Turkmenistan Tour
March 21 - March 27, 2008   

Day 01 Friday March 21, 2008

          Flag of Turkmenistan

Barbara, Mary, Colin and Meli met in the Istanbul Airport at the THY counter at 6:00 pm. Elaine was the only one missing. Meli decided to wait for Elaine while the others went through security. They were going to meet Kathy on the other side, who had arrived from New York earlier. Elaine’s Lufthansa flight was 2 hours late arriving in Istanbul. When she finally showed up at the THY counter, Meli and Elaine were both relieved.  Now we could say,” Here we come Central Asia!”  The three hour flight to Ashgabat was very welcome for those of us who needed a good night’s sleep. Kathy had her Turkmen visa from the USA, so she got on one line. The others were going to get their visas at the air port (at 3:45 am), so we lined up by the wall. We all had our pictures and documents ready. The officials told us to wait until every one was cleared from the customs area. Finally, it was our turn. We did not need any of the documents that we had prepared to get the Turkmenistan visa . We just paid the fee. The police did not take our finger prints. We did not have to have our photos taken by the police.

It was so nice to feel that we were welcomed and not treated like potential criminals. By this time, it was 4:30 am and we were all looking forward to getting to our hotel. Our guide’s name is Musa (Turkish for Moses) and or driver’s name is Imam. We had a laugh saying that between Moses and an imam we should be quite safe. As we were driving to our hotel, we went through a tunnel paved with white marble. At the other end of the tunnel we could see a huge statue gleaming in yellow light. Musa told us that it

 was the statue of the first president of Turkmenistan, Safar Murat Turkmenbasi who had recently died. The statue rotates from sun rise till sun set, always facing the sun. We certainly wanted to hear more about him but not tonight. We checked into our rooms in the Nyssa Hotel.

 Day 02 Saturday March 22, 2008

“ The water is the life of the Turkmens
The Ahal Teke horses are the wings of the Turkmens

The carpets are the heart of Turkmens”


Each region of Turkmenistan had developed their own symbolism on the carpets. Lebab region which is famous for their birds used foot marks of the birds as their dominant design. The Dasoguz region is where the father of the Turkmens, Oguz Han, had started the Turkmen tribes with his six sons and 24 grand- sons.


We met at the lobby at 11:00 .  Most of us could use a couple more hours of sleep but we had a big day waiting for us. After a short group orientation, we were ready to leave for the rug Museum. Since this is a NEVRUZ – spring holiday- week end, the museum was closed. They opened it especially for our group. Zumrut was  our guide. She was wearing a traditional Turkmen dress. She was an authority on  carpets. She was very pleasant to listen to.

is divided into five districts based on cultural differences. The five regions of TURKMENISTAN are Balkan – Ahal – Lebap – Mar & Dasoguz
The carpet designs depicted these ancestors of the Turkmens in geometric patterns. The colors were basically variations of red, yellow, white, pink, and indigo blue . The carpets had three major functions: Carpets were used for funerals: carpets were used as doors to keep the evil out of the house, and the carpets were used for floor covering. But besides these uses, carpets were actually used for everything else one can imagine: as bicycle seat covers, baby cradles, bohca ( sacs) and even cell phone bags. We saw the biggest carpet in the world. We could not believe our eyes when we saw the carpets which were woven on both sides. Red on one side, yellow patterns on the other side and pile on both sides!

After the museum if was time to change some money. Officially, the exchange rate is 6000 Manats to one US$. In the black market, the US $ 1 is 19800 Manats. We quickly  made up our minds and got in line at the “officially illegal exchange office”, with a few other Turkmens. After lunch, we started wandering around the wide streets of Ashgabad.

After the 1948 earthquake, 140,000 people died in this city and the city was completely demolished. In the middle of 1995, the city started being built up: wide avenues. thousands of trees and white marble faced high -rises made the city look like a theater set. Everything was so orderly, so clean and so beautiful. It almost looked like the city is not being lived in. The weather was very unusual for this time of the year.

