A Travellerspoint blog

May 2007


Karakalpakstan and Deviant Soviet Art

sunny 34 °C

If one still subscribed to the idea that the earth was flat, Nukus would certainly be placed on its remotest edge. The capital of the little-known Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan suffers from a staggering variety of ecological, social and political disasters and limps along on subsidies from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, itself not the most prosperous place in the world...

First there is the shrinking Aral Sea, or Seas to be more precise - it is predicted to break up into some five tiny individual lakes by 2015 or so - which has resulted in huge amounts of wind-borne salts and pesticides. To illustrate the problem the once-thriving Aral fishing port of Moynaq is now 150km from water! Once fertile floodplains have been reduced to salty wasteland, and the population is severely affected by respiratory disorders, cancers, birth defects and deformities. The latter was sadly evident in many of the people we met there... Furthermore after the collapse of the USSR the local economy was annihilated and the rampant unemployment has driven many locals to numb the pain with heroin - every street was littered with used syringes. Ironically what used to support the local economy happens to have been the Red Army's Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Centre. Now disused, the toxins (including Anthrax, Smallpox etc.) are leaking into the water supplies and adding insult to injury for the already desperate local population.

The Soviet insistence on the homogeneity of its peoples has also eradicated all culture and identity of the Karakalpak people; indeed Karakalpak means 'Black Hat' but the people have been so estranged from their traditions that they have had to set up a research initiative to find out what exactly this black hat, after which they are named, looks like.

The one highlight in the town was a mildly interesting museum where a certain Igor Savitsky had hidden away a huge amount of art which had been considered "Un-Soviet" during Stalin's rule. Unfortunately, the works on display were few, misteriously organised, and more interesting for what they represented then for any intrinsic artistic appeal.

I was able to leave Nukus with two things. One was an appreciation of how badly things can go wrong economically, socially and ecologically. The other was some really bad food poisoning, complementary with dodgy Plov from a Soviet-era canteen.

After our short stay we hurried on to Khiva....

Posted by ameurice 04:42 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Minaret of Kone-Urgench

The largest in Central Asia - survivor of earthquakes as well as Mongol and Timurid hordes

sunny 39 °C


Posted by ameurice 04:36 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

Darvaza, then to Uzbekistan

Burning Craters and Giant Spiders

From Ashgabat we drove north on the lonely road that goes through the Karakum Desert, which actually had a fairly decent surface, but only for half the road. The drove in Dima's Soviet UAZ Jeep (apparently it was better as his Nissan was 'stupid'), which was big, loud, and had no seat belts. On the way we stopped at possibly the most depressing place ever. A village in the middle of nowhere in some bushy dunes, which was empty save some trash, a few kids and two immobile camels, crying loudly, who were tied very firmly to wooden posts. Apparently all the water in the village is driven here from the nearest source. What are people doing there?

Halfway across Turkmenistan, we turned off the road, into the desert, and after about 10 minuites, we reached our destination.

In the desert, on a flat sandy plain ringed by hills, there was a large crater, which was on fire. It has a diameter of about 50 meters, and a depth of about 20, and looking inside, it seems that the rocks are on fire...

Apparently, when the Soviets were exploring for gas here in the 50s, "something happened", which left a massive burning hole in the ground, and it's been burning ever since. No-one really cares about it now, since the transportation of the gas would be too costly (it is in the middle of nowhere). But the crater is definitely man made, as there are twisted pipes on one side of the crater, which is also why it's not a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site.

The crater is most impressive at night (but you can still see the flames in the day), you can see the smoke and bright orange-red light from miles around. When you're just on the edge, and the wind blows in your direction, the heat unbearable. You can also hear the flames and the wind it causes from a considerable distance.
(We have some good pictures).

After a good, fresh shashlyk (barbeque), we camped out next to the crater. Not too close though, I didn't want to be barbequed myself. The Karakum is crawling with all sorts of nasty things. Snakes, scorpions, and giant spiders (se saw one running around devouring moths, it was about 10cm across...), Dima slept in the car, whilst we had to brave it outside. Ok, we're not really such heroes, our tent was pretty secure.

