Stan No. 5 – Turkmenistan

Day 19 of our tour and the day started with immigration documents at the hotel in Khiva as it was only 1 hour drive to the border.  We were also given a briefing as to how to behave at the border!  Turkmenistan is still a fairly closed country and the only one on this trip that we had to get an ‘invitation’ prior to being allowed to request a visa at the border.  Apparently, people are often declined, including Aijan, our Krzygz guide – this was the first time she was given approval so it would be her first time in the country as well.  The instructions were “don’t get in trouble and act like a tourist”. 😂

The road to the Shavat-Dashoguz border crossing was not a good one but fringed by cotton fields being harvested – it looks like back breaking work 🥴. (I have probably mentioned before but cotton is an important commodity in Uzbekistan and we would go on to learn Turkmenistan.

At the border we had several procedures to go through to leave Uzbekistan.  Firstly, we had to hand in the accommodation slips we had been collecting to show where we stayed, followed by 3 passport checks and finally an immigration office to official exit us from the country.  We then caught shuttle bus (an old soviet bus) across the 1km no mans land to reach the Turkmen border.

Getting into Turkmenistan was a little more time consuming and it took about an hour to get our visas issued – thankfully our new local guide, Rustam, did most of the work and we just had to sit around waiting! 

Part of the process included what I wrote at the time as “some weird temperature test with a little gun pointed at our forehead 🤔🤔”.  Of course, writing this 10 months in the future and these ‘weird’ temperature guns are a regular part of our lives – how things change!

The final step was to pay our fee – I had to pay US$100 while all the Australians only paid US$70 – maybe I should have had my NZ passport 🤦🏻‍♀️.  As we passed through, the immigration officer was very cheerful and friendly despite the warnings we were given and all he said was ‘welcome to Turkmenistan’.   The final leg of this amazing trip.

  • Currency:  Turkmenistan New Manat (TMT) US$1 = TMT3.5 (but there is a big black market which has an exchange of more like US$1 to TMT 10 so we did not actually use any cash)
  • Language: Turkmen
  • Size: 491,000km2
  • Population:  6,031,000

Our local guide Rustam took us over to 6 jeeps which were going to be our transport for the next couple of days.  My driver was Dimitri, he looked very Russian (or what my image of what an Russian looks like) and his muscle bound body was completely decked out in desert camouflauge.  We found out later than he was a medal winning ex-Soviet decathlete – having represented the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He clearly still worked out from time to time lol.  Luckily, he spoke good English which meant we could chat along the way.

Turkmenistan is still untouched by mass tourism, with only 25,000 tourists arriving annually – unlike it’s neighbour Uzbekistan who gets over 5 million a year!  Tourists cannot come to Turkmenistan without arranging a tour through one of the 5-6 tour companies who are closely monitored by the Government.   Of course, we need to bear in mind these numbers were all in a pre-covid world and who knows what impact that will have on future numbers given tourism was already less than 1% of Turkmenistan’s income!

Our first stop was in Dashoguz, a small town not far from the border where we stopped for lunch.  The first thing we noticed was all the school children in their matching traditional uniforms looking incredibly smart.   School children were wearing green whilst university students were wearing red.

Our lunch restaurant was clearly near a university as there were several students there having their lunch in their lovely uniforms.  We were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us and they were more than happy to chat and pose for photos.

Interestingly there were guards on the street in the small town, apparently to control the ‘order of the city’ 🤔

From Dashoguz we drove around 100km to Kunya Urgench, passing collective farms along the way.  Apparently the collective farming system still operates in Turkmenistan today.  The Government owns the farms and farmers rent the land for 49 years, apparently a similar but more liberal version of the communist collective farms.  The farmers struggle in the area as the fields have a lot of salt in them – a legacy of Aral Sea which is infamous for the fact that it has almost complete dried up!

Kunya-Urgench (of Konye-Urgench as it is also know) is home to two of Turkmenistan’s three  UNESCO World Heritage sites which were once part of the ancient town of Urgench, situated on one of the most important Silk Road cross roads between the east and the west. 

Dimitri (our driver) entertained us with his Russian music – initially I asked if it was Turkmen music and his reaction was ‘you can listen to Turkmen music on the tv – 7 channels, 24 hours per day, why listen to it in the car’ lol

The buildings we see today date between the 11th and 16th centuries but earliest records of the town are from an oasis town between the 5th and 4th centuries BC created by united Nomad tribes who made the most of the nearby river  … before it was conquered by the Arabs in 712.

Much money was spent on infrastructure in the 10th century and it was apparently a very beautiful city until 1220/1221, when the city was destroyed by the Mongols in what was considered one of the “bloodiest massacres in human history”.  Rustam told us that 360 holy men, many famous scholars were killed or taken captive. 

Despite the devastation the city was rebuilt to its previous glory, until Temur attacked in 1373.  Initially the ruler of the city, and the short lived Sufi Dynasty, Yusef Sufi surrendered to Temur, but 6 years later he rebelled which ultimately resulted in Temur razing the city, killing most of its population and destroying its advanced irrigation system and dam.  (Apparently, he did save the lives of the master architects, builders, stone masons etc and took them back to Samarkand with him.)

