Day 167 – 02.11.2016
Mashhad to Lotfābād/Artyk
border to Darvaza to Ashgabat

We had requested for our invitation letter for entry through the Bajgiran border from Iran. However, due to some issues, the Turkmen government had closed the border for a few days. So we were requested to cross the border from Loftabad/Artyk border crossing. We had to drive about 80 kilometres more and about 2.5 hours of additional time. We had to arrive before lunch time so we could be issued our Visa. Unfortunately, when we reached the border some of the officials had already gone for their lunch break. They were taking their own time to get the paper work completed. The official issuing the Visa could speak English and he was very helpful too. After the issue of visa, we had to get clearance from the Transport department, an official of which was available at the border. He would draw a route map and we had to strictly follow the road. When we reached him, he said we could transit our car from Artyk border straight to Mary in transit. The reason, our car being right-hand drive was not allowed to be driven to their capital city Ashgabat. We kept arguing with them as to why we could not take our car to Ashgabat, but they only kept saying we could transit to Mary, Turkmenabat, but not to Ashgabat.

Finally, after wasting 3 hours of our precious time, we gave up and agreed to keep our car outside Ashgabat at a private parking place organised by our Guide from Turkmenistan, who came all the way to the Artyk border to help us. After we had agreed to park our car outside Ashgabat, we had to get our car checked. At least 5 to 6 junior trainee army officials excited with the car entered it on the pretext of checking and started fidgeting with the car. I had to literally fight with them so they get out from the car.

Finally, we were out of the Border driving towards the car park led by our Guide in their Car.

Once we parked the car, we started driving in the 4×4 wheel drive car brought in by our tour guide towards Darvaza, a village in Turkmenistan of about 350 inhabitants, mostly Turkmen of the Teke tribe located in the middle of the Karakum Desert, about 260 km north from Ashgabat.

We had a long drive on the cross-desert highway between Ashgabat and Dashoguz and then a few miles off-road directly into the desert itself. In total it was about three hours’ drive from the parking place on a 4×4 vehicle with an experienced driver, a guide with a good knowledge of the route from the tour company that we had hired to show us around Turkmenistan.

The Darvaza gas crater, known locally as the “Door to Hell” or ”Gates of Hell”, is a natural gas field in Derweze, that collapsed into an underground cavern, becoming a natural gas crater. Geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas, and it has been burning continuously since then. The diameter of the crater is 70 metres and its depth is 30 metres.

It was most spectacular at night. As we approached it when it’s already dark, we could even see the glow of the fires from afar as we were driving towards it. Then when we got out of the car and walked towards the rim of the crater and the actual flames came into view, the wow factor is totally overwhelming: a fiery pit of flames of apocalyptic proportions that truly justify the site’s epithet as the “Door to Hell”.

And it’s not just the sight that’s so breathtaking to behold: it’s also the sound of the roaring flames and the feel of the heat. It was very windy that day and when the wind was blowing over the crater rim towards us, we even had to avert our eyes because of the heat blast. Away from the wind, however, the heat from the pit is perfectly tolerable even right at the edge of the crater. In fact, in the cold of the desert night, it was a welcome source of warmth. And then suddenly, it started raining and we had to rush into our Yurt.

We also noticed a tent put up so close to the Crater. Was worried that it may get blown away with the heavy wind that was blowing around at that time.

The glow from the crater gave the surrounding desert dunes a faint orangey-pink hue. Away from the crater rim, however, we would require a torch to help us find our step, as there was no other source of light about … apart from the stars and the moon. It was pretty much pitch-black in the desert that night, besides it was raining.

Our guide and the driver had arranged for a barbeque. They lit a fire and were ready for the barbeque. They also arranged for a fire to warm the yurt as it was extremely cold. In fact, the guide had arranged for some vodka to keep all of us warm through the copious intake of vodka and the hot green tea that was made with the fire.

After finishing dinner, we slept in the sleeping bags that were arranged by the tour company. Unfortunately, it started raining very heavily in the middle of the night and the yurt started leaking. Since we were tired, we fell asleep and when we woke up in the morning, it was still very windy.

We walked to the Crater in the morning before we were leaving and unsurprisingly, It looked less spectacular to behold, but still quite a sight when standing right at the rim. And in the daylight, we were able to see the surrounding setting properly and got a feeling of the desert in the middle-of-nowhere.

