By the time you read this, I will be in Turkmenistan, a country sometimes called the “North Korea of Central Asia.” Indeed, it has been ranked third to last in terms of freedom of the press, just above Burma and – you guessed it – North Korea.
Lonely Planet refers to it as “mysterious and unexplored” while a couple of British women I met in Tajikistan who recently visited simply called it “bizarre.”
Just to obtain a tourist visa to Turkmenistan, I had to book a specific itinerary and hire a guide to accompany me at all times when I am outside of the capital, Ashgabat. This means that visiting Turkmenistan is not cheap by any means, but I decided the history, the natural environment and the novelty of such a country makes it worthwhile. I hope I am right.
A little about the history…
Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of settlements in parts of the country dating back to the Bronze Age. Alexander the Great founded the city of Merv, which eventually became a major trading post on the Silk Road and the center of a great civilization.
Modern day Turkmen are thought to have arrived around the 11th century and roamed the area as nomads. When the Russians arrived in the 1800s, the Turkmen attacked and captured tsarist troops, selling them as slaves in Khiva and Bukhara (both now in Uzbekistan). Eventually the Russians had their revenge, killing thousands of Turkmen at Geok-Depe in 1881.
The Communists captured the city of Ashgabat in 1918 and eventually the region became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Opposed to Soviet attempts at collectivization (a concept clearly opposed to a nomadic lifestyle), the Turkmen fought a guerilla war against the Soviets for nearly a decade.
Once the Soviet Union dissolved and Turkmenistan became independent, it became a dictatorship ruled by “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov, who referred to himself as “Turkmenbashi” and erected gold statues of himself all over the country. After he died in 2006, the new dictator loosened things up ever so slightly, but clearly not much.
I don’t expect to have internet access during the ten days I am in Turkmenistan (both because it is supposed to be hard to come by – less than 2% of the population use the internet – and because many sites are said to be blocked anyway), so I thought I would share a preview of where I will be and what I will be seeing or doing each day.
July 31: I depart Bukhara, Uzbekistan and arrive at the border to Turkmenistan by 9:00 a.m. After crossing the border (which will hopefully be painless!), I meet my guide and continue on to visit Merv. A UNESCO World Heritage site, one of Genghis Khan’s sons destroyed the city in the 13th century and murdered all of its 300,000 residents. Today, only ruins remain.
August 1: I head to the capital city of Ashgabat, a four hour drive from Mary, stopping in Anau along the way, a site with ruins dating as far back as the 5th century B.C.
August 2: I have free time to explore Ashgabat on my own. While Ashgabat was founded back in the 1800s by the Russians, the city was completely leveled by a magnitude 9 earthquake in 1948, killing two-thirds of the population. Today, the city is said to be a collection of marble and gold, built up from the government’s oil and gas revenues.
August 3: In the morning, I fly to the city of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea coast. From there, I head straight to the Yangykala Canyon, which is supposed to be one of the most spectacular sights in Turkmenistan, stretching for 25 kilometers. I should have a chance to do some hiking around the canyon and will likely camp overnight on the plateau.
August 4: After exploring Yangykala some more, I continue on to Dekhistan, which was once a major state along the Silk Road and its capital, Misrian, was the equal of Merv. The region declined in the 15th century when the water supply dried up and the area turned into a desert. Some ruins of Misrian remain and a nearby cemetery features ruined mausoleums and the oldest mosque in the country. I will also be camping overnight in Dekhistan.
August 5-6: I head to Nokhur, where I will spend two nights in a homestay. Don’t tell my brother, but Nokhur is just a few kilometers from the border with Iran. The people of Nokhur claim to be descended from Alexander the Great’s army and maintain their own traditions and separate dialect of the Turkmen language. This will be my best chance on the trip to interact with the local population.
August 7: I make my way back to Ashgabat, visiting Murche and Geok Depe along the way. Murche is an ancient village with archaic burial sites and pre-Islamic ruins dedicated to the patroness of women and fertility. Geok Depe was the site where the Russians killed 15,000 Turkmen in 1881. Today a mosque stands there commemorating the massacre.
August 8: I have one more day to explore Ashgabat on my own, in case I missed anything the first time around.
August 9: I leave Ashgabat around noon to drive to Erbent, an oasis in the Karakum Desert, and then on to the Darvaza Gas Crater. The crater is the result of a gas explosion in the 1950s and has been burning ever since, although in 2010 the President ordered that it finally be extinguished. Presumably it will still be going strong when I visit it at night and camp nearby.
August 10: After visiting Konye-Urgench, my time in Turkmenistan comes to an end and I cross the border back into Uzbekistan. Konye-Urgench was the center of the Islamic world until it, like Merv, was conquered by the Mongols, who diverted a nearby river and flooded the city, drowning all of the residents. It grew to prominence once again as a major trading point on the Silk Road until Timur came and destroyed the city again in 1388.
What does this mean for this blog?
As I mentioned above, I will be offline the entire time I am in Turkmenistan. While it technically may be possible to access some internet, it was so frustrating and time-consuming when I was in Tajikistan, I have decided to not even try while in Turkmenistan.
The good news is that I have scheduled new blog posts for the next ten days so you can look forward to reading more about my experience in Tajikistan and some of my first impressions of Uzbekistan.
I won’t be able to respond to comments but I look forward to reading them and replying when I am back online. Thanks everyone for your patience!
Photo: Kerri-Jo Stewart