ghengis_khan mongol_sacking mongol_army andullah_khan_kaka askhabs ice_house sufism hodje_yusuf_hamadini timurids rock_cairns sultan_sanjar delsey_dining Comments (2)

Mary City Sightseeing

A leisurely day


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

Despite being up three times in the night, I managed to get nine hours sleep last night. I still feel tired though.

After a breakfast of egg, salami and bread, we head out to explore the town of Mary.

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As in Ashgabat, everything seems to be white and gold here too.

Mary Museum

The map shows the different areas of Turkmenistan, and Meylis points out the route we took across the desert. All the images from the museum are taken without flash, and from behind glass, so are mostly of very poor quality.

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The first part of the museum is dedicated to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the current leader of Turkmenistan, featuring photographic evidence about his super-powers, with such amazing qualities and abilities, such as football, tennis cycling, horse riding, rally driving, target shooting, martial arts, running, cooking, cotton picker, factory worker, even a qualified surgeon!

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The next section is a display of the animals found in this region.

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7th century lamps found at Merv archaeological site

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14th century jewellery featuring serdolik stones

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Sugar and tea - essential trade items along the famed Silk Road

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Gold medal from 5th Asian Games

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Weighlifting medals

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Viktor Sariyanidi, the man who discovered Gonur Depe archaeological site

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Painting using just red and white colours by A Akyyev called Guljemal Khan

A number of dioramas show traditional life in Turkmenistan.

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Showing the traditional bread oven

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Needles for making holes in the bread

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Traditional Central Asian felt making

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A traditional Turkmen wedding

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Desert hunting dogs - still used today. No weapons are allowed while hunting, only dogs

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Traditional yurt

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Inside the yurt

The most interesting section of the museum, to me, is the part dedicated to the items found during excavations of Gonur Depe, the archaeological site we visited yesterday. These exhibits completely blow my mind – it is almost incomprehensible to take in the fact that they are FOUR THOUSAND years old!

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It is believed that life ended in Gonur Depe as the river changed course and deprived the inhabitants of a water source. As they left, they practised the scorched earth policy, setting fire to the town before departure.

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How historians believe the people of Gonur Depe looked like.

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Model of Gonur Depe in its heyday

While the items unearthed at Merw – which we will be visiting tomorrow – are nowhere near as old as they ones from Gonur Depe, they depict a rich mix of cultures as Merw was known as the heart of the Silk Road.

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The intriguing mythical bull figure

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Artistic interpretation of Merw

Mary Library

We leave the museum to explore more of the town of Mary. The roof of the library opens up to reveal tulip-type petals, hiding a powerful telescope. This is a nod to the famous Observatory in ancient Merw, where dozens of scientists, including Omar Khayyam studied the universe.

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The library holds three million books and can accommodate 600 readers at any one time. It was opened in 2011 and cost $36 million to build. The library is a reminder that Merw was famous for the world's largest library that was once the centre of science, education and culture.

Gurbanguly Hajji Mosque

The mosque was renovated during Ramadan last year, replacing the previous orange dome with the current gilded version.

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The prayer hall can hold 3,000 male worshippers, with a further 2,000 women on the second floor. Unlike the previous mosques we have visited, where the writing has been in the local Turkmen language, here the scripts are all in traditional Islamic calligraphy.

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The beautiful dome

Pokrovskaya Russian Orthodox Church

The church was built around 1900 by Russian forces after they seized the city in 1884 and guarded it against frequent attacks by British forces and Afghan armies.

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Following the Russian Revolution and the Establishment of the Soviet Union, religious freedoms were curtailed and by the 1930s, the church was closed, the priest executed, the cross torn down, and the building repurposed as a club and later a military warehouse. The church returned to its original function in 1947, following the end of World War II, though religious activities remained tightly controlled under Stalin's officially atheist regime.

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Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was atheism no longer encouraged by the state. Following the breakup of the USSR, the various Republics were free to form their own religious policies. In Turkmenistan, the Russian Orthodox church is officially recognized as about 3% of the population are Orthodox believers.

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Just like Doubting Thomas, devotees touch the crucified feet of Jesus, as can be seen by the flaking worn-out paint.

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Outside the church we encounter a group of beggars, the first we've seen on this trip. I ask Meylis if I can give them something, and how much. He suggests 10 manat (less than £3), and that I tell them to “deletes”, which means share. They appear very grateful. (bad photo from inside the car as we drive off)

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Aladdin Café
Today's lunch restaurant, located near our hotel, is a funky retro-style café (Turkmenistan's answer to the Hard Rock Café chain) with quirky charm and good, mostly Turkish, food.

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Tavuk Döş – a tasty and tender chicken dish, here shown with Dymok, a smoked vegetable salsa

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Karişik Pide – Turkish pizza with minced lamb

Shopping

After lunch Meylis takes us to the supermarket for 'essential supplies' for a room picnic this evening. We buy some local wine (against Meylis' advice – he says it is “no good”. I always like to try local food and drink, so at just $2, I take a chance), cheese and various snacks. I am out or rum, so we look at the Bacardi in the wine store, but when we compare the price of the imported rum (460 manat, a very steep £100) against that of the local vodka at 26 manat (just over £5), it's a bit of a no-brainer. The supermarket, like many other shops in this part of the world, has no small coins, so gives us back sweets and chewies in lieu of change.

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We continue to the pharmacy for a cold spray for David's leg. The only thing they can offer is a cream, and he gets headache tablets as change.

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Free afternoon

Back in the room we find that there has been no maid service while we have been out, which means there is no toilet paper. We anticipated a shortage, as this seems to have been the norm so far on this trip, so we bought some earlier in the grocery store.

