Sep 18th - 26th, 2023

This is my blog post about the second part of my Central Asia trip - 9 days in the strange and mysterious country of Turkmenistan. Just crossing the border was an experience in itself. Turkmenistan is one of the most restrictive and thus least visited countries in the world. Solo travelers cannot get a visa to enter the country, you have to join a government approved tour group. I had booked the tour through Intrepid Travel, but it was all run by a local guide.

Buses from Uzbekistan are not allowed to cross the border. So, we were dropped off on the Uzbekistan side and had to walk with our luggage across the two borders and the 1 kilometer no-man's land between them. After they checked our passports several times on the Uzbek border, we then had to wait about 20 minutes for a bus, where we were squeezed in tightly with a large Chinese tour group, to take us across the desert strip of no-man's land. Our new Turkmenistan guide, Ali, met us inside the border and organized everything for us, which was very lucky, because things were really confusing and the officials did not speak any English. The whole process took well over two hours. There were only a couple of officials filling out and stamping lots of forms by hand, and there were several other tour groups at the same time squeezed into a tiny hall while waiting to get their passports stamped. You have to pay a fee, which varies between 80 and 150 US Dollars depending on your passport, plus an extra 40 Dollars for the Covid test. And it seems likely that those 40 Dollars were the main reason Turkmenistan still required Covid tests on arrival, because the test itself was not taken very seriously. The nurse basically just tickled the outside of my nose with the swab a little bit. So, no wonder, that they apparently never had a positive case at the border.

After we finally got all of our passports back and emerged on the other side of the border, our group of 9 intrepid travelers got into three 4WD vehicles and were driven for about an hour to the town of Konye-Urgench. Today, Konye-Urgench, which literally translated means Old Urgench, is a small town of about 30,000 people, but it once was the powerful capital of the Khorezm region, which was part of the Persian Empire in the 4th and 3rd century BC. After the Arab conquest in the 8th century, the city rose to similar prominence as Bukhara and Samarkand. However, Konye-Urgench fell into decline in the 16th century, when it was replaced as a regional capital by Khiva, and it was eventually abandoned in the 18th century.

Not much remains of the old city, except for a handful of impressive monuments from the 11th to the 16th century, which are spaced quite far apart, and seem to stand like lonely monoliths in the middle of the desert. The ruins of Konye-Urgench were inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2005. We started at the astounding Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum, built in the early 14th century and named after the wife of a local ruler. The main hall of the mausoleum is covered by a large circular dome, which is decorated with a stunningly beautiful mosaic on the inside.

Next we drove to the nearby Kutlug-Timur Minaret. This is a striking structure, originally from the 11th century, but believed to have been reconstructed in the 1330s. With a height of 60 meters, the minaret can be seen from far away across the flat desert landscape.

The Il Arslan Mausoleum, seen here with the minaret in the background, is the oldest standing structure in Konye-Urgench. Dating back to the 12th century, it is the tomb of Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan, who ruled from 1156 to 1172.

Leaving Konye-Urgench in the late afternoon, we braced ourselves for a long (at least five to six hours) bumpy ride through the desert. There is a road, which is in fact the only road connecting the capital with the north of the country. But calling it a road maybe an overstatement, particularly during the first two hours. It looked like it was a paved road at some stage in the past, but in most places there wasn't much left of the pavement. And in many places the potholes were so deep, that our drivers chose to drive in the desert sand next to the road instead. But none of that deterred them from barreling at more than 100 km/h through the sand or weaving between potholes. Ali assured us that these drivers had done this drive hundreds of times and they knew every single hole in the road intimately. So I felt assured, and enjoyed seeing wild camels roaming the desert and witnessing a beautiful sunset along the way.

Darvaza Gas Crater
From the time I first read about the Darvaza Gas Crater many years ago, I had wanted to come to Turkmenistan just to see this strange burning hole in the middle of the desert. The Darvaza Gas Crater in the Karakum desert, also known as the "Gate to Hell", is a burning natural gas crater, which is the result of an industrial accident. Soviet geologists were drilling for oil here in the early 1970s, when a large cavern collapsed leaving a 70 meter wide crater. The engineers noticed methane being released from the crater and decided to flare it off, expecting it might burn for a couple of days or weeks. This turned out to be a slight underestimation - the crater has now been a raging inferno for over 50 years.

