Tag Archives: Turkmenistan

Looking out the window at Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan was a fascinating country, and there were plenty of things that struck me as we journeyed through it.  Those that were particularly common/memorable:

Flat desert scenery 

Flat desert scenery - Darvaza Crater - Turkmenistan

Fancy green signs

roadsign - Turkmenistan

Gas pipelines with a U-shaped dog-leg every couple of hundred metres

gas pipelines - Turkmenistan

Image of the President all over (yes, that is an LED screen!)

Image of the president - Turkmenistan

Green roofs

green roofs - Turkmenistan

Pristine cities connected by the world’s worst roads

Turkmenistan city

White marble and gold, including acres and acres of new, state-owned apartment buildings 

Turkmen apartments - Turkmenistan

The 8-pointed star.  It is absolutely everywhere: on houses, railings, traffic light stands, framework that holds up large road signs, overpasses, bridge railings … anywhere it is possible to put it as decoration, it is there. 

8-pointed star - Turkmenistan

Traditional provincial carpet designs.  Also found absolutely everywhere they can possibly be put.  Love that they have such pride in this carpet tradition!

Traditional carpet designs - Turkmenistan

Extremely tiny (narrow) and thin young women in headscarves and long, brightly coloured, fitted dresses with an embroidered front.  Do Turkmen women eat at all?

Turkmen women - Turkmenistan

In addition, there were the irrigation canals and scarecrows, and the beautiful blue bird with long tail, which unfortunately I didn’t manage to get photos for.  It is very difficult to take photos out of a very bouncy overland truck!

Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea

After a couple of wonderful days in the fascinating city of Ashgabat, we were back in the truck for the 540km trip to Turkmenbashi to find a ferry to transport us across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

On the way to Turkmenbashi

This perfectly captures how I spend a lot of my time on the overland trip. Sitting in the truck staring out the window contemplating the scenery as it slips by

The road was pretty good (for a change), and although it was 4 lanes for most of the way, only 2 of those lanes were actually in use for any particular stretch of highway.   9 hours of desert scenery later, we caught our first glimpse of the dazzlingly blue Caspian Sea.

Approaching Turkmenbashi - Turkmenistan

Approaching Turkmenbashi, and the first glimpse of the Caspian Sea

Arriving in Turkmenbashi, we found the port without too much trouble, and discovered where all the Turkmen people were!  The reason Ashgabat was empty was that everyone in the country seems to be employed in construction at the Turkmenbashi port – which unfortunately doesn’t allow photos – though I sneaked one or two.

Turkmenbashi port - Turkmenistan

Our local guide found the right person to talk to, and it turned out that there was a ferry due in at 9pm (it was 7pm when we arrived).  So, although our trip leader, Gayle, had prepared us for the worst by saying that we may be waiting up to 3 days at the port before we could depart, things were looking positive!   We parked the truck and went about cooking dinner bush-camp style in the middle of the port.

Turned out the ferry was late in, but at around 11pm we were moved off the truck and into the waiting room of the port “terminal”.   Gayle had also encouraged us to take our sleeping mats with us in case we had to sleep in a common room on the ferry, and this came in handy as I settled down on the floor of the terminal to await the call to board.   Obviously, the resident cat thought my sleeping mat was heaven as well, as he ended up sleeping up on my feet for the whole night.

We were still there the next morning, but things started to move at around 9am.  Passed through immigration and customs, and got taken around to the ferry … which was much newer and much more modern than I was expecting!

The ferry to take us from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan

The ferry to take us from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan

Given that we needed a ferry that could also transport our truck, the other thing Gayle had prepared us for was the possibility that there may not be any food available while we waited for the ferry and on the ferry itself – so all of us had about 3 days’ worth of food with us.  

Ferry - Caspian Sea

Given we had the truck, we were on a truck/car/cargo ferry, rather than a passenger ferry

However, again it was not required – and we sat down to an amazing lunch of one of the most delicious soups I’ve ever eaten, as well as chicken and rice prepared by the ferry’s kitchen staff.

Dining hall on the ferry - Caspian Sea

Dining hall of the ferry. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find my other photos that show inside the ferry 🙁

We also were allocated a bed in a 6-bed room.  This was heaven!

We finally got underway at 2pm with the assistance of a tug boat

Tug boat - Turkmenistan

And headed out into the Caspian Sea.  There is something I love about being on a boat.   I sat out on the top deck for as long as I could stand the sun watching us navigate the channel out into deeper water.   

Caspian Sea

Retreated inside before I got burned, and then came out again a bit later to further contemplate our progress through the water.

