Turkmenistan – The FULL Story Part Two – Ashgabat, Merw and Mary

Howdy all! Yes, it’s back to Turkmenistan today for some of the world’s most interesting and different travel sites as I explore this bizarre and draw-dropping destination. Last week I presented the fist part – here >>> Turkmenistan – A 5-Day Tour Part One – and today I will conclude this amazing adventure, hard to believe it was all done in five days! Last week was mostly about the preparation and formalities, this week I really delve into what I did and saw in Turkmenistan last year, exploring the capital of Ashgabat and surrounds, and then a venture down the road to Mary and the ancient city of Merv. Oh, and also there is a bit of drama in the running of the tour as well.

Sail-shaped building on the hills of Ashgabat

November 2019 and I headed into Turkmenistan from the Shavat border crossing from Uzbekistan, met my guide (Aygul) and driver there and saw the ancient Konye-Urgench and the fiery Darvaza Crater. My first day in Turkmenistan was long, the countryside was a little empty (as was the café!) and the adventure was ON.

Day Two – Drive to Ashgabat and Set backs

The second day was soon upon me. I had slept in a yurt, a very effective sort of round tent, and although getting up to walk to the toilets across the way was cold and not a highlight, it was warm enough inside the yurt, I had a great crew – we were really getting along, and the tour had begun in a very positive way.

It was easy enough to pack up and get ready to leave in the Hilux after a very simple breakfast of toast and black tea. But that’s always a reliable combination too where the stomach’s concerned! We checked out a couple of other craters which were nearby and like Darvaza, created by gas exploration which ignited. Neither were as spectacular as Darvaza, needless to say, and in fact one was full of water!

And then we hit the road to Ashgabat. Aygul had complained of abdominal pains, now it seemed to be a bit worse and she was holding her hand over the right (?) side of her abdomen. I must admit, my first thought was food poisoning but she said it wasn’t. She wasn’t sure, but she thought it was her appendix. I asked her if she’d ever had an issue with it before, she said ‘no’ so I wondered why she thought it, she said she hoped it would be all right and would get it checked out in Ashgabat. If it wasn’t serious maybe she could re-join our tour in a day or so, someone else would be found for the interim, otherwise I’d need a new guide if it hadn’t improved by the time we got to Ashgabat.

So, off we went with a great deal of concern and quite a bit less banter. The road improved somewhat and we came up next to the train tracks on the way to the capital, passing the occasional vehicle or bike on the road.

Wash Your Car, Or Enter Ye Not!

When we got closer, we passed a few housing estates, they looked new and they were very white. As the concentration of such places increased, we pulled into a large lot with a few buildings and lots of parking bays. Around the edges were bays for washing your car – well, they paid people to wash it. And the ol’ Hilux got a good old washing too! Why? Because it is law that your car must be clean to enter Ashgabat. On top of that, it should be white or silver, white being the colour of luck in Turkmenistan. And I must say, I don’t recall a black, red or green car anywhere in Ashgabat proper.

Entering Ashgabat

So out first stop was to the Owadan Tours headquarters in Ashgabat. But not before my jaw dropped to see the entrance to the city. We passed the airport, in the shape of a giant white eagle, and the roads got a little busier and then busier again, we hit elaborate round abouts with statues or fountains, the buildings all were tall and white. In fact, marble was the go-to material for building apparently. Ashgabat holds the record for the most marble in a city apparently, who knew that such a record was… recorded? And the apartment buildings that lined the streets certainly testified to that.

Guide Quick-Swap!

And then we were there, at a building which is hard to describe because, well, although the buildings are clean and very well-maintained, there is something of a sameness to them too. Up a couple of floors and into the Owadan offices, Aygul was whisked away to a hospital. I met the manager I think and paid him cold, hard cash for the tour. That was a weight off the mind to be honest! And I received some interesting biscuits too as a gift and checked out their little museum. There were a couple on their own tour there too, a brief ‘hello’, and within 20 minutes I had a new guide, Mr Jabbar, continuing on with the same driver and trainee. Yes, guides were changed like clockwork so fast I was a bit dazed.

We went for lunch in a sort of open-air restaurant. It was nice. Great description, I know. Mr Jabbar was an older gentleman who had, I think, been working for Owadan Tours since it started some twenty or more years ago. The dynamic had changed a bit, and he seemed to take control and say exactly what we were going to do and in what order. There were a few changes to itinerary as he felt they worked best, and who was I to argue? He was a nice guy though, and to be called up and start a tour so quickly, that made him pretty special I guess. And the lunch was nice, shashlick, which is a solid go to in Central Asia or indeed any ex-Soviet state. Each Central Asian country has dumplings of various sorts as well, and some hearty stews such as Laghmann which can be really nice eaten at the right place. Yes, I actually like the cuisine of Central Asia!

