Sep 23 Bukhara • drive to Mary, Turkmenistan
Sep 24-26, Mary and surrounding area
Sep 27-28, Ashgabat
Sep 28 drive to Darvaza
Sep 29 • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan
An early morning departure from Bukhara and on the road to the Turkmenistan border, the most important stop before the border was to find a toilet, for there was no way of knowing if facilities would be available at the crossing. Abdu, my guide, directed Sherizod, our driver, to stop as what looked like a restaurant/hotel. As soon as the car stopped, we heard loud music coming from the building. Since the time was 9am, I assumed a wedding party was just coming to a close…but I was wrong, it was a breakfast party to celebrate the 60th birthday of a well-known local man. In true Uzbek hospitality, the group of men standing outside insisted we join the celebrations. We were ushered to a table filled with delicacies of plov and samosa, meats, salads and fruits; music played to welcome us and we soon met the honoree. After many pictures and congratulations were had, we set off with handfuls of sweets for the border crossing. After several hours of typical border red tape, I was in Turkmenistan!
After crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I was met by my guide, Elias, a native of Merv. Elias’s first comment was to reassure me that he and his ancestors were quite harmless and sincerely friendly. He insisted that he should not be judged by the local proverb: “If on the road you meet a viper and a Mervi, kill the Mervi first, and the viper afterwards.”
Being sufficiently reassured that I was in safe hands, I turned my thoughts to Turkmenistan, a flat, dry country dominated by the Karakum Desert with ancient civilisations buried beneath the moving sands.
Turkmenistan consists of five major Turkmen tribes and is also a country to delight any anthropologist or archaeologist.
In Turkmenistan, I would visit civilisations spanning from 2300 BCE at Gonur-depe to the 11th to the 16th century CE monuments of Kunya-Urgench. Turkmenistan went the same route as Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan first colonized by Russian tsarist in 1881 and Sovietised from 1917, with Stalin drawing the countries borders in 1934. Watch this 1972 movie, “The Daughter in Law”, about life in Turkmenistan after WWII. The photographs that follow are things that are still present in village everyday life: felt rug, yurt,the vessel for tea, saksaul branches (Haloxylon, See http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/ebook/dissts/Koeln/Annaklycheva2002.pdf, page 68), reed mats, dowry chest.(run cursor over pictures for information.) The abundance of saksaul branches demonstrates the wealth of a family.
The first town after the border crossing is Turkmenabat, the area in which caravans crisscrossed from the Karakum desert and agricultural land of Uzbekistan. The river Amu-Darya (River Oxus), provided a natural resource to sustain travellers making their way to and from the Caspian Sea (see map). The Silk Road was in its decline when Genghis Khan’s army invaded the area in 1221 and levelled the city, Turkmenabat, which was known, then, as Amul. Then from the north, more invasions from Timur and his armies. During this time, the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) was vying with the Arabs trading by sea routes diverting goods from overland trading, another reason that destabilised the caravan routes. But still today, there are remnants of the many caravanserai that rise above cotton fields along the road to Mary (Mari) and the ancient city of Merv; the direction, south, that we are headed.
Remains of caravanserai in the area of Merv:
Merv stood on the crossroads of the main routes of the Great Silk Road. Routes through Merv went in a number of directions: north to Khorezm (through the Karakum Desert or to Bukhara); east to Termez (near Afghanistan); southwest to present day Iran; and west to Nisa (ancient Parthian city near Ashgabat). The Merv channel from the north imports of such products as wax, honey, and furs came. From the southern route connected land and sea routes enabling the intensification of trade with Arabia.
During the Russian tsar era, a fortress was built around 1881 and Turkmenabat became known as Charjou. For me, Turkmenabat is a rest stop to recover at a restaurant straight from the 1970 world of disco equipped with dance floor and 360degree revolving mirror. After some Lagman soup, another two-hours drive and we enter Mary (Mari), a former settlement for the Tekke Turkmen tribe that surrendered to the Russian tsar in 1884.
The significance of Mary is the proximity to the earliest history in the Merv Oasis: the 4000 year old complex of the Gonur-depe, medieval Merv, and the intersection of four caravan roads in the Silk Road. Gonur-depe was the capital of one of the great but little known ancient civilisations. The earliest history of the Merv Oasis in former delta of the River Murghab can be traced to the Bronze Age culture, 2300-1700 BCE. Over 4000 years of its history the cities at this site have borne different names in different periods – Mouru, Margush, Mariana, Merv, Mary – and these made an impact on the development of Central Asia.
Uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the mid-20th century, the fortress town of Gonur-Depe was once a thriving center of a Zoroastrian civilization populated by thousands. The Bronze Age site dating back to around 2000 BC was surrounded by strong fortress walls, and made up of adobe homes and buildings, the remnants of which are still subsiding in this rural corner of Turkmenistan located about 45 miles north of Merv.
In Gonor-Depe the remains of a variety of Zoroastrian sites were discovered, including a palace, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a necropolis. Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by Zoroaster, who lived in Persia sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE. Fire is seen by Zoroastrians as pure and sacred, and is the central element in their temples.
The Murghab river oasis was occupied at least as far back as the beginning of the first millennium BCE although the earliest structures at Merv date to the early Achaemenid period (sixth to fight century BCE). Merv known as Margiana or Margushe in Alexander the Great’s time by the end of the second century BCE Margiana fell under Parthian control. It was considered religiously liberal with populations of Nestorian Christians,
Buddhists and Zoroastrian. Merv reached its peck of trade between 11th and 12th century when the Seljuk Turks made it their capital.
People I met at the ancient monuments of Merv on pilgrimage from different parts of Turkmenistan. (Move cursor over picture for information about the various monuments.)
Zuleyha is from the Beluch tribe that moved to southern Turkmenistan from their ancestral community in Iran about four generations ago. The Baluch in this region have retained many aspects of their material and social culture. I asked Zuleyha about the embroidery on her robe and she said that it was store bought. She said that the women use to embroider their robes but no one has the time or interest to do so now.
Some monuments at ancient Merv site:
Ashgabat, the ‘city of love’ and monumental marble buildings and capital of Turkmenistan is not far from the Iranian border. One of the visa requirements was to purchase a ticket to the Asian Games being held during my journey there, so off I went to the ballroom dancing competition and to my surprise (or maybe not so surprising), Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country competing!
Before leaving Ashgabat, a visit to Nisa, the first seat of central government of the Parthians.(reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC):
And a visit to a centre for horse breeding of the Akhalteke race horse, Turkmenistan’s prize breed, that has application to the UNESCO for inclusion of the breed in the World Heritage list:
Ring of fire in the Karakum desert: human error creates mesmerizing nights in the desert…
From Ashgabat to Konya-Urgrench to cross the border back into Uzbekistan takes us through the Davaza Gas Craters. Elias describes the road as the worst road in the world. Definitely, the drive was difficult not only because of the pot holes but the camels walking down the middle and across the road. We are headed to a camp grounds provided by the government. The yurt or tent accommodations are on a first come/first serve. The jeep turned off-road and on a sandy piste to the crater, which takes experienced driver as the way is not marked. Roman, our driver, is superior at his skill and luckily, a first-class mechanic and barbecue expert! First stop, however, is the village of Yerbint, which gives a glimpse of rural life in the desert.
Elias asks around to find if felt rugs are for sale though not for tourist consumption, he finds a lady willing to sell her rugs. The patterns in the felt rugs (see Kyrgyzstan to watch how felt is made) are handed down from generation to generation. When bargaining is finished, one young boy reminded his mother that he had helped her roll the rug and slyly asked if there would be any profit for him. Little did I know that Elias’s insistence on this purchase would save be from a bitter cold night in the desert, not only an authentic piece of work but also I pulled the rug over me against the raw desert night air.
The Darvaz gas craters are a human mistake during the Soviet era gas exploration but nonetheless, it draws tourists from Ashgabat. Roman explains that most tourists make the 3 hour drive to watch night fall at the crater only to return the same night through the ‘worst road in the world!’ This crater had been set alight in 1971 since the collapse of an underground cavern of natural gas. Engineers set it alight to prevent the spread of methane gas but it has never stopped burning. The diameter of the crater is 69 metres, and its depth is 30 metres.
In the morning we break camp early to cover another rough road to the Uzbekistan border with enough time to explore the monuments at Konye-Urgench, which was once the centre of the Islamic world.
Meet Elias Djumyev, my guide (on left) in Turkmenistan and Roman, expert driver.
(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)