Turkmenistan is considered the “North Korea” of Central Asia by the Lonely Planet.

 

It is a difficult country to get into, which, happily for us, results in few other tourists there. It’s a fascinating place. It was ruled by a personality-cult figure, Niyazov, who died in 2006. He always made world news by his edicts, as examples: closing all health clinics, eliminating years of schooling, and renaming months after his mother and himself. The country is oil-rich. Most of the oil is sold to Russia at a very low price and most of the income was spent on white Italian marble which was used to build most every building in the capital, Ashkabad. It even has a white marble skating rink because Turkmenbashi wanted an Olympic champion skater to come from Turkmenistan! Many multi-storied white marble apartment houses were built as well, which no one can afford to live in. Fountains are everywhere – and this city is in the middle of the desert!

 

Most of the inhabitants of today’s Turkmenistan were nomads called Turkmen. They had no concept of, or interest in, statehood and therefore existed in parallel to the constant dynastic shifts that so totally determined Central Asia’s history. For hundreds of years, Turkmen horsemen would snatch people (often Russians) and sell them at the slave market in Khiva.

 

After the Bolshevik revolution the Russians established a Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. In 1985 Saparmyrat Niyazov was chosen by Gorbachov as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. He continued as an increasingly autocratic, idiosyncratic, and ruthless ruler after Turkmenistan became an independent country in 1991.

 

Niyazov named himself “Turkmenbashy the Great” (“Leader of the Turkmen”) and renamed the month of April after his mother and January after himself. He wrote an epic called Ruhnama, a mixture of revisionist history and moral guidelines that was intended as the "spiritual guidance of the nation" and the basis of the nation's arts and literature. It is mandatory reading! In 2006, he was number 8 on PARADE magazine’s annual list of the10 worst dictators in the world.

 

The picture above is the huge Arch of Neutrality (1988) with a polished-gold 36 ft high revolving statue of Niyazov that always faces the sun. An elevator to the top  provides a splendid view of other white marble monuments of Asgabat.

 

 

Here is an overview of our entire Central Asia trip:

 

We flew to Ashgabat, TURKMENISTAN. We toured around in and around Ashgabat (ancient Nissa and a modern horse breeding farm), then flew to Mary and toured ancient Merv. After returning to Ashgabat and doing more sight-seeing we flew to Tashauz and drove to Konye-Urgench and from there drove across the border to Khiva, UZBEKISTAN.

 

In Uzbekistan we continued by tour bus to Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, the capital. From Tashkent we flew to Fergana and toured the Fergana Valley before crossing the border to KYRGYZSTAN near Osh. We flew to Bishkek, the capital, and toured there before flying back to Tashkent and from there to London.

 

The trip was organized by Geographic Expeditions.

 

Below is a Google map with our flights in red and our GPS tracks in green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) constructed monumental Italian white marble buildings like this Saparmyrat Hajji Mosque, the largest in Central Asia.

 

He suggested that all Turkmen should make a pilgrimage to this mosque once a year.

 

The inscriptions on the minarets and walls are quotes from his book, the Ruhnama. Note that it is highly unusual to have quotes other than from the Koran on Islamic religious monument.

 

 

 

Ashgabat was totally destroyed by a magnitude 9 earthquake in 1948. 

 

After independence in 1991, Niyazov started a building spree of apartment buildings covered with Italian marble. Few can afford to live in them, therefore they’re largely vacant. Below is a collection we took while driving around in Ashgabat.

 

 

 

The famous “Fergana” horses that were so highly coveted (especially by the Chinese, who went to war just because they couldn’t buy them) are not actually from the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan but are Turkmen horses called Akhal-Teke horses. They were subsequently raised in the Fergana valley but don’t exist there any more. We visited a breeding farm in Geok-Tere near Ashgabat. They’re incredibly graceful and beautiful creatures as seen in an example on the right. This young man is the jockey who rides the horses in local races.

 

Another incorrect attribution is “Bukhara carpets” having the pattern shown on the background of this website.  They’re Turkmen carpets that were primarily sold in Bukhara, hence the name.

 

 

We flew from Ashgabat to Mary and drove to Merv which is one of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Turkmenistan. It is of immense historical significance to the whole of Central Asia. It was called Margiana in Alexander the Great’s time.

 

Under the Persian Sassanians, it was a melting pot of religious creeds with Christians, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians cohabitating peacefully, each having their own houses of worship.