We were advised right in the beginning to approach the crater with extreme caution as the crater rim was actually a bit dangerous, since the soil on the edge was basically baked clay, and thus potentially crumbly, so we had to avoid the risk of falling in, which would mean certain death: even if somehow you managed to avoid the flames themselves, all the oxygen down there was being used up by the flames, so one could still suffocate quickly. Hence it was it really crucial to take care when near the crater.

On our way stopped at a Chaikhana for snacks and coffee.

Day 168 – 03.11.2016
Ashgabat

After leaving from Darvaza, we were on our way to Ashgabat, the weird, wonderful and eerily empty capital of Turkmenistan with its lavish marble palaces, gleaming gold domes and vast expanses of manicured parkland, Ashgabat (‘the city of love’ in Arabic) was reinvented as a showcase city for the newly independent republic and was definitely one of Central Asia’s – if not the world’s – strangest places. Built almost entirely off the receipts of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas revenues, the city’s transformation continues at breakneck speed, with whole neighbourhoods facing the wrecking ball in the name of progress, and gleaming white marble monoliths springing up overnight like mushrooms.

Originally developed by the Russians in the late 19th century, Ashgabat became a prosperous, sleepy and largely Russian frontier town on the Trans-Caspian railway. However, at 1 am on 6 October 1948, the city vanished in less than a minute, levelled by an earthquake that measured nine on the Richter scale, killing more than 110,000 people (two-thirds of the then population).

Ashgabat was rebuilt in the Soviet style, but its modern incarnation is somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang, with a mixture of Bellagio fountains, Stalinist ministries of state and various monuments and statues designed to help foster a sense of national unity and identity. At its heart it’s a surprisingly relaxed city, with a varied dining scene and no shortage of quirky sights, making it a pleasant place to spend a few days absorbing Turkmenistan’s bizarre present before heading into the rest of the country to discover its fascinating past.

Ashgabat is a showpiece capital. It has been designed, at the cost of billions of dollars, to show the world about the glories and accomplishments of the Turkmen. The city looks like none other on Earth – a thoroughly artificial collection of white marble buildings across a long, dry valley. At sunrise or sunset, there’s a beauty to this uniform, outsized ambition, as if the set of a science-fiction film suddenly became an actual human settlement.

Image control is taken very seriously. You will encounter many, many security guards and policemen with a strong opinion about how to behave and not behave in the capital. Don’t take pictures of the presidential compound or military complexes (a large barracks is right next to the palace). Avoid areas with roadblocks or where it seems like senior officials may be present. Most other buildings are generally OK – although this could change at any time. Outside of the monuments, best to snap a quick picture and move on.

While large chunks of land in the city are taken up by the dreams of independent Turkmenistan’s two presidents, pockets of an older, simpler life survive. Areas of the city with small apartment buildings and quiet neighbourhood restaurants can be found, sometimes just off to the side of these large buildings. Head to the outskirts and country Turkmen life appears with surprising rapidity.

The biggest attraction in Ashgabat is the many, many white marble buildings. Many of these are government ministries and can’t be entered, so a tour around the city is a great way to take it in.

We understand there is also a Turkmenbashi Cableway at Kopet Dag (south of the National Museum) which operates from 9 am to 10 pm, climbing up to 1290 meters, offering spectacular views over the city with the desert in the background. But we did not have much time to explore it, however, we took a complete view of the city in the car. The roads were so wide but absolutely deserted.

Tolkuchka Bazaar, one of Central Asia’s most colourful bazaars, was demolished and in place, a new Oriental bazaar Altyn Asyr the largest market in Turkmenistan, was built in the outskirts of Ashgabat, in the residential area Choganly. It was built to resemble the shape a Turkmen carpet ornament of Ahal Province. At the heart of the bazaar is a tall clock tower, which is its main landmark. Also, there are 2,155 shops in the market.

It is noted in particular for its sale of large red Turkmen rugs. The market thrives especially on Sundays and sells a massive range of goods, including Turkmen carpets, handicrafts, silks, jewellery, jeans, laundry soap, plastic bags, and bales of rice. It also has a notable camel market.

A short drive away is the Arch of Neutrality, locally dubbed the “tripod”, the top of which supports a golden statue of Berdimuhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, that used to rotate to follow the sun. From here, you can’t miss Turkmenistan’s tallest building, a television tower perched on a hill overlook­ing the city, which has – you guessed it – its own Guinness World Record; this one for “the largest architectural star” – a glass façade made into the building.

