Turkmenistan 18

Some facts you are possibly not aware of Turkmenistan is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It is largely a desert country with intensive agriculture in irrigated areas, and huge gas and oil resources. In terms of natural gas reserves, it is ranked 4th in the world. Regarding agriculture, the two largest crops are cotton, most of which is produced for export, and wheat, which is domestically consumed.

Turkmenistan is among
the top ten producers of cotton in the world.

It is all because of the
American Civil War. In the 1860’s the import of cotton from the US to Russia was disrupted and so the price shot up. This made it an increasingly important commodity in the region so they decided to grow it themselves, well they had lots of space and cotton had been grown for thousands of years in Central Asia although its cultivation was on a much lesser scale than during the Soviet period.

The cotton trade at first actually led to improvements in the region the Transcaspian Railway from Krasnovodsk to Samarkand and Tashkent, and the Trans-Aral Railway from Orenburg to Tashkent were constructed.

In the long term the development of a cotton monoculture would render Turkestan dependent on food imports from Western Siberia as they swapped food growing for cotton growing.

These days there is a lot of debate on the topic of cotton. There is a lot of talk about the “Aral Sea” a large body of water in Asia which is rapidly diminishing well guess what started it all cotton.

The Russians needed to irrigate their cotton fields so they used water from this lake.

This is what Wikipedia has to say.

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988 Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

The construction of irrigation canals began on a large scale in the 1940s. Many of the canals were poorly built, allowing water to leak or evaporate. From the
Qaraqum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, perhaps 30 to 75% of the water went to waste. Today, only 12% of Uzbekistan’s irrigation canal length is waterproofed.

Another discussion point is the use of children to help pick the cotton. half the population work in agriculture and there is an “expectation” that everyone helps pick the harvest and that really means everyone. No matter where you live or what job you do you are expected to volunteer to assist. The picking is almost all hand done.

There was a campaign a couple of years back to outlaw children working in these fields (which are everywhere, trust me everywhere) so the President passed a law which forbade children picking cotton. I am not sure how well it is being enforced. We did see a lot of cotton picking and to be honest I can’t say I actually saw children working in the fields there may have been some but certainly not huge numbers.

Interestingly there was a comedy show on the other night called “The Ambassadors” staring Mitchell and Webb and this topic was part of the script which was quite a spooky coincidence.

whilst you are not supposed to take pictures of people picking cotton here are a few random shots which resulted as my camera went off (several times) whilst I was cleaning it.

Yes these really are mounds of cotton who would have guessed

Turkmenistan 17

Well we are up an out at the crack of dawn and before you know it we are on a plane and off to Mary Turkmenistan’s second largest Airport and off to Merv which is another one of those very ancient places we will visit.

This and Kunya Urgench (see posting 12) were once the jewels in the crown of this area in the 3rd to 6th century BC and again this place upset Genghis Khan

Merv was known as Margiana or Margush in Alexander the Great’s time. Under the Persian Sassanians, it was considered religiously liberal, with significant populations of Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians cohabiting peacefully. As a centre of power, culture and civilisation, Merv reached its greatest heights during the peak of the Silk Route in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Seljuq Turks made it their capital.

Legendary Merv may even have been the inspiration for the tales of Scheherazade’s The Thousand and One Nights.

Merv suffered a number of attacks over the course of its history, but instead of being re­built on top of the older ruins, Merv slowly spread west. In total, five cities were constructed next to each other, largely because of the shifting rivers. The oldest section was the Erk Kala and in later centuries most people lived in the vast walled city called Sultan Kala once noted as the largest city in the world.

All of this was completely eradicated in 1221 under the onslaught of the Mongols. In 1218 Genghis Khan demanded a substantial tithe of grain from Merv, along with the pick of the city’s most beautiful young women. The unwise Seljuq response was to slay the tax collectors. In retribution Tolui, the most brutal of Genghis Khan’s sons, arrived three years later at the head of an army, accepted the peaceful surrender of the terrified citizens, and then proceeded to butcher every last one of the city’s inhabitants, an estimated 300, 000 people although this was the low estimate and it could have been closer to 1,000,000. What is know is each Mongol soldier was tasked with killing several hundred people the only people spared were around 400 artisans

Merv made a small comeback in the 15th century and was soon at the centre of a territorial dispute between the rulers of Bukhara, Khiva and Persia. Persian influence eventually won out when a noble named Bairam Ali rebuilt the dam, which allowed the irrigated region to prosper and encouraged free trade. The Emir of Bukhara struck back with military force, captured the city, and utterly destroyed it in 1795.