We arrived at the crater well after dark, and saw the strange orange glow emanating from the fires from far away.

We spent some time walking around the crater, admiring the bright flames and feeling the heat when you get close. It really is one of the strangest sites to see in this world.

It is quite perilous, as you can get right up to the somewhat unstable looking edge, and falling down the steep crater walls would almost certainly be fatal. That's why I look a bit uneasy, yet very happy, taking a self timer picture sitting right on the edge of the Gate to Hell.

We camped a few hundred meters away from the crater. There are a number of semi-permanent yurt camps set up nearby, as the crater has become quite the tourist attraction. We had a nice barbeque dinner that night, and I got up early the next morning to capture this beautiful sunrise shot.

It was an amazing experience to see this unique site, and certainly worth the long drive to get here. And, we later found out, this could very well have been the last year anyone could see it. The government of Turkmenistan recently signed an order to put out the flames. It won't be easy, since simply extinguishing the fires, would not stop the release of natural gas, which is a lot worse for the climate than CO2. So they are trying to find the underground channels that feed the crater and will attempt to turn off the tap of flowing gas somewhere deep underground.

We had a bit more excitement before leaving, as one member of our group wandered off to see the crater and then promptly got lost in the desert on the way back. We spent about 1.5 hours looking for him, and Ali was close to calling in the helicopter search and rescue, when one of the guides tracked his footsteps and found him sitting under a tree nearby. So, it all ended well and we were on our way to Ashgabat. On the way we visited two other craters, one with a small fire and a huge one filled with water.

We stopped at the small desert town of Yerbent along the way. Many people here live in yurts. We just got there when school ended, so we saw all the school children walking home. The girls all wore beautiful long green dresses.

It was another two hours drive to Ashgabat and we noticed that the road conditions improved the closer we got to the capital. We had to change vehicles a few kilometers outside of the city, since our 4WD cars were too dirty to enter the city. So, we changed into a clean white minibus to take us into the strangest city in the world.

Ashgabat is a city of around 1 million and the capital of Turkmenistan, and also the absolut craziest place I have ever seen. The city was founded in 1881 under the rule of the Russian Empire. However, a massive earthquake in 1948 destroyed almost all of the buildings from the Russian Imperial period, and the city was re-built in Soviet style concrete architecture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country's independence in 1991, the first dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, who previously was the leader of the communist party, decided that he wanted to build a brand new city. So he had the city almost completely torn down, and over the next two decades spent the country's vast wealth from oil and natural gas to rebuild the whole city entirely in white marble. The result is absolutely mindboggling.

Although I had read about and seen pictures of the white marble city of Ashgabat, nothing can prepare you for seeing an entire city in gleaming white marble with perfectly manicured trees, and streets that are so clean that you could eat off them. I felt like I had stumbled onto the set of a science fiction movie.

Cars in the city are only allowed to have one color, and that is white. It is also illegal to have a dirty car, and you will get heavily fined, if the police catches you driving around in a not perfectly clean car. Smoking outside is strictly forbidden, no dogs are allowed in the city and there are no trucks. Goods can only be transported in clean, white delivery vans. Even the street lights are works of art.

The most opulent and over the top building is the presidential palace, but it is also the only building, of which it is strictly forbidden to take pictures. Every time, we passed the palace by bus, Ali reminded us to put our cameras away, because if one of the many security cameras were to pick up someone holding a camera in a bus near the palace, he could get in a lot of trouble. But the city is full of enormous monuments celebrating the greatness of Turkmenistan, its heroic leaders and its glorious history, of which we were encouraged to take lots of pictures. This is the independence monument, surrounded by huge statues of the most important figures in the country's history.

Niyazov, who remained president until his death in 2006, not only renamed himself to Türkmenbaşy, which means the Head of the Turkmen, he also had the names of the months of the year officially changed to names of members of his family. He wrote a book, called the Book of the Soul, which is still mandatory reading for every child in the country. The huge three-legged Neutrality Monument is topped by a 12 meter gold plated statue of Niyazov, which prior to his death, was rotating slowly so that he would always face the sun.

