Ashgabat – it’s hard to say goodbye

And so to my last day in Central Asia and the forecast for the day was a toasty 39c!!! As with everything else, the weather has been such a contrast from the cold steppes to the sweltering city of Ashgabat!  Thankfully it is not even the hottest time here – just imagine that!  Apparently, it can be 50+ at the gas crater and with the heat of the fire even hotter! 

Fun fact for the day, did you know what was once called the Caspian Sea, is now official called the “Caspian water body”.  The “water body” is incredibly valuable due to all the oil and gas and sturgeon (the fish that produces the most expensive caviar) and seas and lakes have formal rules as to how the resources are divided, which the surrounding countries didn’t want to follow. After a large forum, the outcome was to call the former sea a ‘water body’ and define their own rules  – 20 km from the coast line for oil and gas, another 10 km for fishing and then no mans ‘water’.

Our first stop of the day was the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque (Spiritual or Golden Mosque) – one of the biggest mosques in Central Asia.  The Mosque is just on the outskirts of the city in what was the village of Gypjak, the hometown of Niyazov’s (the first president) hometown and contains his family Mausoleum where he was buried after his death in 2006.  Tragically his father died when he was 3 years old and his mother and two brothers were killed in the 1948 earthquake when he was 8 years old. From then he was brought up in an orphanage.

The mosque was built in 2004, funded by rich businessmen from the Arabian Peninsula who wanted to get a leg up in the oil & gas industry in the Caspian region and it has been the centre of some controversy. Not only are scriptures written in Turkmen/Latin alphabet rather than Arabic (which is very rare), but scriptures from the Koran are interspersed with quotes from Ruhnama – many Muslims were upset as this seemed to imply that the Ruhnama is placed as an equal to the Koran!

This mosque, not surprisingly, is a Friday mosque that can accommodate up to 12,000 people and is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia.  It is the largest single domed (a dome that is completed covered in gold leaf) mosque in the world and has the largest eight pointed star, one piece carpet in the world!  (Another one of those interesting world records!)  This is particularly important to the Turkmen people as they are famous for their rug/carpet making – there is a Ministry of Carpets and the Turkmen carpet making techniques are included on the “Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” as of 2019.  Examples of rug patterns are even included on the country’s flag – one pattern for each region (5 in total).

But I digress, back to the mosque … numbers are always very important so here we see minarets that are 91m tall, representing the year of independence and 48 windows representing the year of the great earthquake!  It also has incredible acoustics and underground parking for 500 cars and 100 buses!

Despite the opulence of this mosque, Turkmenistan is officially a secular state.  The population are predominately Sunni Muslim or Christian but there are no religious schools to avoid extremism.  People can go out of the country to religious schools; however, they must receive government approval to do this.

Our next stop was Old Nisa, an ancient Parthian settlement on the outskirts of Ashgabat and it has been considered the residence of the Parthian Kings and the capital of the Parthian empire which dominated the region from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.  The fortress was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. 

Old Nisa was a major trading hub, situated at the crossroads of multiple trade routes of the Parthian empire, which was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world, rivalling Rome itself.

Excavations have revealed substantial buildings including temples and palaces, and walls 8m tall.  They have also found many Hellenistic art works as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, some encrusted in gems (we had seen some of these yesterday in the museum).  Apparently, this is the only place rhytons made of ivory have been found.

The Parthian’s were known for their very heavily armoured horses and strong mounted archers, have you heard of the Parthian shot (I think it is sometimes mistaken for a ‘parting shot’)?  A well-known military tactic where the riders would feign a retreat and whilst still galloping away, would turn their bodies and fire their arrows at the pursuing enemy!  Apparently, a Parthian smile is a smile that is not from the heart 🤔.  I think the key take away here is don’t trust a Parthian!

Our guide at the site was a historian and archaeologist, often referred to as the ‘last King of Nisa’. He regaled us with stories of Old Nisa in its prime.  The site covers over 14 hectares and only 35% has so far been excavated.  With wide corridors for aristocrats and narrow ones for servants, dried brick from the 3rd century BC and baked brick from the 2 century BC. 