Next morning (after 2 hours sleep...) we head off north to the border with Uzbekistan along a 'stupid' (Dima loved that word) road. The road was stupid. It was the bumpiest ride I have ever had in my life.

After 5 hours of bone-jarring ride, we got to Konye-Urgench, another aincient city. Again, it was trashed by the Mongols and Timurids, so there's not much left. There are a few restored mausoleums, and a huge conical minaret (largest in Central Asia), but they look pretty new.
One interesting thing we spotted was a large tattered overcoat for rent. The locals kept on taking it, then rolling down the hill in it. Apparently it wards off evil, but it looked really fun (but the overcoat was so dirty we didn't participate).

After that, we drove the remaining distance and emotionally (not really) parted ways with Dima at the border.

The Turkmen border was very friendly (Dima knew the guards well), and they waved us through (not without some beurocracy, of course). The Uzbek border was a completely empty, not even ay flags (we found out the guards had to go and fetch water), save for a few people watiching TV inside the main building. There we had a good chat about life in the west, and they let us fo free.
There some soldiers made camera signals at us, could they have wanted to check our cameras, as we had been warned might happen in Turkmenistan? No, they wanted to take a photo with us. Awesome, and strange since it is illegal to take photos near borders, but it didn't seem they cared about much here.

After another successful crossing, we drove into the post-industrial wasteland of Karakalpakstan...

Posted by Nomadics 07:35 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

Darvaza Gas Crater

sunny 37 °C


Posted by ameurice 07:17 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

Ashgabat - Pictures

sunny 27 °C


Posted by ameurice 07:10 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography


Golden Heart of the Disneyland Dictatorship

sunny 38 °C

With its sweeping boulevards lined with marble monoliths, eerily empty parks studded with golden effigies of its great leader, and a taste for architecture from the 'Star Wars meets Soviet Gigantism' school - Ashgabat is truly a worthy capital for the surreal Tintin dictatorship of Turkmenistan. Entering this otherworld at sunset, we caught dramatic glimpses of the two 'Olympic' stadiums, the spacecraft-like Monument to Neutrality and vast open spaces punctuated by empty apartment blocks (of marble) and other oddball monuments including the largest fountain in the world (also marble...) Our hotel was located in a giant development (Berzengi) striving for Las Vegas glamour - 30 huge hotels each with varying themes built alongside a 10-lane highway and boasting its own Turkmenland attraction park, Water World and an 'Ice Palace' - and it is likely that there were more hotels than guests staying in the area. A handy escape from this bizarre Brave New World was the ubiquitous British Pub...but unfortunately the place was British in name only...

The following day we met some local Turkmen (Turkwomen more precisely) who showed us around the other attractions in town. The Monument to Neutrality features a larger-than-life statue of Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi (the late dictator, Father of All Turkmen and the creator of this wierd world) which rotated throughout the day so that the sun always reflected squarely from his golden self. We visited what might be one of the most impressive libraries in the world, except that it featured only two books. One is Turkmenbashi's 'world-renowned' Ruhnama. The other is the Ruhnama - Volume Two. Needless to say, a large marble monument commerates this great work and will stand as a reminder in case every one of the millions of copies are lost. The tallest monument around is locally known as 'Eight-Legs' but the expat community knows it better as 'The Plunger' - indeed the ressemblance is uncanny. As an aside, Ashgabat is probably the cleanest city in the world, due to the absence of any serious industry and to the hordes of women sweeping the streets in traditional clothes.

We were reminded that people did live in this town when invited into to eat with some locals. We bought the ingredients for our meal in the Russian Bazaar which was we found to be a much more lively part of town and ate some delicious Turkmen Plov - sticky rice with carrots and lamb. Plov is the national dish of every Central Asian country and each town or region is very proud of its own variety. Yet, having tasted Turkmen, Karakalpak, Khorezm and Bukhara Plovs I am beginning to think the differences are very subtle indeed...

