Hello hello, good people, and welcome to another episode of wild and wacky Turkmen tales.
We can’t travel at the moment, but we can reminisce, and invite you along for the ride here in Sophie’s World.
Why yes, that IS a burning gas crater behind us. And very windy, too.
Turkmenistan outside Ashgabat
Since you’re reading this post, I’m going to assume you’re curious about Turkmenistan, and maybe even want to visit this most peculiar of lands. Let’s say you’re all up to speed on the shiny marble city that is Ashgabat and you’re ready to get out of town for a bit. Tell me, what’s your inclination? Burning gas craters? The Gates of Hell is on everyone’s Turkmenistan list, and for good reason. You’ll have to look long and hard to find a more unusual sight. Anywhere. But there’s more. How about a swim in an underground lake with bats hanging from the ceiling? Having a look inside an opulent mausoleum mosque? Walking through UNESCO-listed ruins and pretend you’re a king in the year 0, or a 13th century Sufi mystic? Sleeping on a living room floor in a remote mountain village near the Iranian border? It’s all yours for the taking. (Albeit virtually for the moment.)
Let’s make a day of it. In fact, let’s make it two.
Here, again, is the short version of our actual itinerary:
- Day 1 Arrive Ashgabat just before midnight.
- Day 2 Ashgabat by day and by night
- Day 3 UNESCO-listed Nisa, Gypjak Mosque, Köw-Ata underground lake, Nokhur. Overnight with local family in the village.
- Day 4 Return to Ashgabat
- Day 5 Ashgabat
- Day 6 Drive through the Karakum desert to Darvaza gas crater, then onwards to UNESCO-listed Kunya-Urgench and the Uzbek border.
We’ve covered Ashgabat (as well as info on the difficult to obtain LOI/visa and other practical stuff) over here. This post will deal with the places outside the capital, days 3 and 6 above.
Nisa, Gypjak, Köw-Ata underground lake, Nokhur village
We begin in Nisa, once home of Parthian kings. Never heard of those particular royals? Neither had we. Suffice it to say, the Parthian Empire was a trading and political force to be reckoned with in the year 0 and about 250 years in either direction from there. And of course, we know who ruled the (known) world in those days. The Parthian Empire stopped mighty Rome and her frenzied empire building ambitions in her tracks. For a while, at least. Something to be said for rooting for the underdog. Although… Parthia controlled parts of present-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel in addition to Turkmenistan. Not exactly small fry. So, just like we have pottered about the Silk Road quite a bit the last 4 years, so did the Parthians 2000 years ago. Luckily, we haven’t had to deal with fierce Roman soldiers. UNESCO has awarded World Heritage status to the Parthian fortresses here at Nisa, thus granting it special protection for future generations to enjoy. The site is strategically located with mountains at its back and sweeping views over a valley. To get an overview, we go up to the viewing platform at the entrance. The complex comprises two tells (ancient mounds) – Old and New Nisa – that hide the remains of this ancient civilisation. ‘Hide’, because, like Pompeii, much of it is still not excavated. That way it won’t be exposed to the elements and erosion, and stay better preserved. Unfortunately (and unlike Pompeii), that also means you don’t get much of an impression how it might have looked. It’s the kind of place where a vivid imagination comes in handy. And perhaps gentler temperatures than what we had (40°C+). Inside a round room, we see bits of a frieze – so that’s some colour, at least – and there’s more under ground, we’re told, waiting to be unearthed. Other than that, the site consists mainly of reconstructed brick walls and columns. It’s a fairly small site; we are there about an hour, maybe even less, and see most of it.
Walking along the walls of Nisa. Bit of a maze.
Gypjak Mosque: Turkmenbashi’s controversial mausoleum
Next is Gypjak, a small village 7 km from Ashgabat, where we find out more about the father of the nation (more on Turkmenbashi in this post). Gypjak was where he landed here on earth, and where he wanted to depart. Of course, no mere gravestone would do, oh no. A mausoleum was needed. An entire mosque, in fact. Grandeur and opulence. This is where he was buried, on Christmas Eve in 2006. The mosque is not without controversy. Not only can you see scriptures from the Quran along the walls, as is to be expected in a mosque – but you’ll also find words of wisdom from the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi’s very own autobiography and spiritual musings, the Book of the Soul. Naturally, Muslims are none too pleased that this work of (at least partial) fiction, written by a semi-illiterate dictator, should be lifted to the same spiritual level as the holy book of Islam.