Caspian Sea

Dinner was more of the amazing soup from lunch, as well as mashed potatoes and stew.  Again – absolutely delicious!  The top bunk was surprisingly comfortable, but I was very glad I had my sleeping bag with me – it was a tad chilly! 

Woke up the next morning in sight of Baku, Azerbaijan.  However, there were a large number of boats in front of us, so we dropped anchor in the harbor and waited for our turn.  

Baku from the ferry - Azerbaijan

Baku from the ferry, Azerbaijan

Estimates were that we wouldn’t get into port until the next morning, so a day of enforced relaxation where we had more delicious food, read books, played games, watched an amazing sunset, and I managed to catch up on all my photo processing!

Sunset over Baku - Azerbaijan

Sunset over the Flame Towers of Baku, Azerbaijan

We were, unfortunately, awoken at 1am for our departure off the boat.  It was always going to happen that way!  Spent the next several hours standing around on the docks in the cold breeze as we and the truck passed through immigration and customs procedures, and then onto the hostel.

Ashgabat – Turkmenistan

If I ever again hear anyone complain about how Canberra is a planned and dead city, my response is going to be: “Go to Ashgabat”!   

The capital of Turkmenistan is a truly bizarre experience.  Completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1948 that killed a large fraction of the population (though the Soviets denied this – there were no natural disasters in the Soviet Union), in the 1990s the first president of independent Turkmenistan – Saparmurat Niyazov, the so-called Turkmenbashi (head of the Turkmen) – started bulldozing whole neighbourhoods of Soviet era construction to rebuild Ashgabat into a white marble masterpiece. 

Often called a “vanity project”, and one that could well be single-handedly keeping the Italian marble industry in business, the result (the “president’s playground”) is a pristine, empty Disneyland that is fascinating and oddly compelling. 

It is an incredibly spread out city – clearly the reason I could not find an “Ashgabat walking tour” – but Nadine, our mandatory local guide, offered to arrange a minivan to take us on a city tour the next day.  I was in!

We started by visiting the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque, which sits almost alone in what seems to be the middle of nowhere on the edge of Ashgabat.  Why is it located here?  Perhaps if I give you a clue that the mausoleum of Saparmurat Niyazov and his family is the only other thing in the immediate vicinity?  No?  Well, it is actually located in the village  where the first president of independent Turkmenistan was born of course!  More on this interesting character below…  It was, until recently, the largest mosque in Central Asia, and can fit 10,000 people comfortably.  During our visit, apart from half a dozen women, we were the only ones there…

Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

It is an absolutely gorgeous building and a very, very expensive one (~$100 million).  That golden roof – that is 100% gold leaf!   Lots of really beautiful details and very, very white in the blazing sun!

Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Inside (unfortunately, no photos allowed), it was a vast room empty of everything except Turkmen carpets.   Unexpectedly, the decoration was very understated and it was just a peaceful, calm and beautiful place to sit and contemplate.  Exactly what the inside of a religious building should be I guess! 

It would have been very easy to stay for several hours, but we were off to the ancient ruins of Nisa – another UNESCO heritage listed site – and the first city of the Parthians from 3BC to 3AD.

It was already blazingly hot when we arrived at 10am and, given Turkmenistan is not known for its abundance of trees (being mostly a desert and all), we did our best to huddle in the shade of the remaining walls while Nadine translated the information given by the site’s guide.

Ancient Parthian city of Nisa - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

To be honest, the site was a little frustrating because the archaeologists (who are still working there) have re-covered all the remaining cool bits to help protect them.   A great idea for preservation, but it doesn’t make for the best tourist attraction…   For example, the walls used to be all whitewashed – but there is very little of that visible as the archaeologists have covered the walls over with mud.  There are large urns and other vessels on site (some of them haven’t been removed to a museum), but they too have been covered over and their location is identified now by mounds of dirt.  And while the archaeologists did leave a small piece of this decorative lintel showing – the vast majority of it is, you guessed it, hidden beneath piles of mud.

Ancient Parthian city of Nisa - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Glimpses of whitewashed walls (top left), mounds of dirt covering ancient urns (top right), and a very small example of a buried lintel (bottom)

Our Russian-speaking site guide had a book of images with him so that he could show us the archaeologist’s best interpretations (there are 2 different archaeological teams working on the site) of what each of the areas of the complex would have looked like.     It must have been an incredible place back in its time, but these days you have to really use your imagination!

Ancient Parthian city of Nisa - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

One of the coolest things for me were the remains of brick pillars.  The original bricks are from 3BC – can you even imagine?!

