Edit Blog Post
Published: July 25th 2006
3-5000 year old pottery, Gonur Depe
In any other country this kind of stuff would be in a museum and would have national treasure status, here it's just left lying around.
A quick search of this website reveals that, aside from an American chap working in Turkmenistan posting his contact details, the last tourist entry for this country was September 2001. So it's hardly surprising then that of all the places we'd planned to visit on this trip the one that aroused the most curiosity amongst our friends prior to departure was undoubtedly Turkmenistan. Those who had heard of it (and they were by no means the majority) had heard of it only in the context of some outrage enacted by the eccentric (some would say insane) president - the ice hotel he supposedly planned to build in the Karakum desert, one of the hottest places on earth (it turned out to be a skating rink - but that doesn't make for such a great story), the renaming of the months of January and April after himself and his mother respectively and the banning of foreign music (an ineffective ban if our experience is anything to go by) are three that spring to mind. After a week of being closely chaperoned around the country's tourist sites by our guide I'm afraid we're in no position to provide much enlightenment as to what
Kar Po and Victor
the famous archeologist
things are really like in Turkmenistan but we do have a few tales to tell about this "unusual" but very interesting place.
The fun started with the border crossing from Iran. It was a scene straight out of a cold war spy movie, a rickety bridge spanning a dried up river bed; the flags of both countries half way across designating the exact point at which the Islamic republic ended and the former Soviet Union began; a telephone booth sized guard post, inhabited by Turkmen guards in almost comically large flat topped army caps; and a gruff ethnic Russian officer who took our papers, recorded our details (by hand) in his paper ledger and called ahead to the immigration post proper using his crank handled, world war 2 era field phone, to check that the 3 scruffy foreign tourists (we were with Steve from the UK) who'd turned up at 'his' border had really been the recipients of valid invites to enter. All we needed were a couple of prisoners to exchange and the John Le Carre novel scene would have been complete. To be fair, once he'd confirmed we were supposed to be there, the officer was actually
Whipping up a storm
at Gonur, that's our guide on the right
quite friendly and he even shook my hand as we boardered the rusting hulk of a bus that was to take us across the 5km wasteland to the immigration post. The smiling Iranian driver of which greeted us warmly, bemoaned the state of the Turkmen roads (he had a point there), regaled us with stories of how great things are in Iran, as if we hadn't just come from there, and promptly demanded a fee 5x the offical rate. With none of his countrymen around to embarrass him into charging us the proper amount we were in no position to bargain, and we didn't begrudge his additional fee too much as he was actually quite funny and probably gets no more that a handful of foreigners a week coming thru to use his service.
So we finally made it to the immigration post proper - 2 hours, numerous incomprehensible forms and one bird flu check later, and with our details dutifully recorded in several more hand written ledgers, we were at last permitted to enter the realm of President Saparmyrat Niyazov or, as he prefers to be known, Turkmenbashi the Great. Thankfully our guide hadn't given up on us
and was waiting to whisk us away to Mary, the country's second city and base for exploring the ancient site of Merv.
We'd noticed crossing the border how the land changed abruptly from the cultivated fields of north-eastern Iran to a scrubby wasteland on the Turkmen side and the 3 hour trip to Mary offered more of the same - no hills, no trees, no water features, nothing at all in fact. This was just a sign of things to come though as much of the country, at least the part that we saw anyway, was pretty much the same - if it wasn't featureless desert (which has a beauty all of its own) it was this horrible, sparsely scrubbed wasteland (from which you'd be hard pressed to find any beauty at all). Our guide told us that what fertility there was in the land has long since departed as a result of the natural changes to the flow of the Oxus river and, of course, massive Soviet era irrigation projects. Worse, much worse, was to come in Uzbekistan, but as an introduction to communism's devastating impact on the environment the Turkmen countryside was a pretty sobering sight.
One good thing about arriving in Turkemenistan after nearly a month in Iran was the food. I know central Asian food doesn't have the best of reputations, and if you'd come from anywhere else you'd probably concur, but after Iran the pork chops, mashed spud and beer we tucked into in Mary was a godsend. Can't tell you much about Mary itself as we were whisked from restaurant to hotel to archeological site with no time in between for exploring. After 3 or 4 months of independent travel you can imagine how frustrating this was for us. Having a guide with you at all times outside of Ashgabat is a condition of the tourist visa in Turkmenistan. You can get a transit visa which will allow you to travel independently but there are heavy restrictions on where you can go and how long you get - probably not worth the hassle unless you've got your own transport. Despite the frustrations of being chaperoned all the time it was kind of nice to have someone taking care of things for us for a while. It was also nice to spend some time with the other 2 tourists in our group, Steve
from the UK (whom we'd hooked up with in Iran) and Gunnar from Norway.
