One of our more surreal days: camel jam, bizarre rock formations, ancient pilgrimage site, agonising leg injury, restricted tourist zone, 5* yacht club, self-locking doors
Continuing the trials and tribulations of a cloth napkin this morning, the waitress surprises us by NOT removing it when she brings our breakfast out. She does, however, make a big point of giving us paper serviettes. We let sleeping napkins be, and stick with the paper ones.
Breakfast just appears this morning, and a very substantial affair it is too, with egg, sausage, bread, cheese, jam and pancakes. We are not going to starve on this trip, that's for sure.
Last night Meylis ordered a picnic lunch from the hotel restaurant for today's journey; to be ready for 09:00. When he goes to collect it, they say it will be another 25 minutes before it is ready, as it is “just cooking now”.
25 minutes later, and he is told “it has just cooked now, another 25 minutes for steaming”.
They were correct about the timing – 50 minutes late we pick up the food and can leave for the next part of the journey.
As we drive out of the town on Balkanabat, we spot some cool horse riders at the side of the road. They look so right here, like something out of a historical Silk Road movie. This is the first time we have seen anyone on horseback out here.
These are of course not the valuable and sought after Ahel Teke horses, but rather amore common breed known as Yomut.
A large bird is circling quite low overhead, and Artem stops the car so that I can get out to take some photos.
We share the road with a small herd of free-range camels. There are infinitely more camels than cars on this stretch.
As I have said before, 80% of the country is covered in desert, and we soon see some classic dunes along the side of the road.
And not just beside the road, it is blowing across it too.
The sand is remarkably deep considering the wind apparently only started yesterday – if this is what it can do in a day, I dread to think what it will look like by the end of the week. It is obviously quite a common phenomenon, as we see a sign warning of SAND BLIZZARD.
As we climb higher into the barren mountains, we come across a huge herd of camels. These are not free-range, however, they are being guided along the road by a camel herder on a motorbike.
For the last few hours we have been driving along a flat stretch of land, with wide open spaces on either side, and no ditches or other obstructions on the side of the road. This section, however, has barriers either side of the road, so we end up having to travel at camel-speed until we can get past this jam.
A few of the camels have somehow ended up on the wrong side of the barriers.
Two of the animals clumsily try to cross to the road-side of the fence, and totally fail.
It seems that the stray camels are somewhat stuck, as the embankment and part of the road have slipped down into ravine below. Not sure what they will do now if they can't cross the barrier – go back I guess.
Footnote: I don't know what they did in the end, but when we drove past again a few hours later, there were no dead camels at the bottom - I checked.
Having passed the camels, we climb to the top of the cliffs with amazing views of the plateau below. This completely flat area that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, was once the ocean bed of the pre-historical Parathetys Sea.
It is not the empty and barren lowlands that are spread before us that we have come to see, and soon we catch a glimpse of a series of surreal rock formations rising mysteriously from the planes below: The 'Badlands of Turkmenistan'.
I am fascinated by the crusty layer of rock on top, which has kept its shape and hardness while everything underneath it has been eroded away.
I wish I knew more about geology and could identify the different rocks and their formation / age.
Erosion, wind, weather, and tectonic shifts over the last 5.5 million years have all contributed to carving out the curious landscape we see today: Yangikala Canyon. Rose coloured rocks, tainted by the presence of iron, vie for attention with ribbed white limestone folds and alluvial fans in this extraordinary range of cliffs stretching some 15 miles across the desert to the Garabogazköl Basin.
Continuing across the top of these rock formations seems almost like a sacrilege. There are no roads or tracks, we just drive along the flat surface, until we come to a formation known as the Crocodile's Mouth. From its gaping overhang, it is easy to see how it got its name.
Both Meylis and David go to the top of the snout of the croc to have their photo taken, but as I am none too fond of heights, I flatly refuse. After a bit of persuasion I start walking out towards the edge, and find that it is not as terrifying from the top as it looks from across the small ravine.
I am not as brave as Artem, however.
The view in the opposite direction is much more picturesque, and not so terrifying.
We decide that this is a great place to have our picnic. With the temperature being in the mid-thirties (centigrade) and no shade for miles around, it makes sense to sit in the air conditioned car to eat. Overlooking one of the most sensationally striking landscapes imaginable, we tuck into cold manty while the music is blaring out Ra Ra Rasputin by Boney M. Could life get any more surreal? This surely has to be one of the main highlights of our trip and a memory to cherish forever!
Manty - traditional Turkmen beef dumplings
Adding to the bizarre feel of this place, peculiar spherical bushes, reminiscent of tumbleweed, dot the flat plateau as far as the eye can see.
Taking one last glance back at the multicoloured cliffs and the place I overcame my fear to stand on the overhang, we leave Yangikala Canyon behind and turn back the way we came.
The mausoleum of Gözli Ata, a respected Sufi teacher in the early 14th century, is now a popular place of pilgrimage.
You can read all about him here:
Visiting pilgrims walk around the mausoleum three times, always anticlockwise.
Surrounding the mausoleum a cemetery has sprung up, with some unusual grave markers.
This, a somewhat more traditional grave stone, features Persian writing, evidence that worshippers come here from far and wide.
Many of the graves have hollows cut out or a cup at the base such as this one. It is not for flowers as we would do here in the west, the containers are for collecting water to quench the thirst of the souls who are resting here. In reality, the water is used by wildlife, meaning that even in death you are still supporting life.
And here is that wildlife:
Not only do pilgrims come here to pay their respect to the revered sufi leader, they also use this site to create cairns, such as these modest collections of stones, which they believe will act as vehicles for their prayers.