So as you see little is left of the place apart from some ruined mud buildings and a very large circular mound.

Who can resist a heard of camels


One rather interesting if a little odd anecdote was that as we were wandering around a car pulled up and the passenger started randomly distributing bread to us.

Not sure if we looked hungry or if it is a custom either way it was very welcome. 


As we travel towards Turkmenabat where we are staying for the night we visit the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar one of the most powerful Khorezmian Rulers
of Iran.


(This shows how the borders have shifted) if you get 5 minutes you might want to Google him as he had a long and interesting life.

The Mausoleum seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

Interesting bus in the car park not ours I hasten to add.

Turkmenistan 16

Well after lunch we continue the cultural part of our tour and head for the Carpet museum which is noted for its huge Tekke carpets.

One Tekke carpet measures 193m² and weighs a metric tonne and was made by some 40 people in 1941 to make a curtain for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Another, made in 2001, is even larger, measuring 301m² and 14 by 21.2 metres and was made to commemorate 10 years of Turkmen independence from the Soviet Union.

It is recognized by the Guinness World Records as the largest hand-woven carpet in the world.

I tell you this only because there are no photos you are not allowed not exactly sure why and you don’t bother to ask because there things are what they are, I’m not actually sure the staff want us to be there either given their lack of interest. After this we are off on a whistle stop tour of the town which all seems very new, I may have mentioned this but it’s a bit like Vegas everything looks new and shiny.

There are lots of statues and monuments all of which are a little overstated but none the less interesting.

Turkmenistan 14

Today we are off around the Capitol City of Turkmenistan Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) with a population of close to a million.

The whole place looks like it bas built last year and everything is clad in white marble which comes from Italy (not sure how they get in into the country give the border controls we saw yesterday)

Ashgabat is a relatively young city, having grown out of a village of the same name established by Russian officers in 1881 after the Battle of Geok Tepe,

but it is not far from the site of Nisa, the ancient capital of the Parthian Empire, and it grew on the ruins of the Silk Road city of Konjikala,

It lies in an oasis at the northern foot of the Kopet-Dag range and on the edge of the Karakum (Turkmen: Garagum) Desert, about 19 miles (30 km) from the Iranian frontier.

Yes that is correct 19 miles from Iran but it is over a mountain range so no fear of accidently stumbling across an unmarked border.

Anyway we have sights to see so off to the very ancient city of Nisa here is what the book says

Traces of human activity dating back to the 4th-2nd millennia BC show that long before the beginning of the Parthian Empire the area of Nisa was already colonized by sedentary populations. It is believed that there was a large settlement there as early as the 1st millennium BCE. Nisa underwent a major development in the mid 3rd century BC, when impressive buildings were erected by the Parthians, who decided to build a royal residence, probably the first of the Parthian dynasty. The name of the site, Mithradatkert, and an indication of the date of its foundation are known from an inscription written on one of the 2,700 administrative ceramics (ostraka) found at Nisa. Mithradatkert means ‘the fortress of Mithidrat,’ referring to King Mithradat I (174-138 BC).

The down side is that is it another place the Mongols did for, and after several thousand years it went the way of many of these ancient places although it is believed that there are lots of things yet to be dug up.




The place is on an outcrop with a huge flat plain below and huge mountains in the distance over which you could fine Iran.

Now there is an illuminated path we can see not too far from us and it is famous as part of “Health Week” where the president decreed that everyone should walk up this path as part of a health drive.

Now a couple of points to note a) it can get up to 115 degrees here during the day so the walk is done at night and the path is lit. all of the government cabinet had to complete this and the president congratulated each one of them at the summit (he came up by helicopter).

Next is the mausoleum of the late president (the helicopter guy) Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov  died in 2006 and lies with his family in Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque or Gypjak Mosque in the village of Gypjak about 7 kilometres west of the city. I think the mosque now dwarfs the village which was his birth place. The current President is less of a totalitarian and you see less of him than his predecessor.

There are of course no pictures allowed inside but again the gardeners (who outnumber the visitors) are all completely covered up to protect themselves from the sun and the heat.




Well for lunch we have a challenge we are going to another bazaar and we have to find our own lunch, first we have to get some more Manat though.

Turkmenistan 13

After all this history we are back on plan and off to another airport (TAZ) Dashoguz Airport to be exact and we are off to (  ASB  ) Ashgabat Airport .

