Most of Turkmenistan is covered by the Karakum desert, a sun scorched, barren land bordered by the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan in the north and fringed in the south by a few oases fed by the runoff from mountains that mark the borders with Iran and Afghanistan.
It was part of lands occupied by indo-European Scythian nomads who overran the Cimerians in today's Ukraine in the 8th century BC and who were known as Saka in Fergana and as Yue-Tsi in today's Xinjiang and Gansu in the 2nd century BC.
Its most important historical city, now known as Mary, was founded as Erk-Kala in the 6th century BC by persian Zoroastrians and taken by Alexander who called it Margiana in the 3rd century BC. The Seljuk Turks made it their capital and called it Merv in the 11th and 12th AD. It was razed by Genghis Khan's son Tolui and remained dormant until the Russians annexed it in 1884. Finally, the soviets changed its name to Mary in 1937.
Apart from Mary, and Nisa founded by the Romans near today's Ashghabat, this area was mostly a no-man's land occupied by horse breeding desert nomads of turkic origin who raided their neighbours and preyed on caravans from their fortified desert oasis.
The expanding Russian Empire did not appreciate these games and decided to put them down which was done most brutally in 1881. Inside of a few years the Russians had built a railway from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian through the string of oasis on the southern edge of the Karakum desert and through Ashghabat and Merv, on to Charjou on the Amu-Darya. They took control of what they called Trans-Caspia along with the rest of Central Asia.
The Bolsheviks took Ashghabat in 1919, set up the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924 and undertook to collectivize the wild nomads with huge loss of life (nomad's lives of course). Those who survived were put to work building the 1100 km long Karakum canal and using the Amu-Darya's water to grow cotton on the southern edge of the Karakum desert. In 1990 the Communist Party of Turkmenistan held unopposed elections and installed Saparmurad Niyazov as president with a 98% score.
Niazov was re-elected in 1992 with 99.5 % of the votes and awarded the "Order of the Hero of the Turkmen People". In 1993, Parliament extended his term until 2002 and gave him the title Turkmenbashi meaning "Head of all Turkmen". A truly remarkable person!
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I had no visa for Turkmenistan but my friend Raisa in Bukhara had made arrangements for an authorised Dashkovutz tourist agency to provide an official invitation, meet me at the border and to clear all the formalities. No one met me when I got here because I had been unable to reach the agent by telephone from Khiva. I got through anyway thanks to a friendly border guard who escorted me to the agent's office and to the immigration bureau where I purchased a visa for 27$US.
The agent Annagueldi was however a pain in the butt, insisting that I hire his taxi and guide for a day's visit Konye-Urgench and that I buy a plane ticket to Ashghabat. The bastard even had a bill made up for several hundred dollars! It was quite a struggle, in the end, he charged me 60$US for his "official invitation" which I had to pay to get away from him. Anywhere else it would have been called extorsion! I was so disgusted that I decided to leave forthwith for Ashghabat. Annagueldi was a s.o.b. but his employee Sirmamet Garamamedov, seen here in front of the station, was sympathetic and drove me here in time to catch the 3:30 train. He should quit and start his own business, he would do alright...
Like the Nile, the Amu-Darya provides life-giving water to grow cotton in the desert.
Vegetables are also grown. A couple of hours out of Dashkhovuz, two aggressive ladies invaded my compartment and proceeded to fill it up with ten huge 30 kg bags of eggplants.
The Karakum desert is really a no-man's land and it goes on and on...
It was terribly hot, over 40 celsius, my two disagreable companions did not smell of roses and I could not change compartment for the train was full. I was relieved when they got off at Charjew in the middle of the night having sold their produce to Zahar, a young dealer who would take it all the way to Turkmenbashi on the Caspian sea.
Zahar Abduraziko and his fellow merchant Djorik Hodjakuliev, shown here in front of the Mary train station, were OK. They did not speak English but the vibrations were good so I moved into their compartment and we managed to communicate using sign language and my poor russian.
I could not understand how it could make sense to ship 300 kgs of eggplants from the Urgench area to Turkmenbashi with an escort by passenger train when a truck could carry 20 times more over a desert trail one third the distance. The explanation was brutally simple: no trucks!
It was already dark when I got to Ashghabat, I got on the phone, found a place to stay and took a taxi to get there.
I took this picture of the train station on one of the following days.
This is the courtyard of the Dhoranov home where I rented a room for 5US$/day during my stay in Ashghabat.
Dinner and vodka with Sapar Dhoranov, his wife and one of his several children. Only Sapar spoke some English but they were all very friendly and helpful. Sapar went out of his way to drive me to the Ukrainian consulate.
Park like avenue near the Dhoranov home.
I don't have anything to say about this dumb picture so I'll use this space to mention that much of my time in Ashghabat was used up enquiring about or negotiating for visas, just like in most other ex-soviet countries.
It seems that officials in these countries have a love hate relationship towards tourists, they love the dollars when they can rip them off but they hate those undisciplined strangers who do not fear them as the locals do. Here as everywhere else in the ex-soviet empire, I have found a sharp contrast between the people, most of which are quite friendly, and the officials and bureaucrats whom I have generally found to be real bastards.
Huge Turkish style mosque being built by Turkey in its effort to gain influence in Central Asia. It looks a little bit like Istanbul's Blue Mosque!
I had planned to take the train to Turkmenbashi and a ferry hence to Baku but I found no one in Ashghabat capable of telling me where I could reserve a passage on the ferry. I wasted two days going from one so called agency to another, some official some private, but I got nowhere. I was lucky to have an internet friend in Ashghabat but he could not do any better.
The officials who should have known found an easy way out by saying there was no ferry service to Baku, some of them gratuitously volunteering that it was due to conflicts between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on oil rights. As it turned out they were wrong, service had not been interrupted and I could have taken the ferry instead of flying.
My internet friend Vadim Maslov, shown here with his mother and his attractive cousin Marina, is the webmaster of the Information Consultative Center of Ashghabat, an internationally financed non governmental organisation (NGO), whose objective is to facilitate the flow of information in and out of his country. I was only a week in Turkmenistan but that was enough to realise how badly the country needs NGO's such as this one to help them get organized. The people I met were great but the country's bureaucracy badly needs an overhaul. Good luck Vadim!