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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)

Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
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As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

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

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

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

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

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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

White Marble Buildings

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

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

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

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Owadan Tourism

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

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

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

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

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

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

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

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

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Nisa

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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

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

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

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Museum

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

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

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

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

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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

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

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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

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

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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

Flag

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

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

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Arch of Neutrality

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

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

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

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Wedding Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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