It was hot, hazy (from desert sand?) and very still with not even a little breeze. The beautiful pools, fountains and man- made water falls were not only beautiful but very refreshing.




We were hoping to see wedding parties at the park but all we could see were monuments of ancestors of the Turkmens.

Our next stop was the museum of Turkmenbashi. Another very impressive building built in 1998.

We visited the ethnographic, archaeological and the modern Turkmenistan sections.

We learned about the Parths, Sasanis, the Hellenistic presence in Central Asia, Zoroastrians, mother Goddesses, Oguz Turks, petrol and oil pipelines of Turkmenistan - locomotives of the Turkmenistan economy.



                                              The pipelines  going through Afganistan &
Pakistan in the south, through Uzbekistan in the east and through Iran in the West.



The dinner was at one of the white high rise apartments. We had lentil soup, salad and a nice meat dish. Elaine wanted to try Moldavian Wine. We soon found out that if we ever see Moldavia on a wine list we should avoid it. We had a long but pleasant day. We are already looking
forward to tomorrow.

Day 03 Sunday March 23, 2008 Ashgabat

Ashgabat has the second largest Sunday market in Central Asia. This morning, we started early for our market adventure. After we got our orientation of what there is to see in the market, every one went on their own to spend 3 hours at the market. Kathy was after  old embroidery; Elaine was looking for a carpet; Barbara went to check out to see if there was pottery; Colin headed to the camel market and Mary went looking for something that she could use in her quilting.


When we arrived at the house     where we had lunch, our CIG BOREK was being prepared

The house was decorated with
                                       unique Turkmen paintings

 Women from the neighborhood were weaving KETENI

Our lunch was served at a beautifully decorated AK YURT



The capital of the Parthain empire, Nyssa 3rd Cent BC – 3rd Cent AD

Nyssa, the capital of the Parthian empire is now one of the 5 World Heritage sites in Turkmenistan. The Parthians were nomadic tribes men from the north west of Iran. The Parthians were under the influence of Greek culture in their architectural style and school of sculpturing. Built within two concentric city walls surrounded by a moat, Nysaa had a water system that was started by the nearby mountain. The administrative buildings were multi-functional. There was a treasury, a circular building which could have been a Zoroastrian temple. There was a hall with 4 columns in the center and niches for statues on the wall. After Nyssa, we visited a family. Nurbibi is a weaver and her husband is a carpet dealer for the neighborhood.

Some of us bought carpets. Even a big line of abrage ( color deformation)  did not stop Colin and Mary from buying a big carpet. Meli, who was looking for a small carpet, ended up buying two.



Dinner was at a nice restaurant, the Margiana. The food was beautifully displayed and delicious. Four people shared a local beer and each got an  8 ounce glass. There was a fashion show of traditional and modern Turkmen male and female clothing. Beautiful professionals modeled them after a short musical performance.

Day 04 Monday March 24, 2008 Karakum Desert, Abiverd, Mary


30 miles out of Ashgabat, we stopped at Anew. The archaeological evidence proves that this site is an 8000 year old settlement. Much of the earlier remains were demolished. The remnants of a five hundred year old mausoleum still made the site worth visiting. In the 1948 earthquake, the façade was partially destroyed. We could still see the blue tiles which decorated the tomb and the colossal gate. The grandson of Timur, Baburshah, had this mausoleum built. The architectural style and the tile decoration reflects  his era. The two snakes over the portal were reminiscent of the building that we will see in Bukhara.

 “The locals, how ever, had another explanation for the snakes: a couple of snakes were living in the mountains. One day one of those snakes came to Annew and pleaded for help. When the villagers went to the mountains flowing the snake, they found its spouse with a deer in its throat. They pulled the deer out and saved her life. To thank the villagers, the snakes brought a chest of treasures .The villagers used this money and built the mausoleum.”