When discovered in the 19th century, the Russian’s believed there was a royal necropolis here – as yet it has not be founded, however they have found an underground passage and are yet to explore it, so who knows what ancient treasures and secrets it holds.

From the ancient city we head back into the new city and the grand Memorial Complex – built as a memorial to the victims of great events in history e.g. Great Patriotic war (WWII to you and me) where approximately 90,000 Turkmen soldiers dies, the Russian invasion of Goek Tepe in 1880, the war in Afghanistan and the 1948 earthquake.

The complex is vast (650,000 Sq Metres) and has a different monument or memorial for each event.   One of the most striking is for the victims of the earthquake – known as Monument Ruhy Tagzym.  A 10 metres high bronze sculpture of a bull with a globe balanced on its horns.  Ancient Turkmens believed that the earth is held on the back of a giant bull.  The earth is heavy and every now and then the bull shifts it legs and moves it shoulders – hence earthquakes!  (A similar story is also known in Islam where the cosmic bull carries on its back the angel that shoulders the earth!)

Our final stop for the morning (yes, it was still morning!) was at the Wedding Palace, an oddly shaped building on a hill overlooking the city.  The building has 3 tiers (somewhat like a wedding cake), topped with a globe (with the image of Turkmenistan on it), surrounded by 8 pointed stars.  Symbolism is again important – the building has 4 entrances, symbolising the four directions and the 8 pointed stars symbolising the 8 gates of Islam and the nomadic 8 directions of the world.  Inside there are 6 rooms for marriage registration and 2 large wedding halls and 7 banquet rooms!

After lunch at a local restaurant we headed about an hour out of the city to Geokdepe to see the famous Turkmen horses called Akhal Teke.  These beautiful horses have long thin legs and very short silky hair which makes them look almost metallic – they are built for endurance.  They are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world and one of the major symbols of Turkmenistan.  There is a National Horse day and is even a Ministry of Turkmen horses in the government (the only country in the world to have this).

The stud farm we were visiting was over 300 years old but had been closed down during the Soviet period as people were not allowed to run private businesses.  Many of the horses were killed for food by the Soviets (totally against Turkmen beliefs who consider them holy and bury them like people when they die). Thankfully this family farm managed to keep a number of their horses hidden so they could keep the bloodline going.

I enjoyed my time watching the beautiful horses and feeding their two very cute baby camels. 😘

Back at our hotel in the city we had a lovely last dinner reminiscing on the amazing trip we have had. It has been truly been a surprising and eye opening experience.  It was so sad to say goodbye to Aijan who had been amazing guide throughout the 3 weeks, and I hope I will see her again.

My pickup was 12.15am for the depressing journey back to England but not before the final surprise Ashgabat had to offer – we had seen the airport on the way into the city, shaped like a hunting falcon.  Incredibly at night, the lights make it look like the wings are moving up and down in flight – incredible!  And when you get inside, the inside of the roof looks like the underside of the wing feathers.  They have really thought of everything lol.

And so, just over a year from the start of this incredible journey, I have finally managed to write about it all (I am thankful for my obsessive note taking 😂).  There are too many adjectives I could use to describe the trip and experiences – eye opening, interesting, educational, beautiful, spectacular, amazing, incredibly.  Truly a trip of a lifetime … but places I hope I can make it back to in the future.

If you are reading this and thinking about taking a trip to Central Asia (one day in the future when we can travel freely again), I would highly recommend getting in touch with Kalpak Travel (kalpak-travel.com) – you can join one of their scheduled small group tours, or Luca and Aijan can help arrange your personalised itinerary. Not a sponsored ad, just a recommendation based on my amazing personal experience.

Las Vegas + Pyongyang = Ashgabat

After a night’s sleep in a tent near the Darvaza Gas Crater, I got up early to watch the sunrise, with the company of the lovely Alabai dog who had just come off his nightshift lol.  (I forgot to mention that an Alabai was the mascot of the Asian Games held in Ashgabat in 2017!).