The modern city contrasts sharply with the rugged, sandy Kopet Dag mountains that surround it. Gold, green and white are its colour scheme. Studded with gilded domes and statues, it is accessorised with street lamps, bus stops, telephone booths and traffic signals that are unashamedly ostenta­tious. Standing in the street is like being under a lovely blue dome inside a colossal Islamic mausoleum.

Driving around, it’s hard not to realise that something is amiss in this utopian landscape. The playgrounds are deserted, the park benches unoccupied, the boule­vards empty. No one waits at the bus stops. Maybe no one needs to since petrol is so cheap.

Still, at least no one spoils the view when you’re gawking at the grandiose ministries near the Presidential Palace.

A drive to the iconic Bagt Kosgi (Wedding Palace), that sits on a mound in the southwest of the city, with its geometrical wondrous design and an impressive view over Ashgabat, was worth it. Within walking distance was the five-star Yyldyz Hotel, which loosely recalls Dubai’s Burj Al Arab but is supposed to resemble a teardrop.

The Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre is another holder of a Guinness World Record, for having the largest indoor Ferris wheel in an enclosed architectural design. More than 150 feet high, the wheel offers splendid views of the city – possible because it isn’t really “indoors”, the 24 cabins instead being encased in a concrete, steel and glass structure – but it’s not the ride and views that you remember most, it’s the dead birds on the parapets.

Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque or Gypjak Mosque is a mosque in the village of Gypjak about 7 kilometres west of the centre of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on the M37 highway.

The mosque was constructed in the late Saparmurat Niyazov’s home town by Niyazov with a tomb in preparation for his death. He was laid to rest in the tomb on December 24, 2006.

The mosque has been at the centre of controversy as scriptures from both the Quran and the Ruhnama (Book of Soul), Niyazov’s ‘pseudo-spiritual guide to life’ are built into the walls. It has upset many Muslims who believe it is an insult to have the Ruhnama seemingly placed as equal to the Koran.

The Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, known universally to the foreign community as ‘the plunger’, is another monument in the same park. This is a popular spot for wedding groups to take photographs with a golden statue of Turkmenbashi. Nearby is a trippy giant copy of Niyazov’s once ubiquitous Ruhnama (‘book of the soul’).

After a lovely drive and seeing all beautiful buildings constructed with white marbles, we returned back to our hotel, where we had dinner and retired for the night.

The next day we had to leave for Mary another beautiful city of Turkmenistan.

Day 169 – 04.11.2016
Ashgabat to Mary

After breakfast, we left checked out of the hotel and left for the parking space from where we had to pick up our car before we leave to Mary. On the way, we stopped at the ruins of the Ancient city of Nisa about 18 km to the west of Ashgabat. It was the capital city of the ancient Parthian state which existed between 1,000 B.C. and 1,000 A .D. In the third century BC, New Nissa was a capital of the Parthian state, and Old Nissa fortress was considered an imperial residence.

Old Nissa was rich in temples and palaces. There was also the treasury, huge wine warehouses there. The fortifications were 8- 9 meters thick in the base and were reinforced by 43 rectangular towers.

There were tombs of the ruling Arsacid dynasty members, in times of great feasts the kings arrived in Nissa for sacrifice ceremonies. In the year of 226, Parthia ceased to exist and Artashid, the former representative of the Arsacid dynasty founded a new state led by Sasanid dynasty. Hoping to eradicate the memories of everything connected with Parthian rulers he ordered to destroy Old Nissa. The Arsacid family place was plundered and turned into ruins. Although it was revived a few centuries later, when Nissa became a part of the Arabian caliphate, it did live up to its former powerful position.

By the government decree, Nissa was declared an archaeological reserve of state significance is a candidate to be included in the list of “World Legacy” as one of the most interesting historical landmarks of ancient Oriental states.

Our guide then took us to see the ancient city, Merv, an oasis settled in the era of Margiana civilization in the 3-2 centuries B.C. The origin of Merv is full of secrets, only one thing is clear – the first writings mentioning it appeared in Avesto chronicles approximately point at 8-6 centuries B.C. Merv had lived many ups and downs throughout its history. It had been one of the centres of the Parthian Empire. After the Arab conquest, Merv had turned into a book centre thanks to the dozens of libraries.

As noted by the contemporary scientists, when Seljuks governed buildings of Merv were grander than the ones in Baghdad and Constantinople. This is an interesting turn of the history. As the result of the Mongol invasion, the city was completely destroyed. Later the son of the great conqueror Amir Temur – Shahrukh rebuilt the city with its palaces, squares and fortresses, though not for long. Current ruins of Merv are five ancient villages: Erk-Kala, Gyaur-Kala, Sultan-Kala, Abdullah Khan -Kala and Bayram Ali Khan-Kala. The unique characteristic of this 40-m erection is its legendary dome built by two thin brick shells. This city that had been included into the UNESCO World Heritage List.

