Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia bordered by the Caspian Sea and largely covered by the desert. It’s known for historical ruins including those at the old cities of Nisa and Merv, which were major stops along the ancient trade route the Silk Road. Ashgabat, the capital, was rebuilt in Soviet style in the mid-20th century during its time in the USSR, and is filled with impressive monuments honoring their first president Saparmurat Niyazov.
We arrived in Turkmenistan at Ashgabat international airport at 2am in the morning- we had to complete our visa payments ($99 USD in cash each) and paperwork on arrival. The airport itself was huge, modern, and is (we were informed by our guide later) the largest bird-shaped airport in the world. I didn’t get a good photo but here is one I took from the internet- can you see the bird?
To travel through Turkmenistan Chris looked at many blogs to see how we might be able to do it ourselves, in the end it did not seem possible to get a visa (Turkmenistan has one of the most strict visa policies among Central Asian countries) or to travel easily at all so we booked a tour through Advantour. We (us and two others) were met by our guide who took us back to our hotel- The Alk Aytyn hotel. The hotel is golden rust coloured in a soivet style suggesting its hayday may have been in the USSR, the interior suggested the same. We spent our day of arrival chilling out in our room and later even did a gym session (this would come to haunt me).
Our first “official” day of the tour started at 5am on a bus headed to the airport again- no we had not been deported- we were headed to Mary and Merv.
Mary and Merv
Although they sound like your kind old next door neighbours, Mary and Merv are actually old cities of Turkmenistan!
Merv (40 km from Mary) is one of the most ancient territories of Central Asia that introduced irrigation system among the first. It led to the formation of one of the largest cities of ancient world – Merv (Margush, Margiana, Mary). The origin of Merv is shrouded in mysteries. One fact is known for sure, though – the first written references to this city were found in Avestian chronicles of approximately the 8-6th centuries B.C. The chroniclers widely used bright epithets naming it “a soul of a king, a mother of Khurasan cities, and, the city that helds the Universe. Omar Khayyam, As – Samani, Imamaddin-Isphakhani and other great thinkers of the Middle Ages lived there. The site is filled with ancient sites, of the buildings most of them had undergone some restoration to make them look more like the original building.
Ashgabat is the capital of Turkemenistan, and our second day consisted of a tour around the city. The town began as a soviet outpost and gradually grew into the city it is today. There seem to be two parts to the city, normal suburbs and then a new part of the city which seems to be empty.
The normal part of the city was pretty unremarkable, but after going to the monuments in the new part, we started to get a feel for some of the more obscure aspects of the country. The gas money has gone into creating a huge amount of opulent ‘public’ buildings. Such as the wedding palace, the independence monument, and a giant rocket shaped thermometer which commemorates the hottest day in Turkmenistan 57 degrees. These are accessible by 6 lane highways. It just so happens that no-one ever drives on these, well often the only vehicle on the road when we were on the highway was our bus.
Davarsar gas crater
The ancient pagan tribes of turkmenistan used to worship 4 elements. Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire. The soviet union was an atheistic state, but during their occupation they managed to unwittingly turn the Karakom desert into a massive monument to these forces.
4 hours of driving on some quickly deteriorating roads took us into the middle of Turkmenistan, about 100km from the last village in the middle of the desert. We found three huge holes in the ground- one filled with water, one filled with sufurous bubbling mud, and one filled with gas fuelled fire.
We camped by the large Davazar gas crater (the fire crater), and at night we were able to see the darkness of the desert lit up by the flaming “gates of Hell” as its known to the locals. Dinner was quite fittingly cooked over right over the fire that night- chargrilled meats and veges with some local style bread and interesting conversation with new international friends.
The next day we were on the road through the desert, visiting one last ancient city then thrown over the border into Uzbekistan.