The city never really came back this second attack and it started to decline in importance until eventually the regional capital was moved to Khiva.

There is no real town layout left to see, just a few stand alone monuments around the area and our first stop was a small complex with 3 mausoleums – Najm-ad-Din al Kubra, Sultan Ali and Piryar Vali. The mausoleum’s range in age from 13th-16th centuries and are so different to the reconstructed beauty of Uzbekistan but no less fascinating 

One of the buildings (from the 14th century) was designed by an architect who was an astronomer and as such there are a number of special touches – 4 windows relating to the 4 seasons, 12 columns for the 12 months and 360 geometrical patterns, one for each day of the year.

Despite them being called mausoleums, this has been brought into question as there appear to be no on buried in them!  Another theory is that they called the buildings mausoleums so that the Mongols would not destroy them they as they worshiped ancestors.  Who knows what the truth really is.

There were more local visitors than there were tourists, and they were praying and walking around the buildings touching the bricks as the sites are now considered holy shrines where the women pray for good marriages (particularly at the one considered to be for a princess).  These old mausoleums appeared to have not had much recent restoration.  There we not many tiles remaining on the outside and many pigeons making homes on the inside – oh the smell 🤦🏻‍♀️!

In the second part of the site, there is much excavation still to happen (currently being done by a group of Italian archaeologists) and many of the structures are covered with 2-3 metres of sand!  What remains are excavated are far less reconstructed and fit in to three eras – ancient, pre-Mongol and post-Mongol.

One of the structures used to be the tallest ancient minaret in Central Asia.  It was 60-61 metres tall and had been covered in blue tiles and with a gold bell.  The bottom was built in the 10th century whilst the top is dated back to the 14th century – in its glory there was a bridge connecting it to a nearby mosque – incredibly 70% of what we see today is original!

It was interesting to see some of the pre-Mongol buildings have a conical dome, there are not many like it in Central Asia.  According to the archaeologists, they have discovered ancient inscriptions in some of the buildings but unfortunately there is not good enough technology in the country to work on them as yet.  It will be exciting to see what they discover in the future.

As this is also a site for local pilgrims and there were a number of beautifully dressed local women and families also visiting the site and Rustam taught us a few phrases in Turkmen to greet them – ‘Hello, let Allah receive your charity’ (phonetically “Salam Kabul balsoon”) and ‘thank you and goodbye’ (sagbol).

Did I mention it was hot!!  Hot, hot, hot – especially exploring around these ruins in the desert!

As we left the Kunya Urgench area, we set off on what is considered the worst road in Turkmenistan!  This continued for about 80 km, passing a brand new 6 lane bridge – it looks very out of place is it has no real road leading to or from it yet 🤦🏻‍♀️lol.

We passed a random 1st century BC fort on the side of the road (crazy how you can just pass something like this as if it is commonplace!), before finally reached a better road – with still 200km to drive it become clear that it was likely we would miss the sunset 😟 which was disappointing.

I took the opportunity of a quick toilet stop in the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to explore the amazing patterns in the sand and lizard tracks but only saw 1 tiny lizard …. next up was a camel on the roadside but we could not stop to take photos as we were now in a dash to get to the camp before dark!!

We finally reached our destination and camp for the night – the Darvaza Gas Crater, probably the best known spot in the country.  Despite our doubts, we made it just in time for sunset and it was spectacular.

In 2019, mineral fuels (including oil) was 94.5% of Turkmenistan’s total exports and the country possesses the world’s 4th largest reserves of natural gas, along with substantial oil reserves.  This of course leads me to the background of the Darvaza crater that has been burning constantly since 1971!

The site was initially discovered by Soviet engineers as an oil field site and they set up operations to drill.  Unfortunately for them, they ended up finding a natural gas pocket, but it was not long until the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed into a wide crater, swallowing everything around it.  To avoid the release of any position gases, they decided to set the escaping gas from the massive crater on fire to burn it off, expecting it to burn out in a few weeks.  Almost 50 years later, the crater is still burning!

The sunset was lovely, but the darkness made the crater look even more spectacular.  And then the moon began to rise … just like the sun over the near by hill. Sitting in the campsite (which had already been set up for us) watching it was so special.  Being outside in nature is truly my peace!

We were kept company but a massive Turkmen sheep dog (a breed called Alabai or Polar Bear dog as I named him) named Tsar.  His job was to keep wolves and other predators away from livestock, and in Tsar’s case, also to protect us!  Apparently, their clip their ears and tails so they cannot be grabbed when fighting wolves!   – I would sneak him food as I decided he needed to build up his stamina for his night shift 🤦🏻‍♀️.

(Just an aside, did you know that Australia does not have hedgehogs???  I didn’t!!  The Australians in the group got so excited when a very cute hedgehog ran through our camp during dinner, they didn’t even know what it was??  Oh, the unexpected things you learn whilst travelling 😂)

Before arriving, Rustam had told us to expect a ‘lot’ of people (it is all relative!) at the crater as it is the most popular tourist site in the country but as it turns out there was hardly any really, just a hand full of people  – apparently he had expected 300 people not the 20 or so that were there.  Great for us to have such an incredible site almost to ourselves and after a few drinks we settled in to our tents for the night.