Ancient Parthian city of Nisa - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

And this whitewashed window is also original and unrestored (and uncovered!). 

Ancient Parthian city of Nisa - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

It was a really interesting visit, though there is a limited amount to see given the state of the ruins and the efforts to preserve what is left.   Definitely worth a visit if you are in Ashgabat though!

Back into our air-conditioned minivan and into the heart of Ashgabat to check out some of the marble masterpieces.   To give you an idea of what the whole place looks like – here are some random buildings.

City of white marble and gold - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Even the bus shelters are immaculate (and air-conditioned)!

Bus shelter - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Unfortunately, I didn’t get great images (you can’t be seen taking pictures of government buildings in Turkmenistan), but I do love that the architects have created the ministry buildings in the form of what they represent.   For example, the below building is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – with the globe sitting atop it.   Another example: the Ministry for Education is in the shape of an open book 😊

Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

One of the key monuments we visited was the Monument of Neutrality – apparently Turkmenistan was recognized by the General Assembly of the UN as the first neutral state in the world in December 1995!  

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

This impressive structure is topped by a gold statue of the first President of independent Turkmenistan – Saparmurat Niyazov – who used to rotate on his perch (unfortunately no longer). 

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

The middle section shows the 5 traditional carpet designs of the Turkmenistan’s 5 provinces (these also appear on the Turkmen flag and in tons of other places as well)

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

And the struts show scenes from Turkmen history and daily life.

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

This monument was surrounded by an amazing landscaped park with an overabundance of elaborate lampposts in it … and no people.  More on this in a moment!

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Where is everybody?

Also, most monuments and buildings had guards posted – I figure this would have to be one of the worst jobs in the country given how hot it is in Ashgabat!

Monument of Neutrality - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Worst job in Turkmenistan!

Another key monument we visited was the Constitution Monument, which is surrounded by a large number of statues of different important people in Turkmen history.

Constitution Monument - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

And, of course, a statue of Saparmurat Niyazov – the Turkmenbashi.

Constitution Monument - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

I loved this symbol on the monument and asked Nadine the significance – the 5-headed eagle represents Turkmenistan’s 5 provinces, the 2-headed snake represents being on the crossroads of the Silk Road.

Constitution Monument - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

This is also a favourite place for wedding photos, and we were witness to 3 bridal parties while we were there.  

Turkmen wedding - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

These were very traditional weddings where the bride is completely covered and decked out in about 35kg of jewelry!!  Remember, it was about 38 degrees on this day – I have no idea how these brides didn’t collapse on the ground due to heat exhaustion!   I loved the colour and intricacy though 😊

Turkmen wedding - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

We also visited the World’s largest indoor Ferris Wheel.

World's largest indoor ferris wheel - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

And the Wedding Palace – a civil registry building.

Wedding Palace - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

One final monument we visited was that of the book written by the first President of Turkmenistan (yes, he was a busy man) – the Ruhnama.   This was meant to offer spiritual guidance for the nation, and was compulsory reading for all Turkmen school children until 2011.

Ruhnama monument - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

In all this driving around, one thing was particularly disconcerting.

Empty city - Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

Seriously, where is everybody?

There were very, very few cars on these enormous avenues, and almost nobody out and about at all (well except those involved in the 3 weddings).   It was like the zombie apocalypse had happened and we came along a little afterwards…

OK – so it was 38 degrees and nobody in their right mind would be out in that kind of heat.  And it was Saturday, so maybe that had something to do with it.  But it was eerily deserted in quite a spooky way!   Which made it all the more fascinating 😊 

Ashgabat really is a strange but oddly compelling place.  All that money and all those buildings, with nobody around…    Canberra is positively pumping in comparison!

The Door to Hell – Darvaza Crater – Turkmenistan

I remember first coming across a picture of the Darvaza Crater a few years ago and desperately wanting to go see it for myself.  So you can imagine how excited I was that it was on our itinerary for this Silk Road overland trip!

The story goes that the crater was formed after a natural gas drilling rig (Turkmenistan has the 4th largest reserves of natural gas in the world) collapsed into an underground cavern back in 1971.  Worried that methane gas would spread to the neighbouring villages and cause issues, Soviet scientists set it on fire, expecting it to burn out within a few weeks.  Over 4 decades later – I can tell you that it is still very much burning!

We arrived at about 7pm after a 20-minute 4WD trip, while it was still light and we had fantastic views over the Karakum (Black Sand) desert.