That aside, I’m glad we’ve made the stop here. This curious and stunning marble-and-gold construction is worth a closer look.
The road is long…
And now for the long, lonesome road that’s going to be part of any Turkmen road trip.
We’re now on the road heading into the Kopet Dag Mountains. On the other side of them thar hills is Iran. I’m reminded of being in the Bekaa Valley, just the other side of the mountain from Syria. There’s something slightly thrilling about being so near ‘bad’ lands, as in George W.’s Axis of Evil. We’ve come closest along the Pamir Highway nearly two years ago, with Afghanistan just across the river, often within stone-throwing distance. But I digress. Back in the land of weird, we’re now on the way to the little village Nokhur, where we’ll spend the night. Still not sure of the sleeping arrangements; we’ll see when we get there.
Köw-Ata underground lake: swimming with bats
But first, a swimming stop – inside the subterranean Bakharden Cave, home to the largest population of bats in all of Central Asia. Swimming holes are few and far between in a country where more than 80% is desert. To experience this underground mystery, we climb down 60 metres of slippery steps. As we descend, gradually into almost darkness (a head torch isn’t a bad idea), the distinct smell of sulphur becomes ever more apparent. Also, more, erm… human smells. I am reminded of cenotes, those Mayan sinkholes in the Yucatan. You could hang out a while in a cenote; especially the light, bright, airy and beautiful ones, with the sun streaming in from high above. Köw-Ata is much less developed for tourism. And much less busy, even on this scorching July Sunday. Köw-Ata is more the kind of place where you climb down, quickly change clothes in the booths (or underneath your towel) on the smelly changing platform, continue down the last few steps that leads right into the sulphuric water, splash about for a bit, and then leave. This is like a thermal spa, with comfortably warm water, so we step right in. Since I have a somewhat problematic relationship with water, I’m taking it easy in the darkness, as it quickly changes from shallow to deep. The bats we see are far above us, and keep to themselves. We stay for about 20 – 30 minutes, none of us venturing very far into the cave where bats are known to come closer. Köw-Ata doesn’t have much infrastructure. On the other hand, it’s something refreshing… hm, perhaps not the right word… let’s call it unique, about swimming in a bat cave that may have looked just like this – and maybe even smelled just like this – since time immemorial.
Put this pic in here to distract you.
This section is about a remote village just across the mountain from Iran – about the people: their beliefs, their customs, their stories, their lives – a little photo essay. The Nokhuri aren’t like the rest of the Turkmen, you see. Their language is completely different, and they consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great. And since there’s little doubt said Alex hung about here, wreaking havoc, they may very well be right. They are also known for their work ethic, their tight-knit community, their conservative ways – and they have managed to keep their customs alive, at least in part because the little village is so remote. Along a dusty, winding track, about an hour after leaving the main road, that’s where you’ll find it.
Remember the Lada? Bit of a time-warp feel this. Also, Serdar posing with our not-a-Lada 4 x 4.
It’s late afternoon as we arrive in Nokhur. We’re shown around, we’re told stories and we’re served tea.
This hollow sycamore tree is 2000 years old; we hear. It’s also magical; just wander inside and make a wish.
On the outside looking in –
– on the inside looking out
Nokhur is an all-round mystical place, with holy sites connected to the Peri, beautiful and mischievous angels in Persian folklore.
This is Kyz-bibi’s cave, a good place to come to boost your fertility. It’s also where a woman once hid (some say she was swallowed up), thus saved from being violated, a fate worse than death, apparently.
Nokhur is famous for its graveyard. If you look closely (click on a photo for a bigger version), you’ll see the gravestones are topped with rams’ horns. Mountain goats are strong and resilient and considered sacred, so the horns will protect against evil spirits, and safeguard the soul’s journey to the afterlife. It’s interesting to see that such pre-Islamic beliefs persist even in a devout Islamic community.
Early evening in Nokhur
This view! We need photos!