The people in Ashgabat, mostly live in these type of high-rise apartment blocks, which of course are also clad in white marble imported from Italy and Turkey. Couples can apply to purchase a flat after they get married. Life is quite comfortable in the city in general. Gas and electricity are provided for free by the government. They even have air conditioned bus stops. And the city's huge shopping malls sell the same luxury goods as you would find in any high-end mall in Europe or Asia.

We also visited and took a ride in the world largest indoor ferris wheel.

And if this city wasn't strange enough for you in day light, just wait until it gets dark. While during the day, the only colors you see are white buildings and cars, green trees and the blue sky, at night the place kind of goes Vegas and the city is lit up in bright gaudy and ever-changing colors.

This is the enormous wedding palace at night and the horse statue of the second president, who was an avid rider, and often had himself photographed on horseback.

Horses are hugely important in Turkmenistan. Every city has a hippodrome and it is the only country in the world that has a ministry of horses. Unlike in the other Central Asian countries, consuming horse meat is illegal in Turkmenistan.

Following out city tour we visited the National Museum, where we had a very good guided tour and learned about the ancient history of the region, including the city of Old Nisa, which was our next stop. Located a few kilometers outside of the city are the ruins of the ancient Parthian fortress of Nisa. The Parthian Empire ruled this region from 247 BC to 224 AD. Nisa is believed to have to been the seat of the rulers of this ancient civilization. However, since all the buildings and walls were made of mud bricks, not much is left of the structure. Detailed archeological work is ongoing on this site, and only about 30% have been excavated so far. Old Nisa is one of the only five UNESCO world heritage sites of Turkmenistan.

The country is still very much a cash based economy. There are no credit cards in Turkmenistan. The official exchange rate at the time of my visit was 3.5 Turkmenistani Manat to 1 USD, but apparently no one exchanges money at this rate, instead the locals all know where to exchange money at the black market rate of at least 13 to 1, a rather enormous difference.

Mary and Merv
We got up early for the 5 hour bus ride to the east towards the city of Mary. Before we got onto the main road, we stopped at the Seyit Jemaletdin Mosque, which was a Timuride era mosque from the 15th century, but only a few ruins remain. However the mosque remains an important holy site, where people come to pray and leave offerings.

Next to the ruins is an area for cooking and sharing food. The sharing of food is a very important part of Turkmen culture. There are large kitchens set up with huge pans over gas fires. The men did all the cooking, while the women did the serving and cleaning up. Any life event or celebration, requires you to cook and share food not only with your family and friends, but also with complete strangers, and so they insisted that we try some of the stews they cooked and the very rich cakes they had brought.

We continued driving east along a highway, which was very good near Ashgabat, but continued to get worse and worse the further away we got, until the potholes were so deep, that many drivers including ours decided to switch lanes and drive head-on into oncoming traffic. But that seems to be quite normal. Everyone did it, and they were quite adept at weaving through cars coming the other way.

Our next stop were the ruins of Abiverd, which is a fascinating site. It was once an important trading town from about the 7th to the 12th century. There are no buildings left, just a few walls and mounds. But walking around this completely empty and vast area gives you a feeling of the sheer size of this city. You can also look for pottery pieces lying around among the ruins, since they ask you to collect any specifically nice pieces and put them on a pile near the entrance. So, I played archeologist and picked up various painted and carved shards. Amazing to think that some of these pieces in my hand could be more than 1000 years old.

We drove along a wall of mountains to the south, which form the border with Iran. I never got a mobile phone connection in Turkmenistan, since they don't seem to allow foreign phones to connect. But on this drive we got so close to the Iranian border, that I suddenly received notifications and text messages, when my phone connected to an Iranian network.

We arrived in Mary in the early evening. Mary is an oasis town in the Karakum desert, with a population of about 150,000. It is a fairly wealthy town, since a large gas field was discovered nearby in 1968, the proceeds of which have been used to built some large and monumental buildings, like the wedding palace, the huge mosque, several grand hotels and museums, although nothing compared to Ashgabat.

