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.

Khiva – saving the best for last

After a leisurely morning (not common on this trip so made the most of it) we boarded a bus for a 9am departure for our long day of driving to Khiva – around 8-9 hours.  Thankfully, it was a big 30 seater bus for only 14 people, so we had plenty of room to spread out and make ourselves comfortable.

Today’s drive took as through the Kyzylkum desert – Kyzylkum meaning ‘red sand’ in Turkic languages which covers an area of almost 300,000km2 over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  It sits between two rivers, Amu Barya and Syr Darya and for some time the road ran along the Amu Barya and we could see the border posts running along the Turkmen side of the river border.

Interestingly there is an autonomous region situated in the desert called Karakalpakstan, the capital of which is Nukus.  The Karakalpaks are closely related to the Kazaks but there is little written about their origins.  Despite being part of the Soviet Union during their occupation it was still considered an autonomous republic and because of this, and its remote location, very few Russians ever visited the region,. For these reasons, the area was apparently used to store ‘forbidden’ art during the Soviet period.  (Forbidden art being images that depicted sad people, cloudy skies, rich people 🤔 🤔 – because of course in the Soviet Union everyone was happy and equal, and the sun was always shining!)

The first 100km of the road was terrible but thankfully it improved after that when we reached the concrete part of the road.  A concrete road seemed odd at first but made a lot of sense as it does not melt in the high heat the desert can experience!  I was also surprised to find clean western toilets at roadside cafés/restaurants – basically in the middle of nowhere 🤔.  This was a very pleasant surprise. 

As with all good road trips in the region, we passed several Ladas, many stacked with so many heavy bags I was surprised they could move at all lol

The final hour took us back on a bad road as the desert turned into green fields as we approached the city of Khiva. 

When we arrived, we had some free time and I took the chance to start to explore.  Our hotel was close to the walls of the old or inner city (known as Itchan Kala) and the route in to the old city took me through a labyrinth of dirt streets with mud walls where people lived and were going about their normal business, children playing and people watering down the dust.  Many of the houses had chillies hanging outside the doors which apparently provide spiritual protection for those who live there.

Once through the houses, you arrive in the centre of the old city where you find the monuments, the traders and the paved streets and I was just in time for sunset so I stopped off for a beer to watch the setting sun – it was definitely worth the wait as it was spectacular behind the famous landmarks.

For dinner we were treated to a well-known Uzbek dish (and a speciality of Khiva) called Shivit Oshi.  Bright green noodles which have been infused with dill, giving them not only their colour but their tasty flavour.  (Clearly you can tell from the photo that I am more interested in eating the food than taking a photo of it!!  The photography is always an afterthought lol.)

The following day, the group walking tour was not starting until 10am so I jumped at another opportunity to get out early to explore on my own.  It was cool and peaceful and for me, the perfect time to be exploring, passing children going to school and street cleaners out and about sweeping the streets. And the best thing – virtually no tourists – I wish all day could be like this 😂🤦🏻‍♀️.  Apparently, the city receives less tourists than other Uzbek cities because of it’s out of the way location, but I think it is probably my favourite city we visited in Uzbekistan.

Khiva started life as a Silk Road caravan stop more than 2,500 years ago and the old city was the first site in the country to be listed by UNESCO on their World Heritage list. 

Legend has it, the city was founded by Shem, a son of Noah (of the Ark fame).  After the great flood, he was wandering in the desert and dreamt of 300 torches.   He believed this to be a good omen so he a dug well and built a fortress.  (Apparently, the well still exists today but it is in someone’s garden!) The name Khiva is said to have come from “Khey Vakh” – meaning “What a pleasure”, which is what people exclaimed when they tasted the water from Shem’s well!

Historically Khiva was ruled by a Genghisid dynasty (Huns who were descendants of Genghis Khan) and in the 17th century, it was home to a large slave market and it is thought that many of the slaves (mostly Persian) were used to construct the city walls we see today.

The current city walls sit around Itchan Kala (the inner city) and it is believed that the foundations were laid in the 10th century, however much of the current day walls (up to 10 metres in height and 6 metres thick in some places) date back to the 17th century.  Our local guide (Maxhfirat) told us that the width of the walls (at the top) was important as they allowed carriages to drive around them and deliver ammunition during battles.

There are 4 monumental gates into the Itchan Kala today – north, south, east and west.  People had to pay tax at the western gate to enter the inner city to sell the goods.  Oddly, this is still somewhat true today as tourists have to pay/purchase entrance tickets at the western gate to enter (though you can just walk through the others without a ticket check lol). 