 When we were walking round the site to find the well entrance for the artesian well, we saw piles of stone neatly congregated in a circle.

We were told that, according to shamanistic belief, when votives are given to God, people trust that their wishes will come true. There were rocks put on top of each other depicting much wanted homes. There were air pins left here by those who were asking god for beautiful hair and there were baby cradles and pacifiers left here by those who were longing to have a bay. When we left the site, the haze was still very thick. Our guide Musa thought the reason for the haze must be the dust of the desert since it had not ran for almost six months. There were very few cars on the high way, but we could see more bicycles in Karakum desert.



Our next stop was the city of KAKA – father. The archaeologist who had excavated the city of Abiverd met us at the site. Being a potter,  Barbara fell in love with the shards that were  displayed next to the water tank . She was trying to figure out the age difference of the shards by their glazing, designs and the intensity of the clay. Elaine was birding. While we could not see any birds, she was able to spot more than 15 species of them. The rest of us were enjoying the history and the legends told by Ahmed Bey. Abiverd was built in the 2nd Millennium BC. The present day ruins were actually from only 200 BC of the Parthian era. The city continued to have a glamorous existence until the Mongols destroyed it in the 13th Century AD. Being an important city on the Silk Road, the city recovered the Mongolian damage and was inhabited until the beginning of the 20th Century. One of the famous people from Abiverd was a sufi . He started as a Robin Hood like a bandit before he found out that his way should be Sufism. As a repentance, he got himself tied with a rope around his throat and went to the market looking like he was somebody’s dog. He announced that he would not take his collar off until he had paid every  bit of money that he had stolen when he was young and inexperienced. As a sufi, his principle was learn, find a path, live a lawful life, and then reach god and be with god. Abiverd was an administrative center of 40 villages.

   A happy Turtle                                     Pacifier left at the tomb as a votive                        Tomb of Sandikli Evliya


Khivaabad was a garrison built by Nadir Shah,in the 17th Century. He belonged to the Avshar Turkish tribe. As a young man, he was enslaved
by the Harazm who had ruled Central Asia from Khiva, a city  which is now in Uzbeksitan. After Nadir was emancipated, he started serving
 in the Persian army. He then became the leader of a coup and he announced himself as Nadir Shah, the ruler of the Persian Empire.
He moved the capital of the empire to his home town Nishapur and demolished Khiva to get revenge for what he had gone through in
his youth. He built Khivaabad with the dirt he had brought from the rubble of Khiva. Today the city is only 10 km from the TurkmenistanIran border.


Lunch was at Ahmet’s house. His wife had fixed an excellent pilov with lamb and served grape ‘sherbet” After lunch we had a 3 hour bus ride to Mary. There were satellite dishes every where. A Turkmen tradition: Have a son, build him a house  and plant a tree.

After a short stop by a river, we entered Mary just in time for dinner.


 During the communist era , the two rivers of Central Asia ,Amuderya and Siriderya were regarded as an endless source of water.  The Russians quickly got an idea that they could irrigate the deserts and get cotton fields out of them. The biggest man-made water canal in the world was dug into the deserts of Turkmenistan cutting the country from one end to the other. The water used to grow cotton in the deserts depleted the rivers causing Lake Aral to dry up.





Lunch At Ahmet’s House                      Tejen river before we entered Mary


Day 05 TUESDAY March 25, 2008 Mary



The city of Mary was built by the Murgab River. Historically, the region irrigated by this river, is called Margilan. Because of its strategic location for defense and during peace time because all the trade roads go through this oasis, the empires had never stopped trying to keep this area under their control.  The Akamenid Empire of Persia in the 6th – 4th Cent. BC had established their presence here by building a big fortress  called ERKALA. Especially during the rule of Darius, this was an important garrison. Alexander the Great had marched through the city when he defeated the Persians. But he did not have time to mark his presence here. So though written records confirm  that

