This blog has been published by our friend Graham Brown from deepest Orkney as we still can’t update the blog from here. Thank you very much Graham. (Graham: it’s a pleasure. Isn’t the internet wonderful?).
We were in and out of Turkmenistan in a flash, or so it seemed. After all that waiting for our visas in Iran we only got the standard five-day transit visa.
It is possible to cycle across the country in five days and we met a couple of lone fit young men who were doing just that, riding as far as far as they could in a day and camping in the desert wherever they found themselves, but we opted to take taxis some of the way so that we could look round a bit.
Northern Iran is much higher than Turkmenistan so when we crossed the border we had an amazing 30-mile downhill ride to Ashgabat. The first 15 miles was through no-man’s land where we saw a herd of spiral-horned mountain goats leaping across the hills below sheer cliffs and huge black eagles with white spots under their wings climbing the thermals above us. We also started to hear song birds. It was a welcome change from Iran where there are millions of licensed guns and they shoot anything that moves.
Ashgabat is extraordinary. The modern city is built almost entirely of white marble. It has been constructed in the last 20 years as a vanity project by Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s first president. As you approach it from the south it rises out of the surrounding dust of the desert looking like the fantasy creation of a science fiction writer.
Once inside the city you are surrounded by thousands of fountains, enormous gold statues of Turkmenbashi, white marble buildings with Grecian columns and gold domes, and tall white marble buildings which appear to be very grand apartment blocks. Everywhere you look there are ostentatious monuments to the great leader and the country.
An army of women keep everything clean and dust free. They sweep the streets, wipe the white marble, polish the statues and even clean the wastepaper bins. Ashgabat is in the middle of the desert but there is not a speck of dust anywhere.
After the complete lack of urban planning in Iran, and once we got over our astonishment, we were almost relieved to see the ‘perfection’ of Ashgabat. But even after the first hour it starts to feel very strange. Apart from the cleaners there are almost no people on the streets and very few cars. The total population of Turkmenistan is only six million yet this city alone could house more than that.
We took the opportunity to go to the ‘British Pub’ where we drank beer and ate fish and chips surrounded by ex-pats. Very nice, but very odd. By the time we left Ashgabat the next morning we were quite happy to go. It is without a doubt the strangest place we have ever been.
We took a taxi half way across the country to Merv which could not have provided a greater contrast. Merv and the surrounding area have been settled since the third millennia BC, but its recent history starts during the time of Alexander the Great around 300 BC and ends in the 13th century when Chinggis Khan rampaged through central Asia destroying everything in his path. It was an important centre on the silk road, and while other cities in the region such as Bukhara and Samarkhand recovered from Chinggis Khan, Merv never really did. We spent a day cycling round the huge complex looking at the sandy remains of 12th century castles, long stretches of ramparts, ice houses and the fortresses and earth works built over the centuries. The oldest section of the ruins is littered with shards of pottery and bones that are up to two thousand years old.
Along the way we were befriended by a group of female students who were visiting the ruins by coach. At lunchtime they invited us to eat with them in a refectory attached to the mosque. We sat cross-legged on the floor as an Imam recited a prayer and we joined in the ritual washing – hands cupped to symbolize holding water and then wiped down the face to symbolize washing. When the Imam had finished we started eating, meat and potato stew served with heavy flat bread and tea. For the students we were clearly the entertainment. They could not stop staring at us which was a good thing as it gave us licence to stare at them. Women and girls in Turkmenistan have a beautiful style of dress. They wear full-length fitted velvet dresses in deep blues, reds and purples, with an embroidered trim around the neckline and in a narrow band down to about waist height. They wear embroidered caps or distinctive cotton headscarves tied at the back. The pattern is usually large brightly coloured flowers on a strongly coloured background. All this colour made a welcome change from the black of Iranian women’s dress.
When the meal ended there was further praying and ritual washing followed by endless photo taking as each girl wanted a picture of herself standing between us.
The next day we took a taxi to Turkmenabat and spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the market. And the day after that we cycled across the Oxus and across the border to Uzbekistan.