A Travellerspoint blog


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

Yazd (یزد) II

Towers of Silence and Alexander's Prison

sunny 35 °C

To round off our stay in Yazd, we visited the ominously-named Towers of Silence in the desert suburbs of the city itself. These two wide stone towers were built on two opposing hills between which there were ruins of a small Zoroastrian settlement. Having been advised that this place was about as silent as a motocross dirt-track could get we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves completely alone. Ever since the dawn of Zoroastrianism (or rather Mazdaism - c. 1500 BC) and up until the 1960s, the dead were placed in the towers for the vultures to pick their bones clean. Supposedly burying pollutes the earth and cremation the atmosphere and so this curious method was chosen. A priest would stand by the body until the eyes were picked out - if the right eye was first eaten by the vultures omens were good, if the left was picked first eternal torment would await the soul...

Alexander's Prison, despite the mysterious name, is in fact a simple well in a simple well which might or might not have been used by Alexander the Great as a dungeon for his enemies. Anyway, the name keeps bringing the tourists...Souvenir-wise I bought some Iranian music as well as a mourning flag dedicated to one of the Emams - the mourning of long-dead religious figures is big business here in Iran. In the evening we treated ourselves to some delicious Fesenjun, a dish consisting of meatballs in a pomegranate and walnut sauce - and a welcome change from the usual Iranian 'pizza'.

The morning after we boarded the bus to Khur, deep in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert...

Posted by ameurice 04:27 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Yazd (يزد)

The Burning Heart of Zoroastrianism

We made our escape to Yazd by a long and boring bus ride through the desert (one of them, and our first of many), to the aincient town of Yazd. The signs say it has "the oldest old city" that people still live in, and it is the heartland of Iranian Zoroastrianism, with about 7000 worshippers of Ahuramazda (Coolest name for a god).

We're now staying in the heart of the old city, in a converted traditional family home. There's a nice courtyard and everything. But of course, we're in the basement-dormitory. This place is really expensive. In Iran, most tourist things are expensive.

Wandering around the old city is really nice, and the mud-brick buildings are punctuated by Bagdirs, which are basically large squat towers filled with shelves and holes. It's an old Iranian thing, which acts as basic air conditioning by creating a breeze inside, which is necessary, because this place gets pretty hot. Wandering around you can always orientate the labyrinthine streets by the minarets of the Mosques dotted around the place. As usual the mosques are big, blue and have nice tiles.

One of the big tourist draws of Yazd is the still functioning fire-temple, complete with an eternal flame which has been burning since long before Islam even started (470 AD apparently). Its a small building, and packed full of tourists, and it didn't really seem very genuine. The bookshop sold some of the most boring books ever. I bought "an introduction to Zarathusta" published in 1980 by some Indian guy (they don't sell well). Almost fell asleep reading it.

Having seen the sites of the city, we decided to go out of town to visit a deserted desert village. Unfortunatley, it's so deserted no one ever goes there, so there were no buses, and a taxi would have cost a fortune, se we decided to go to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site. After a minibus and a taxi ride through huge, barren, unromantic desert (it's flat and grey) we reached some small mountains, and nestled in them were some modern looking buildings.

The compound of Chak Chak is a large set of empty buildings and open spaces, which are needed to house the pilgrims that come during the pilgrimage season (apparently they have one). We eventually reached the inner sanctum, and were at first turned away by the old caretaker because there was a genuine Zoroastrain service going on. After some waiting, we want through the bronze doors bearing the likeness of Zoroaster, into a small room with a marble floor. I say room, but it was more like a cliff-face surrounded by a semicircular wall. In the middle there was a burning brazier (but the fire had gone out...) and out of the cliff was dripping holy water.

According to legend when the Arabs invaded, some Zoroastrians hid here, and had no water. The local princess threw her staff against the cliff, and water started to drip out (Chak Chak means "drip drip"). This water is holy, and the pilgrims collect it in empty coke bottles and buckets...

It seemed that there were only about 6 people in the service (I didn't know what they actually did though, we weren't allowed to look). Of the 6 people, 4 were Indians (we helped them with their retro-camera). I have no idea how they communicated though. Oh yeah, we also had to wear funny white hats, that made me look like a chinese takeaway chef.

From all the people we have met, it seems that most learn English from bad American films. A student studying English here at Yazd says that they went through Dumb and Dumber in class, and a restaurant owner learnt by copying Chris Tucker. He could quote most of Rush Hour, unfortunatley, it was incomprehensible. He's not really black enough.

Thats it so far. Soon we'll be heading into the desert, the first of 4 on the trip. (Dasht-e Kavir, Karakum, Kyzyl Kum and the Taklamakan). It's going to be hot.

