20.05.2011 - 31.05.2011
We visited Turkmenistan as part of a Central Asia tour organised by the UK based travel agent Undiscovered Destinations. Most people visiting Turkmenistan must do so via a local tour operator and be accompanied by a tour guide throughout their stay. International tour agencies will in turn use a local agent for most the tour arrangements. Visas can be obtained at the airport or land border as long as a letter of invitation has been pre-arranged with the local agent. Visa prices seem to vary on the whim of the respective immigration officer and additional charges may be added for 'service' and blank immigration forms.
Turkmenistan's heritage is primarily focused around its historical place at the centre of the Great Silk Road. The Great Silk Road was a network of trade routes which spanned from the Mediterranean and North Africa in the West to China in the East. First traversed in the second century BC the Silk Road remained a vital conduit between East and West up into the end of the 14th Century when an increase in maritime trade, and the self imposed isolation of Ming Dynasty China, lead to its decline. The term 'Silk Road' was coined as recently as the 1870s by German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen and referred to the importance that silk played as a major trading commodity. However, the Great Silk Road was used to transport much more than silk and arguably its most significant legacy was the flow of ideas, technologies, culture and religion that came to pass. The ancient towns of Urgench and Merv were major transit hubs on the Silk Road and today the ruins of both towns are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Map of Great Silk Road with Merv and Urgench highlighted:
Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench) is a town situated just south of the Turkmen-Uzbek border. Today the town is fairly run-down and has little in the way of industry or commerce. Its main point of interest are the ruins of the ancient town of Urgench which back in the 12th century was the capital city of the Khorezm province and a major thoroughfare on the Great Silk Road. In its heyday Urgench was a centre of Islamic learning and boasted markets, libraries, mosques and madrassas. In 1221 Genghis Khan and his Mongol army arrived to conquer Urgench. Despite burning the town to the ground the locals continued to fight back from the ruins. In the end Khan diverted a local river to flood the town and in the process drowned all remaining residents. Urgench was rebuilt not long after and in the early 14th century came to be one of the most important trading cities in Central Asia until its final downfall in 1388 at the hands of Timur who considered the town a threat to his favoured city of Samarkand (now in modern day Uzbekistan). The best restored monuments of Urgench are the Gutlag Timur Minaret, Turabeg Khanym complex and Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum. The Kyrk Molla (Forty Mullah's Hill) is where residents of Urgench made their final stand against Gengis Khan's invading army. The hill is considered sacred and today pilgrims can be seen performing a strange fertility and good luck ritual by rolling down the dusty and rocky hill. good luck was in short supply the day we visited since of the four people we saw take the roll one cut her arm open and another limped away after smashing his knee on a rock.
Good luck and fertility ritual in Konye Urgench:
Ashgabat is the capital and largest city in Turkmenistan. The Central Asian country gained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Saparmurat Niyazov, the then First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist party, succeeded to become president of the newly formed State and set about building a bizarre personality cult around himself. His newly formed 'Democratic Party of Turkmenistan' was anything but as he banned all opposition and suppressed decent. In his self-styled role as defender of Turkmen culture he gave himself the title 'Turkmenbashi' or 'Leader of the Turkmen'. Towns, airports and schools were renamed after him and golden statues of him were erected throughout the land. To cement his place further in 1999 he declared himself President for Life. To international watchers he was an egotistical and eccentric tyrant with a scant regard for human rights. Some of his stranger actions included renaming the days of the week and months of the year after family members as well as banning ballet and the playing of music in cars. His autobiography, the Ruhnama, gave moral and cultural guidance and became essential reading for all Turkmen people. With proceeds from Turkmenistan's substantial gas and oil reserves he set about building Ashgabat as the nation's showpiece city. Most of the old Soviet buildings were demolished to make way for all new gleaming monuments, fountains and statues. Today Ashgabat is known as the 'White City' with almost all the buildings in central areas being covered in White Marble. Niyazov died suddenly in 2006 of a heart attack and was succeeded by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. There have been some signs that the new leadership is keen to soften the personality cult surrounding the late 'Turkmenbashi' and certainly some of his stranger policies have now been reversed. However, political reforms have been limited and Turkmenistan is still seen as one of the most repressive countries in the world. With its excessive monuments, tacky fountains and grandiose statues Lonely Planet fittingly describes Ashgabat as a cross between Pyongyang (North Korean capital) and Las Vegas.
Arriving in Ashgabat
Our impression of Konye-Urgench was of an under developed and fairly ramshackle place, there were certainly no signs of the country's vast oil and gas wealth. However, that was all to change after a short flight south to the capital Ashgabat. The road from the airport into the centre of town is lined with large scale offices, residences and hotels, all clad in the obligatory white marble. A huge roundabout surrounded with fountains was putting on its daily light and music show. As we approached the centre of town the glistening golden domes of the Presidential Palace came into view. Welcome to Ashgabat!
