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Türkmenabat - Mary

Not a good start


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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 - Türkmenabat

Another city, another museum


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I slept well last night, until 5am this morning, although I did have lots of strange 'fantasy' dreams. David's leg is worse today, despite spending some considerable time last night with it elevated.

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The barman from two nights ago, recognised me as I walk through on my way to breakfast, and even smiled – which is quite something, as Turkmen don't generally appear to smile much.

We are checking out of the hotel in Mary this morning and continuing to Türkmenabat in the north east near the border with Uzbekistan.

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As soon as we leave the confines of the built up area, we are struck by the huge disparity between the clean, modern, wealthy looking cities in Turkmenistan, and the countryside where life still carries on in a much more traditional and simplistic way.

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Cotton transport

Police Checkpoint

Every few kilometres there is a police check point. The police, like so many other places in the world, are not only devious and hiding behind bushes and trucks when speed checking, they are also open to bribes. Many vehicles have speed check radars, and cars going the opposite direction practise 'positive reporting' by flashing their headlights and signalling: 1 finger in the air means there is a radar ahead, while waving of the palm means the road is clear. With so little traffic on the road, we see most oncoming drivers do this.

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PYGB refers to the department looking after exit and entry between the separate provinces, whereas PYGG is the regular police service.

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We are stopped and Artem is asked for his driving licence, our official tourism permits (checking that is has been stamped), plus Meylis has to give all his personal details such as name, address, guiding licence and phone number).

Türkmenabat

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Türkmenabat City Hall

Being so close to the Uzbek border, Türkmenabat would have been the first city merchants reached within the country when travelling along the Silk Road from Uzbekistan. The name means “city built by Turkmen”. In the old days, the place was known as Amul.

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Wedding Palace

Restaurant Praga

We stop at a very nice restaurant for lunch, in a style of how I imagine a 'Gentleman's Club' in London looks like, with all dark wood and a giant old-fashioned globe.

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When we arrive, Artem notices that the tall clock in the background is not working, but by the time our food arrives, Artem has fixed it.

Scattered around the place are eclectic decorations, such as a toy Mini car, a Routemaster double decker London bus and a scale model of the Parliament in Budapest.

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The cutlery is wrapped in individual monogrammed cloth pouches.

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Even in the toilets, there are single use monogrammed terry towels, as well as flashing mirror lights.

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Meylis and Artem both have fajitas for lunch, with the latter complaining about there being too many vegetables on his plate: “I'm not a cow!” he says, and proceeds to eat the meat and tortilla, leaving all the veggies on the side. The guy seems to live on meat, bread, vodka and cigarettes.

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Artem is a terrible flirt – or should I say an 'excellent' flirt, and despite not understanding what they are saying, it is obvious that there is some pretty magic chemistry between him and the waitress.

I order chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, and supplement it with Artem's discarded vegetables.

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Unlike our driver, I am of the opinion that a meal without veggies is not a proper meal. That is one of the downsides of eating out when travelling – they rarely serve enough vegetables for my liking. Side vegetables are almost unheard of here in Turkmenistan, and although most menus offer a selection of salads, they are mostly made up of tinned vegetables and mayonnaise.

Türkmenabat Museum

After lunch Artem takes us to the local museum. As we arrive, Meylis looks a little concerned, and asks us to wait in the car while he checks it out. After a few minutes he comes back laughing, explaining that the museum has recently moved to a new purpose built place in another part of the city, and this somewhat run-down pre-Soviet building that we are pulled up in front of, now houses the Pensions Department.

The new building is stunning, in keeping with the majority of modern Turkmen architecture, and boasts the largest diamond-shaped roof in the world.

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The museum has not been open very long at all, and they are anything but organised: they have no English speaking guides and have 'run out of' even Russian and Turkmen speaking ones. They also don't have any change when I pay 50 manat for the camera fee (just over £10), but they promise to let me have the other 50 manat by the time we leave. I am told "no photos of our leader" - numerous exhibits show images of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

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Sheep and camel wool, including the black karakul, which we can see in the photo on the wall behind

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Medicinal plants

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Chemicals produced in a factory here in Türkmenabat: Sulphur, Bentonite, Ammonium Superphosphate, Meliorant, Granulated Superphosphate, Chalk.

The Silk Road
The museum focuses heavily on the fact that Türkmenabat – or Amul as it was known then – was an important city on the ancient trade route.

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Map of the famed Silk Road routes within Turkmenistan. The name 'Silk Road' is a bit of a misnomer, as it was not just one single road, but a network of trade routes from the 2nd century BC until the middle of the 18th century.