Posted by Nomadics 11:36 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Shiraz (شیراز)

City of Poetry, Nightingales and Wine

sunny 30 °C

Immediate impressions of Shiraz were of an extremely laid-back provincial city with a pleasant climate (about 30C and very dry). The city was home to many of the greatest Persian poets and consequently attracts thousands to the tombs of both Hafez and Sa'adi. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that poetry plays in Iranian life - a saying goes that every Iranian household should contain first the Qoran and second Hafez's Divan (and many would even place Hafez over the Qoran!) Hafez's tomb was in a calm garden, of which there are many in Shiraz. To illustrate how deeply poetry is ingrained into every Iranian, we met two young conscript soldiers at the tomb who had chosen to spend their day off here, and as we talked with them in the park they compared Hafez to Goethe (unfortunately their English was not great and our Farsi is worse so we didn't really understand what the point was)! It was also in this park that a girl who had been staring at us for half an hour gathered the courage to ask us for our autograph - do we look famous? Having bought a collection of Hafez's work it turned out that Goethe had been heavily influenced by Hafez himself, having written poems addressed to him and even called him his 'twin'.

The Shiraz bazaar is the nicest I have yet seen in Iran, mainly due to its almost comatose approach to buying and selling. The lunch break is about four hours long (11am-15pm) and even during business hours time seems slower inside the bazaar. Unfortunately most of the souvenirs on sale are made in China...it seems that all the handmade prize pieces were in Esfahan (and well out of our budget). Besides the bazaar we managed to walk into a holy shrine (in theory closed to all non-Muslims) which was a splendid sight. Inside what looks like an ordinary mosque, the walls, vaults and arches are covered in thousands of tiny pieces of glass arranged in patterns, reflecting green and red from hidden neon lights. Everything was arranged so as to awe a believer in the presence of God and whichever Imam the shrine is dedicated to. A nearby medressah (Qoranic school) also offered some great views from its roof.

Persepolis - capital of the Achaemenid Empire - was our main reason to visit Shiraz, and so we decided not to take a tour but to get there via public transport for a hundredth of the cost. The site itself was somewhat disappointing in both size and condition and was busy with (mostly Iranian) tourists. It was almost possible, however, to imagine its previous grandeur before Alexander the Great burned the city to the ground... Nearby there were some huge tombs of the various Achaemenid emperors (Darius, Xerxes etc.) cut into the cliff face and surrounded by Zoroastrian symbols which largely made up for the underwhelming Persepolis.

Back in Shiraz, we bumped into exactly the same tourists we had seen in Teheran and Esfahan (there are few tourists in Iran!) including a Polish tour guide with long, blond dreadlocks who stood out just a little bit from the crowd...That evening while walking past the hotel, we witnessed the darker side of Iran: a vicious fight involving people beating each other with sticks turned bloody when a couple of huge knives appeared and someone was stabbed in the face - we didn't stick around to see what happened next. We did, however, notice a mullah (Islamic cleric) and some soldiers walk past as if nothing had happened.

It was also in Shiraz that we met a man called Reza who at first seemed interesting (and normal). He had a Bachelor's degree in English and had family in many places in the world. But when he showed us his pills - "for my nervous problem" - and told us that he was invincible because of the mini-Qoran around his neck (it's true because his mother had told him) we started to back out of the conversation. Nevertheless he followed us to the hotel and after giving us his phone number begged us to call him back later in the week so that we could talk again. Even though we had said goodbye, he followed us into the reception and repeated "Do not forget!" with his eyes wide open and finger pointing - he must have repeated it ten times.

We never called back, but are now safely in Yazd and out of his reach...We hope.

Posted by ameurice 10:41 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Esfahan (اصفهان)

The "Jewel" of Iran

We spent a few days seeing the sights of Esfahan, which were pretty numerous. There was, of course, the Imam square (the locals say its the second biggest square in the world, but its acutally the seventh biggest) and the two amazingly beautiful mosques it contains, the Jameh and Imam mosques. The moonlit picture Alex put up was the front of the Imam Mosque.

They were pretty amazing, the Imam mosque in particular, which was a complex of intricately tiled buildings around a central counrtyard. The main prayer hall, under it's double-decker onion dome, which was built for perfect acoustics so the prayer leader could be heard by everyone in the mosque. Some carpet salesman showed us around showing the stone that was told the faithful whether it was midday, and the mosque's well. (A high-school litrature teacher showed us around another (very similar) mosque).

We also strolled down to the river, which had some apparently old bridges that were glued together with egg white, accoding to a rag salesman (after chatting about mobile phones). The bridges looked brand new though, and we didn't manage to see the bridge that was some say is over 3000 year old.

Just accross the river we tried to find Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. All we found was one random Armenian inscription, a really good and expensive coffee cafe (decent coffee is very, very rare), and some "churches" that looke like mosques with a cheap cross stuck on the dome.

On the last day, we saw some Shah's palace (very small), and some "shaking minarets" (didn't shake very much, although for a small fee, the shaker man let us try to shake them too), and an aincient Zoroastrian fire temple (mostly rubble, but still pretty cool).

Other than the sights, we managed to amuse ourselver by walking around the bazaar, chilling in teahouses, drinking juice as well as trying to avoid the creepy cleaner of our hotel.

After all that, we got on a bus to Shiraz, which was long and unremarkable. Apart from that we saw one of the dirtiest toilets in the world at a service station. Nice.

Posted by Nomadics 20:37 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Ishan Pasha Palace

This was in Turkey, near Dogubayazit


Posted by ameurice 11:16 Archived in Turkey Tagged photography

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