Having ended up with a bit more time here in Mary than anticipated due to the change of itinerary after David hurt his leg, there is nothing planned for us for the rest of this afternoon. There are no book stores nearby, nor a hotel shop, and I didn't bring my kindle, any books or magazines, as I didn't expect to have any time to read them. Most western websites are banned – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, BBC and other news outlets, even my chiropractor's site is unavailable. I can get gmail, that's my only way of keeping in touch with the outside world, and the VPN I purchased before leaving home, is not working either. There is a pool, but neither of us brought swim wear. Not only can David barely walk, it is also over 40 °C outside , so exploring the surrounding area on foot is out of the question. A snooze it is then.

Room Picnic

Our room here in Mary is spacious and well furnished, perfect for a room picnic. Using my sarong as a tablecloth and the lids of our Tupperware containers as plates, plus we always bring plastic tumblers and sporks (combined spoon+knife+fork) – we are well equipped.

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As always, we have bought way too much food, and also some surprising stuff – what we thought was a savoury snack, turns out to be sugar puff cereal! Oh well.

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David's doorstep cheese sandwich!

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The wine. What can I say about the wine? It smells, looks and tastes like medicine, or a really bad Muscat wine. Maylis was right, it is D.I.S.G.U.S.T.I.N.G.! One mouthful and the rest goes down the loo!

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The vodka makes up for it though, this was a brand recommended by Artem. When the locals drink vodka and Coke, they have it in two separate glasses, and will take one mouthful of neat vodka followed by one mouthful of Coke. We mix it together in the same glass, however.

That bring us to the end of another day in Turkmenistan, on a fascinating trip arranged by Undiscovered Destinations. If you are into unusual travel destinations, check them out, they have a number of great itineraries, as groups or private tours.

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Posted by Grete Howard 23:32 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque church shopping museum wine picnic pizza mary library vodka hard_rock_cafe rum supermarket pharmacy cheese yurt turkish_food merv vpn russian_orthodox_church pide orthodox_church undiscovered_destinations room_picnic gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow leg_injury gmail golden_dome mary_library merw mary_museum gonur_depe felt_making serdolik archaeological_finds gurbanguly_hajji_mosque spork sore-leg aladdin_café pokrovskaya Comments (2)

Ashgabat - Bugdayly - Kipchak - Geok Tepe - Nohur - Serdar

Horses, mosques, and goat horn graves

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

Today we are leaving the city behind and travelling west, and we soon find the green parks of the capital replaced by dry, sandy conditions, which is not surprising as 80% of the country is covered with desert.

Bugdayly Ahal Teke Horse Stables

Our first stop today is a stable housing the famed Ahal Teke horses. Known as 'the gift from the desert,' this breed was developed for endurance and agility. Considered the art piece of the horse world - elegant and graceful in appearance and stride – Ahal Teke horses are among the rarest, most exotic full-sized breeds in the world, with only around 6,600 animals, mostly in Turkmenistan and Russia.

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We are treated to a fine display at the stables, with several specimens being brought out and paraded around for us. Most of these horses are bred for display and competition purposes, with each animal worth from US$10,000 upwards. The stable never purchases new horses, they breed from existing stock, and when they sell, they make sure that the stallions are unable to sire further offspring.

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The Ahal Teke horses have a reputation for speed and stamina, intelligence, and a distinctive metallic sheen. The shiny coat of palominos and buckskins led to their nickname 'Golden Horses'.

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Named after an oases in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan (Akhal) and the tribe (Tekke) that lived there, these horses are adapted to severe climatic conditions, having to tolerate sparse water and food supplies as well as extremes of heat and cold; and are thought to be one of the oldest existing horse breeds.

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The Akhal-Teke is distinctively fine-boned and flat-muscled. Its body—with its thin barrel and deep chest—is often compared to that of a greyhound or cheetah.

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This white horse is 30 years old – allegedly the oldest ahel teke horse in the country – but she still seems to be fit and frisky.

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After the display, we are taken to see the paddocks and stables, where we swoon over a young foal only born yesterday. The stables themselves, however, are surprisingly small, basic and somewhat dingy.

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David the horse whisperer.

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Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque

Our next stop is the village of Kipchak, and the huge, modern Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque.

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Built by Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president of Turkmenistan, the mosque courted controversy as a result of the president insisting that the walls be inscribed with scriptures from not only the Quran but also the Ruhnama , the spiritual guide to life written by Niyazov himself. He apparently hit back at his critics by explaining how he had talked to God and could confirm that anyone who read the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) three times would be guaranteed a place in heaven.

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The dimensions of the 40 metre high dome and 63 metre tall minarets are significant – Mohammed was 40 years old when he became the prophet and aged 63 when he died.

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The colossal gilded door leading in to the prayer hall weighs half a ton, but can still be opened reasonably easily, especially by a fit young man such as our guide Meylis.

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Look at those enormous knockers

The mosque is reputed to be the largest in Central Asia, holding a total of 10,000 worshippers – 7,000 men on the ground level and 3,000 women on the first floor gallery.

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Running in a circular fashion underneath the mosque is an entire 'ablution city', complete with marble, gold and chandeliers.

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There is also apparently an underground parking area with a capacity for 400 cars.

Niyazov's family Mausoleum

Next door to the mosque is the final resting place of Saparmurat Nyazov, (also known as Turkmenbashy the Great), who passed away suddenly in 2006.

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The entrance to the mausoleum is flanked by two guards in sentry boxes.

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We enter the mausoleum on the first floor and look down on the sarcophagi of Niyazov, his two brothers, his mother and his father (his dad died during WWII).

