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Published: October 23rd 2016
Lonely Planet describes Turkmenistan as "by far the most mysterious and unexplored on the Central Asian 'Stans, which became famous for the truly bizarre dictatorship of its first President Saparmyrat Niyazov, who ruled until his death in 2006". More on this soon, but what was very apparent was the incredible contrast between the 'very old' and the 'very new' in this country, to the degree that I have decided these warrant breaking down into two separate blogs, of which this one will address the 'very old'.
The trip over the border from Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan was not a great experience. Despite an early start in the hope that our bus would be the first to the border (about a 90 minute trip), we were in fact pipped by a busload of some 40 Germans, who naturally had first priority into what would prove an incredibly bureaucratic system. After filling out the required paperwork to leave Uzbekistan, we had to stand in line behind the German busload, while each of them was individually checked out and searched thoroughly. Just as our turn finally arrived, an hour or so later, some 30 or so Uzbek lorry drivers suddenly appeared from nowhere, and
while I was actually standing at the immigration window at the very front of our bus group, all of these Uzbeks were given priority over the rest of us, extending that stay another hour. When we finally did get our turn, we were also searched thoroughly to check we hadn't taken more cash out of the country than we bought in, and also that we had not purchased any antiques or other national treasures. But the fun had only started there! Once out of Uzbekistan, we all had to walk for over a kilometre through a 'no-man's-land' to the Turkmen immigration office. This road was partial dirt and partial cobblestones and potholes, resulting in quite a task dragging along our heavy suitcases. Thank god the weather was kind - I'm not sure how people handle it in 40 degrees or a thunderstorm! When we finally reached the Turkmen immigration area, we found the German group still there, as frustrated as we were. Eventually, we all got through but not before having our luggage thoroughly searched again, this time the emphasis being on medical supplies and pills, which given the age of our tour participants were in plentiful supply. We had
to open each box and explain to a customs guy, whose English was pretty poor, exactly the function of each pill, which was a real experience for one of our hypochrondiac fellow travellers who was carrying about 20 different types of pills! I even had the customs guy inspect thoroughly each set of my reading and sunglasses before riffling for some time through my John Grisham novel, from which he finally came up with the in-depth query "are you a lawyer?". Okay, enough said about border stops, but suffice to sat this border stop took us over 5 hours.
The real downside of the long border stop is that it pushed our schedule out by a couple of hours, for which we ended up paying a heavy price. Soon after the border, we travelled through Turkmenabat, the second-largest city in the country, but pretty much devoid of places of interest. Of interest, we crossed the Amu Darya River via a 'floating bridge' more than 500 metres long (similar to temporary bridges set up elsewhere after natural disasters), for which it was recommended we all get out and walk to minimise the weight on the bus. Our trip down south
to Mary took us through one of the biggest deserts in the world known as Karakum Desert, which means 'black sand', although the sand dunes and bush forest of the desert in general appeared more brown and green than black. We finally reached our target destination, Merv, around 7.30pm, just as the sun was going down and night approaching. Merv is one of the most ancient territories of Central Asia, and was in fact at one time one of the largest cities of the ancient world. The origin of Merv is shrouded in mystery, but references have been found of it existing since several centuries BC. Apart from the reconstructed 40 metre high Sultan Sandzhar Mausoleum, which was totally lit up by the time we reached it in the darkness, Merv now just comprises mainly a series of modern ruins, stretched over quite a large area. As I said, we had very limited time to view them, which was probably the major disappointment of our trip for most people, as we had no flexibility to return next day, since we were booked on an early flight to Ashgabat, the capital city.
Following our stay in Ashgabat, we again flew
north to Dashoguz (back near the Uzbek border), from where we had a day trip to another ancient settlement near Kunya-Urgench. This city was situated in a very favourable geographical location, at the crossing of two caravan routes - to China in the east, and the Volga in the northwest. During the 13th century, it was the heart of the Islamic world until it was razed to the ground by the Mongols. After this time, a number of structures were built and are standing today, perhaps the three most significant being the Turabek Hanum and the Sultan Tekesh Mausoleums and the minaret of Kutleg Timur, one of the tallest minarets in Central Asia. The architectural masterpieces of both Kunya-Urgench and Merv have been entered into the list of the World's Legacy of UNESCO.
For some reason, the day at Kunya-Urgench offered us a greater opportunity to mix with the locals, who were also checking out the various sites. We had a number of requests to either pose for photos with the locals or to stop and give some of the younger ones an opportunity to practice their stuttering English. For me, that is always one of the real highlights
to any of these less-visited countries, and I have shown a sample of some of our meetings in the attached pics.
One minor disappointment was the fact that it was impractical for us to visit the Darvasa Gas Craters, one of Turkmenistan's most unusual sights right in the middle of the Karakum Desert. The result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s, the three craters are artificial. One has been set alight and blazes with such strength that it's visible many kilometres away, while the other two contain bubbling mud and water. I understand the fire crater is particularly impressive at night, but unfortunately Darvaza was just too far a trip for us to get to see it.
As advised, our visit to the 'very new' city of Ashgabat was wedged in between these two ancient civilisation regions, and will be the subject of my next blog. So strap yourself in, this city could not be more different from these two regions just visited, and there is no doubt Ashgabat is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.
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