So it was a tour of the city that afternoon, and we started with Independence Park. Mr Jabbar always had loads of information, he was a pro, and he would let out little nuggets of information as we went along. Like there was a plan to plant one tree for everyone in Turkmenistan around Ashgabat. It went so well that they didn’t stop at 6 million, they went on to 20 million more than three times the population. And as a result there had been a slight increase in rainfall in Ashgabat over that time!

Around the City

Statues in Independence Park

Independence Park. Well, it’s huge for a start. Mammoth – with this circular building in the middle. This is the Independence Monument, and the spire is 91 metres high. Why 91 metres? The year of 1991 was when Turkmenistan became independent of course! Around the monument some fierce statues of Central Asian heroes. I thought – warriors, ancient warriors, but no… poets mostly I was told.

Statues and Building Independence Park

We followed a path back to the Hilux, past a gold statue of Turkmenbashi. This was the first President of the newly independent Turkmenistan, they are presently at number two. There was a pigeon on his head, and I say this because he’s so revered there was something almost… right about that! The park was so big, to see the next point of interest we took the car! This was a giant green book. The book is Ruhnama, and was written by Turkmenbashi. And actually, Turkmenbashi wasn’t his actual name, I just learnt it was Saparmurat Niyazov, but the people called him Turkmenbashi, that is how he was known. Well this book is apparently a beefed-up version of Turkmen history, with some philosophy sprinkled in for good measure, it really is the bible for the Turkmen these days I believe. And anyway, there is a huge stone version of it in Independence Park.

Pigeon on Statue of Turkmenbashi

The National Museum was next, in an interesting building – any governmental building is interesting – but what was more interesting to me is that it’s attached to a museum dedicated to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Who dat? Well, that’s the second and current President of Turkmenistan. Yes, he has a whole museum dedicated to himself. I really should had given it a go. I was stupidly trying to save money and hadn’t got my head around the exchange rate. Grrr.

National Museum

Next then and it was the Neutrality Arch. Another monument beneath the mountains that lie to the south of Ashgabat. And on the other side? Iran. Fifty kilometres or so away. Turkmenistan apparently claims a position of neutrality in the world. Central Asia’s Switzerland? Perhaps not.

Neutrality Arch

There were plenty of other interesting buildings we passed, and it was annoying not being able to get out and take good photos, sometimes I was let out very quickly for one – at this amazing Ferris wheel, entirely encased so that it looked a bit like a watch I guess.

I had checked in earlier, briefly at the Ak Altyn Hotel and retired there, having some pasta for dinner across the road. I was left to my own devices after 5pm up until 9am the next day. So there was some freedom and really I could have gone anywhere I wanted, but I was exhausted after two solid days of being on the move. The hotel was comfortable enough but a bit worn. The net was slow and blocked a lot of sites such as Facebook and strangely Dropbox (same for the whole country), but I was able to access WordPress which was something and back up photos to Google Drive, although it took 15 hours to do so. It was hard to believe I’d only been in Turkmenistan for two days!

Find details on the hotels in Turkmenistan here – What are Hotels Like in Turkmenistan?

Day Three – Memorials and Around Ashgabat

The third day was a day in and around Ashgabat. And suddenly – I had a new driver! So the team that had started with me two days only prior now only featured one of the original three, and he was a trainee! The new driver was um, how do I say this, more aggressive on the road than the previous one? Driving a lot faster on the open road and no qualms about using his phone when he did this. Also, not a big fan of my iPod tracks like the original driver. The original driver had to leave the tour because he was headed to Iran in the next week or so, and was organising visas and paperwork.

The first stop seemed to be on the outskirts of town. I found Ashgabat a hard city to get my head around, for many obvious reasons but it seemed a pretty hard city to navigate too, it seemed to not have a real ‘centre’ of town. There was the older part of town, rebuilt after the 1948 earthquake (which I’m coming too) and then the modern parts which came after independence. These parts seemed to stretch out. They mingled with the old part of town and the old buildings looked mostly like they had to be painted regularly to not stick out so much from the new. But having said that, the trees that lined the streets in this area seemed akin to Russian suburbs or villages. It was a weird mishmash, although I thought it blended fairly well.