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The mausoleum, a miniature version of the mosque, was finished a couple of years prior to Niyazov's death. His mother and two brothers died in the massive 1948 earthquake that killed nearly 90% of the population of Ashgabat. The only reason Niyazov himself survived, was because he happened to be in the wooden outhouse at the time. The earthquake happened at 01:12, and the other members of his family were asleep in the brick-built house, which was razed to the ground in 15 seconds. The small wooden latrine was all that remained of his family home. This earthquake, measuring 10 on the Richter scale, was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the 20th century and destroyed nearly all brick buildings in the capital city and surrounding villages.

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The mosque and mausoleum were built in Kipchak, the home village of Niyazov and his family as well as the site being very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Niyazov's plan for the mausoleum was for it to become a pilgrimage site, although today we only see one other tourist with accompanying guide and a worshipper in the mosque.

We continue our journey west to the site where the historical battle between the forces of the Russian Tsar and Turkmens of the Teke tribe took place in 1881.

Saparmurat Hajji Mosque

Built on the site of the former Geok Depe Fortress, the mosque commemorates the 15,000 or so lives lost when the Russian army launched their bloody attack, killing all the soldiers and civilians stationed here.

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The mosque also honours President Niyazov’s pilgrimage to Mecca (hence the name of the president and the word 'Hajji' in the title)

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Constructed in 1995, Saparmurat Hajji Mosque was the first mosque to be built in the country following independence after the dissolutionof the USSR in 1991.

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As I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry, carpets are of great importance to the Turkmen people, and each region has its own design, the pattern associated with this area is featured here in the mosque.

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Lunch

Carrying on a little further, we stop at a somewhat nondescript roadside café for lunch. Meylis pops in to find out if they have any tables and chairs, rather than just the large bed-like frames, or carpets on the floor, as is the traditional way of dining in this part of the world.

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We are ushered into a private dining room with a full-sized snooker table as well as a huge flat screen TV showing Lara Croft and Harry Potter dubbed in Russian. It is all rather surreal, and I really regret not taking a photo of the room.

There is no menu, and after chatting with the waiter, Maylis suggests we order grilled fish as this is their speciality here. The chips, salad and spicy tomato dip arrive way before the fish. There is also a whole square tin loaf of bread on the table, cut into one-inch pillars.

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Not only do I not photograph the room, I also forget to take pictures of the food until we have almost finished.

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Unfortunately my tummy is giving me terribly trouble today, and I hardly touch the lunch, rushing to find the fairly basic local-style (hole in the ground) facilities. Oh, how I hate the 'squits on the squats'!

For the next part of the journey I mostly sleep, until we reach the spectacular Kopetdag Mountains.

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Nohur Village

Our destination here in the mountains is the isolated village of Nohur, where the inhabitants are not true Turkmen, but claim to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great. These mixed race people (Greek + Turkmen) have their own language, and according to Meylis, our guide, “live differently”. 'No' means nine and 'Hur' is princesses; as legend suggests that the tribe originates from nine princesses.

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Nohur Cemetery

The main attraction in this village is its cemetery, which is like nothing I've ever seen before (and trust me, I have visited quite a few graveyards in my time): a large number of the headstones have goat horns attached to them.

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The local inhabitants believe that goat horns fight off evil spirits and can assist the souls of the deceased during their passage to heaven. Goats have always been considered sacred in this region, revered for their strength and endurance.

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Another reason for goats being honoured here, is the legend that tells of their forefather, Alexander the Great, having horns on the side of his head. The Macedonian king was brought up with the belief that he was of divine birth, and claimed descent from the Egyptian god Amun, whose symbol was ram's horns. Archaeologists have found a large number of different types of ancients coins from around his time in 300BC depicting Alexander the Great with two horns.

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Here in Nohur (as well as many other places in Central Asia), traditional beliefs co-exists perfectly with the Islam faith.

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Driving back down through the village from the cemetery, we encounter an extremely arrogant and inconsiderate driver – despite there being a drive-way he could pull into right next to him, he refuses to budge and makes us reverse up the narrow, winding road for quite some distance.

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On reaching the main road, we joke that the traffic police are always in the wrong place, never there when you need them!

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Serdar Guest House

Having dozed off a little on the way, I wake up as we pull into the car park of the place we are staying tonight. It is described in the itinerary as a 'guest house', but it has all the facilities of a hotel, albeit a rather quirky one. We are on the ground floor right at the end of a corridor, and the carpet running along the hallways has obviously been bought by the metre from a roll; but instead of cutting it to size, they have just left the rest all rolled up against the wall at the end of the long thin corridor. The presence of a pair of slippers just inside the bedroom door indicates that we are expected to remove our shoes as we enter. It is, however, the curtains that has me perplexed when we enter; or rather the lack of. There are just nets over the windows, despite the fact that our room faces out onto the car park and road beyond; and the curtain pelmet is artistically wavy.

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After a quick shower and change, we settle in with a pre-dinner drink from our Duty Free when there is a knock on the door. Maylis has been told that the restaurant staff would like him to be there when we order dinner as they don't speak any English. Fair enough.

As we enter the restaurant, a tantalising aroma wafts from the kitchen. “I'll have whatever that smell belongs to” I say to Meylis.

But first to more important things: beer! Gotta love their weak larger here: 12%. It is very nice though and carries quite a punch as you'd expect.

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To start we have lentil soup, which is really quite peppery, rather thick and very tasty.

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After following his nose into the kitchen, Meylis comes back with the source of the mouthwatering scent from earlier: lamb with liver and kidneys. I am so eager to dig in that I forget to take a photo until it is nearly all gone (apologies for awful picture). I am happy to report that it tasted as good as it smelled.

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Returning to the room for the night, I look for an electric socket to charge my phone. Really?

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With a distinct lack of ladders to reach this one, we end up unplugging one of the bedside lamps instead. The hotel is hosting a wedding reception this evening (much to David's delight earlier, as he spent the entire dinner checking out the well-dressed and all rather attractive female guests arriving); and between the noise from the party, people coming and going, a barking dog in the car park and the pain from yet another blister on my foot (that is four blisters now, and this one covers the entire ball of my left foot. Thank goodness for Compeed!) ; I don't anticipate getting a lot of sleep tonight.

