Travel Log | Turkmenistan (20-31 May 2012)
We visited Turkmenistan as part of a Central Asia tour organised by the UK based travel agent Undiscovered Destinations. Most people visiting Turkmenistan must do so via a local tour operator and be accompanied by a tour guide throughout their stay. International tour agencies will in turn use a local agent for most the tour arrangements. Visas can be obtained at the airport or land border as long as a letter of invitation has been pre-arranged with the local agent. Visa prices seem to vary on the whim of the respective immigration officer and additional charges may be added for 'service' and blank immigration forms.
Turkmenistan's heritage is primarily focused around its historical place at the centre of the Great Silk Road. The Great Silk Road was a network of trade routes which spanned from the Mediterranean and North Africa in the West to China in the East. First traversed in the second century BC the Silk Road remained a vital conduit between East and West up into the end of the 14th Century when an increase in maritime trade, and the self imposed isolation of Ming Dynasty China, lead to its decline. The term 'Silk Road' was coined as recently as the 1870s by German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen and referred to the importance that silk played as a major trading commodity. However, the Great Silk Road was used to transport much more than silk and arguably its most significant legacy was the flow of ideas, technologies, culture and religion that came to pass. The ancient towns of Urgench and Merv were major transit hubs on the Silk Road and today the ruins of both towns are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench) is a town situated just south of the Turkmen-Uzbek border. Today the town is fairly run-down and has little in the way of industry or commerce. Its main point of interest are the ruins of the ancient town of Urgench which back in the 12th century was the capital city of the Khorezm province and a major thoroughfare on the Great Silk Road. In its heyday Urgench was a centre of Islamic learning and boasted markets, libraries, mosques and madrassas. In 1221 Genghis Khan and his Mongol army arrived to conquer Urgench. Despite burning the town to the ground the locals continued to fight back from the ruins. In the end Khan diverted a local river to flood the town and in the process drowned all remaining residents. Urgench was rebuilt not long after and in the early 14th century came to be one of the most important trading cities in Central Asia until its final downfall in 1388 at the hands of Timur who considered the town a threat to his favoured city of Samarkand (now in modern day Uzbekistan). The best restored monuments of Urgench are the Gutlag Timur Minaret, Turabeg Khanym complex and Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum. The Kyrk Molla (Forty Mullah's Hill) is where residents of Urgench made their final stand against Gengis Khan's invading army. The hill is considered sacred and today pilgrims can be seen performing a strange fertility and good luck ritual by rolling down the dusty and rocky hill. Good luck was in short supply the day we visited since of the four people we saw take the roll one cut her arm open and another limped away after smashing his knee on a rock.
The easiest way to reach Merv is to fly to the nearby oasis town of Mary. Mary is a typically ex-Soviet town with large open squares, conspicuous statues and drab featureless apartment blocks. Merv aside there are few reasons to visit Mary. It's said that for a short period at the start of the 12th century Merv was the biggest city in the world. That was until 1221 when the invading army of Genghis Khan's son Tule laid waste to the city. The Mongols ordered that, 400 artisans aside, every man, woman and child be slaughtered. Estimates suggest that over one million people were killed. Unlike the highly restored historical sites of neighbouring Uzbekistan, the remains of Merv are truly ruins, dotted around an inhospitable desert landscape. Despite being an archaeologist's dream in reality there is not a great deal to see in Merv. To envisage how the great city once looked leaves a fair amount to the imagination.
Situated a short drive from the capital Ashgabat are the ruins of the ancient city of Nisa. Nisa was one of the first capitals of the Parthian empire (c. 250BC). Earthquakes have taken their toll over the years on what remains of the city but the site continues to be actively excavated today.
The bizarre cult of personality surrounding the late leader Niyazov (AKA Turkmenbashi - see here
) has somewhat shaped modern day Turkmenistan. However, peculiarities are not confined to Turkmenbashi's era alone. For instance, one Turkmen tradition dictates that when a woman gets married she's not allowed to speak to the elder male relatives on the husband's side of the family (father-in-law, elder brother-in-law, etc...). The restriction applies both ways so the elder male relatives are not permitted to speak to her either. Often a younger brother-in-law will be used as a go-between or if a case arises where they find themselves alone in a room together and need to communicate then a neighbour may be asked to come and mediate. Though this practice is isolated to Turkmenistan other Central Asian countries also have their own unusual customs. For instance, in Kazakhstan the tradition of 'wife stealing' is still practiced whereby a man can forcibly kidnap someone else's wife and take her for himself. Despite technically being illegal the custom still continues though nowadays kidnappings are often secretly pre-arranged, with both parties consent, and are used as a means to escape an acrimonious marriage.
Turkmenistan is one of those countries that few people know of its whereabouts let alone will ever visit. The strict and expensive visa process may put many off but the country is worth visiting if only to witness its many eccentricities. The people seemed a little less friendly than neighbouring Uzbekistan but the place is generally safe for travellers. The quality of hotels and restaurants is not high and corruption is rife at checkpoints and border control. However, one benefit of having a full time guide is that you don't have to deal directly with the police.