A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about backpacking

Song Kol

Summer Pastures in the Roof of the World

all seasons in one day

We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at Osh, also in the Fergana valley but with a very different flavour to Uzbekistan. The town itself had little to keep us there - we spent most of our time planning the coming several days in the mountains. Nevertheless we kept ourselves entertained by climbing a (very) large rock in the centre of town mysteriously called Solomon's Throne (rumoured to have come all the way from Israel?) and in the more bluntly named 'Rich Men's Cafe'.

Kyrgyzstan is roughly divided into two by the imposing Fergana mountain range and on our journey from Osh to the northern village of Kochkor (via the capital Bishkek) we crossed three passes above 3000m and enjoyed some splendid scenery. The drive took an excrutiating 22 hours or so so we made a stop in the dreary township of Toktogul; a word of advice: never come here of your own will, the 'motel' could well have been in the film of the same name...

During our brief stop in Bishkek we enjoyed both the calm tree-lined avenues as well as some solid Japanese/Korean food (Bi-bim-bap, kim-chi, gyoza...) The connection to Kochkor went smoothly (but still involved fighting through the locust swarm of taxi drivers). The bumpy ride took us through stunning pastures, desert and mountain scenery - not uncommon for Kyrgyzstan.

Arriving late in Kochkor - a tiny, secluded village lacking even running water - we were greeted by Omar whose tour agency organised everything from immediate accomodation to a horse-trek for the next three days, in the space of half an hour! We were lodged in a charming Russian-style house owned by an old Kyrgyz woman who kept a room free for tourists. Unfortunately we weren't served Russian food... Located as it was in a fertile valley and surrounded by gigantic snowy peaks, the thunderstorm's aftermath (and rainbows) made for a pleasant walk around the village.

The following day, after a heavy meal eaten in a grey house and under grey skies, we me our guide (Jyldyz-Bek), mounted our horses and set off towards the legendary lake Song-Kol. As if on cue, the skies opened up and we had the privilege to ride through the verdant pastures in a pleasant golden light (a privilege that would not last...). The sense of freedom is surprising and puzzled me at first, but later I realised that while riding through these rolling hills, prairielands and mountains we had not seen one single wall or fence. Indeed the land seemed to belong to everyone and our only company were wild horses, cows and the occasional sheperd. Several hours later we stopped at the yurts in which we would sleep that night; another storm gave us the excuse needed to nurse the aches and pains of horseriding...

Up at dawn, and greeted by a howling storm on the morning run from the yurt to the toilet (dodging cowpats and the angry bull) set the tone for the first half of a very uncomfortable day. Our guide led our horses over a slippery, rocky mountain pass at 3500m in the full fury of a hail storm which lasted for a good couple of hours. However, as the valley opened up on Song-Kol, divine providence again rewarded us with stunning blue skies and great sunlight (the light seemed different in Kyrgyzstan, probably a complete absence of any pollution...) Having left our horses at the yurt encampment, we walked around this beatiful plateau and I somehow lost sight of Anton in the undulating hills; while searching for him a Kyrgyz herder rode up to me and dragged me into his family's yurt. These were probably the most hospitable people I have met while travelling and I had the honour of sitting at the back of the yurt, sandwiched between a bleeding goat's head and trotters, and the local wisemen. There was no choice but to eat what was offered - rolls of intestine, raw backbone and bleeding liver, and to wash it all down with some strong Kumys (fermented mare's milk) - how I didn't also leave with crippling food poisoning amazes me, maybe I have something to thank Uzbekistan for!

Posted by ameurice 22:20 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged backpacking

Fergana Valley

Wedding Crashers

From Tashkent the drive took us up the mountains, through some refreshingly green mountain scenery that was all the better after about a month of deserts. The Fergana valley is famous for having some of the most fertile soil in Central Asia (sub-tropical apparently), and more recently for being the scene of a massacre of protestors against the Karimov regime in Andijon. Muhammedjon, who worked in our B&B in Khiva, referred to it as an 'accident'. Yeah, the fingers of the soldier's accidentally slipped, and they accidentally all fired at the crowd.

We arrived late in the town of Fergana, and had planned to stay in the LP recommended guesthouse (Olga and Valentina's), but when we arrived it was empty. After a phone call, Olga and Valentin appeared, very drunk. They proceeded shouting abuse at our driver (who was a very good guy, and had driven us all the way from Tashkent) because he drove 50 meters past their door. Anyway, we made a quick getaway and found another decent guesthouse not far and settled in.