Now if you search for this flight on the web it will say it does not exist and if you check the airports they both say there is not a flight between them which is weird as I was on it but whatever.

Anyway we are at a very small airport indeed probably 1/3 of the size of the last one although it still has several scanners just to keep us in check.

Our group of 20+ is quite a lot for such a small place and quite a novelty and it is getting very very crowded happily it does have some facilities including a snack bar for coffee.

I have already changed some money in preparation so no repeat of the Amir Timur square debacle. The Turkmenistan Manat is around 3 to the $1 or 4.5 to the GBP either way we can’t buy a coffee this time because they have run out and only have tea.

We get priority boarding allowing us to stand outside first but I doubt this is anything other than something to get us out of the way so the locals can settle down on the few chairs they have scattered around.
PS don’t even think about using the toilets. 

Given I am almost the youngest of the group I manage to overtake everyone and get on the plane first which Judi would be proud of.

Not much of a flight 270 km so quick up and down only thing to note was none of the locals turned off their phones and many did not even stop their calls at any point during the flight. 

Next you know we are putting cases on another coach and driving off to our hotel The Grand Turkmen which is 30 minutes away.

This is a business class hotel and as you would expect it is full of businessmen plus some United Nations Development personnel who seem to have a conference going on here.




Interestingly the whole Hotel smells of cigarettes which in this day and age is quite unusual, you only get to smell cigarettes outside shopping malls and office buildings.

Quite nostalgic, although I gave up a couple of years ago I still feel the pull every now and again (by that I mean every day) but know I can never let it happen again.


A small room on the 3rd floor with a balcony and 2 ashtrays with matches, these people know how to set up a room.

Nip down to the bar to meet up with Mike and get a coffee (well I had been waiting a couple of hours).

The bar is on the 1st floor (2nd for you Americans) and as soon as you get out of the lift there is a sort of disco blaring out.

Large loud speakers and a spinning glitter ball and a DJ looking the part in rather shiny white shirt and flared trousers.

I order my coffee and notice the three “Natasha’s” sitting in the corner. Young, good looking, 4.5 inch killer heels, tight dresses and all focused on their mobile phones.

Not exactly sure what they are doing there but one could speculate. (the following day Jonathan explained they were working girls which might be a euphemism)


Finish the coffee and Mike his beer and try and put the bill on my room only to find out it is a cash only bar which is a pain as I used up most of my Manat but that is the least of my problems as there is now a Saxophonist adding more noise to the disco and both are a little close to the lift for me and as I get out on my floor I can still feel the place vibrating however the smell of cigarette smoke distracts me.

Up for breakfast which is also on the 1st (2nd) floor and just about ok not stunning but adequate. We are off on a city tour but we are told to be careful as photography is restricted in many areas.


Turkmenistan 12

Well safely over the border and on to another adventure although slightly more on the “Imagine this was once” side. 
We are visiting a place called Kunya Urgench which was the capitol of the once powerful Khorezm Kingdom, don’t worry I have not idea about any of this either but the book says it has been here since 6th century BC which probably makes it the oldest are a we will see on this trip.
This place is also the first time we encounter history we “might” know something about. You should have heard about Genghis Khan well it should be Chinghis Khan so that’s that cleared up. Anyway you know he was a bloodthirsty type and liked conquering things well this place is one of them.

After quite a long siege where the defenders held out for a while the Mongols diverted a river and broke the local resistance and then all hell broke loose.

Here is a note I found on the web about it

Genghis, at this point, was willing to give his neighbors another chance, figuring that perhaps they simply didn’t realize who they were messing with.

He sent a delegation to Inalchuq’s boss, Shah Ala ad-Din (Aladin Mmmmmmmmm I wonder) Muhammad II, to ask whats up.
The Shah responded by shaving the heads of the Mongol ambassadors, and sent their interpreter home without a head

The Payback:

When he learned about the massacre of his envoy, Genghis nodded and quietly went off into the mountains to count to 10 and compose himself.

After thinking it through for a few days, he returned refreshed, then gave Khwarezmid a pounding unlike any the world would see until World War II.

To avenge his lost messengers, Genghis deployed three of his “four dogs” of war, which included Subutai, better known as the greatest general who ever lived. After laying siege to Inalchuq’s citadel for six months with newly-acquired Chinese technologies,

Genghis finally obtained a refund for his fruit basket; supposedly by pouring molten silver into Inalchuq’s eyes and mouth.