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Map showing the main routes (from Wikipedia)

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Diorama depicting a camel train on the Silk Road

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These domes, known by their Persian name of Sardoba, are cupolas built over fresh water sources and areas of rainwater accumulation, to ensure that the water does not evaporate and stays cool. These installations were built every 30-35 kms along the Silk Road and are indicative of a unique hydro-engineering ability.

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Similar to those found in India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the irrigation systems of the ancient Central Asian civilisations rely on a water-dipping device consisting of a wheels and gear train operated by draught animals walking in a circle. The ceramic vessels are known as chigìr’.

The Silk Road covers a distance of some 12,000 kms, and was a well developed merchant trade route. Caravanserais were built along the route, featuring rooms for relaxation or overnight stays, as well as space where the horses and camels could be fed and watered and provided with shelter from the weather and any wild animals.

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Diorama featuring Daya Khatyn Caravanserai

Many of the caravanserais also doubled as 'shopping centres', where goods from China, such as silk, iron, nickel, fur, and paper were traded with local Central Asian goods: woollen fabrics, carpets, jewels, ceramics and thoroughbred horses; as well as tea, perfume and incense arriving from India.

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In the Middle Ages, Turkmenistan was well known as a centre of education, and book-trading was widespread throughout Central Asia. The diorama shows a cleric in a madrasa (Islamic religious school)

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Pharmacy

On the way to the hotel, we stop to get some stronger tablets for my upset tummy.

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Yupek Yoly Hotel

A strange mix of minimalistic modern and classic Turkmen luxury, the hotel has an interior atrium with the rooms off a central gallery overlooking the reception area from each floor.

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While the lobby is fairly traditional, the rooms remind me of a cheap European motel.

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Except the bathroom, which has an ultra-modern power shower with more bells and whistles than I know what to do with; and huge mirrors on two of the walls. Thank goodness for steam!

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The shower runs out of hot water before we are both able to have finish our ablutions, however, and while we have two hand towels, they have only provided one bath towel.

The door, on the other hand, is in the same ornate style we have seen elsewhere.

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By now, David's leg is beginning to show some serious bruising. Should we be worried? We try and contact John, our chiropractor, which is easier said than done from Turkmenistan where all social media is banned, along with several popular websites offering emails. We have no mobile signal on our phones either, but we do finally manage to get through via gmail.

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Restaurant-Club Traktir

Looking more like a brothel than a posh restaurant, this place is one of the two best eateries in town (the other one being Restaurant Praga where we had lunch). When I see an American Embassy car outside, I realise it can't be all bad. Or can it?

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Entrance to the restaurant is down a long corridor with flashing light nets.


Seating is in individual booths, with glistening black flock wallpaper, and black and gold ceiling. (it's an awful photograph, but it gives you some idea of what the restaurant looks like)

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I notice a couple of little amusing translations on the menu, such as “second blouses”, “chicken on a green cushion”, and “beef in gold ring”

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The food – descriptions below as it appears on the menu – is extremely good.

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Roast beef with mushrooms and potatoes, with garlic aroma and fresh cut herbs.

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Pallo-Segretto – meat balls with cheese filling

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Toretta – gastronomic tower of chop veal and chicken filet, laid by layers with vegetable streaks of eggplant, tomatoes and rennet cheese.

Artem wants to stay in the bar, drinking, but both David and I are feeling less than enthusiastic this evening.

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The garish-looking bar - apologies for another rubbish mobile phone photo

When we get back to the room, or in David's case, hobble back to the room, I still have diarrhoea, and take some of the tablets I bought earlier. We can hear loud music which appears to be emanating from just the other side of our room; with what sounds like a live stage with a boy band and screaming girl fans, almost rioting.

On that note, we go to bed, after another interesting day here in Turkmenistan, as arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:20 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged police museum russia mary pharmacy turkmenistan caravanserai soviet_union ex-soviet permit central_asia undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy turkmenabat diarrhoea police_checkpoint drivers-licence tourism_permit türkmenabat_museum silk-road amul restaurant_praga sardoba yupek_yoly_hotel restaurant_traktir flock_wallpaper bad_ankle swollen_leg Comments (4)

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)

Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell


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

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

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Discussing Plan B

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

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

Pharmacy

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

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

Konya-Urgench

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

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

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

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Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

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

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

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

He does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The tomb chamber

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

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This drawing shows you how.

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Kutlug Timur Minaret

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

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

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

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

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum

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

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum

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

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Kufic Arabic letters

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

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

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

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

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Lunch

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

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Desert Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darwaza Gas Crater

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

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

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

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

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The back story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We get a chance to taste it as well.

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

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

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

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

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Chez nous on the right

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

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

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

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The kitchen and dining area

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Vegetable soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.

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

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