The In-Transit Report

Central Asia Part Two: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan  Ancient Merv 6

Turkmenistan is mostly unknown to world, except by those interested in strange topics such as controlled states, crazy leaders, burning gas craters, and occasionally more normal people versed in Silk Road ruins or the history of the world.

Turkmenistan shares borders with Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and is often traversed by backpackers headed from Europe to Southeast Asia, either via Azerbaijian’s ferry across the black sea, or those lucky enough to get Iranian visas. Many travellers in the region that I’d met before had been through it, and every single one of them had stories about how strange it was, especially the white-marbled capital of Ashgabat. But Turkmenistan offers some of the oldest and biggest known cities, important stops on trade routes.

Since I was not eligible for a 5-day transit visa, the only option for independent travel, I wound up taking a 6-day tour that covered the highlights, albeit in some of the most intense heat I’ve ever been through (think Mars, or every movie you’re seen where someone’s lost in the desert).

I was picked up at the Uzbek border near Bukhara, and taken to Mary, a city close to Ancient Merv (pictured twice), which was an important point of the Silk Road established around the 6th century BCE. From Mary, we took a day trip to the oldest and least preserved archaeological site of the trip, Gonur Depe.

The expansive area around this site, called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, encompasses sites from northern Afghanistan, western Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan, and of course eastern Turkmenistan. Throughout the region is a long history of civilisations and various religious practices including Zoroastrianism. Before that, in Gonur Depe, there is evidence of practices of consuming hallucinogenic beverages, and temples to fire and water dieties. What’s uncovered at this site now looks like a bunch of mud that happens to look like walls, but walking around the site you can appreciate the profound history and importance if you have the imagination and knowledge to do so. There were many interesting parts, like kilns where pottery was fired, marked by the streaks of leftover glaze. Pieces of broken pottery scattered the ground, and our guide even found a completely preserved pot partially sticking out from the ground. There was also a small shed which protected the remains of a horse and chariot found in a King’s tomb, by far the most impressive part of this site. 

Unfortunately, Gonur Depe has fallen into disrepair, especially since the recent death of archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who led its discovery and preservation. The site is barely cared for and most of it is left to the elements, harsh winds and rain. If no one works to preserve the site it will be buried again after a few more years. Our guide said that it had gotten much worse since the last year when he visited with a group, so I’m glad to have seen it when I did, and sad that there isn’t more being done to preserve this part of ancient history. Read more here.

Turkmenistan  Ancient Merv 7

The next day, we went to Merv (pictured twice). It is claimed that Merv was the biggest city in the world in the 12th century, which you can imagine by looking at the remnants of the walls (one pictured) in the distance. Merv is also part of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, like Gonur Depe, although it was prominent hundreds of years after Gonur Depe. It was a major stop on the Silk Road, linking modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan with the more famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It’s quite something to see the little bit that remains of something once of such importance, although unlike Gonur Depe it is actively being uncovered and restored. The site itself is huge, but since only small pieces are discovered, it took several short rides to go between the various parts.

Turkmenistan  Mary 3

Mary itself is a modern town for the most part, with many new trademark white marble buildings (like the wedding palace, pictured above) going up. Though Turkmenistan requires you to have a guide present most places you go, we were allowed to walk around Mary unattended in our spare time. We had dinners out and walked about, even having a few encounters with the local people, including a girl who practised her English with us and then sadly said that she would love to travel but doesn’t have the money. It’s especially strange when you realise how much oil money the country has, and that it’s spending all that money on white marble buildings.

One of the two guys on the tour, the Brit, had been to North Korea on a tour, and commented that we got much more freedom in Turkmenistan than he’d gotten in North Korea (which was none). Not bad for second most closed country, I suppose. Now, having been to Turkmenistan, I’m intensely curious about North Korea.

The next day the Belgian guy and I were walking around Mary and were invited to tea by a lady who spoke almost no English, but still was able to communicate and share her experiences hosting random transiting travellers. She listed their nationalities and told us how she had a guy from Japan who was at her place watching the news of the Tsunami. Her ability to communicate without words was quite something, and she was selfless in her hospitality. In many countries it’s a scam that someone will invite you for tea and then make you pay for it, but there are so few travellers in Turkmenistan that they don’t have that kind of mentality. They’re just friendly and curious. At least, outside of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan  Ashgabat New City 10

Ashgabat is a city of the future, with its New City of massive hotels and government buildings, residential skyscrapers, museums and monuments, all in white marble with accents of gold and blue. The only problem is, there’s almost no one living in the New City. The old city has a reasonable amount of people, but the new city’s hotels and apartment complexes are all empty or almost-empty. Its air conditioned bus stops (pictured above) are usually empty. The only people you do see are people cleaning the streets, or soldiers who are quick to tell you not to photograph certain buildings. I walked around for hours in the heat, finding just a few trees to hide behind and avoid the 40+ degree heat.