Remembering Those who Fell…

The first stop of the day after being picked up at the hotel was, as I said at the outskirts of town at a memorial for those fallen in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and also for the victims of the 1948 earthquake. The Great Patriotic War is the Soviet name for World War II, if there is any confusion. This modern memorial was large, overlooking the city and it seemed unmistakably Soviet in design. There was a statue of a bull holding up the world, and that was to the victims of the 1948 quake. The bulls holds up the world, it got tired for just a moment and slipped for a second, that was the earthquake. It destroyed the city. 9.1 on the Richter scale. Something like 90% of Ashgabat’s inhabitant at the time died during the earthquake or subsequently. It’s a pretty sobering thought – I had never heard of such a high number dying thanks to an earthquake. I wondered at this point if marble was really the go to building material and if their money wouldn’t have been better invested in using Japanese technology to make sure the buildings are earthquake safe.

Turkmenbashi was not voted out as President, he died in office of a heart attack in 2006. His mausoleum is a decorated, domed building that sits just outside the mosque he had also built in his name. I wasn’t allowed photography inside the mausoleum, where I think he is buried with his mother, but I was inside the mosque which is just gargantuan. Very impressive too, don’t get me wrong. It was empty at the time. I don’t think it gets filled very often, perhaps only for special occasions. I didn’t feel that Islam was something that was treated very strictly in Turkmenistan, but something that is used to unite the people after during Soviet times almost all mosques in Turkmenistan were destroyed.

Not the Best Place for a Swim

One of the things that had interested me on the itinerary was the Kow Ata caves, which had a thermal lake that you could swim in. I had brought my togs and I was looking forward to it. It was outside Ashgabat, not a long way, but in the hills. We arrived and I entered, there were a lot of steps to walk down in the cave. Straight away the smell of sulphur was quite overwhelming. Pigeons and bats lived in the cave and sat above me as I walked down. There was… pardon my Turkmen but a lot of bat shit (and no doubt some from the pigeons too) everywhere. I reached the bottom. I decided against swimming, it just wasn’t a pleasant place.

After lunch there we visited Nisa, an ancient city 18 kilometres from Ashgabat and one that is UNESCO World Heritage listed. To be honest, there isn’t a lot to see, but there were archaeologists working there on uncovering the past and there are a few walls and the remainders of columns. It just wasn’t, you know, Ephesus or anything mindblowing. It does date back to 250BC or more, and was the centre of the Parthian Empire for years. As more is uncovered, it will probably become more interesting. At the same time, some of it has been restored, so I guess they are seeing it for its potential as a tourist site.

The final visit of the day was the village of Nohor, and somewhat creepy little village where everyone believes they are descended from Alexander the Great and basically they are a closed community. It is rare that villagers marry people not from the village. Their cemetery is apparently the number one tourist site in the village, and the graves are adorned with rams’ horns, as they believe Alexander wore them on his head. I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of people didn’t have long lives when looking at the dates on the graves. In a country of weird, this seemed to be something the Turkmen found a bit out of the ordinary, and so strangely, they decide to show visitors around. And thus we returned to Ashgabat for the night.

Day Four – Ashgabat to Merw & Mary

The fourth day saw us take to the road again, this time off eastwards to the town of Mary, where we would be staying the night, and to the ancient city of Merw (pronounced Merv, like the cricketer!) which was close by and the main reason for heading into the region. It was just over 300km to Mary and the road was pretty good. Two lanes both ways and there was plenty scope for our driver to really push the Hilux as fast as it could go. And that was around 160 km/h or more. Still, I lived to tell the tale and maybe I wouldn’t have cared if this was twenty years ago.

Anyways. On the way we made a couple of stops at historic sites – The Mausoleum of Sayd Jameldin and Abiwert. The Mausoleum was perhaps the highlight of the day. It dates back to the 15th century AD and was mostly destroyed – and not rebuilt – by the 1948 earthquake. What was more interesting for me was the community centre that was attached to this site. It was some sort of festival I guess and there were families cooking, including Abgoost, the first time I had seen this filling stew outside of Iran. If you’d like to know more about what I’m talking about this post should help – Tasting Iran – Abgoost (Persian Stew). It’s not surprising, the Turkmen language has links with Persian, and Iran is just over the mountains. Even Tajikistan has strong ties with Iran and the Persian language and culture. Here I was able to see people for once, see a slice of life. And say ‘hello’ to a few.