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:48 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque cemetery horse muslim lunch mausoleum islam saparmurat_niyazov bugdayly ahal_teke horse_stable türkmenbaşy_ruhy_mosque niyazov kipchak saparmurat_hajji_mosque geok_depe snooker_table nohur nohur_cemetery serdar Comments (9)

Muscat - Salalah

Leaving Muscat and the North of Oman behind and heading South


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

We wake up to a delicately muted sunrise over suburban Muscat, as seen here from our balcony.

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Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

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As the largest Mosque in the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos' place of worship is a construction on a grand scale in every way and took six years to build, using materials from several different countries.

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20,000 tons of Indian sandstone was used, while the marble came from Oman.

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The Mosque has five minarets, with the tallest being 91.5 metres and the others measuring 61 metres. In addition to the minarets, there are ten domes. The Muezzin's call to prayer is always live, never recorded. The entire complex covers 40,000 m²

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In total, including the men's and women's prayer halls, the inner courtyards, paved ground and passageways, 20,000 people can pray here at the same time. Only on certain auspicious days is the mosque full, however; normally only between 100 and 500 faithfuls actually do attend.

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More men come to pray than women, as this picture shows the scale of the vast, cavernous men's prayer hall.

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70,000 tons of pure cotton was used for this carpet, and it took600 women (in Iran) two years to weave the 1,700 million knots. There are 28 different colours in this single piece of woven floor covering which weighs 70 tons.

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The prayer hall is adorned with a spectacular chandelier, some 14 metres tall and weighing 8.5 tons. Featuring 600,000 Swarovski crystal trimmings, 24-carat gold plated metalwork, this ceiling light has 1,122 halogen lamps operated through 36 switching circuits. The chandelier is truly of gigantic proportions with a diameter of 8 metres making it the size of an average 3 bedroom detached house but twice the height! For maintenance purposes there is a staircase inside the chandelier. Not surprisingly it is reputed to be the largest in the world.

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I love the way the chandelier reflects on the tiles of the mirhab (niche which faces towards Mecca and in the direction Muslims face when they pray), specifically illuminating the beautiful golden Arabic writing.

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I have always been captivated by Islamic architecture, and love looking at the pendentives (curved triangles at the intersection between the arch and the dome), the squinches (small corbelled arches) and muqarnas (the 'honeycomb' effect caused by the geometrical subdivision of a squinch) found in the mirhab and other niches throughout the mosque.

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There are a number of smaller chandeliers throughout the mosque. When I say "smaller"; they are still not exactly 'small' as you can see if you compare the size of the lights with the people below.

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Unobtrusive speakers are hidden in the pillars that support the roof and dome of the prayer hall.

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The detail and amount of design followed by craftsmanship that has gone into the construction of the mosque is staggering

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Under the colonnaded walkways outside are a number of niches, each with a bench underneath, each one boasting a different design, and each with a panel explaining the origin of the pattern. Inspiration for the various artistic design styles has come from all over the Islamic world.

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The Grand Mosque does not differentiate between the various denominations of Islam, and welcomes Sunni, Shia and Ibadi (the predominate sect in Oman) alike. It is also the only mosque in Oman to allow non-Muslims to visit.

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Shoes have to left outside and women have to cover their hair and arms.

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All Muslims have to undergo ablutions before prayer.

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Before we leave the mosque I visit what is the most disgusting toilet I have seen in Oman by a long way. Three cubicles, two of which are squat-style, filled with excrement, cigarette packets, toilet paper, nappies and other items that I do not want to study too closely. The one western toilet is even worse: blocked and overflowing with goodness knows what. If I wasn't so desperate, I would hold it.

Muttrah Souq

The 200 or so stalls in this traditional souk, the oldest in Muscat, are all somewhat similar, selling a curious mix of tourist tat, traditional clothing and colourful haberdashery amongst other things.

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The traders are not at all pushy, which makes a pleasant change.

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Muscat is a popular stop on the cruise ship circuit and today there is a ship visiting, something we see evidence of in the market.

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Entrance to the souk

Juice Bar

We take a break on the Corniche at a juice bar that serves fast food where David has chocolate milkshake, pizza and garlic bread. I pinch one of his garlic breads while I enjoy a lovely mango juice.

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We spend some time watching the traffic police issue tickets to motorists parked in a loading bay before we go back to the hotel to pick up our luggage from their storage area. On the way we drive past the Sultan's Palace (stopping not allowed), an extremely impressive place!

Al Falaj Hotel

We pick up the suitcases and make ourselves comfortable in the lobby as we have a couple of hours before we have to leave for the sunset cruise and on to the airport for our flight. The delightful receptionist approaches us and offers us the use of our old room until we are ready to leave. “Yes please!” Consequently we have a lovely siesta before getting ready for the next part of our adventure.

Sunset Cruise

We arrive at the marina in plenty of time before the boat departs, as the company has changed their sailing times to one hour later but forgot to inform the ticket holders. This gives us time to wander around and admire the beautiful yachts anchored here.

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Dhow

This evening we are sailing from the marina along the coast to Muttrah for sunset on a traditional Arabic wooden sailing ship known as a dhow.

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There is a free bar on board (soft drinks only) and the crew walk around with snacks at regular intervals, as well as a never-ending supply of coffee and dates.

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The cruise follows the ragged coastline, lined with small communities, luxury villas and fancy hotels.

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I love the way the mist obscures the hills in the distance, giving them a wonderful dreamy effect.

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The scenery itself can best be described as rugged, with lots of little islets and curiously shaped rock formations.