Our first stop was Gonur Tepe, a 3 hour drive from Mary. There we met famed local archeologist Viktor Sarianidi who believes that Gonur Tepe was home to the world's 5th great ancient civilisation (after Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China) and has spent the last 30 years of his life excavating the ruins there in order to prove it. Incredible dedication to his passion when you consider how bleak the area is - horribly hot, absolutely no shelter aside from his tiny wooden hut, the ubiquitous ugly scrubland for hundreds of miles in every direction.....rather him than me. Apparently the international archeology community is split on the validity of his theories. He and his helpers have uncovered a small town sized network of low mud walls, the earliest of which is thought to be well over 5000 years old. As you walk through the maze of the ruins you are struck by the mounds of ancient pottery just left sitting there. In most other places in the world this stuff would be in a museum but here there is just far too much of it
and, aside from a few choice pieces, is pretty much left to the elements. Like all the other ancient sites in Turkmenistan there were plenty of human bones lying around as well. Gonur was supposed to be just one of several ancient cities in the area, the evidence for which was plain even to our untrained eyes on the drive over. When we made toilet or wild animal spotting stops you couldn't help but walk on shards of 5000+ year old pottery - and this in the middle of the desert, miles from Gonur and even further from anything resembling modern civilisation. Even more incredibly the ruins his work has revealed are believed to sit atop the remains of an even older civilisation thought to be almost 10000 years old. We were probably quite lucky to see Gonur when we did as it might be the kind of thing that in years to come, when and if Turkmenistan gets a decent government, there'll be a media explosion about.
From Gonur we headed to the showpiece tourist attraction of Turkmenistan - Merv. Yet another vast area of old stones and ill defined, but nevertheless tall, mud walls to be sure
A 7th century fort and one of Merv's better preserved structures
but pretty fascinating nevertheless if only for the sheer diversity of the people who have lived there over the centuries. It was one of the many cities founded by Alexander the Great during his conquest of the known world back in the 4th century BC. Since then it has been inhabited by Greeks, Persians, Turks and many others. For much of its history it was famed as a bastion of tolerance where Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Muslims lived together happily and you can still see remains of temples, churches and mosques side by side. But all that came to an abrupt end in the 13th century when, at the height of its wealth and power as a major stopping point on the silk road, the ruler of the time made the rather schoolboyish error of murdering some emmisaries of a well known tyrant of the time - a certain Mr G Khan. Unsurprisingly, Genghis took exception to this slight on his credentials as a ruthless despot and the following year he ordered several thousand of his closest friends to call in on Merv on their way to conquering lands elsewhere. For a few days the city's inhabitants were largely left
KP acquires yet more new friends
Unlike women in just about every other country we've visited (especially China) the ladies in Turkmenistan were very happy to have their photos taken.
to their own devices but just as they thought they might get through the Mongol occupation relatively unscathed they were herded out to the fields in front of the city walls and systematically slaughtered in their tens of thousands. After they torched the city the Mongols fled, only to return a few days later to take care of any survivors who had crept out of their hiding places. Estimates of the numbers killed range upto 700,000 but the book I read suggested this might be an exaggeration and thought a figure of more than 100,000 was accurate. Either way it was a pretty gruesome reminder to rulers elsewhere not to mess with the Mongols. Today you need a pretty good imagination to picture Merv at the height of its powers as very few structures are in a recognisible state, but there are still plenty of high city walls that you can climb to gain an appreciation of the vastness of the city as it's remains dot the landscape for miles around. The area also contains a number of sites of Muslim pilgrimage and there were quite a few groups of Turcomen people visiting at the same time as us. Unlike
Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar
A 12th century Turkish ruler in these parts.
some of the other countries we've been to the women were positively bursting to have their photos taken, especially, yet again, with Kar Po. Great stuff.
After another night in Merv where we got to sample some of the local nightlife we made the long drive to the capital, Ashgabat. With a couple of stop offs at the ruins of more silk road cities the drive took the best part of the day. Again, aside from the Kopet Dag mountains which loomed into view as we approached the city, the landscape was utterly desolate and featureless the entire way.