Abiwert was further down the road, an ancient, partially excavated city with not a lot to recommend it. I guess the tour was really a bit of an archaeological tour in many ways, because most of the sites visited were ancient historic sites. And as interesting as they are, Nisa, Abiwert and Merw, I don’t think they are the sort of thing that pulls you to a country. Egypt has the pyramids, and no-one would dispute that alone is a good enough reason for visiting Egypt. But in Central Asia, the pull is not JUST ancient sites, as amazing as the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan are. The culture and the warmth of the people and the adventure of the journey is what propels me to this region. In Turkmenistan I really would have loved more chances such as at the Mausoleum to interact with the locals.

And the same I would say for Turkmenistan. But by tour groups concentrating on these places, well, I’m not an historian nor an archaeologist, and so I think I would rather be meeting people and finding about what it’s like to live in Turkmenistan right now, or discovering nature, going on a day hike. And that’s partially my own fault, I think I should has realised this before I chose a tour. Because hiking opportunities do exist in Turkmenistan. I would have loved to have tried a train too. Anyways, we stopped for lunch for dumplings and shaslik before moving on towards Merw, which we visited before Mary.

Ancient Merw

Mausoleum of Sultan Sunjar

Merw is impressive. In fact, this ancient cities is in fact three ancient city over a pretty wide area. Occupied from the 7rd century BC to the 18th century, Merw was the centre of a civilisation, a city on the Silk Road and more. Today you probably need to drive around it to get to the interesting bits, you’d need a good few hours if not a day to explore it all by foot. Village life has been detected here dating back more like five thousand years! It has seen many religions to the fore including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. It suffered invasion from many including Alexander the Great, the Uzbeks and the Mongols.

Highlights included the fort that surrounded the first Merw, which was built in the 7th century BC. From the ground you can see it, it’s still holding up ok but I’ve seen photos from the air which make it took incredible. The Sultan Sunjar Mausoleum is probably the most interesting structure. It must have received a little restoration as it’s got bits in good condition and others that seem to still be crumbling. It was pretty interesting when I was there, they were filming some sort of period drama when we pulled up.

Mausoleum Yusuf Hamadeni

Seemingly not part of Merw, the Mosque of Yusuf Hamadeni. We weren’t allow in the mosque but we did see the tomb, this is a pilgrim site. This mosque, I was told, was one of FIVE only across Turkmenistan that wasn’t destroyed by the Soviets.

Ancient Ice House at Merv

We also went to what they called an ‘Icehouse’, basically a mudbrick structure that was quite tall, almost like an undecorated genie’s bottle with a hole at the top, used to keep goods cool during summer. I had seen it on the horizon and asked to see it, and we could get inside it which was great, but it wasn’t originally something Mr Jabbar was going to show me strangely as he didn’t think it was interesting enough. Moving back to the main area, we stopped at the tombs of two Askhab, two of Mohammed’s standard bearers. These had been maintained and were, like the mosque and tomb of Yusuf Hamadeni, in good condition.

The final building for the day was the Great Kyz Kala, built bit by bit I guess between the 7th and 12th century. Makes the building of the Sagrada Familia look fast, right? It has this sort of corrugated look to its outside walls, which makes it somewhat unique I was told.

The day of site-seeing was done, and I returned to Mary where the hotel was called, thoughtfully, the ‘Hotel Mary’, a four-star affair, a bit more modern than the Ak Altyn. Even lavish in some respects. Another long day drew to an end!

Day Five – Markets, Horses, Back to Ashgabat

The last full-day had arrived, I woke up in Mary, without having seen much of the city. The population is a little over 120,000 which would make it one of the bigger Turkmen cities. I was slapbang in the middle of the city, or at least it felt like I was. Mary seemed like Ashgabat to have received some funds to building beautiful buildings, and where I was situated I only had to walk 100 or 200 metres to find them and photograph them, which I did before having breakfast.

After breakfast we had a little time in Mary. We went to the market, which was only 200 metres from the hotel. There we walked through beginning in the florist section, and the women working there were happy to have their photos taken – most of them at least. We met a friend of Mr Jabbar running her own little stall, and then headed out the back to the larger part of the market. I stopped to take a wide shot, and was immediately approached by a man, some sort of manager, and told to delete the photo, which I did. I am still not sure why. Throughout the whole tour I was always careful to check with my guide whether I could take photos and he said it was ok at the market in Mary. The one big no-no is taking photos of officials or military, soldiers, and as far as I could tell, none appeared in this shot.

Also around Mary I was shown an Orthodox Church and an old jet fighter stuck on a pole, before we headed off back to Ashgabat at 160km/h. We dropped Serdad off (our trainee guide, who I must admit had been very quiet on the whole) at his home town on the way, and we had one stop on the way back, to see the horses.