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The other passengers are an eclectic mix of nationalities, including the first British tourists we have seen on this trip, and an Iraqi-British family with their gorgeous teenage daughter. It turns out they live in Wembley, just a few miles from where David and I first met, many years ago.

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Said, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

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The sun is getting lower on the horizon now, enveloping everything in its wake a in a golden hue.

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We are delighted to see a few birds along the shore too, one of which is a new one to us.

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Sooty Gull

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Hundreds of cormorants make their way in murmuration style along the shoreline.

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They just keep on coming, it's an amazing sight.

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Al Jalali Fort

As we get nearer to Muttrah, we see the Al Jalali Fort, built in the 1580s by the Portuguese Empire to protect the harbour of Muscat following a couple of attacks by Ottoman forces.

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Al Mirani Fort

Close by is the 16th century Al Mirani Fort.

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More watchtowers follow as we get closer to the city

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Portuguese Cemetery

Sunset

By the time we reach Muttrah and the busy working harbour, the sky is alight with a glorious golden colour. The bay is full of ships, containers being unloaded, people walking on the Corniche and other evening life.

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All to often 'sunset cruises' disappoint in that the colours are uninspiring, but today the weather gods have given us exactly what we signed up for.

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The birds are back.

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Who would have thought that an industrial landscape could look so beautiful?

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The sun is almost at the horizon on its final journey for today.

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As the sun gets lower, the gorgeous golden sky fades and the sun turns into an orange ball.

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We hang around to watch the sun disappear behind the distant hills before making our way back to the marina where we started.

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Other pleasure cruisers are doing the same.

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The light is fading fast.

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By the time we return to the marina, it is pitch black.

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Flight to Salalah

From the marina we make our way to the airport for an evening flight to Salalah. It is always sad to say goodbye to a guide at the end of a tour and today is no exception. Said has been a trusted friend, an excellent driver and a very knowledgeable guide.

Airport formalities are super-easy this evening, and we go straight through to the gate, where a couple of young adults offer us their seats. Much as I appreciate the sentiment and am very glad of somewhere to sit for the two-hour wait before our flight, it does make me feel really old.

Passengers are transported to the plane by bus, where we are made to stand for 15 minutes before boarding as the cleaning and checking of the plane has not quite been completed by the time we arrive.

The seats on Oman Air domestic flight have to be the most cramped ever. Mind you, I still managed to catch a nap on the 2-hour flight.

Salalah

The driver who meets us a Salalah Airport has certainly not won any 'personality-of-the-year' competitions, and only just manages a groan of recognition as we make ourselves known to him.

Al Fanar Hotel Salalah

The hotel is approached along a long driveway, lined both sides with palm trees that are beautifully lit from below, making it a very warm welcome. I am very surprised at how lively the hotel is at half past midnight, but I remind myself that this is not our usual type of accommodation aimed at guests who are ttavelling around, this is a beach resort. I feel positively scruffy amongst the fashionistas dressed to the nines in their figure-hugging gold lamé dresses and impossibly high stiletto heels.

Ismalda, the receptionist, more than makes up for Mr Personalitiless Driver, especially as we are upgraded to a superior room with a seating area and a large balcony overlooking the pools and the beach beyond.

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As we slip into bed and switch the lights off, we notice the ceiling has twinkling stars that change colour from red to yellow, through green to blue. We can even control the sequence and pattern, have them flashing or just a single plain colour. This is definitely a first for us! Photographs can't really show it, and my video is rubbish.

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Another fabulous day in Oman as arranged for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:27 Archived in Oman Tagged mosque sunset religion forts sunrise muslim balcony crystal dome oman tiles worship islam carpet marble muscat souk souq chandelier sandstone minaret swarovski sunset_cruise shia muezzin al_falaj_hotel muttrah grand_mosque squinch muqarna pendentive mirhab prayer_all sultan_qaboos_mosque sultan_qaboos_grand_mosque sunni largest_chandelier_in_the_world gold_plated ibadi ablutions muttrah_souk muttrah_souq juice_bar cormorants dalalah al_fanar_hotel oman_air domestic_flight Comments (8)

Wahiba Sands - Ibra - Jebel Akhdar - Nizwa

Leaving the desert behind and heading for the mountains


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

As we leave the desert this morning, we see more Bedouins with their camels making their way across the desert. Like we did on the way into the desert, we stop at the small town of Bidiyah, this time to increase the tyre pressure again. By this time I am desperate for the loo. I was hoping that my tummy troubles were over, but obviously not. We aim for a Public Toilet at the edge of the desert – this could be an 'interesting' experience.

Wow! I am totally overwhelmed by the modern facilities and absolute cleanliness of these loos; much better than the majority of public conveniences you find in the UK. Well done Oman! (You'll be glad to hear there are no pictures)

Ibra

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One of the oldest cities in Oman (it is said to predate the Prophet Muhammed's calling), Ibra was the centre of trade, religion, education and art, and enjoyed great prosperity during Oman’s colonial time.

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Many of the 400-year old houses have been painstakingly restored by their owners, others have been left to crumble. Here you can see the original and restored side by side.

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More crumbling mansions

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The houses were constructed 400 years ago using stone, clay and sarooj (traditional Iranian water-resistant mortar made from clay and limestone mixed with other materials such as fibres and egg) and have laid abandoned for around 45 years.

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These large mansion-style dwelling were not used by 'ordinary' people, rather they housed administrative heads of tribes.

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Wells were constructed inside the housing complex as it was difficult and dangerous for the inhabitants to venture outside to fetch water during times of war.

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The walls are deliberately kept thick to keep the houses cool during the hot summers.

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The tiny door has two purposes – enforcing people to bow as a sign of respect; and making it easier to catch any enemies trying to enter. In fact, Ibra is full of fascinating doors.