 

Merv reached its highest point during the peak of the silk route in the 11th and 12th c.  This entire city was completely eradicated when the Mongols sacked the place. With knives, swords and axes they slaughtered over a MILLION people during two weeks in 1221 CE. Some escaped to the hills, but when they came sneaking back to the city the waiting Mongols slaughtered them too. Imagine what percentage of the world population that was in 1221!

 

So it goes.

 

The remains of the city walls and the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar are shown on the left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merv flourished under the Seljuks during the 11th through 13th c.

 

 

On the right is a view of the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum from the Shahriyar Ark. Sultan Sanjar died in 1157.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remains of the mighty Shahriyar Ark with its corrugated walls dating from the 12th c.

 

In other areas of Merv, one finds remains of Zoroastrian fire temples and Buddhist stupas and monasteries which were still functioning in the early Islamic era. This makes Merv the furthest western point to which Buddhism spread at its height.

 

 

The Tolkuchka Bazaar just outside of Ashgabat is as colorful and varied as one can imagine. 

 

Below are three images just from the carpet area (the fourth picture bottom right with the melons is from a market in Ashgabat).

 

Juergen is trying one of the Turkmen telpeks (sheepskin hats worn by Turkmen males). He ended up buying a white one. Note how colorfully the women are dressed. Such a contrast to Iran!

 

 

From Ashgabat we flew to Tashauz and drove to Konye-Urgench in northern Turkmenistan. It was the capital of the ancient state of Khorezm which rose to prominence in the 12th c. under a Seljuk dynasty known as the Khorezmshahs. With its mosques, medressa, libraries and flourishing bazaars, Konye-Urgench became a center of the Muslim world until Khorezmshah Mohammed II moved his capital to Samarkand after capturing that city in 1210.

 

Konye-Urgench is the other UNESCO World Heritage Site in Turkmenistan.

 

The Turabeg Khanym mausoleum on the right is still the subject of some debate. It’s not known for sure who is buried here and many archeologists contend that it was a throne room built in the 12th c. It’s considered one of Central Asia’s most perfect buildings. 

 

 

 

Atajan (below right) one of the best guides we’ve ever had, told us that at birth, babies have green spots that mostly occur just above the buttocks and that these spots gradually disappear with age. None of us ever heard of such a thing.

 

Every time we saw a woman with a little baby we asked him to ask her if she would show all of us the green spot…and he’d do it! An example is the woman above. Atajan walked up to her and asked her. She knew exactly what he was talking about and let our group (well, the women below) inspect the little baby’s bottom. Alas, the green spot had already disappeared.

 

Juergen accused the whole group of being pedophiles (jokingly, of course).

 

After we returned home we “googled” the green spot and it is well documented in the medical literature. We sent the documentation to Atajan so he could show it to other clients if they prove as hard to convince as we were!

 

 

 

 

 

In the back in the left photo is the Gutlug Timur Minaret which dates from 1320 and is one of the tallest in Central Asia (200 ft).

 

We were the only foreign tourists among many Turkmen pilgrims. We saw them circumambulating this minaret many times.

 

The locals were eager to be photographed and took lots of pictures of us as well. On the left Yvonne poses with Turkmen women. They’re all the same height! As usual in Islamic countries, she is wearing one of the Punjabi outfits we bought in India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graveyard (with above ground Islamic tombs) on Kirkmolla hill is a sacred place where Konye-Urgench's inhabitants held their last stand against the Mongols.

 

What looks like a refuse pile in the foreground in the above left picture is at closer inspection (above right) an offering site consisting of baby cribs, toys and clothes. The hill is a pilgrimage site for young women who have trouble conceiving. They roll down a hill (bottom right) hoping that this will help them getting pregnant. It was one of the most emotionally moving sites we encountered on this trip to Central Asia. The pressure on women to reproduce is incredible. They wear a coat over their dresses which they then share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nejameddin Kubra was a famous 12th and 13th c. Khorezm Muslim teacher and poet, who founded the Sufic Kubra order, with followers throughout the Islamic world.

 

His tomb is believed to have healing properties and you see pilgrims praying there like the couple below.

 

The Nejameddin Kubra Mausoleum is on the left and the Sultan Ali Mausoleum is on the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Konye-Urgench we drove to Khiva in Uzbekistan and arrived there just when the sun set.

 

 

 

 

The end.