Darvaza crater and Karakum Desert -Turkmenistan

The crater really is in the middle of absolutely nowhere

Standing close (but not too close – it depends on how brave you are) to the edge, you can look down into the crater and see hundreds of tongues of flame erupting with great force from where the gas is escaping.  You can also get blasted with very hot air, depending on how the wind changes direction, and the noise is, as you might expect, akin to that of a blowtorch!  Though there is no smoke – it is natural gas after all!

Darvaza crater - natural gas on fire -Turkmenistan

As darkness fell, the crater took on a new form, which truly reflected in every sense its popular name “The Door to Hell”.

Darvaza crater - the Door to Hell -Turkmenistan

One of the really great things about the site is that it is completely undeveloped.  The road is 4WD only, there are no tourist stalls (nobody selling anything in fact), no walkways, no barriers to stop you falling in, no infrastructure at all.  Just you, the desert and the crater.   It is truly wonderful!

Darvaza crater and Karakum Desert -Turkmenistan

It’s the biggest and best bon-fire you’ll ever see, and you really can sit there mesmerized for hours.

Darvaza crater - the Door to Hell -Turkmenistan

Konye Urgench – Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is, in a similar fashion to North Korea, a very closed country, which can make it quite difficult to visit.  We needed Letters of Invitation (one of our group was refused this because in his photo he wasn’t clean-shaven and yet didn’t have a full beard … just a 5-day growth) and Visas, both of which, fortunately, were arranged by the company I was traveling with on our behalf. 

This was also evident in the border crossing from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, which was the longest yet.  9.5 hours in total, though to be fair, at least two of those was because a member of the group had overstayed their Uzbek visa by 2 days and they wouldn’t let her leave the country!  The police ended up coming to get her and she had to fly to Tashkent to buy an exit visa – then, and only then, would they let her leave.  She’ll rejoin us in Baku, Azerbaijan!

For Turkmenistan, it is mandatory to have a local guide, so Nadia met us at the Turkmen border and helped us get through there relatively quickly.  As always, it’s the truck that takes the most amount of time – I can’t imagine how long it would have taken without this assistance!  We then headed a few hours down the road to bush-camp about 5km from Konye Urgench – one of 3 UNESCO listed historical sites in Turkmenistan.

Bush camp near Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Myself and the other Australians were really struck by the landscape in which we were camping.  We all remarked that it was difficult to tell whether we were in northern Turkmenistan, or north-west Victoria really!

My view at the bush camp near Konye Urgench -Turkmenistan

We entered Konye Urgench as soon as it opened the next morning, and Nadia gave us a guided tour.   This city has been around since at least the 4th Century BC, and was destroyed on at least 2 occasions, by Genghis Khan (in 1221 he burned the city and flooded it), and Tamerlane (in 1373 he razed the city and massacred the population).   These days, most of it remains hidden underground, with just a few structures scattered over a wide, open area.

We started off at the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum (from the 1300s).

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

This structure has an amazing dome of 365 interlocking tiles that make up a “night sky”, as well as 24 pointed arches, 12 bigger arches below that, and four big windows.  Note the numbers here: 365 = days in a year, 12 = months in a year, 4 = weeks in a month, 24 = hours in a day.

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Although nobody is certain who is buried here, it is dedicated to Turabek-Khanym, a Mongolian princess and a patron of women.  For this reason, women in particular, come to leave offerings.

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Minaret of Kutlug Timur

This 60m, now very crooked, tower is from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the highest in Central Asia. It is ringed by eighteen ornamental strips and three belts of inscriptions in Kufi, and used to be crowned with a wooden lantern.

Minaret of Kutlug Timur - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh

This is one of the few surviving monuments from the pre-Mongol era and was originally co-located with a Madrassah and Library.  The conical (rather than dome-shaped) roof was typical of the 12th Century.

Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Kyrk Molla (40 mullahs hill)

This low, non-descript hill is actually one of the key pilgrimage sites in Konye Urgench, where women roll down the hill to promote fertility.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see anyone doing this, but I do love one of the legends for how it got its name.  This legend posits that the site used to be a Madrassah, and when the Mongol horde descended, the 40 scholars who lived there prayed that it would be spared.  To achieve this end, the Madrassah turned itself upside down, and the scholarly works are now buried beneath the hill awaiting discovery.

Kyrk Molla (40 mullahs hill) - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

This picture also shows that the site has also been used as a more general cemetary.

There are several other structures in this very spread-out site, and you really do need a guided tour to understand what you are looking at and its significance.  Definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself at the northern edge of the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert.