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Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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

White Marble Buildings

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

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

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

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Owadan Tourism

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

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

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

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

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

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

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

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

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Nisa

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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

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

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

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Museum

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

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

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

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

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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

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

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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

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

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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

Flag

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

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

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Arch of Neutrality

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

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

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

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Wedding Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol - Khartoum

A day of sightseeing before our adventure

44 °C
View Sudan Camel Trek 2004 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Saturday 13th November 2004 Bristol – Khartoum

This is not a recent trip, rather it is taken from the journal I wrote on our adventures in Sudan in 2004.

Ever since I first read “The Impossible Journey” by Michael Asher many years ago, it has remained my favourite book. Describing his journey as the first Europeans to cross the Sahara from West to East on foot, Michael describes the trials, tribulations and victories of this, the 'impossible' journey. I am fascinated by the whole adventure, so imagine my delight when I find Michael now runs a tour agency and is taking adventure-spirited traveller on a trek through the Sahara in Sudan later in the year. I immediately sign up, and go about making sure I am fit enough for the trek.

Fast forward to November. We are pleasantly surprised to find Michael himself waiting for us inside the immigration at Khartoum Airport, and also grateful for his help with the numerous forms we have to complete – for visa, for camera permit, for police registrations... Despite Michael doing most of the work, the whole process still takes in excess of an hour before we can leave the airport and head for the hotel. It is now 06:30 in the morning and we have travelled all through the night, so we collapse straight into bed.

Sunday 14th November 2004 – Khartoum sightseeing

After a few hours sleep and a substantial lunch, we meet up with our local guide, Omran, and head out to do some quick exploration of Khartoum and the surrounding area before the real adventure begins.

National Museum

The first stop is the National Museum, where photography is not permitted inside, which is a great shame as it is a very interesting place showing exhibits including objects from the Palaeolithic through to the Islamic periods. I am blown over by just how advanced the Nubian society was, some 2000 years ago.

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Outside are some temples rescued – just like their much more famous counterpart, Abu Simbel - from the rising waters of Lake Nasser during the construction of the Aswan Dam.

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The Meeting of the Niles

A modern road bridge crosses very close to the point where the two main tributaries of the world's longest river – the Blue Nile and White Nile - meet. Not that either of them look anything like the name implies – they are neither blue, nor white, rather a couple of dull shades of brown. How disappointing.

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Mahdi's Tomb

Our journey continues to Omdurman where we stop at the Tomb of Mahdi, a religious fanatic who lived in the late 1800s with the aim of restoring the country to its original Muslim beliefs and getting rid of the British Empire.

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Market

Today being the 2nd day of Eid (the celebrations denoting the end of fasting at Ramadan), most of the shops in the market are closed.

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David buys himself a headscarf.

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The people are friendly, however, and very keen to pose for photographs.

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Boat Building

As we make our way along the river back through Khartoum to our hotel, we stop at a place where traditional boats are being made from acacia wood.

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I do like a man who is kind to cats.

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At this stage it doesn't look seaworthy even, but I am sure they know what they are doing and by the time the work is completed, it will be a fine vessel. Ship shape and Bristol fashion, even.

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Our bus

This is the bus that has taken us around Khartoum this afternoon , tomorrow will be very different as we swap modern wheeled transport for the much more traditional animal and our own two feet.

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Blue Nile Sailing Club and the Malek Gunboat

In the grounds of the club sits the rusting hull of the Malek, the last renaming gunboat which Lord Kitchener had shipped down the Nile in boxes in 1898 for it to be reassembled and used in the devastating Battle of Omdurman. I find the boat somewhat of a disappointment if I am honest, it seems to be just unceremoniously dumped in a ditch!

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The sunset isn't exactly overwhelming either, as seen from the deck of the sailing club overlooking the mighty Nile.

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Briefing

We return to our hotel, the Acropole, and after a quick shower we meet with Michael and the other tour participants (there are 12 of us, plus Michael, the local leader and various porters/camel handlers) for a non-alcoholic drink in reception and a thorough briefing of the adventure ahead.

Michael comes across as very knowledgeable and he is a good speaker too, very clear, approachable and keen to please. He is certainly living up to my expectations from his books.

The trip itself sounds as if it is well organised, and extremely adventurous, real pioneering stuff. An abrupt realisation of just HOW adventurous suddenly hits me in the face like a wet flannel. Gulp. We are the first westerners to ever have ventured out into this part of the Sahara. Wow. We all have lots of questions and Michael does his best to answer each and every one of them.

After dinner we sort out what we are going to take with us into the desert and what we will leave behind in the hotel for when we return. I really struggle to sleep tonight, my mind in turmoil about whether or not I am fit enough to undertake this rather long trek (12-15kms a day, either on foot or camel back), the excitement of fulfilling a long-time ambition, the trepidation of ten days in a tent under very harsh conditions and the thrill of meeting my hero author and sharing this adventure with him and his crew. I eventually drift off to sleep, only to wake in a pool of sweat from a nightmare at 03:15. Not a good start to the adventure.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:33 Archived in Sudan Tagged market tomb nile malik sudan nubia boat_building national_museum malek gunboat gunboat_malek gunboat_malik lord_kitchener battle_of_omdurman omdurman khartoum blue_nile white_nile meeting_of_the_niles michael_asher the_impossible_journey madhi's_tomb mahdi sailing_club nubian_history Comments (1)

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