Another Ashgabat curiosity is the 'Walk of Health' - a 8km or 37km trail leading into the mountains overlooking the city - which Turkmenbashi forced all his ministers and civil servants to run up once a year. He would fly up in his helicopter to the summit to greet the panting bureaucrats and congratulate them...Anyway, the views from this point were splendid but revealed Ashgabat's small scale (it has aroud 500,000 inhabitants) and the marked contrast between the rolling green foothills of the Kopet Dag range and the endless dunes of the Karakum desert.

It was into these dunes that we would continue our travels...

Posted by ameurice 10:05 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

Crossing into Turkmenistan

Into the dream of Turkmenbashi

We spent out last Iranian night in the surprisingly good (if expensive) hotel in Sarakhs, a town split in half by the Iran-Turkmenistan border.

Unfortunately, when we came to leaving, the hotel refused to give me my passport back. That's because they didn't have it. The police did. After a long and futile phone conversation with the police it seemed I had to go to the station.

Yep, I had overstayed my visa, and the hotel manager took me to the station on his bike. Luckily the head policemen was quite friendly guy, and I pleaded with him to let me out of the country. The other option would be to send me back to Mashhad to extend my visa, which would waste money and a day. Plus there was a chance that we could not be allowed into Turkmenistan because of this since our visas and our tour started that day.

The policeman chatted and joked with his superior, and eventually said it was okay, as long as I got out of the country immedeately. Since we were planning to cross anyway, it wasn't a problem. My bags were packed. Iran wasn't that great anyway.

Anyway, the Iranian side just some formalities, although they did X-ray our bag (for alcohol and pork apparently). At the last Iranain point some soldiers took away our playing cards (they're also illegal). I guess they were bored. They were assholes, but they also had big guns so we didn't argue.

After a rediculously expensive minibus trip across a small metal bridge through probably the most mined border on earth (in the cold war this was the border of the "free world" and the USSR), we were in Turkmenistan. I don't blame you if you've ever heard of it, but it's the craziest country on earth.

The first Turkmen border post was straight out of a James Bond movie (from the 70s). A small wooden shack containing a huge guy containing a mouth full of gold teeth. He tried using his little wind up phone, but unfortunately it didn't work until he smashed it against the wall a couple of times. Whilst this was all happening, illiterate Turkmen tennager's with AKs walked around harassing the Iranian truck drivers crossing the other way. I hit one of them in the face with the bus door when I opened it, but it looked like he was used to being hit, so it was fine.

Anyway, the wind-up phone worked (when he shouted loud enough), and our initial check was successful, so we moved to the main border post. Where, we spent 2 hours.

First, a medical check, consisting of us talking football with the doctor (I didn't know it was a medial) until he asked if we were healthy, and then let us through. Then we had to pay some guy to enter their amazing country. Then we had to fill out about 10 forms, declaring everything we owned, short of underwear. Then, after a bag check, and about 10 passport checks, they let us through. That sounded a lot quicker than it was.

As expected, the first thing we saw on the other side was a statue of Turkmenbashi. That’s Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, Father of all Turkmen, the crazy (now dead) dictator that ran Turkmenistan like his own amusement park.

There, we met our guide. He was a standard issue homo-soveticus, Dima. He was pound of being Turkmen, but wasn't, didn't speak the language and wouldn't look out of place in Archangelsk. We jumped in his jeep and drove into the emptiness that makes up most of Turkmenistan (that and police checks every so often).

Yeah, Turkemenistan is mainly nothing. You drive and drive and see flat and endless nothing, not even road signs. Occasionally there is a person in the middle of nowhere, but they add to the randomness. After a whole load of nothing, we got to the village of Mary, the third biggest city in Turkmenistan.

Mary is a pretty nasty Soviet city (concrete buildings, random wild weeds everywhere), except that in the centre there was a gold statue of Turkmenbashi, and a memorial to his mum. Our hotel was a fairly decent (by our standards) falling apart soviet hotel generally frequented by Turkish truckers.

Anyway, after walking around Mary for the day, we didn't really see much. There's not much there. We had some decent shashlyk though, paid for with notes all depicting Turkmenbashi, of course.