Las Vegas style fountains on way from airport to city:
Not many tourists visit Ashgabat but almost all who do are on arranged tours with local tour companies. Our tour guide was fairly patriotic and seemed keen to emphasise Turkmenistan's many claims to fame which include the highest flag pole, the largest fountain and the largest carpet in the world. He was less enthusiastic to discuss politics or the many eccentricities of his country's former leader. Itineraries are fairly standardised with a small number of major sites. The National Museum provides a decent overview of Turkmen history and has an impressive collection of ancient artefacts. The Carpet Museum's main attraction is the largest carpet in the world whilst the Earthquake Museum commemorates the victims of the devastating 1948 earthquake but unfortunately rarely seems to open. Independence Park contains the Independence Monument (AKA The Plunger) and a gold statue of Turkmenbashi. The monument was closed and so was Turkmenbashi's Land of Fairy Tales, a large theme park apparently built to rival Disney Land. The Arch of Neutrality, a huge monument topped off with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi which rotates throughout the day to follow the sun, was 'under construction'. As was the Ruhnama monument which is shaped like a huge version of Turkmenbashi's autobiography and sings out verses from the book periodically. Rumour has it that in an attempt to tone down Turkmenbashi's legacy the leadership are either removing or relocating some monuments to less prominent locations. Turkmenbashi's mausoleum and mosque (built to accommodate 20,000 worshippers and covered in verses from his own book rather than the Koran) were strangely absent from the itinerary. The Presidential Palace is difficult to get close to since the surrounding roads are closed to traffic and approaching the perimeter on foot is discouraged by the large security presence. The Russian Bazaar sells mainly food and clothes but is fairly ordinary in comparison to other bazaars in the Central Asian region. Photography is banned, discouraged or subject to a fee at nearly all sites though some enforced it more rigorously than others.
Guide books on Ashgabat warn visitors that rooms at most higher end hotels are routinely bugged. A quick sweep or our room at the Grand Turkmen Hotel didn't turn up anything though from later reading reviews by other guests it seems that strange circular objects were visible behind the mirrors in some rooms which may, or may not, have been cameras. Alas we will never know! The police are ever present around town and there's a general paranoia about taking photos, especially in the vicinity of government or military buildings. Even at the Russian Bazaar we were pursued by a security guard demanding that we put our camera away. At one site we visited our driver took the opportunity to clean the car whilst waiting for us. We later learned that dirty cars were commonly subject to on-the-spot fines. Whilst traveling on an expressway between two sites we had to stop for 10-15 minutes at a police roadblock. No reason was given for the temporary road closure though it's likely it was to clear the road for a passing VIP.
There are only a few official taxis in Ashgabat so locals tend to just hail normal cars which, more often than not, are happy to pick up paying passengers. Such cars are unmetered and fares are not generally agreed upfront. It therefore comes down to local knowledge and/or guesswork to determine how much to offer the driver once you reach your destination. On our one and only taxi outing the driver's beaming smile and "thank you my friend" told me that I had overpaid. Sure enough our guide confirmed the next day that the USD 3 we offered for a 3-4 mile trip was twice as much as we should have.
Note on photography
Photography is fairly heavily restricted in Ashgabat. In many locations just displaying a camera will attract unwanted police attention. Other places such as the National Museum charge a USD 20 fee to take photos. Due to these restrictions a number of the photos on this site were taken from distance using a telephoto lens.
Situated a short drive from the capital Ashgabat are the ruins of the ancient city of Nisa. Nisa was one of the first capitals of the Parthian empire (c. 250BC). Earthquakes have taken their toll over the years on what remains of the city but the site continues to be actively excavated today.
The easiest way to reach Merv is to fly to the nearby oasis town of Mary. Mary is a typically ex-Soviet town with large open squares, conspicuous statues and drab featureless apartment blocks. Merv aside there are few reasons to visit Mary. It's said that for a short period at the start of the 12th century Merv was the biggest city in the world. That was until 1221 when the invading army of Genghis Khan's son Tule laid waste to the city. The Mongols ordered that, 400 artisans aside, every man, woman and child be slaughtered. Estimates suggest that over one million people were killed. Unlike the highly restored historical sites of neighbouring Uzbekistan, the remains of Merv are truly ruins, dotted around an inhospitable desert landscape. Despite being an archaeologist's dream in reality there is not a great deal to see in Merv. To envisage how the great city once looked leaves a fair amount to the imagination.
Peculiarities of Turkmenistan
The bizarre cult of personality surrounding the late leader Niyazov (AKA Turkmenbashi) has somewhat shaped modern day Turkmenistan. However, peculiarities are not confined to Turkmenbashi's era alone. For instance, one Turkmen tradition dictates that when a woman gets married she's not allowed to speak to the elder male relatives on the husband's side of the family (father-in-law, elder brother-in-law, etc...). The restriction applies both ways so the elder male relatives are not permitted to speak to her either. Often a younger brother-in-law will be used as a go-between or if a case arises where they find themselves alone in a room together and need to communicate then a neighbour may be asked to come and mediate. Though this practice is isolated to Turkmenistan other Central Asian countries also have their own unusual customs. For instance, in Kazakhstan the tradition of 'wife stealing' is still practiced whereby a man can forcibly kidnap someone else's wife and take her for himself. Despite technically being illegal the custom still continues though nowadays kidnappings are often secretly pre-arranged, with both parties consent, and are used as a means to escape an acrimonious marriage.
Turkmenistan is one of those countries that few people know of its whereabouts let alone will ever visit. The strict and expensive visa process may put many off but the country is worth visiting if only to witness its many eccentricities. The people seemed a little less friendly than neighbouring Uzbekistan but the place is generally safe for travellers. The quality of hotels and restaurants is not high and corruption is rife at checkpoints and border control. However, one benefit of having a full time guide is that you don't have to deal directly with the police. Ashgabat is a fairly unique place and is worth visiting for a couple of days if only to witness the extravegant excesses of its past and present leadership. The city is far more developed than the rest of the country and the only place you're likely to get a decent meal while in Turkmenistan. Irritations include the rumours of hotel bugging and the paranoia surrounding photography.