The reason visitors come to Mary is its proximity to the ruins of Merv, which are located only 30 minutes away. The next day we went on a full day tour to Merv, which was once one of the largest, richest and most important cities along the Silk Road. The earliest remains of human settlement here are from the bronze age in the 3rd millennium BC. Located in a large oasis, Merv occupied a very strategic location, and like most of the cities in this region, it was ruled by many different empires and kingdoms throughout its history, among them the Achaemenids, the Macedonians as well as the Parthians, Arabs and Timurids. It probably reached its zenith as the capital of the Great Seljuq Empire in the 11th and 12th century. And by the 13th century Merv may have been the largest city in the world with an estimated population of 500,000. However, as many of the great cities in Central Asia, Merv was completely destroyed by the Mongol horde in 1221, and almost everyone in it was massacred. Unlike some of the other cities though, Merv never fully recovered from this, and was completely abandoned by the end of the 18th century. The ruins of Merv were awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1999. 

The site consists of several distinct walled cities from different periods. Our first stop were the ruins of the monumental Great Kyz Kala fortress. Built of mud bricks, its exact origins are still under dispute, but it is believed to have been built in either the 6th century AD, in the late Sassanian period, or the early Islamic period of the 8th century AD.

Probably the most impressive remaining structure is the Mausoleum of one of the rulers of the Seljuk Empire, Sultan Samjar. It was built in 1157 and is topped by a 17 meter wide dome, which is considered a milestone of early Islamic architecture.

The Erk Gala is the oldest part of Merv and consists of only a few mud hills, since the walls and fortress were built in mud bricks, which have been completely dissolved over the centuries. Erk Gala was originally built as a Persian style fortress in the 7th century BC, and later served as the Acropolis of the Hellenistic city after the conquest by Alexander the Great. You can climb to the top of a hill, which used to be the highest point of the citadel, and you can see the former walls surrounding it. It gives you a great sense of the sheer size of these ancient fortifications.

The last stop was the Mosque and Mausoleum of Yusuf Hamadani, who was a Persian Suif teacher, who lived from 1048 to 1140. The original tomb has not survived, and the current structures were built in the 19th century. It is considered a very holy place. Worshippers come here to pray and walk around the shrine three times while touching the walls.

Women in Turkmenistan are very conservatively dressed in ankle-long traditional dresses and usually wear colorful head scarfs. In Ashgabat we saw a few of the younger women in pants, but that is quite an unusual sight here.

Behind the mosque was another one of these large public kitchens for sharing food, and we had a wonderful experience here, when we were invited to share food by a group of students, who where keen on practicing their English with us. They were all studying at the energy university here. This was one of the few places were we saw young women and men mix socially. In the restaurants you see either families or groups of men and groups of women sit separately.

Back in Mary we visited the local wedding palace and a wedding restaurant. The two largest and most lavish buildings in every city here tend to be the main mosque and the wedding palace. Weddings are hugely important in Turkmen culture and they are pretty much the biggest event in everyone's life. They are very lavish and expensive affairs, to which you have to invite hundreds of people. Parents start saving for the weddings of their children from the time they are born. Turkmenistan society is still very traditional. Couples cannot live together without being married, children out of wedlock rarely happen, and women get married very young.

I also visited the Mary museum, which was right next to our hotel. It had an extraordinary collection of artifacts found in and around Merv, some dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. There was also a ground floor exhibit celebrating the greatness of the previous president, showing him in heroic poses on horses or engaged in impressive athletic feats like riding a bike and holding a tennis racket.

People here seem to be quite fond of 90s techno music, which is being played quite loudly in most of the restaurants and outdoor venues. We were blasted with techno versions of 80s pop songs during dinner at the hotel, which was only interrupted by a few minutes for the call to prayer from the mosque.

We returned to Ashgabat for one more night there, and ended the tour with a lovely last dinner before heading to the airport in the middle of the night. I left Turkmenistan on a direct flight on Turkish Airlines, which left Ashgabat at an ungodly time of 3:30 am. The new Ashgabat airport terminal is another modern architectural marble. It is huge and shaped like a bird. Built in 2016 at a cost of 2.5 billion USD it has a capacity up up to 14 million passengers a year. They don't quite get that though. According to flight tracker, there are less than 20 flights leaving on a typical day, and only about 5 to international destinations, from this enormous airport.

Turkmenistan was an amazing place to visit, equally strange and mysterious, while friendly, welcoming and beautiful. In many ways I was quite positively surprised, in other ways it was even weirder than I could have imagined.

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