The next day, we drove to Old Merv, one of the greatest cities of the olden days. The level of development of the area was at a similar time and scale to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India (on the Amu Darya River, whilst the others had the Tigris, Euphrates, the Nile, the Yangtze and the Ganges respectively). Unfortunately, the remains are in Turkmenistan, so no-one has ever heard of it.

The ruins aren't great to look at either. Just big mud hills covered in tiny pottery fragments. The hills kind of resemble the walls and buildings of a city, but there isn't really much there. Only a tiny part of it has been excavated, so you feel like you could be treading on ancient treasures. The site is huge (100 km squared), and when we were there, there were only two people excavating: Two bored looking Turkmen with shovels sitting around drinking tea.

As usual with things in this area, it was trashed by Genghis Khan, rebuilt, then trashed again by Timur. After that people gave up. There is one solid building though, the 10th century mausoleum of Soltan Sanjar, but the extensive reconstruction makes it look very modern, and apparently the Uzbek reconstructors got it wrong anyway. But it still seemed like a pilgrimage site to some Turkmen people, who touched the tomb, moved their hands over their faces, then walked around it three times before leaving. People in this region (central Asia that is) have a strange mix of customs that have roots in Paganism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra apparently lived in Merv for a while) and Islam. That's what Dima said anyway.

After that, we got onto the biggest highway in Turkmenistan, which connects Ashgabat (the capital) to the second and third cities (Turkmenabat and Mary). It wasn't really a highway, just a small road, devoid of anything except some random unexcavated archeological sites, and some nice views of the mountains marking the beginning of the Iranian plateau to the south. Oh yeah, and of course there were police checks.

Eventually, we reached the surreal marble and gold crazyness that is Ashgabat.

Posted by Nomadics 09:45 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

To Mashhad (مشهد)

The Pilgrim's Desert Road

sunny 35 °C

After frolicking with camels in the oasis of Garmeh, at about midnight we jumped on a bus packed full of old Chadored women going to Mashhad, Shi'a Islam's holiest site.

The bus was very hot and sweaty (which is expected), and full of angry women who had shouting matches with the conductors about where we should sit. You see, unrelated men and women aren't allowed to sit together. But we weren't placed together anyway, so I have no idea what it was on about (It might have been because we were placed at the back of the bus, which is usually only for women). Anyway, after some seat juggling after the bus had left, we we're on our way along a small and dark desert road (which was actually good, all the roads in Iran are good quality, even ones in random places. Much better than Turkish roads).

After 12 or so hours on a cramped bus, we arrived in Mashhad and were picked up by the usual taxi hawks, who this time drove us around expensive hotels hoping that we'll stay in them so he can get his commission. He didn't understand that we wanted something cheap, but after wasting some time, we got a fairly good deal on a dirty room.

There's not much for us too see in Mashhad, since the Shrine to Imam Reza (the biggest religious building in the world, and also the biggest business conglomerate in Iran: they own lots other factories and businesses) is mostly closed off to non-muslims. The main shrine itself was built by Timur's daughter-in-law, and is prelly large, and still being expanded on now.

The Shi'a Imam Reza was betrayed and killed by the Sunni Caliph Ma'mun in 7-hundreds AD, and since he is a (Shi'a) Islamic Superman (direct decendant of Mohammed), he became a super-martyr, so 12 million people a year visit the shrine. But I have yet to see any tourists that aren't Iranian or Arab.

Anyway, we tried to sneak in. We had already been turned away before by the muslim-checkers at a shrine in Shiraz, so we decided to be more discreet. No cameras (they weren't allowed anyway), no bags (not them either, there was a bomb here a few years ago), and dour faces (a devout Shi'a is never happy. Their main religious holiday is called Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and they whip themselves with chains to draw blood).

The muslim-checkers must have been too busy praying though, because no one looked at us twice. The shrine was a very surreal experience, to say the least. The buildings were very nice, the usual giant intricately tiled archways, and inside were mirrored tiles, brightly illuminated with white and the occasional green neon light.