Alexander’s troops have been here, there is no archaeological evidence to show evidence of Hellenistic culture . After the Hellenistic Empire fell apart, the Asian part of the empire was ruled by the Selevchos Dynasty. Antiochos of Selvchos who was based in Horasan ( Noth east of Iran – south of Turkmenistan and north west of Afghanistan) built a bigger fortress around the earlier ERKALA. The locals call this fortress GAVURKALE meaning the fortress of the “ infidels”. The reason why this name was given is because of a number of non-muslim religions practiced here: Zoroastrians, Nestorians and Buddhism. The Parthians (2nd Cent BC – 2nd Cent AD ) had extended their kingdom to Merv and had built the most needed canal and had irrigated the region.

The most difficult time for Merv was during the Arab – Moslem invasion. In the 8th Century when the Arabs started ruling Central Asia , there were problems among the Arab tribes. The big conflict between the Ummaya and Abbasi Arabs started in Merv. When the Arabs could no longer rule the region, the Karahanid Turks from the East, then the Samanid Persians and finally the Gaznevi Turks ruled the region. The Oguz Turks of the Gaznavi Empire rose up against the Gaznavis in 1040 in Dandanakan and Mesut Gaznevi was defeated. This was the beginning of the Grand Selcuk Empire in Merv. When Merv was the capital of the Selcukian Empire, Merv was called : The Queen of the World , The soul of the World and the mother of the cities of Horasan.

In the museum saw arts and crafts and deities, pottery, jewelry from all these civilizations.

After the museum before lunch ,we visited a little village house where  we saw jewelry makers and reed weavers. The mother made fresh pastry for us and we were of course served green tea. In the back ground there was the wonderful sound of DUTAR played by a 13 year old boy.

Since we had left Ashgabat, Elaine was constantly asking if we would see camels. Musa and Meli kept assuring her that on our way to Mary we will see free-grazing camels in the Karakum  Desert.  But we saw not even one camel during our 6 hour bus ride. Finally when we were driving to ERKALA our bus was surrounded with camels of all colors and ages. The young ones were hopping and jumping, the older ones knew how important it was not to miss a meal while the pink flowers were in bloom so they seemed like they were eating non stop. While we were enjoying the herds of camels, we also had falcons and hawks circling above our head. Elaine was in heaven!


The cistern in Gavur Kala



While Merv was the capital of Seljuk Turks it became the cultural center of the Empire. Many poets and philosophers were honored by the palace and were given support. Hodja Yusuf Hamadani – a sufi was one of those contemporary of Omar Khayyam who also lived in Merv. This Balluchi lady was here to visit Hamadani’s tomb.

The Turkmens claim that the taste of a shish kebab cooked with the wood fire of this pink bush tastes much better. However, 5 years ago it was banned to use this plant as fire wood.

When we arrived at Sultan Sancar’s mausoleum, we met a bus load of Turkmen ladies who were from Mary and they were having a day trip to visit their ancestors. After the first eye contact, we knew that taking pictures were Ok. In fact, the old ladies wanted to have their picture taken with us, their guests.



These women were so colorful and with their embroidered dresses they looked like they were going to a red carpet reception. Once again we have found out how hospitable the Turkmens are.  The monuments were great but meeting these people here made Merv even more special.

We had to catch the plane to Ashkabad so we said good bye. We visited the KIZ KALA and returned to Merv.

At the airport for every 25-30 women passengers , there was only one or two men.

It feels like in this country only women work, only women travel.

Day 06 Wednesday March 26, 2008 Ashgabat, Dash Oguz




  Sari Ahal Teke ( Yellow Ahal Teke)                                   Blue Eyed Ahal Teke


Today is our last day in Ashkabad. We took a one hour bus ride in to the Red desert to see the famous Ahal Teke horses. There are only 4000 of these beautiful horses in the world. In October, 2008 they will allow export of the horses, then there might be a chance of saving the specie of ahal teke horse from disappearing. The Turkmens say, ” First take care of your ATA     ( Father) then take care of your AT      (Horse ). We were all surprised to  see the blue eyed horse. On the way back to Ashkabad, we stopped at Turkmen Bashi’s Mosoleum and his mosque.  It was big and ornate but not moving. In the late afternoon we took a flight to Tash Oguz.