Then he went after the Shah. Genghis Khan stormed into Khwarezmia with up to 200,000 of the best trained soldiers in the world, destroyed an army five times his size, and even diverted rivers to wipe the Sultan’s birthplace off the map.

By the time Genghis was finished, “not even dogs or cats” were spared.

The entire empire was literally erased, its four million inhabitants reduced to mounds of skeletons.

The Shah himself escaped to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of pleurisy, bankrupt and alone.

Thus cementing the popular adage, “don’t kill the messenger.” Especially if he works for Genghis Khan

So the great Khwarezmian Empire dissolved in a campaign that lasted less than six months.

Although always ruthless, Genghis Khan was especially vindictive; the great cities of the empire–Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Merv and Urgench–were destroyed.

You have never heard of Merv and Urgench because the destruction was that thorough.

(A town in northern Iran became so crowded with refugees from the Mongols that it grew to some prominence: Tehran).

While the Khwarezmian Empire is not remembered, Genghis Khan’s visit there is. It still is studied in military science as the inspiration and prototype of modern mechanized warfare. Blitzkrieg should be a Mongolian word.

So now you know =========================

The photos are not from the original settlement (unsurprisingly)
but from the post Timurid period (there’s that name again)

This is the Turabeg Khanum Mausoleum described in my book as and I quote “One of Central Asia’s most Perfect buildings” a giant calendar, 365
sections, 24 pointed arches 12 large arches and 4 big windows not sure anyone
would have worked this out
from what I saw but maybe after renovation it will
return to its former glory.


 Gutlug Timur Minaret built 1320’s  59 meters tall (it used to be taller).


Urgench 11 (New)

So we board the plane and after a few more seat shuffling we settle down I am in row 4 with only locals in front of me.

A couple of business men a stout fellow in the seat in front of me who is trying to get the seat to go back but failing to press the button so he is just bracing himself against the floor and heaving which sort of works as he breaks the chair and it is now tilted on one side only so all he can do is look directly across at the guy in the window seat, he looks like a wrestler so I think it best not to comment (it is a small plane after all) there is a woman at the front with a red plastic bucket the sort you might use with your mop but this one had a muslin cover over it no idea what is in it or how she managed to get it through the scanner.

We take off and by the time we get to our cruising height we are on our way down again.  Whilst waiting for our bags I try and get a peek at the red plastic bucket but it is being closely guarded and so it will remain a mystery to me.

Leaving the terminal building some guy wants to check the tags on our baggage against our slips but we don’t have them the tour guide Jonathan checked us all in so he has all the tags stuck on his ticket. After a few minutes trying to match the first tag to a bag he realizes it’s a lost cause and lets us all through.

Outside we can see our coach which is good but there is a fence between us and it which is bad. We have to walk the best part of a kilometer around the new building works to get to it.

It seems wherever you are in the world these days that the Chinese are helping people build airports and roads and here is an example. Add to this the inability to get pavements to meet roads or pavements to be level and you have our route which is actually broken ground.

We fling our cases into the coach and off we go. We are not staying in Urgench we are off to Khiva which is our first dip into the silk Road Route.

Now we are staying outside the walls, right outside them actually in the “Hotel Asia” and they have laid on some Broth for us as we are arriving late which is nice and a local beer helps relax us after quite a long day.

We are in a low rise annex away from the reception, it is an interesting place with what looks like a nice pool and what seems to be an open air cinema neither of which I feel we will get the time to use.

A few random pictures I took during the day to keep the post colorful.


Turkmenistan 10

Breakfast is a surprise because even at 6:30 the place is busy, well its not a surprise that the people filling the place are Germans but lucky of us they are not off to the border like us they are headed in the other direction.

Jonathan gives us the good news bad news script. Good news is the border is closed to local for some reason which should make it marginally quicker the bad news is that the bus which ferries people across no-man’s-land is not running so we will be pulling our own cases across the 1km to the other side.

Well “it is what it is” is my response so bring it on.

After an hour or so on the coach we arrive at the border 21 people all dragging their bags towards a young chap in a nice smart uniform with a big shiny machinegun strapped across his chest this is the “before you get to the border check, check”

He looks at our passports one by one randomly flicking through the pages not sure what he is looking for but I learnt a long time ago you don’t mess with people at customs points you just keep quiet and let them do what they need to do.


Well past the first hurdle now 100 mt to the next checkpoint. Heave the bags up the steps (no ramp) now all our passports are collected and taken away to be processed.
Now in reality each passport should not take that long however they don’t give them back until all of them have been processed so this does take a little time. This is extended as on of our group (no names Michael) seems to have a different passport number to the one on the list which seems to be catastrophic and something which can not be rectified here at the border so the member will be left behind in Uzbekistan on his own whilst the guide tried to sort it out. 