It was the people there that really shocked me. They were kissing and running their hands over every bit of the shrine, pushing to get to a large silver cage in the middle of the room. Many were crying and some shouting in grief (We were, of course, in the men's section, but I could hear some women wailing as well). It was more serious and sombre than dramatic, but very surreal. I mean, it was just a guy who died 1300 years ago. Sure he was martyred, but I really cannot empathise at all with anything they are feeling.

The people were arranged in concentric circles: outside you had people praying on the carpets, a bit closer you had people chanting the Qu'ran, and at the closest level to the tomb you had those reaching for the tomb, wanting to kiss and cry over the the cage containing a fallen martyr.

After witnessing the grief, we walked around the complex for a while, trying to avoid the muslim-checkers (I have no idea what would have been done to us if we were found. They take their religion very seriously). But to be honest, the pilgrims were pretty multicultural. Lots of Arabs (probably Iraqis, lots of Azari Turks (they have distinctive funny hats), and a few Turkmen (who look slightly similar to me, so thats probably why no-one asked me). All the women were in black chadors. Most people were either too busy praying or trying to reach the shrine to look at us anyway.

I have never seen such religious devotion or a show of religious feeling such as this before. It was very disturbing and I felt quite out of place, I didn't really see what they saw in the shrine.

Very wierd. There's not much else to do in Mashhad, and we're heading off to Turkmenistan in two days, back to the godless lands. Finally.

Posted by Nomadics 12:49 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Garmeh (گرمه)

Into the Dasht-e-Kavir

sunny 45 °C

Having heard several reports of a great homestay in the tiny oasis village of Garmeh, we decided to stop there on the way to Mashhad. The Tehrani artist Maziar (whom we didn't meet since his wife was having a baby in the city) returned to his 400-year old family home in a small village deep in the salt deserts of central Iran to escape the pollution and commotion of Tehran and to set up a charming travellers' lodge. Only 250 people or so call Garmeh home but from walking around the oasis I would have put the number closer to 20 - a very, very quiet place. The house was built in the traditional desert style, with mud bricks, low ceilings and many vents to let the air circulate. The atmosphere was extremely liberal here (by Iranian standards) - no headscarves for the women and we didn't have to get fully dressed just to have a shower in the morning! The food was delicious here, although it was still too early for local produce (although noon temperatures averaged around 35C in the shade); and everyone slept on the floor.

Having explored the village (which involved avoiding the local rabid dog, and almost losing my shoe in the road which had melted into a very sticky paste) we hopped into what might have been the most clapped-out Paykan in Iran and headed to the salt flats. Here, the desolation was absolute - not a plant or animal for miles around, as you can see in the pictures. Somehow, there was water underneath the compacted salt, and we're not too sure from where it came. Keeping Anton and I company were a group of three French tourists (one of whom had come along the Silk Road from China...) and a couple of dead camels. After an uneventful sunset we headed back to Garmeh for some delicious fruity rice, salad and yoghurt but not after being stopped by the police - presumably because they were curious as to how a piece of scrap metal could move so fast.

The following day we explored a mountain village (made more atmospheric by some Iranians making animal noises in the distance) and after lunch and a siesta we left for the sand dunes and had a go at riding some camels. I would suggest that if anyone ever considers riding a camel they should think again. And again. The camels were uncomfortable, very smelly and had a bad temper...it's no wonder that in the days of the Silk Road traders would always walk alongside their camels.

Having returned to the hotel we met an Australian journalist who had authored most of the Lonely Planet travel guide we have been using in Iran. Apart from learning about the whole guide-writing process and other aspects of Iranian culture, we were asked to write a short report of our upcoming border crossing into Turkmenistan. Perhaps a tentative step into a future career?

Posted by ameurice 11:38 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

The Desert

Photo time!

This is where we stayed in Garmeh, it was prety cool:

The salt plains were lethal. The camel could have been there for years, just the salt preserved it:

The long road ahead:

Thats it for now. Enjoy.

Posted by Nomadics 04:57 Archived in Iran Tagged photography

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