At home with the family
Seen Homeward Bound? It was my kids’ fave Disney flick when they were little; I must have seen it at least 30 times. Well, here’s Chance, Sassy and Shadow. I’m pretty sure I heard Sassy being sassy at some point during the night.
Soup’s on, heavy on the mutton, followed by plov, with more mutton. (Also veg, so not to worry.) Food in abundance. Alcohol is not available in this religious community, so we brought our own wine. Georgian.
Homework by laptop light.
And sleeping? Pretty straightforward. The living/dining room is transformed into a huge bedroom for the three of us. No beds, just carpets and blankets on the floor. I’ve slept more comfortably. I’ve also slept less comfortably. Much less, in fact. A 5/10, maybe? Ah, whatthebleep, I’m feeling generous: let’s say a 6.
Next morning, it’s breakfast al fresco, with a view of the valley below.
Don’t think I’d mind laundry duty too much with this view.
And, because I know you want to know: loo with a view. (Though no view inside the loo.)
… with many a winding turn…
On the way back to the city, we pass these gorgeous wild creatures
Back in Ashgabat
We’ve covered 11 things you’ll love in Ashgabat in this post, even threw in a couple more. Well, today is your lucky day, peeps, cause here’s yet another quirky thing to love in this city, and it’s all about health.
Here’s Andrew standing at the entrance to pres-for-life Niyazov’s (Turkmenbashi) Walk of Health. I’ll let him tell you about it:
Built by the former president in an attempt to get the people of Turkmenistan fit. Thankfully it was temporarily closed, meaning I didn’t need to make the 37km trek. Niyazov ordered all ministers, members of parliament and civil servants to do the hike once a year. He expected the population of the city to do the walk at least once per year as well. Niyazov himself watched his staff start the walk, and later flew in his helicopter to the final stage of the walk to greet them on their successfully completed walk. He argued that his heart condition would not allow him to do the walk himself. In retrospect, he probably wasn’t lying. He died in 2006 of a heart attack. Despite forcing employees to walk for their health, the forced march was counterproductive. Apparently, walking on a concrete stairway for 22 miles without a source of shade in sight, in one of the more extreme climates on Earth, is a health risk. Ironically, following the annual march, many employees took sick days off work.
…that leads us to who knows where
Time to get out of Dodge. For good. At sunrise.
Today, we’re traversing pretty much the entire length of Turkmenistan, from south to north.
Benefits of getting up in the morning: Stunning sunrise over the Karakum Desert, en route to the Gates of Hell.
The highlight, and often the only image people have of Turkmenistan, is the burning gas crater at Darvaza (meaning gate.)
Finally, you say! I’ve been waiting for this. Well, just a wee bit more patience, dear reader. There are two other interesting craters along the way:
One is filled with bubbling quicksand. The edge is crumbly. Don’t step too close!
And this lovely green pool looks pretty enough to jump in. Please don’t!
Craters in the Karakum desert, interesting to locals –
– and foreigners alike
The Gates of Hell, or what a miscalculation can lead to
Fiery amber glow emanating from hell.
We’re now 265 km from Ashgabat, in the middle of the desert, at one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
In 1971, a team of Soviet geologists prospected for gas at this site. Suddenly, the drills punched through the roof of a cavern. Equipment and drilling rigs came crashing down, creating a huge hole in the ground, 30 metres deep. You can still see bits of metal poking out down there.
No one was killed or injured, but gas poured out. Methane, mostly. I imagine the convo may have gone something like (a Soviet version of) this :
– Hm… what if poisonous gases are released?
– And methane… that’s highly flammable, innit?
– One helluva bang waiting to happen, y’think?
The team gives it some thought.
– Hey y’all, I have an idea!
– What’s that, bubba?
– Flaring, as they say up in North Dakota. Controlled burn. Let’s set it on fire!
– Dude! That’s gonna look so cool!
– It’ll probably burn itself out in a few days; coupl’a weeks at the most.
– ‘Ha,’ says the crater, ‘who da boss?’
Nearly 50 years later, and this 70-metre wide hole is still on fire.
