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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)

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