I'm not really sure what to say about Ashgabat. I'd never actually met anyone who'd been there but had heard of a friend of a friend who'd described it as the wierdest place he'd ever visited. This might be a little unkind but, with policemen on every corner in the city centre (and I mean EVERY corner), it was certainly not the most comfortable place to be. On the other hand if you were actually able to engage with the policemen (not an easy thing to do) you soon realised that many of them were shy, clueless boys from
The old city walls at Merv
from where we could see ruins of Greek, buddhist, christian and seljuk Turk structures.
the countryside....clueless boys with guns that is. They got awfully tetchy when you pulled a camera out though and so many of the photos we've put here were actually done on the sly. One of them even prevented Kar Po from taking a shot of a rose....we still haven't worked that one out.
The population of Ashgabat is thought to be somewhere approaching 1 million but with its wide deserted boulevards and empty parks it feels an awful lot less than that. The outstanding features of the central city are its parks, its many golden statues of the president and its often ridiculous monuments to the greatness of Turkmenbashi or the glory of Turkmenistan. I don't know where to start with the monuments. My personal favourite was the giant replica Ruhnama, the book written by the president that sets out his version of the country's history and his philosophy on life in general, apparently required reading for university entrance. But it could just as easily have been the Arch of Neutrality with the wierder still earthquake monument nestled directly below. The Arch of Neutrality was constructed to celebrate the UN's acknowledgement of Turkmenistan's offical status as a neutral nation
This could store ice for upto 3 years, even through the muderous summers they get in these here parts.
and it resembles a giant three legged rocket about to take off with the 12m golden statue of Turkmenbashi that sits atop it being the rocket tip. The golden statue is supposed to rotate so that it always faces the sun but it seemed to be broken when we were there. Sitting slightly below and to the side of the arch of neutrality is the earthquake monument. This consists of a giant black bull bucking the ruptured globe about in its horns. Sitting atop the globe is a female figure holding aloft a golden baby she has plucked from the earth....I'm not sure if this is supposed to be Turkmenbashi (surely he can't be THAT egotistical) but the story is spookily reminiscint of his own as his mother was killed in the earthquake after she had saved her infant child. With his rise to power the golden baby has encouraged the development of something of a cult around his parents (his father was killed in WWII) and various monuments to them are dotted around the city. I suppose another 'highlight' was the world's biggest fountain, on top of which sits a very nice restaurant. This was just one of many
highly elaborate water features that beautify the city, kind of ironic really considering Turkmenistan is one of the world's driest countries.
Monuments aside, the highlight of most people's visit to Ashgabat is usually the famed Tolkuchka Bazaar, a sprawling market on the edge of town where you can buy clothes, carpets, camels, and just about everything else you can think of. We've seen a lot of markets over the past 7 months but this was definitely the most colourful. Unfortunately we couldn't buy our Turkmen carpet from the friendly ladies in the market however as the government hass helpfully made the paperwork on such transactions almost impossible to deal with (we did buy a lovely carpet from a dealer in town a few days later though, he was able to deal with the beauracracy on our behalf). We'd heard what a spirited bunch the Turcomans are and we saw it first hand on the bus trip back to town when 2 middle aged women had a vicious scrap over a seat. It started with finger pointing, flared nostrils and bulging eyes and ended a good few minutes later with flying fists, arm biting and eye gouging. Real full on
Another lonesome mausoleum
standing guard in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
stuff and, just quietly, quite fun actually, especially from a safe distance.
The low point of our time in Turkmenistan was undoutedly the morning we wasted standing outside the Uzbek embassy. Due to a(nother) balls up by the agency who supplied us with letters of invitation to Uzbekistan we were unable to apply for our Uzbek visas until we got to Ashgabat, not ideal but no reason why it should have been a problem as all our paperwork was in order. We arrived just before the opening time of 10 and waited, and waited and waited. People who arrived even earlier than us were admitted, people who arrived after us were admitted, but, despite our increasingly agitated protests, we were not let through the locked bars to the sacred room where stamps are put in passports. Come the closing time of 1pm we, and a small number of local people, were told that the embassy was closed for the day and we would have to come back 2 days later when it re-opened. We huffed and we puffed but we simply couldn't blow the iron gates in. Our mistake - when we signed in at the entrance upon our
Quite a Haul
The spoils of 5 mins worth of scratching around a silk road city near Ashgabat - a handful of Mongol era pottery shards (don't worry, we put them back)
arrival we told them we were leaving Ashgabat tomorrow and would need our visas today. We were in urgent need of a service only the nasty embassy staff could provide and were, therefore, prime candidates to provide them with some "additional consideration." In short they had us by the short and curleys and they knew it. Knowing that we'd come back with people from the agency and a nice sweetner the head man sauntered off to his lunch while we stewed. Sure enough our agency employed someone who knew the Uzbek counsel well and said if we waited till later in the day we'd get our visa no problem provided we passed a small "gift" his way. As per her instructions we handed over US$200 when we re-presented ourselves at the embassy some hours later and received no change despite being told the visa fee was US$81 each (no idea if this is even correct). So we can now add bribery of a government offical of the Republic of Uzbekistan to our list of sins. It's an utter disgrace really but there ain't much we can do about it except name the pig who benefitted from this scam - a
at Abiwerd, a silk road city near Ashgabat
Mr Rushtam, senior offical, quite possibly the counsel, at the Uzbek embassy in Ashgabat. So if any of you 3 people who actually read this are heading this way, beware. All part of the 'fun' of travelling in this part of the world you might argue but utterly infuriating nevertheless. Hopefully he'll choke on his kebab, or better still fall foul of the charming Uzbek government and be recalled to Tashkent in disgrace.