In our shared taxi, we also met Abror, a young student studying in Tashkent, but from Margilon (15km from Fergana). He offered to show us around and even invited us to a wedding on the next day, which we gratefully accepted.

There's not really much to see in the area, so our "tour" consisted of eating some proper Margilon plov (complete with large greasy chunks of mutton fat...), and seeing a mosque and a bazaar. After killing a little time, we were off to this wedding.

The Uzbek wedding system is complicated, but I'll try to explain. The type we went to was an all-male affair. We started at the groom's house, then moved onto the bride's house, but at no point did we actually see the bride. The format was the same, and pretty strange. Basically, there was a singer and a band who blared out loud Uzbek music, whilst the friends of the singer and of the groom took turns to dance frenetically to it.

Then, some people got around in a circle and started to throw money at the dancer, which would be collected by a minion for the singer. Only about 80 of the 500 or so guests actually moved, most seemed to sit around unhappily and not eat the food placed before them.

Suddenly, after 5 hours of pretty much non-stop singing and dancing boxes of gifts were heaped on the groom, and some old people ran up and took him away. signalling the end of the wedding.

Interestingly, no one was drinking, apparently since it was too expensive, and if they would, they would get violent. Nice. Our hosts did find us a little vodka though, which got some dark looks from the other guests though. They were probably jealous.

Anyway, our hosts seemed to think that we were bored, but it was a really fun experience. There wasn't much we could actually join in with, but the atmosphere was really lively and vibrant.

This is actually the third time I am trying to post this entry. First time there was a power failure in a Kyrgyz internet cafe, the just now I re-did it (twice) and some Chinese came up. Urgh. Hopefully this will work.

Posted by Nomadics 05:17 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Big City Life - Tashkent

Corrupt Cops and Money Machines

We were warned about going to Tashkent. It was apparently full of militsaya (police) that shake traveller's down for cash, there was nothing to do and that it was dirty, sprawling and dangerous. Well, we're rebels without a pause (thanks Chuck D). So, we decided to go.

That was part of the reason, we needed cash, and the only ATMs in Uzbekistan are in Tashkent. Also, it was in our way, since we needed to go to the Fergana Valley, and there is no way of getting there without going through Tashkent.

So, we arrived and quickly got ripped off for a taxi to a nice hotel (we decided to treat ourselves in Tashkent after 2 months of roughing it), but we were turned away, because they were apparently full. I think I'll call Amnesty International about discrimination to dirty backpackers. On second thoughts, they probably have something better to worry about, we went to another decent hotel.

We actually had a daily routine in Tashkent. Wake up, waste a little time, go to the bank, eat (usually in the same place), change money, waste more time, then eat again.

Withdrawing money is a pain. There are ATM's, but they never have money, and eat your card (actually, Alex's card was eaten and the slip said "YOUR CARD HAS BEEN ARRESTED BY THE NATIONAL BANK OF UZBEKISTAN!!!", but he got it back). So the only way to get money out of your account was to go to a bank and go through some beurocracy.

If you think it's that easy, not all banks have money. Eventually we found a small room (room 211) in the main branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, where they could help us (after we got the forms signed by someone else, then take these forms to the cashier for our money). Eventually, after two days, we managed to withdraw a decent amount of money that should last us to China. Job done.

Everything else in Tashkent was a bit of a dissapointment. We didn't get accosted by corrupt cops, the museum was crap and we weren't even mugged, despite walking through a few dimly lit parks at night.

The main roundabout of Tashkent is Amir Timur Maydoni, with it's massive statue of Timur on horseback. Right next to it was the Amir Timur museum, which has nothing interesting in it, but is quite funny. It portrays Timur (who is estimated to have killed about one million people) as a really nice and generous Uzbek, a pious patron of the arts (he did make Samarkand nice, but only by abducting artisans). It had modern paintings of his many children, with description's of how pious and well educated they were, with little bits at the end that they were murdered (about 4/5 were murdered, the rest died in battle, nice). It also showe the cheap crap that foreign countries give Uzbekistan as diplomatic gifts. They are generally cheapo books, plates, small medals, or sometimes carpets that depict Amir Timur (It looked so cheap, it was probably about 10 dollars, but it's the thought tha counts, right?)

Anyway, after the fun we had in Tashkent (there really wasn't much to do, even nightlife wise everything was closed), we hopped into a shared taxi to Fergana.