Khiva was a centre for education so there are many madrassahs within the walls of the inner city, but there are no functioning Mosques or madrassahs today.    Our guide told us about the long process of education at the height of Khiva’s golden years.  It took 6 years of study to become a teacher and 10 years to be a judge!  During the final exam, the students had to ‘invent’ something – if they didn’t, they would have to study another 3 years.  Luckily all these years of education were free!

For our day of sightseeing, it was a pleasant 32c but it can get up to 50 and there is very little rain. (It can also get as low as -20C in the winter!) Most of the main monuments face north to catch a breeze for natural ventilation.

And so we started our guided tour of some of the 50+ historical monuments in the inner city and we started with what is the main symbol of Khiva – the beautiful, but unfinished blue tower (the fat one lol) – official name Kalta Minor (meaning Short Minaret).  It was supposed to be a great minaret, between 70-110m tall depending on your source, but when the Khan (Muhammad Amin Khan) died fighting in Iran in 1855, his brother who succeeded him, did not continue the build so it stayed at 29m and 14.5m diameter at the base.  It is also the only minaret in Central Asia completely covered in glazed tiles which is part of its beauty. 

There are many legends as to why it was not finished and the one our guide told us was that the Bukhara Khan was jealous of the Khiva Khan building the tallest minaret, so he asked the same master to build a taller one for him in Bukhara (in some stories he has already agreed to do this). The Khiva Khan heard about this and said he would kill the master when he was finished in Khiva so he could not build another one.  The master learnt of the threat and escaped the city – never to finish the Khiva minaret, nor to build one anywhere else.

The tiles are in 3 colours – Blue for the sky, white for the pure soul and turquoise for Islam and nature.  It is not a coincidence that these are the same colours on the Uzbek flag.  It was so beautiful and to be honest I don’t believe photos do it justice.  I kept finding myself drawn back to it to see it in different lights, from different actions.

Our next stop was one of the Khan palaces, the earliest one, built in the 17th century.  The palace effectively has 3 walls – the outer city walls, the inner city walls and then the palace walls. 

The grand reception hall was made up of several parts including an area where guests were reviewed and taught how to behave in front of the Khan who sat outside in the summer and inside in the winter.  It even has different entry doors depending on the status of the visitors.  Of course, the Khan had a special door just for him.  He even had a yurt in the outside area where he accepted people from nomadic tribes.

Our guide explained the incredible skill required to build and tile these rooms.  The tiles of these era were made by masters called ‘magicians’ – the tiles are not in line with each other to ensure the weight is equally dispersed but despite this the pattern appears as one – as if like magic!

Did you know that there are two types of mosques?  An everyday Mosque and a Friday Mosque – not surprisingly, the Friday Mosques tend to be bigger and grander as everyone prays together on the holy day, including the Khan. The Djuma (or Juma) Mosque is a unique example of a Friday mosque as it is one of the few Mosques without a domed roof and because it has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof.  As it lacks the domed roof, they used ceramic jars for acoustics so that capacity of 5,000 people could hear clearly!

The pillars are all different as they have been donated by different families/people over the years.  Apparently 4-5 pillars date back to the original 10th century structure, and 8 are from the 12th century.  One in particular (with a ying yang symbol) was donated in the 14th century by a Chinese Silk Road trader. 

There are several really interesting techniques used to maintain the columns throughout the years.   Firstly, the use of camel wool in middle between the column and the and pillar at the base.  Apparently, this not only helps protect the column in earthquakes as it absorbs some of the movement, but it also stops bugs getting into the wood as the camel wool has special smell that insects don’t like!  Secondly, a Mulberry tree is planted in the middle of the open area to help protect the pillars from humidity.

Unfortunately, the Mosque was used as a storage room during Soviet times and all the rice and wheat bought lots of termites so many of the columns have required replacement in more recent years.   That said, it was crazy to me, that wooden pillars from the 10th century are just left for people to touch … if something existed like this at home is would be inside an environmentally controlled barrier!!!

It really is a stunning and unique piece of ancient architecture and a perfect location of another pre wedding photo shoot with another stunning couple.   👍🏻

We next visited another palace and definitely the most elaborate.  Tash-Khauli, the main palace of the Khiva rulers, built between 1830-1838 for Allakuli-Khan.  Legend has it the Khan was not happy that it took 8 years to build as he wanted it finished in 2 years and numerous master builders lost their heads over the delay!