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And other details

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All around the village there is a 25km long wall, with watch towers every three kms.

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Mosques were/are not just for prayer, they also act as a place for learning the Koran.

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David looks up at the hole in the ceiling of the gate, which was used to drop hot honey or oil on enemies.

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Lookout holes come in two sizes, small for humans to survey the surroundings, and larger ones to point the canons at approaching enemies.

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Jebel Akhdar

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We are heading up in the mountains, some two hours drive away. So are hundreds of cyclists as today is Tour de Oman, a cycle race from Muscat to Jebel Akhdar. We see a lot of spectators along the way, and whole school classes supporting the riders with banners and flags. We want to make sure we get through to the road up before it is closed for the race, and judging by the number of police in the small town of Berkat al Mouze at the start of the climb, we only just make it.

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At the start of the dead-endy road leading up to the mountain-top, is a Police Check Point, making sure that only 4WD vehicles attempt the climb as there have been too many deaths from regular saloon cars not being able to negotiate the bends.

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As we continue up through the mountains, every bend offers a more magnificent vista than the previous. The name Jebel Akhdar means 'Green Mountain', but it is neither green, nor a single mountain, but an 1800 km² range, with several peaks reaching up over 3000 metres.

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The massif is also home to 58 villages and over 700 wadis.

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Near the top, we stop for lunch: dhal, sabzi, channa, roti, chapati, rice and salad. Just a small lunch then.

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Wadi Bani Habib

The old village of Wadi Bani Habib clings to the side of the canyon. It was deserted back in the 1950s as a result of the challenges faced by the villagers in terms of bringing supplies to their homes, which prior to the construction of the road were accessible only by a six-hour steep climb by foot or donkey.

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The people moved into nice modern houses on the top, while still keeping their plantations on the valley floor, watered by the ever-present felaj irrigation system.

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The trees we see today may mostly look dead, but after the rains, they will produce crops of almonds, pomegranate, figs, grapes, oranges, mandarins and peaches.

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Diana's Point

Named after the late, and much loved, Princess Diana, who arrived here by helicopter in 1986, this vantage point on the Saiq Plateau offers insane views over the canyon below.

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Close by, the recently built hotel Alila Jebal Akhdar has magnificent views from all its bedrooms and restaurant. With a price tag to match, of course. We are not staying there tonight.

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Wadi al Ayn

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The wadi (valley) of Al Ayn has the most amazing hillside terraces I think I have ever seen. This area is famous for its rose plantations, mainly used to produce rose syrup and rose water for cooking.

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Animal fodder is also grown here.

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Some of the terraces have been abandoned, while others are still in use today.

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Nizwa

As our budget does not extend to staying in either of the two posh hotels on the summit, we return to the lower levels to spend the night in the modern town of Nizwa.

The drive down is, if possible, even more spectacular, with better views out over the canyon (impossible to photograph though). This drive is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and every few hundred yards there are escape lanes for use if your breaks fail. Said explains that in the rainy season this road is perilous, with running water and gravel covering the surface.

As we get lower, all signs of the Tour of Oman have gone, we just see a pick-up loaded with bikes and a truck full of barriers.

Falaj Daris

Another hour's drive takes us to our hotel for the night, and unfortunately we arrive at the same time as a large bus-load of French tourists. As the hotel is fully booked, Said has to sleep elsewhere tonight.

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The hotel is quite modern and nondescript, but comfortable enough.

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We take a buffet dinner by the pool and go to bed soon after.

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Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fabulous private tour of Oman for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:09 Archived in Oman Tagged villages mosque view canyon mountain plateau doors road fruits terraces ancient cycling oman swimming_pool islam koran vista wadi 4wd trave abandoned plantations middle_east viewpoint bends nizwa undiscovered-destinations snaking jebel ibra reconstructions medresa madrasa sarooj crumbling_mansions jebel_akhdar green_mountain tour_de_oman tour_of_oman cycle_race police_check bendy_road wadi_bani_habib terrace_farming diana's_point saiq_plateau alila_jebel_akhdar jabal_akhdar wadi_al_ayn falaj_daris falaj_daris_hotel Comments (3)

Delhi

Revisiting India's bustling capital


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a great night's sleep, we are ready to take on Delhi. Maybe.

Jama Masjid

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Officially known as Masjid-i Jahān-Numā (World-reflecting Mosque), this is one of the largest mosques in India. The courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers at any one time, with 899 black borders marked out on the floor. Today there are more tourists than worshippers here; most of whom have been given a gown to cover themselves. I am deemed respectful enough and am allowed to continue in as I am.

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We have to pay 300Rs each per camera (including mobile phones) regardless of whether we intend to use that camera inside or not.

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Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (or more precisely, his 5,000 workers) between 1644 and 1656 at a cost of 1 million rupees, it was inaugurated by an imam from Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan).

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Chandni Chowk

From the mosque we grab a couple of rickshaws to explore Old Delhi in the traditional way.

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One of India's largest wholesale markets, Chandni Chowk is basically the main street through Old Delhi, with a maze of side alleys leading off it. It is a crazy mix of new and old, a manic onslaught on all the senses and a real 'baptism by fire' for Lyn and Chris' first visit to India.

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The market dates back to the time of the capital city Jahjahananebad (now Old Delhi) and was designed and established by Shah Jahan's favourite daughter in 1650. Originally containing 1,560 shops, the bazaar was 40 yards wide by 1,520 yards long. The name Chandni Chowk means 'Moonlight Square' as the market was once divided by canals (no longer there) to reflect the moonlight.

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Custard apples

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Spice Store

No tour of Delhi would be complete without the obligatory stop at a tourist shop – this time a spice store.

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Melon seeds - eaten like popcorn

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Turmeric

With prices higher than our local ethnic store in Bristol (Bristol Sweetmart), we leave without buying anything.