Too soon we were back on the road towards our final destination of Ashgabat, but not before a few stops on the way.  It is worth noting that the Darvaza crater is not the only crater in the region and there have been numerous other cave ins of drilling sites.  We stopped at a couple along the road, neither as large as the Darvaza, or burning.  One had a very distinct sulphur smell to it, and the second was full of water.  Apparently, they continue to get bigger.

This stretch of the road continued through the Karakum desert (80% of the country is desert) with many more camels along the road – and a road sign warning of them (I am loving this ❤️❤️❤️).   Most of the camels we are seeing are dromedary (one humped camel) despite them being native to Arabia.  The original camels of the region were Bactrian (double humped) but as Arabs moved into the region, following the Silk Road over 4,000 years they brought with them their camels.  The camels bred with the native Bactrian camels and their dominate genes meant the resulting offspring were predominately single humped, almost wiping out the local Bactrian population.

After a quick dune toilet stop (not always easy to find a bush big enough to hide behind in the desert lol) we stopped at a small semi-nomadic village.  Most of the people who live here still continue with their nomadic way of life and breed camels for wool, milk and meat.  Camels can be worth between $5-6000! That said, these semi-nomadic villages are pretty well set up these days with running water, gas and electricity, schools and medical centres.

Do you know why camels’ are always looking haughty??  Legend has it, Allah has 100 names, 99 are known by mortals, but the 100th name, a very scared and holy name, Mohammed told to his camel – so they are always looking down on us because they know something we don’t know!

Back on the road, passing more camels along the way (have I mentioned that I am loving all the camels lol), of course our next stop was the car wash – a large industrial place where all the vehicles entering the city could get washed.  As with Dushanbe, dirty cars were not allowed into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Clearly, they did not care so much about dirty people as we were all pretty dirty by this stage. 😂

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our jeeps and drivers and the amazing time in the desert and move on to our final days in the incredible city of Ashgabat. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, being conquered by various armies and empires, including Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, the Parthian Kingdom (who’s capital was Old Nisa where we visit later), Arabs (bringing Islam in the 7th century AD), the Seljuk Empire, Genghis Khan, Temur and many more until Tsarist Russia invaded in the 1880’s under the guise of freeing Russian slaves. 

After numerous bloody battles, Imperial Russia took control in 1894 and through to independence, Russia followed by the USSR exploited the countries mineral resources. Still today Russia has a monopoly over gas from Turkmenistan – allegedly they buy it for cheap and sell it on as Russian gas at a higher price.

There have also always been tribes of horse-breeding Turkmen who drifted into the area and whose ancestors remain today – again, more about these men and their horses later.

As with other USSR states, Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991 and today the country is considered a sovereign state. It was ruled by ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Niyazov until he died in 2006.  After his death, it was decided that his successor would be selected through public elections and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was elected (although apparently the election did not meet international standards).

The country remains with limited contact to the outside world, with most popular social media sites banned (e.g. Facebook, Instagram etc.) unless on a government sanctioned domain and the government has full control of all media outlets, however more recently the Government has started to rewrite its legislation with a goal of meeting international standards.

I also mentioned in my previous blog, farming is still managed along the Soviet lines of collective farming, as is most of the economy with industry almost entirely dominated by government-owned entities, including all the incredible construction we see in Ashgabat.

And so, to Ashgabat, were to start … today Ashgabat’s population is around 1 million people although how it got there was an interesting story.  Not so long ago, the population of the city was 400,000.  Apparently, they were awarded the Asian games, but then realised the city was supposed to have a population of over 1 million to host the games … so they just expanded the city borders almost overnight, so the population was big enough!

As we entered the city, we passed another area of government built housing (they all have green roofs so are easy to spot!) and then we were in to the beautiful wide (and almost car free) boulevards and white marble buildings.   Apparently, the president had wanted the ‘whitest’ city in the world – white marble buildings, white lamp posts, white cars (are preferred).  Apparently, Turkmenistan purchased so much white marble (from Turkey and Italy) during the construction, the world price went up by 30%.  The city even made it into the Guinness Book of World records in 2013 for having the highest concentration of white marble clad buildings!  Almost 600 in the city centre.  Lonely planet describes the city as Las Vegas meets Pyongyang and they are not far wrong though I think Dushanbe comes a close second 😂

Most of the city was destroyed in a massive 7.3 earthquake in October 1948, the extent of it was not widely reported by the USSR, but it is believed that more than 110,000 people were killed.  The USSR were also pretty cash poor at the time (due to the funds spent on WWII), because of this, they quickly built an area of cheap, temporary housing with the intention of replacing them when they had more money.  Not surprisingly this rebuild never happened!  This means it is really a city of two parts – the old (built in the 40s-50s) and the new (built in the 90s).   