A word on our accommodation in Ashgabat which was a huge mausoleum like place that would have been a superb example of what the coiners of the phrase "Soviet era hotel" had in mind, expect that it was built only a couple of years ago. We named one of the staff members Dr No - no you can't use the table tennis tables, no we can't post letters for you, no you can't change rooms (fortunately he was overruled on this), no I can't smile for you etc. The road on which it was located contained many more such structures, far more hotels than tourists in fact, just as well they all benefit from heavy state subsidies.
The brief glimpses of local TV we saw
left by women wanting children at a mosque outside Ashgabat
are also worth a quick mention. We turned it on before going to bed every night and always managed to catch a few minutes of various meetings presided over by Turkmenbashi. Despite not having a clue what they were talking about the way in which these meetings were conducted was highly revealing. Turkmenbashi (looking, to my eyes enyway, like a union heavy from the 1950s rather than a charismatic dictator extraordinaire) would slouch behind his large, flower festooned desk at the front of the room delivering rambling monologues to the note taking officals, arranged in half moon style around him, and the folk at home. When summoned to speak these officals would nervously stammer, stutter and shake their way through what I imagine would have been the longest few minutes of their lives before Turkmenbashi would relieve them by embarking upon another diatribe of his own. It wsa obvious that these guys were really scared and many of them looked like men of some achievement themselves. I should imagine that some of these gatherings were cabinet meetings so if cabinet ministers were this scared of the president imagine how normal people must feel. On one ocassion he haranged a woman
built out of blocks and left at a mosque outside Ashgabat by folk wanting, you guessed it, bigger houses.
for minutes on end, throughout which she was in tears as she stood in front of her colleagues and the TV cameras. No idea what she had done wrong. Just as revealing, perhaps, was the golden image of Turkmenbashi's bust that sat in the top right corner of the screen on the main government channel, much as TV station logos do in other countries.
From Ashgabat we drove north, over the course of 2 days, right through the middle of the fearsome Karakum desert. It was only spring time but man it was hot. Our guide told us that the last legal supplier of petrol is located just a few kms out of Ashgabat, and then there is nothing for hundreds of miles until you come out the other side of the desert. Apparently this has somemthing to do with the supression of some radical elements in the desert, although I really don't know for sure. Consequently, and despite the presence of a thriving illegal trade in petrol in the desert, people who have occasion to cross the Karakum regularly have mighty big gas tanks. We saw one guy fill his 100 litre tank for the equivalent of US$1.20,
....would you use this to clean your clothes?
yes that's right, a buck twenty. Petrol is not the only thing that's heavily subsidised. Apparently heating is free for all and bread is provided gratis to old people. The price of public transport is also ludicrously cheap. A bus ride within Ashgabat costs 5 manat, not very much when you consider that US$1 is equal to 25000 manat on the black market (which is used by EVERYONE). Or, put another way, for the price of a Sunday Times newspaper in London you could ride the buses in Ashgabat around 12500 times, almost long enough to get through all the Sunday supplements and offers for trips to Spain Rupert's minions inflict upon their readers!
So the Karakum. Undoutedly the nicest scenery we saw in Turkmenistan. But with its constantly shifting sands it is a neverending battle to prevent the desert from reclaiming the road that runs through its heart. Throughout the journey we came across hundreds of road workers employed in this thankless task, many of them hours away from the nearest village and, surprisingly perhaps, many of them women. There aren't many countries in the world that engage all female road crews but Turkmenistan is one of them.
Carpets everywhere at the Tolcuhka markets
Very beautiful, especially the one we brought.