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Betel leaves

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Celebrity Status

As jetlag overcomes me and I sit down for a rest, I gain quite an audience as everyone and their dog wants to have their photo taken with me.

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While Lyn and Chris continue to explore the parts of Delhi we have seen more than once before, we go back to the hotel for a rest, and meet up with them later for dinner.

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Dinner

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Aloo Kashmiri, Soya Keema Curry, Jeera Rice, Naan and Sweet Lassi - all very tasty. And so to bed.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:01 Archived in India Tagged mosque religion india muslim delhi spices islam cows chillies curry rickshaw custard_apple old_delhi turmeric chandni_chowk jama_masjid hotel_jivitesh cycle_rickshaw auto_rickshaw animal_powered_transport Comments (1)

Grand Comore Island Tour

A brief glimpse of life on this island


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep, I feel ready to take on Comoros: today we have a tour around the main island, Grand Comore.

Breakfast

But first, time to fill our bellies.

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While I hate being presented with a buffet for dinner, I am rather partial to a breakfast buffet.

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David’s breakfast of fried egg, potatoes and beans.

The restaurant is full of sparrows nesting in the rafters and hanging around waiting for the opportunity to grab a few crumbs.

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They are really quite cheeky, swooping in on abandoned plates as diners leave the tables to refill their coffees or whatever.

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Island Tour

We make an anticlockwise tour of the northern part of the island; but first we travel a short distance south along the west coast.

Iconi Cliffs

It was here, in the 16th century, that a number of local women threw themselves off the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by Malagasy pirates to be sold into slavery.

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Kavhiridjewo Palace

Strategically positioned on a rocky promontory, the 15th century Kavhiridjewo Palace was built entirely from lava blocks and still retains some of the walls and defence towers from the time of the last Sultan.

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The Sultan was captured by the French and taken to Madagascar, whereas the Prince is buried here (the larger, more elaborate tomb) alongside his mum (the smaller, simpler grave at the front).

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There are no rivers or other waterways on the whole island, and although there is one spring that feeds the capital, most people have to rely on digging wells such as this one in the Sultan's palace for their drinking water.

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Spider

There is a legend attached to the Guardian of the Palace, the ‘humble’ spider: when the enemy wanted to attack the Sultan, the spider created a web strong enough to protect him. From that day on the Sultan vowed not to kill spiders.

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My on-line searches suggest that this is a female Red Legged Golden Orb Spider, a rather large spider (it is a bit bigger than the palm of my hand) who weaves extremely strong webs.

Witchcraft Lake

In the old days, the people of Comoros strongly believed in witchcraft (many still do); and when the Sultan wanted to win the war, it was only natural that he consulted the local witch. The Sultan was told to kill his slaves and throw them in the lake for the spirits to drink their blood and the fish to eat their flesh, which he duly did (and he went on to win the war).

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It is said that for many years, screams could still be heard until the whole village got together to pray for the lost souls.

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Car Breakdown

As we go to drive away from the lake, the car won’t start. Again.

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The driver fiddles under the bonnet of the car, but still nothing. It fires, then dies. I use the time to wander over to the lake again to take some photos of the egrets in the trees on the far side.

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Still no joy with the car. The driver phones for a mechanic to come and have a look at it. We hang around, photographing more birds.

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Pied Crow

When, after half an hour there is still no mechanic, there is only one thing to do: we have to make a sacrifice!

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An hour passes. There is not much around here, and Yahaya suggests we have to call for another car and driver rather than wait for the mechanic. Of course, soon after the call has been made, the mechanic turns up! By this stage neither the driver nor the guide is anywhere to be seen.

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The mechanic spends less than a minute ‘tinkering’ with the engine and once the other two realise the car has been fixed, we make a move!

Parliament

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. There are 42 members of parliament, none of whom are women. There seems to be widespread corruption, with the president giving himself a huge pay-rise as soon as he came to power, and all the important jobs going to his mates.

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Friday Mosque

Today is Friday and we can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

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Badjanani Mosque

Built in a unique Comorian architectural style, Badjanani Msoque (AKA Ancienne Mosquée du Vendredi – Old Friday Mosque) is a symbol of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the country. Originally constructed in 1427, it is the oldest mosque in the Medina in Moroni, although the minaret was added much later, in 1921.

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Plateau Diboini

We drive across the island from the west coast to the east, over the picturesque Diboini Plateau with its seven cones of extinct volcanoes.

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Mount Karthala

On a clear day (not today), you can see Mount Karthala from this point on the east coast. The highest point of the Comoros and at 2,361m, it is the largest active volcano in the world, as well as one of the most active. Over the years it has had a devastating impact on many parts of the country.

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Mount Karthala hiding behind the cloud

Like so many of these type of disasters, the eruption of Mount Karthala has a bit of a legend attached to it: a tired and thirsty holy man wandered from home to home in the village looking for water, but everyone turned him away, apart from one old lady who was generous enough to offer him a drink. Complaining about the bad people of the village, the holy man insisted on taking the kind woman and her family with him when he left. Cursing, he turned to the volcano and with that the lava erupted, flattening the village they had just left.

Heroumbili

During one of the many eruptions (there have been more than twenty since the 19th century, the last one in 2007), the lava from the volcano reached the sea here and created an extension of the coastline land in the village of Heroumbili.

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Reclaimed land on the coast

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The village kids come out in force to interact with us.

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We continue along the north-east coastal road.

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Turtle Island

This small island has been given a 'protected status' to stop locals rowing across and 'harvesting' the turtles who nest here, or their eggs.

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Kissing Rocks

In Comoros, strictly-followed tradition means that the first-born girl must be kept pure until her parents find a suitable husband for her. She is not allowed to have a boyfriend, unlike any subsequent daughters.