The Most Beautiful Horse in the World?

The Akhal-Teke is the most beloved horse of Turkmenistan. John Oliver did a whole episode on Turkmenistan and its current president, and he talked a lot about these beautiful animals. And on the way back we stopped at Akhal-Teke stables and the horses basically were brought out to do a ‘show’ for their guests. IE. Me. Which was a little weird it must be said. But it was something quite different, and variety is the spice of life!

For this I took a bit of footage, so check out the horses and the other parts of Turkmenistan mentioned in this blog here – Vlog 6 – Turkmenistan – All That Glitters is Marble!

Back in Ashgabat we went to a shopping centre, a large mall, for lunch. This was a good call because it showed again a side of Turkmenistan that I hadn’t seen. The name of said mall was ‘Berkarar’, and it was really opulent, to say the least! And not busy, but with multiple levels, glass lifts, escalators galore, a huge food court, marble of course, it would have been easy to be blown away and if it was my first day, no doubt I would have. If you go to Ashgabat, go here because really, it’s something else. I bought some food for dinner at the supermarket there, I feel silly saying it but it was pretty much like any supermarket in Europe. And a flashy one in Europe to say the least!

Shopping Mall in Ashgabat

And like that I returned a little early, 4pm or so to my hotel – back at the Ak-Altyn. Time to backup photos, blog, eat, shower, and grab a few hours sleep. My flight out was 430am. Turkish Airlines had two flights on the day I booked, and I chose the far more sensible 830am, only for them to cancel the whole flight and bump me to 430. There aren’t a lot of flights out of Ashgabat, so choices were limited and Turkish Airlines had good connections.

I was taken to the airport, the one shaped like an eagle, arriving just before 1am, being told absolutely I needed three hours to check-in. In fact I was at the gate between 110am and 115am. Perhaps the easiest and fastest check-in experience of my life. The airport was true to Ashgabatian form, it was huge, marble, white, opulent and very much over the top. The city that kept on giving to the last!

Final thoughts

As I flew out of Ashgabat, I was too tired to think about much at all. I didn’t even get the action camera out to film the take-off. I should add I got the chance to speak to Aygul on the phone day four I think, and she had been through the operation and successfully.

Despite the planning and architectural choices of Ashgabat, and the very limited access to the people, and my limited freedom, I am very glad I went to Turkmenistan and I was happy with the tour. I think five days was clearly a mistake on my part, it was too short, even 7 days would have opened up more of the country to me. I did speak a lot with my guides. Interestingly Mr Jabbar wasn’t a huge fan of the current regime in some respects, and I could tell that the limits imposed on foreigners irked him. He also didn’t seem to be a big fan of Soviet times.

During the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was clearly very much under the thumb of Moscow, forced to grow cotton mainly and little else, which resulted in food shortages there. Now they can be self-sufficient. They are incredibly proud of their own fresh produce, with Merdimuhamedow (the current President) often appearing in large photos holding melons and other vegetables and fruit. Like much of Central Asia, the President’s portrait can be found watching over places regularly.

Berdimuhamedov on horseback at the National Museum

With limitations on the internet, young Turkmen I believe have taken to VPNs to get around it, and Aygul felt sure the country was, very slowly, opening up. In many ways I was very lucky and privileged to see Turkmenistan as it is at the moment. Should visa laws relax somewhat, and there’s no indication that’s currently on the cards, a flood of tourists is probably not what will happen. Even those travelling the other Central Asian countries rarely consider Turkmenistan. Although without all the paperwork and hassle, that would slowly change. And for it’s weird and wonderful, and for its history, Turkmenistan offers much to the curious traveller.

Other relevant posts:

Two More Days in Turkmenistan

So – About Turkmenistan

Thank you for reading through all of this! It’s been a job to write it up, let me tell you! Please feel free to comment. Thanks for reading, and of course, May the Journey Never End.

7 thoughts on “Turkmenistan – The FULL Story Part Two – Ashgabat, Merw and Mary

  1. What a journey Andy! Very interesting, and I’m sure curious tourists find a lot of interesting information, current or past. And saying that.. who liked the Soviet times? LOL The communism was/is not fun at all

    1. well in some ways they have used a lot of Soviet ideas in the way the country is run. Interesting a lot of people in ex soviet country actually believe it was better back then. I think there were pluses and minuses. and I think once the Stalin era was over, things improved.

  2. Ashgabat could be my kind of city. I like white and neat cars around me. You had fun and I’ve noticed that even if social media stops working on international grounds, wordpress always does work. That’s important.

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