But despite their best efforts it was a battle the workers were losing and the road was dire, hence the 2 days needed to travel just a few hundred kms. But the road wasn't the most frustrating aspect of the trip. Far worse were the constant checkpoints where our papers had to be rechecked and our details hand written into yet more ledgers. One pair of checkpoints were only 28km apart from each other! I don't know what they'll ever do with all this information, or how they'll even get it together in a useable format considering it's in numerous exercise books spread across the country, but if they do decide they need to check on us all these months later I don't know what they'll make of my wife, whose name was variously copied from her passport into the ledgers as "Kar Po Chong female", "Chong Brown eyes" or just plain "Chong" etc.
Our night in the desert was spent at a rather incredible spot - the Darvaza gas crater. An enormous, gas leaking hole in the ground in the middle of the desert several km's from the road. The difference between this crater and the others that
shame about the paperwork
dot the surrounding landscape is that back in the 1940s some Soviet guy apparently dropped a match in it and it has been burning ever since (actually no one seems to know if this is true but it is the most appealing of the stories I heard). These days you can see the glow of the hole for miles around at night and it is scorchingly hot anywhere within a few hundred metres of its fiery edge. We slept in a tent and our guide whisked us up a fabulous meal on the camp fire. A really nice final night in the country.
Another long drive to the Uzbek border awaited us the next day. Hours of virtually uninhabited sand finally gave way late in the afternoon to the dusty small town of Konye Urgench. No fountains or fine monuments here I'm afraid. But it hasn't always been this grim, some 6-700 years ago it vied with the fabulous Samarkand for the title of greatest city in the region. Unfortuantely for the inhabitants of Konye Urgench Samarkand also happened to be the beloved capital of Tamerlane, the pre-emminent bully of the period. He didn't take kindly to the fact
that there might be a rival to the city he was pouring vast amounts of other people's treasure into making great and so, one day in the latter years of the 14th century, and less than 2 centuries after Genghis Khan had stormed through leaving his usual trail of death and destruction, the armies of Tamerlane paid a visit and slaughtered the luckless towns folk. Such was his determination to see that Konye Urgench never rose again that he made sure his soldiers burned to the ground almost every building and had crops planted over the entire area. A charming chap that you'll be unsurprised to learn actually claimed descent from Genghis, mind you so does half of central Asia. There ain't much left for us tourists to see today but there are plenty of gruesome reminders of Tamerlane's visit everywhere you look in the form of untold numbers of human bones and even the odd partially uncovered, but nevertheless intact, skeleton!
And that was that, with our visit to Konye Urgench our all too brief week in Turkmenistan was up. A week in which we learnt a great deal about the Turkmenistan of a thousand years ago and
bugger all about the Turkmenistan of today, just as the Government likes it I suspect. A pity really, not just for us tourists but for the country as well cause if the majority of the few foreign visitors who actually manage to make it here have experiences similar to ours then they'll likely go away with their pre-conceptions of the place intact and, in all probability, enhanced.
I've just waded though my own post again and concede that it possibly does sound a wee bit negative. It's not meant to. We enjoyed our week in the country and our overwhelming emotion was not one of dislike but more one of bafflement. The places we visited were interesting, our guide was excellent (a walking encyclopaedia on Turkmen history) and it was nice to have a week without having to find hotels, organise bus tickets or argue with taxi drivers. We also had a great night out on our first evening in the capital, which we spent in a lovely beer garden in a park in the middle of town where a covers band belted out hits from the 80s. A really nice night especially once the beer started flowing.
So would we recommend it? Well, if you're on a long overland trip like us and Turkmenistan is in the way then yes, we'd say definitely have a go at getting a visa. On the other hand if you only have a week or two's holiday, you're determined to visit somewhere in the region and you don't care what hue your despotic government takes, I'd say you'd get much better bang for your buck in Iran or Uzbekistan, both of which are a whole lot easier to get around in and neither of which will restrict your movements.
Another long post but no apologies this time as this blog business is more to help us remember our long holiday rather than anything else. We're well into the Chinese section of our trip, in fact we only have a week left before we fly to Malaysia for a few weeks and then back to normality again in NZ. God knows how far we've travelled over the last few months but, as those of you who know me would expect, I'm determined to work it out. 'Ask Jeeves' says its 7500 km from Cairo to Beijing as the crow flys. That
A wodge of the largest Turkmen denomination (equal to US40c) needed to pay for a Chinese meal
seems a little light to me, but even if it is correct we'll obviously have gone a hell of a lot further than that with all our twists and turns along the way.
My task, blogwise, is to finish the 'Stans' before we hit New Zealand whilst Ms Chong has untertaken to write up our time in China - a project she is currently failing miserably in I might add. We've got plenty of time in Malaysia to get this finished but, as always, don't hold your breath.
Rob and KP
Tot: 1.792s; Tpl: 0.182s; cc: 8; qc: 66; dbt: 0.1021s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.5mb