A much larger and more formal structure has been created for worshippers to pray for children, health and wealth.
Items left at the site indicate what the families are wishing for, such as this comb which indicates they would like a daughter.
It seems this family were desperate for the addition of a son.
The small cot means that gender is unimportant to the hopeful couple as long as they are bestowed with a child.
Keys suggest that a new home is on the wish list.
Other visitors will make their wish in a more traditional way, such as tying a piece of cloth around a stick.
A large building housing a guest house as well as a covered picnic area has been constructed on the site to cater for the pilgrims who visit here. We therefore make a point of utilising the facilities before we leave. While making his way back to the car and stepping up onto a 'platform', David misjudges the height of the step and takes am awkward tumble. I know nothing of this until I see him hobbling at a snail's pace across the car park.
Finally making it back to the car, he tells us the story, and admits that he is in a great deal of pain, fearing that he has torn a muscle in his calf. Right here right now there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, so he just swallows some pain killers as we make our way to our final destination for today.
Huge crowds of sheep and goats signal the presence of a waterhole.
I always struggle to tell the difference between sheep and goats in this part of the world, as they both look very similar, unlike the sheep in the UK.
The little brown and white blighter who is looking at us is a sheep, whereas the black one with his back to us is a goat. I have always looked at the coat to tell them apart – sheep are fluffier with curly hair, whereas goat wool is straighter and courser. Meylis informs us that the goats are the ones with horns, although I am pretty sure that this is not always the case.
Looks like the sheep and goats will soon have company, as we meet a number of camels making their way towards the waterhole.
They seem to be as curious about us as we are about them.
I can just hear the conversation over a drink later:
Camel 1: “Did you see those tourists earlier?”
Camel 2: “I know, the woman even had bright orange hair”
Camel 3: “You don't get many of those around here do you.”
Camel 4: “I wonder which waterhole they were going to?”
We pass more areas covered with sand dunes on our way to Turkmenbashi.
Awaza Tourism Zone
Turkmenbashi is a town of two halves and one of the more peculiar set-ups we have ever encountered. The large modern town (it is the second city after Ashgabat) is much like any other port town, with oil storage facilities and a large passenger terminal, plus the normal residential / shopping areas.
Then there is Awasha Tourism Zone. This is the bit that has me scratching my head (and shaking it).
'Normal' cars are not permitted into the area, so Artem has to drop us off at a huge covered parking area, which houses around two thousand cars. We see less than two dozen.
From here we have to take government approved taxis to our accommodation, which is around two miles away.
It all happens in such a flurry of activity that I end up not taking a photo of the enormous, empty car park. To try and redeem myself, I snap this through the taxi window as we make our way to the hotel.
Yelken Yacht Club
This five star tourist hotel is in beautiful, green sprawling grounds, such a contrast to the barren scenery earlier today. I shall post more about this hotel with lots of pictures in tomorrow's blog entry. It is so big in fact, that we are taken to our room by a golf buggy; despite Meylis arranging for us to be in the nearest room to the main building as David can hardly walk on his damaged leg now.
Drinks on the Balcony
We have a large, well furnished balcony overlooking the extensive hotel gardens, so we make the most of the remaining sunshine with a drink outside.
Thankfully we have wifi here, so I email our trusted chiropractor (and good friend) John, to see if he has any suggestions what David can do to alleviate the pain in his leg. John recommends elevating the leg, taking Ibuprofen, putting ice on the painful part; and he also suggests some exercises that David can do to speed up the healing. I do love my chiropractor for providing instant remote consultation.
Meylis pops his head around the corner and we invite him to join us for a drink. Being young and fit, he simply jumps over the bannister and on to the balcony. When I try to get a glass from the bedroom for him, I am unable to open the door. David tries, Meylis tries. None of us can shift it, which is odd, because I went back in earlier. The door was a little stiff then, but not insurmountable.
Jumping back over the railings, Meylis goes to the reception to get a card key for the room. Being the sensible, security conscious person I am, I double locked the door to the room when we arrived, so the key does not work. Back to reception for plan B. I am so grateful Meylis happened to turn up at the right time, as we'd never be able to explain this to the receptionist in Russian / Turkmen / sign language.
When he returns, Meylis explains that the self-locking door is a safety feature, so that you cannot enter the room from the balcony once the door is closed. How absolutely ridiculous! There are no signs warning us not to close the door when we go out there, something we are obviously going to do in order to keep the room cool and the air conditioning working efficiently.
Reception send a maintenance worker, who has to use his electric drill to take the handle and lock off in order to let us in. By now I can see the funny side of this, and cannot stop giggling.
Turkmenbashi is situated on the Caspian Sea, so it seems logical to order fish for dinner this evening. I choose the speciality dish called 'sturgeon on a tile'. This is a new fish to me, and while it is pleasant, it is nothing out of the ordinary. It comes with lovely rich mashed potato, however. Not sure where the 'tile' comes into it though.
The fried meatballs that David ordered
An unusual dessert of pumpkin with tahini sauce and walnut syrup
David's apple and raisin tart with (a very white) ice cream
Meylis just has ice cream. As you can see, even here in this posh restaurant, all we get is café-style cheap paper napkins. I'm afraid I am a bit of a napkin snob and I do judge an establishment on whether they offer paper or cloth for their diners to dab their lips with. There, I've said it!
After dinner we retire to the room, reflecting on what an fabulously adventurous day it has been.
Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this great private tour for us.