After arranging transport back to the hotel and someone to look after them we are making sure the team member has lots water, fruit, boiled sweets, telephone numbers and are saying our goodbyes where behold a solution is found (after the guide takes some staff member away into a quiet corned and talks to them) and we all get back in line excitement over for now.  


They eventually bring our passports back and we are called through in some random order scanned and then have to talk to one of the customs people.

When you enter Uzbekistan you fill out a form which notes all the different currencies you have and you do the same on exit and they using a calculator work out how much you have spent. They then put this back onto the form you gave them stamp it twice and let you go to the next checkpoint where
they type all your details into their computer and eventually stamp your visa
(I never told you how much fun we had getting the visa in the first place, another time perhaps).
Once stamped you get to go and wait outside whilst everyone else goes through the same process. Now some of our party seem to be taking out more money than they brought in which is a bad thing and there is plenty of changes being made and lots of head scratching going on.

After an hour and a half we are all through and assembled now we have to get across no-mans-land and off we go it is not really a road more packed earth and stones so progress is not particularly fast, more steady.

Half way across we have to show our passports again to some nice young man in a smart uniform with a big machinegun. this is the last of the Uzbekistan checks however 10 mt on and we do the same with the first Turkmenistan checks by a nice young man in a different smart uniform and a machinegun across his chest.

We set off again and I note we cross a river which is probably the actual border. There is someone stationed every 150 mt along our route smiling as we pass.

We arrive at the Turkmenistan checkpoint and our passports are collected again
and taken away again (we all have visas so this should not present too much of
an issue and 45 minutes later they come back and we are scanned through with
passports stamped. Only one more young man in uniform with a gun to go and we are now getting onto our next coach for another adventure.
All in all about 3 hours which our guide says is not bad.


The is not really a problem with all of this process you have to remember that until 1991 they did not have borders as they were all part of the USSR so they have no process and they had to create border crossings and everything which goes with them add this to the fact that 20+ foreigners turn up all at once and I think everything went fine. 

No pictures sorry its not the done thing at borders


Khiva 9

So our last night in Khiva and we are in the center of the town at an open air restaurant where the food is “interesting” soup and stuff in sticks with lots of bread and beer and of course some local vodka, well it would be rude not to.

The highlight is a group of people playing local instruments and a lady singing with a couple of kids helping.

It was a lot better than I am making out and they play and sing with a lot of gusto and polish, this team have done this a lot.

There were also plenty of gold teeth on view

There is the obligatory get the tourists up to dance section which some of our groups seem more than happy to assist with.


The small amounts of local vodka which were consumed I believe may have added to the joviality.


As much as we are enjoying ourselves we have to leave and get some sleep.

We have our first border crossing in the morning and breakfast is at 06:30 bags on the coach at 07:00 with us leaving at 07:30 and we are already being warned will be long and tiresome.

Khiva 8

We continue to drift around this charming place during the later afternoon I say charming the guide put a lot of emphasis on the large slave market they used to have which reduces the charming to chilling.

Khiva has Madrassa and museums plus a real life Harem to potteraround where they put on a very weird / interesting little “activity” which may have been a play or a historical reenactment of some event but given none of us speak Uzbek it was almost impossible to decipher but the main character did have some groovy boots on.

A lot of very delicate tile work and plenty of things to delight the eye even a carriage acquired from the Tsar of Russia and a Medieval Friday Mosque. 

We are advised that nominally there are three types of mosques an Everyday Mosque, a Friday Mosque and a Special Celebration mosque.

The everyday ones are normally small and local to the community and the Friday Mosque is one for weekly gatherings the last is fairly self explanatory.  


As I said before we are trying to get some sunset shots of Khiva and we have found a 3 story building just by the East gate which we can climb up onto which for some reason is not crowded with other tourists trying to do the same thing.

There are no “Health & Safety” officers here so stairs with no banisters and flimsy wooden posts to stop us falling to our doom are the norm and you just keep climbing and don’t look down.

Whilst waiting for the “right” light (like I know what I am talking about) acouple of curious local girls want me to take their picture, they then of course want to see it,

in return they show me how to clamber across the roof tops of the houses below us which gives me some great shots from a different angle.


OK job done and a quick dash back to the hotel for a shower before dinner which Jonathan says will be special so who knows what we will end up eating.