We then drove towards Mary city. We were staying at the Mary Hotel, a nice and clean, very well done hotel. The food was very basic, but since we were staying only for a night, it was absolutely fine.

We met a group of students who were all very excited to meet us and wanted to know more about us and our adventurous tour. They wanted to be pictured with us and we were happy to pose while we share details of the adventure.

Mary, formerly named Merv, was a city on an oasis in the Karakum Desert, located on the Murghab river. It is the capital city of Mary Province, Turkmenistan. In 2009, Mary had a population of 123,000, up from 92,000 in the 1989 census. In Kerait tradition, Mary, mother of Jesus, was buried here.

Mary is Turkmenistan’s fourth-largest city, and a large industrial centre, for the natural gas and cotton industries, the nation’s two major export industries. It is a trade centre for cotton, cereals, hides, and wool.

Mary was known for its Regional Museum which we visited. The city lies near the remains of the ancient city of Merv, which in corrupted form gives its name to the modern town. Mary was developed by the Soviet Union as a centre for cotton production through the use of extensive irrigation. In 1968, huge reserves of natural gas were discovered 20 kilometres west of the city.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of independence of Turkmenistan, on 18 May 1992, Mary became the centre of Mary Province.

Mary Mosque (Gurbanguly Hajji Mosque) in Mary, Turkmenistan, built from 2001 to 2009, during the rule of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a prominent landmark in Mary with its four minarets.

The Main Drama Theatre of Turkmenistan named in honour of the President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov. Its repertoire is mainly based on the plays of classical and modern Turkmen playwrights, plays sound in the Turkmen language. Theater troupe consists of folk and popular artists of Turkmenistan and was opened in October 2005.

Day 170 – 05.11.2016
Mary to Turkmenabat

We were on our way from Mary to Turkmenabat when we spotted the “World’s Largest Yurt” located 10 km west of Mary, from the highway that we were driving through.

Lying on the banks of the mighty Amu-Darya, between the Karakum desert and the fertile plains of Uzbekistan, Turkmenabat sits at a crossroads of cultures. The town itself feels as if it’s in the geographic centre of nowhere, yet after the mind-numbing drive through the desert, it’s something of a surprise to find such a large city appear out of the sand.

Turkmenabat is the second largest city in Turkmenistan, and it was founded as a Russian military settlement when the Transcaspian Railway reached the Amu Darya in 1886. It is now a rail junction and the biggest port on the Amu Darya. The city has cotton-ginning and silk mills and manufactures superphosphates and Astrakhan furs.

The Silk Road city of Amu prospered here until its destruction by the Mongols in 1221 and was reborn under the Russian empire as Charjou, a name you’ll still hear used by the remaining Russian-speaking locals. In 2009 a gas pipeline opened here taking Turkmen gas to China, thus ensuring the city’s economic prosperity. Despite being the second-largest city in the country, there’s nothing much to see or do here, though it’s an obvious stopover between Mary and Uzbekistan.

Our guide helped us to check-in at the hotel, Jeyhun Hotel, before he left for Ashgabat. The hotel was quite clean and centrally placed, and probably the best option in Turkmenabat. It was low on charm and service, but we slept really nicely in the old Soviet bed, as there was not much to be done. We had dinner at the restaurant after a small stroll around the hotel.

We observed that the youth in Türkmenabat lack many normal opportunities of having fun and enjoying their spare time. They spend their spare time mainly in clubs and pubs, but they do not have any place to meet the world culture. Despite being a city with over 200,000 people, it lacks entertainment facilities such as cinema, a modern theatre, a zoo, or a theme park with newest attractions for children and youth. The only two ex-cinemas have been rented to entrepreneurs and became wed-centers, the place where the wedding ceremonies are being made. The city doesn’t have modern libraries. The only internet cafes are held by the state, which controls the internet traffic.

At the end of the day, our guide helped us to check in at the hotel before taking our leave as it was our last night in Turkmenistan and he was supposed to return back to Ashgabat that same night. However, he had also offered his services free of charge to accompany us to the border the next day, but we said we will manage. After dinner at night at the hotel restaurant, we went back to our room.

Next day morning after breakfast, we left for the Uzbekistan border.