These days, most people live in the older part of the city and don’t come out till after 6pm because of heat (today is only 33 and it is autumn!).   Although life may seem somewhat controlled based on our ‘western’ opinion it is worth noting  that their life is not so bad … they have very low taxes and cost of living, all forms of public transport is subsidised, free health care (mostly) and utilities (gas, electric and water) costs $16 per year!  Rustam explained that if you have 6 children or more you get given a free house!!! He was on child number two and had great hopes for the future lol.

We arrived at our beautiful hotel, right across the road from the Presidential palace – such a contrast from the night before, spent in a tent in the desert!  Unfortunately, photography of the presidential palace and some other key buildings, as well as uniformed police and or military is forbidden.

With very little time left of our trip, after a brief break for a much needed shower we headed out on some afternoon sightseeing, starting with the National Museum of History which showcases the concise history of the country back to BC3000!!

Here we were introduced to Rhytons – ancient drinking horns, often elegantly carved and sometimes made from ivory like those we see in the museum that were found in nearby Old Nisa (more about that later).

Just outside the museum is what is now the 5th highest flagpole in the world, proudly displaying the Turkmen flag.  It was once the tallest but has now been overtaken, even by the flagpole in Dushanbe which comes in in 3rd place!

Our next stop was at the Arch of Neutrality (not technically an arch lol).  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkmenistan was left without any support or protection and with Afghanistan and Iran just over the border (Ashgabat is only 15 minutes to the Iranian border) and people were scared.  So, in 1995, the government declared the country in a state of permanent neutrality to contribute to the “peace and security in the region”.  Ultimately the intent is that no other country can send troops into the country and if they do, it is expected that the UN will defend them, if they are attacked. 

The country is very proud of their neutrality and even prouder of their Arch of Neutrality.  A 75 metre tall rocket shaped tower topped with a gold statue of the first President – the icing on the cake is that the President’s statue rotates so his face always faces the sun.

Our final sightseeing stop for the day is Independence Park.   Beautifully manicured flower beds, marble stairs (of course there is marble), pathways lined by five headed eagles, fountains and statues of national heroes.  Of course, the centre piece is the Independence Monument – the lower part of the monument is shaped like a huge yurt and at the top of its 118m tower is a crescent moon with five stars representing the unity of five Turkmen tribes.

Also, in Independence Park we found a huge statue/model of a book – “Ruhnama (The Book of Soul)”.  This book was written by the first President and is apparently a combination of spiritual/moral guidance, stories and poems, information about Turkmen history and traditions and the definition of “moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens”.  

The book was initially rolled out in schools and libraries, but then its teaching actually became part of the driving test and potential government employees (FYI the government is the largest employer in the country) were tested on it at job interviews!!  In 2005, part of the book was launched in to orbit so that it could “conquer space” and it is expected to orbit the earth for 150 years

In 2013, the book was removed from the school curriculum and people were no longer tested on it and despite it having been translated in to many (depending on sources somewhere between 45-75) languages today you can’t find a copy anywhere 🤔🤔🤔

Despite the fact the wind brings sand and dust from the desert into the city, the city so sooooooo incredible clean (as of course you would expect from Central Asia lol.

We had dinner in a restaurant with an amazing view  of the sunset and then the neon lit monuments and buildings – it was a beautiful warm night and I would have loved to stay longer as it was technically the last night of my holiday but sadly as no one else wanted to so I had to head back to the hotel and was in bed by 9.30pm again!  One of the down sides of group tours – especially when everyone is so much older!  And apparently, I was also foiled by an 11pm curfew in place in the city (this is normal practice), but to be honest I would have been happy with 11 instead of 9 🥴😂