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Legend tells of one such first-born girl, who had gone against tradition and her family’s wishes by secretly dating a young man. Hearing of her father’s arranged marriage to a suitor she did not know, she feared what would happen in the morning after the wedding night when all the male members of both families traditionally meet to inspect the bed sheet for signs of blood. She was very much in love, and not wanting to cause shame and embarrassment to her father, she and her boyfriend chose to jump to their death from the cliff.

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As they kissed one final time, their bodies turned to stone. If you look carefully, you can still see them there now, kissing.

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From the top there is a great view of the coastline below to one side and the mountains on the other.

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The house where the daughter lived - now abandoned

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On the road again.

Lac Niamawi, AKA Lac Salé (Salt Lake)

In the 16th century, an eruption demolished the city of Niamawi. In its wake, it left a crater that has since filled with salt water.

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The lake changes colour throughout the day, from brown to blue to green and is said to have healing properties due to its high sulphur content. No one knows how deep the lake is. In 1977 a team of Belgian divers went down to investigate, but they were never seen again.

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Lunch

Near Mitsamiouli we stop at a small restaurant called Mi Amuse, where we have lunch.

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The food consists of barracuda served with sweet and ordinary potatoes, carrots, fried bananas and rice, with a side of pickled lemon and chilli sauce.

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The restaurant, which is also a hotel, has a bar serving alcohol and a nightclub with lively music and dancing of an evening.

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Baobab Prison

As baobab trees get older (this one is a few hundred years old for sure), they very often become hollow in the centre.

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Hollowed-out baobabs have been utilised for a number of different things all over Africa, including as here, a prison

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In the old days, wrongdoers were put inside this ‘organic’ prison for three days, with the added night time punishment of the only light being the moonlight shining down through the gap above.

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Galawa Hotel

“Once upon a time…” Isn’t that how all fairy tales start? Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this part of Comoros was a really ‘happening’ place, with a luxury hotel that employed 750 people and saw 350 visitors arrive twice a week on charter flights from South Africa.

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Yahaya proudly tells us he worked here for ten years, and Omar was his boss then, as he is now.

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At least the frangipani still flowers

After going into decline following neglect by the Comorian government, the hotel was razed to the ground by the French some fifteen years ago. Promises of renewed interest and investment from Dubai have not materialised and all hopes were dashed by the financial crash of 2008.

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One of Galawa's three beaches, there was a popular beach bar here

Today locals enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at this site

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They are even enjoying a little song and dance routine as they bathe.

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The only evidence of the former leisure hub is the tiled fountain and a redundant gate (the gate doesn't actually do anything, as we can drive around the side)

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Yahaya also points out the spot where the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in 1996.

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Mtswamwindza Mosque

It was here that Islam was first introduced to Comoros in the 7th century. Mtswamwindza, whose real name is Mhassi Fessima embarked on a journey to Medina where he converted to Islam and then returned to his city, Ntsaoueni, and converted the people to the new religion.

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It was only the second mosque to be built in Africa, and Mtswamwindza is buried here.

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Rain

On our way back down the west coast, the heavens open and throw bucket-loads of water on us. Thankfully we are dry inside the car, albeit a little warm once we close the windows. The roads are horribly potholed from the frequent torrential showers.

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Along the coast we see beautiful sandy beaches, mangroves and lava flows reaching the sea.

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Note the abandoned hull of a car - the whole island is littered with such wrecks, just left where they lost their will to live.

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Road side grocery store

Bad News

Later Omar meets us in the reception of the hotel to tell us the arrangements for our flight to Anjouan tomorrow. There has been a change of plan... Really? That seems to be the theme of this trip.

The domestic airline Int’Air Iles has two planes: one 28-year old Airbus and a small 9-seater Cessna. The government has taken the larger plane to Kenya. We believe (hope?) it is for servicing; as I understand both Réunion and Madagascar have recently banned the airline citing safety issues.

What this means for us, is that we will have to take a ferry (hopefully) to Anjouan Island tomorrow instead of flying; but we will not be able to visit Mohéli Island as planned because there are no ferries connecting the island. The former is not a big deal, but the latter is a great shame, as our stay on Mohéli was to be the main part of our trip and the highlight: that is where we were going to go whale and dolphin watching, see turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and see the rare Livingstone bats as well a the maki lemurs.

Oh well, there is not much we can do about it, we will just have to make the most of our time on Anjouan. Omar has arranged for us to come back to Grand Comore one day earlier than planned, so that we can easily connect with the new departure date from Comoros, also one day earlier than planned. That means four nights on Anjouan instead of the planned two.

Dinner

The restaurant has run out of lobster (I was hoping to try the local speciality of lobster in vanilla sauce) as well as fries, so it is rice or vegetables tonight (we can't have both).

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Chicken with mushroom sauce and vegetables

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Beef in mushroom sauce and rice

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in adventure travel to unusual destinations (such as Comoros), for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain mosque travel volcano hotel lake kids island breakfast crow africa prison spider muslim lunch parliament buffet islam sultan slavery baobab egrets sparrows sacrifice legend breakfast_buffet comoros barracuda undiscovered_destinations moroni grand_comore sultan's_palace karthala_volcano karthala iconi inconi_cliffs malagasy_pirates kavhiridjewo_palace witchcraft car_mechanic car_breakdown pied_crow friday_mosque badjanani badjanani_mosque plateau_diboini mount_karthala heroumbili turtle_island kissing_rocks ivoini mitsamiouli mi_amuse baobab_prison galawa_hotel galawa mtswamwindza mtswamwindza_mosque int'air_iles Comments (2)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

Cairo - Sana'a - Seyun

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who needs Photoshop!

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

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

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

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Photographing the Vimto bottle

One is not enough!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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