Turkmenistan  Ashgabat New City 51I realised after talking to my two companions, who’d been in the country for two days before I arrived, that I wasn’t as freaked out by the abandoned white marble city as they were. Then it hit me – I just thought of science fiction. Star Trek, in particular. This could be Starfleet, or a city of some other orderly civilisation. It really felt like it; everything was bright, new and clean. It’s also a law that cars must be completely washed before entering Ashgabat. This was not a city to be a rebel in, though at least we could walk around by ourselves. University students and civil servants wear uniforms (lovely red and green dresses for the ladies, actually), most others are professional or traditional, and the police ever-present. The people repeat what the government tells them.

This is the land of the personality cult, and everywhere you look the president’s portrait hangs on government buildings, on billboards, in shops. For example, the National Museum starts with an entire room about president Berdimuhamedow, complete with clearly photoshopped pictures of him doing “normal” things, and laughing at the pictures is not a good idea. This president, at least, isn’t nearly as authoritarian and self-obsessed as president-for-life Niyazov, who died unexpectedly in 2006. The new president actually reversed some of Niyazov’s crazier policies, like naming the months of the year and days of the week after his family members, and generally moved to improve the quality of life of average Turkmen people. Still, it is very much an authoritarian government, and progress should be viewed only comparatively.

The three of us ate dinner one night at a restaurant on top of the pyramid-shaped mall, the only people in the entire place aside from a couple that come up later. You get used to being the only people in a restaurant, museum, or at tourist site. Somehow it becomes normal, along with the strange concepts of service, the way things are never quite complete but just built for show. There weren’t many opportunities for encounters with the normal people of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan  Erbent 19

Finally we left Ashgabat and went through the Karakum desert, with a stop at a windy little village in something like 42 degrees (107 fahrenheit) to talk about desert life and take pictures of camels and sand. From there we drove through more desert, stopped at a smaller crater, then drove more, broke down, and had a nice dinner on the side of the road while awaiting another car. It was dark once the other car arrived, so when we approached the infamous gas crater, Darwaza, we could see the light of its fire reaching into the sky.

Turkmenistan  Darwaza Gas Crater 46

Darwaza, also nicknamed the Door to Hell, is a crater that was apparently created while the Soviets were drilling for oil in the 70’s. It was set on fire to ‘burn off’ the gas, but instead it kept burning, and is burning to this day. When we got there it was the only light around aside from the stars, and crickets were flying all around in a massive frenzy. It was a very cool experience to walk around this giant fire pit; not normal sightseeing, but epic and utterly unique.

Turkmenistan  Konya Urgench 16

The next day we headed for the Uzbek border and stopped at Konya Urgench on the way, another Silk Road city that was the capital of Khorezm. It was prominent around the 12th-14th centuries CE, with better restored ruins that included one of the tallest brick minarets of Central Asia, though its attached mosque no longer exists. Most of the old city of Konye Urgench is actually still underground, and a quick glance over at a mud hill near the minaret raises all kinds of speculation about what could be found underneath. This is also a rare site in that it had a number of tourists and patrons, presumably Turkmen, who circled around the minaret and prayed. I could feel we were getting closer to Uzbekistan, which, even though on the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, is comparatively normal.

After some time at the site, we finally made our way to the border and were able to get through the Turkmen side before lunch. Unfortunately, we were stuck between the two sides for the lunch hour, after which some very chipper Uzbek border officials took their time examining my companions’ medicines and other belongings.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I always manage to get through quickly. I think spending 3 months in Russia might be why: I’m not exactly exuberant and friendly with officials, and don’t offer any information they don’t directly ask for. Usually I show them a bottle of pills when they ask about medications, explain what it is, and then look uninterested when they poke at my bag. They zip it open, look inside, see how crammed in everything is, and then walk away since I don’t seem to be interested in explaining what’s in it. Works like a charm.

Finally, we got a ride to Nukus, in the west of Uzbekistan, and I got a nice hotel room after a night in the heat of the desert. And took a long, luxurious shower. You have to appreciate the little things in life, you know? You appreciate hot showers, comfortable beds, having all your limbs, being able to travel safely around the world, and of course a nice, cold beer with new friends from the road.

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