Day 07 Thursday March 27, 2008 Dash Oguz - Kohne Urgench Karakalpakistan

The salt  along the side of the road

We left our hotel in Dash Oguz with no regret. There was no water. The breakfast was pretty basic and the beds were as hard as rock. Knowing that this would be the only tough hotel we had and will have on this tour, every one was quite a good sport about it. As we were driving toward the Turkmenistan Border, the sun was trying to warm up the chilly morning breeze left over from the cold desert evening. The fields were being soaked with water to get them ready for cotton planting.It looked like hundreds of little lakes. The land which was not soaked with water was white as if it never could recover the snow of the winter. In Central Asia we were  told over and over by every one that, over irrigated desert land was getting salt at an alarming rate. Every year the fields need to be flushed with water to be cleaned of this salt. This treatment has caused lake Aral to shrink to almost 1/8th of its original size since the water used for irrigation and for flushing the land is  being drained from the two major rivers which used to feed  Aral Lake, Amuderya and Siriderya

The first excitement of the day was a loaded donkey cart. The driver did not know our interest in photography. When we all started shouting, ”a donkey – Stop!”  He started giggling. He was going to get used to our excitement soon and would slow down for every donkey cart that we passed.


The women were not dressed like the Turkmens of the West any more. They had simpler dresses, but the still had the same welcoming smiles. The farm houses looked neat. Elaine got us all trained we could now see birds from miles away.

When we were going under this arch, we had only 12 more miles to get to Karkalpakistan border. But in the deserts of Central Asia where people had established hundreds of grand cities, wecertainy had one more surprise waiting for us.

The Monumental mausoleum of the Harezim Shah who had established one of he biggest cities of  Central Asia when he was ruling the from Lake Aral to the north of Afghanistan and Iran. His destiny was similar to most of the rulers of Central Asia. When the Mongols arrived here in 1200s ,his kingdom and his city was completely demolished.

In Central Asia, Iran and Anatolia, the cultures, empires, the religions and ethnic groups had been mingled for so many centuries that the spirituality of the people carries traces of many different beliefs.  The Moslems still practice Zoroastrian traditions, the Zoroastrians have Shaman rituals, the Shamans still follow ancestral cult besides believing in supernatural powers. Khohne Urgench is like a natural stage where all these are performed. The young women are passing under an arch hoping to find a good spouse, a man is circling stones hoping to


get a better job and a family is giving a little cradle with a doll in it as a votive  so the mother can conceive a baby boy. A young man is rolling on the side of the hill believing that this will help him pass his university entrance exam.

The dome of the  Mausoleum. The count of the vaults and windows and the tile decoration of the dome indicate certain numerical values of Zoroastrianism. Chengiz Khan did not destroy the minaret to leave it as a navigation point for his horse men.

          Kutluk Timur minaresi 1321 - 1326


It is now time to leave Turkmenistan and cross the border. While we were enjoying the wonderful edifices of the 13th and 14th century of the Harazim Empire, we forgot all about the carpets that we were going to take through Turkmen border. We did have our proper paperwork but we were not sure if those papers were sufficient to make the customs men allow us to take the Turkmen carpets out of the country. We had heard so much about the bribing on the border.

When we arrived at the border, Meli got befriended with the customs men. They were all watching Turkish TV soap operas and they wanted to hear if Meli knew what was going to happen in those series. While Musa was clearing us through the customs we had nice chat with the soldiers and the customs men. We did not need to bribe. Our papers were well prepared. We all hugged our excellent guide, Musa and walked

Into the no man zone of Karakalpakistan.


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Karakalpakistan & Uzbekistan 2008 Tour Journal