The whole palace is made up of a labyrinth of corridors making it difficult for any intruders to find their way in or out – thankfully, our guide knew her way around!  The corridors are cool, even in the heat due to the thickness of the walls and it was incredible as you keep walking out of the cool dark corridors into beautiful sun filled courtyards.  The Khan’s chambers and harem were reachable by just one secret corridor.  Not surprisingly, the Khan’s room is the largest and most elaborately decorated.

Speaking of the harem, did you know that the Khan could legally have only 4 wives, but of course he can supplement them with concubines (of which he had around 40).  Now that is certainly enough to keep a man busy, especially as he had to give all 4 of his legal wives equal attention as any of their children could be the future Khan!  Apparently, the Khan would choose his successor based on exam results!

The Concubines on the other hand had no rights and nor did their children, but they could study in madrassahs which is something they may not otherwise have been able to do.  Concubines, who were always very beautiful, were only ‘in service’ for 2-3 years on average.  They were very well paid, got expensive presents and in most cases could go on to have a good marriage with an upper class man.  For this reason, parents were often more than happy for their daughters to become Concubines to the Khan.  Concubines were also sourced from the slave market (which finished in 1873), these girls, often from Russia or other parts of Europe and upon the end of their ‘service’ were given their freedom.

From time to time, wives and concubines would get jealous and poison each other if they thought they were getting special treatment, hence why the Khan had a secret corridor to his room so they could not see who he was favouring.  If only the walls could talk in the Khan’s bedroom!

As with the first palace we visited, Tash-Hauli Palace had a large reception hall with separate small rooms for registering guests and teaching them how to stand and speak to the Khan.  Embedded around the interior walls of the courtyards are small green tiles.  These are pre-Islam, dating back to when Zoroastrianism was the state religion – apparently, they were original yellow, but the colour changed to green, so they were not destroyed by Muslims! 

Fun fact – the motto of the Zoroastrianism was “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” – you really cannot argue with that!  Despite being one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions, there are only around 120,000 followers of Zoroastrianism in the world today, mostly living in India, Iran and North America.  Did you know Freddy Mercury was a Zoroastrian?

I noticed that many of the doors were very low.  This not only helped moderate the temperature inside the room but as we had seen in the yurts in Kyrgyzstan, the low door frames also mean people must duck as they enter – a sign of respect.

We explored what was a city Mint and came across the Silk money of Korezm.   At the beginning of the 19th century there was a paper shortage and silk was a cheaper medium for printing money! It was also practical as it could be washed when it got dirty.  They also made coins from pure gold, silver and bronze as they did not know how to mix the metals!

In the Mint we also learnt about beard smuggling.  At the time, all men were expected to have beards, but it was found that some would steal gold powder smuggled in their beards!  When this was discovered, the mint workers were made to shave their beards off!  Funnily enough, this is clearly still a smuggling technical as when I googled it to try and find something more about it, a number of articles came up about people being caught trying to smuggle gold dust this way!

There are so many beautiful doors around the old city, and many were made at huge cost – our guide told us that some believe/believed that doors are the faces of the people.  I got a little obsessed with the doors, not just the fancy ones, but also the plainer ones around the small side streets 😂

All that sightseeing and learning, and it was only just lunch time!!  We had the afternoon free, but a couple of the group wanted to go to a particular carpet making shop/factory – one that was featured about in a book called “Carpet ride to Khiva” by Chris Alexander who had lived in the city for many years.  Now I have not read the book (though may have to do so in the future) but the visit was still very interesting.  Did you know it takes 6-8 months to make one rug?  No wonder they are expensive!

Fun-ish fact – Traditional khiva hats are made with sheep’s wool and are also worn in summer, despite them looking very warm (I guess they already knew of that great quality of sheep’s wool for keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer)!  Black and brown hats are for younger people and white for older people.   Only a Khan could wear a hat made from lamb’s wool!

And so, we arrived at another evening and another chance to see the sunset – this time from one of the watch towers on the city walls.  It was clearly the place to be as it was crowded and of course there was another pre wedding photo shoot!  The sunset was beautiful – and I took so many photos, there is no such thing as too many sunset photos right 🤔🤔😂😂😂??

Our last night in Uzbekistan was celebrated with another large meal, served in what was more of a family home than a restaurant, with traditional entertainment by a local family – children through to grandparents, singing and dancing.  What a great way to end what has been an amazing time in the country.