How long will it burn? Will the supply of gas run out? Will the Turkmen government decide to close it down? It does seem a waste of resources, doesn’t it? Profligacy at its finest, you could say. And I’ll not even go into the environmental impact. On the other hand, it has become the major tourist attraction for one of the world’s most isolated countries. Eco-tourism and extreme sports have been mentioned as possible activities in the desert here. In the end, it will come down to the plusses and minuses on the balance sheet, I suppose.
Here we all are, our inimitable driver Serdar included, at the very gates of hell.
Standing in front of the burning crater, I feel the heat and the wind. I try to record a video, but give up after a few attempts. The blasts of air, the roaring flames; turns out a burning crater is rather loud. And the wind whipping hair in my face is just distracting. Note to self: Remember mic cover and hair band. Wild desert camping is popular here. You can spend the night near the crater (but not too near): in a yurt, in a tent, or simply under the stars – watching the sun set, and then rise again, over the bewitching, flaming abyss. (Honeymoon idea. You’re welcome.)
Sadly, no sunset or sunrise over fiery crater for us. Our visas expire today, so we must move on. And Uzbekistan beckons.
But first, more country roads. And another UNESCO-listed Silk Road property.
…who knows where
Heading north towards Kunya-Urgench, we pass vehicles quite different from the shiny white cars in Ashgabat.
If you come from Uzbekistan (rather than the other way, as we do), Kunya-Urgench will remind you of a modest version of that country’s three famous sites. This is perhaps how buildings in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand would look unrestored. Kunya-Urgench was the capital of Khorezm, a major 11th to 16th century Silk Road trading centre. Interestingly, it was also a separate republic within the Soviet Union. The Khorezm SSR existed from October 1923 to October 1924, when it was divided between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Karakalpakstan up by the Aral Sea.
The first we see when entering Kunya-Urgench is Turabek Khanum’s Mausoleum, equally impressive both outside and inside. The mosaic in the dome here has 365 interlocking tiles, so it’s fair to assume it’s a calendar of some sort. Turabek was a 14th century princess and the building comes with plenty of myths and legends.
In addition to mausolea, Kunya-Urgench has fortresses, madrassas, a mosque, the gates of an ancient caravanserai, and the impressive 60-metre-high 11th century Kutlug-Timur minaret, tallest in Central Asia.
Kunya-Urgench was a centre of learning, so Al-Mamun’s Academy of Sciences was here, as well. The architecture and artistry of this area had a significant influence on later Mogul architecture far beyond Turkmenistan (think Taj Mahal, Fathepur Sikri, Humayun’s Tomb and Qutub Minar in Delhi, etc).
The site is well-organised with foot paths linking the various buildings; it’s easy to get around.
I like the optical illusion effect in this photo. Looks like it’s about to slowly topple backwards.
Kunya-Urgench is an important pilgrimage site still. Some come for a fertility boost. Both here and at the cave in Nokhur, I’m reminded of the social value of having children and how that differs around the world. Others come to visit Najmuddin Kubra’s mausoleum. Inside is the gravestone of this 13th century Sufi mystic, who was so interested in dreams and visions. This former centre of the Islamic world is the last stop before we cross over to our final ex-Soviet, Central Asian country. Here, towards the end of our journey through the land of weird, a few, well, weird words from the mystic himself seems appropriate.
…the degrees of luminous epiphany that are manifested to the mystic, the different classes of concept and image that engage his attention, and the nature and interrelations of man’s ‘subtle centres’…
Onwards to Uzbekistan
Next up is the Turkmen – Uzbek border. You can look forward to continued quirkiness across the border, but of the somewhat more sombre kind. In the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan we have a look at what was once the 4th largest lake in the world. Today, the Aral Sea is almost completely dried up. Posts on Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand also coming up, and perhaps Tashkent, too, if I feel like it. Watch this space!
PS Has it been a year already?
July 2019: Celebrating a common birthday by dancing flames with cards from home.
Happy birthday! We’ll celebrate your advanced ages properly just as soon as the light turns green. xx
All photos by Andrew Morland (most of them), by Tom Brothwell and myself – and occasionally by our eminent driver, Serdar. Check out Andrew’s fab Insta feed for more snazzy, sexy Soviet stuff in Turkmenistan and beyond.