Posted by Nomadics 03:48 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Samarkand

sunny 30 °C

Thanks to the Kyrgyzstan national electricity company, the full and unabridged Samarkand entry is lost in cyberspace... so until I find the time/courage to start again here is a brief outline:

We stayed in a homely hostel full of great travelling advice and where we met our Dutch friends again, an entreprising Japanese girl travelling through the Middle-East and Central Asia on her own (!) and some cyclists travelling round the world in seven years...

Samarkand generally disappointed - both the ancient and the modern - the Registan was considerably more impressive in my imagination, and the other sights were few and far between; these included Amir Timur's tomb, the imposing Bibi Khanim mausoleum, the "City of the Dead" and the vast archeological dig area of ancient Marakanda (visited by Alexander the Great). Having said this, Samarkand was the most worthwhile Silk Road site in Uzbekistan...

The highlight of our visit was meeting a man called Dilshod - a local Tajik - who took us round the sights and proceeded to invite us to his home. There his wife (married only 3 months previously and so following a strange and elaborate protocol) prepared us a delicious dinner followed by showing us their marriage photos; we were somewhat embarassed to notice that noboby was smiling... Then we visited the local bar which presented a great snapshot of Uzbek district life, with all generations represented. Here I was convincingly beaten by a 12-year old boy in a game of chess...

The following day I contracted some very serious food poisoning with high fever, cold sweats, headaches, etc. which made the long bus journey to Tashkent less than entertaining...

Posted by ameurice 03:44 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Bukhara

Pure Silk Roadness

After a rather expensive shared taxi through the dry Kyzylkum Desert, we arrived to the fabled city of Bukhara, the classic silk road city.
We were dumped in the centre and soon found some cheap accomodation in a traditional house.

Bukhara is clean, nice and yellow (from the bricks). Lots more tiled timurid mosques, medrassas and a half restored castle (Red Army blew it up). Most of the old courtyards have been turned into bazaar-shopping malls for tourists, selling overpriced 'traditional goods', which included everything from shoes and hats to animal skins.

Bukhara does have a gruesome past though. During the age of the Great Game (Russia vs Britian imperialist maneuverings in Central Asia), the Emirs were known to be especially depraved. Two British men, accused of being spies, were thrown in the Emir's special bug pit (a large hole in the prison 5 meters deep that was filled with all sorts of nasties, now filled with small change), which, according to the sign (understatement of the century), it was reserved for the "least favourite jail inhabitants". The prison was surprisingly small, but apparently thats because 50 to 100 people are meant to be crammed into each cell.

There is also a beautiful minaret that may have been Bukhara's famous "tower of death" from where those sentenced to death were thrown from to splatter onto the pavement below.

Central Bukhara seems orientated solely towards tourists, and was completely dead at night, but fortunately we managed to find a hotel with some old Europeans who up for the Champions League final, incluging an Italian engineer who worked on particle accelerators in CERN...

In all, Bukhara was fairly touristic, but not as fake as Khiva. It still retains some of it's mystique and charm, and on a nice sunset evening, you can really feel the magic...

Posted by Nomadics 05:07 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Khiva

Long Shadows of the Silk Road

sunny 30 °C

Crossing over the monumental Oxus of old, now renamed the Amu-Darya river, we entered Khorezm and arrived in Khiva at sunset. Having been one of the pivotal trading posts on the old Silk Road, its wealth eventually waned until it was reduced to a petty khanate reliant on brutal intimidation to rule over its people. Yet it was the last independent power in the region to fall into the hands of the Russians, after which the last of its vibrant spirit finally disappeared.

In the 1970s Khiva was entirely rebuilt as a large tourist attraction. This involved moving out the indigenous population wholesale, abolishing all commerce except for souvenirs/restaurants/hotels, and charging a stupendous amount ($10 each) to even enter the city. There was no choice, however, and having paid at the gate we entered as the minarets and madressehs cast dramatic long shadows over the city. Shadows which reminded us how little of the Silk Road's previous wealth, culture and excitement remains today.

We did find a friendly B&B, with great food (not that I would enjoy, still being ill from Nukus...) and some enthusiastic young Khivans. Here we met a couple of Dutch students who were on a very similar journey to ours and had crossed the Turkmen border at Nukus the same day as we had - this would not be our last encounter...

Sights in Khiva consist of little more than a procession of medressahs, minarets and museums none of which are remarkable but they form quite a comprehensive ensemble.

We expected more from Bukhara....

Posted by ameurice 05:00 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Nukus

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

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

Ashgabat

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

(Entries 21 - 30 of 45) Previous « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 » Next