From Ancient to Brand New Capital

Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), 26.05.2013

This again is a two in one post, since there is not much going on currently.
The first day started early and we drove 1h from Mary to the site of ancient Merv to see it before the sun gets too hot. This place consists of excavations in hills on a flat plain that cover up several cities of different ages. Since the buildings were made of mud bricks there is very little left after Mongol raids, earthquakes and bad weather for centuries. But it is still impressive to see how people lived here around 2000 years ago. It also connects to places we’ve seen before, like Persepolis, and many that will follow. Our guide explained us the background and details of the place very well. We spent the rest of the day driving from Merv back to our hotel in Mary where we got our passports back. They were on an unknown odyssey through the bureaucracy of this country.

After this morning we drove for hours from Mary to Ashgabat, the capital city. The ride was endless, the roads painful, we advanced very slowly. Turkmenistan has set new standards for worst roads ever on this trip. We’re constantly fearing to loose the Range Rover at the next crater or sudden abyss that can suddenly open up in front of us at any time. The baggage flies around in the car since we had to make space for the guide in the rear. And the rooftop rack is fully loaded, overloaded in both size and weight actually, and adds preoccupations.
At sundown we finally arrived in Ashgabat, a city that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1948, with 85% of the population killed according to the guide’s account, and then rebuilt by the Soviets. No promising prospect for us travelers. Then the first president of independent Turkmenistan embarked in a “rising from the ashes” operation, building a Disneyland like town of monuments, monumental buildings, high rises, and mega alleys. All these superlatives are covered in white marble from Italy and granite from Finland as our guide tells us. The Guinness book got several new entries it seems. We drove through town the next day, a Sunday morning, and this crazy place was quite scary to see with nobody on the streets, zero people. Just the occasional sedan with dark windows and a short dark haired, sunglasses shielded and grim looking Turkmen inside it staring at us. And sorry, it isn’t true there are no people on the street. Every now and then there are gardeners working on the flower bouquets planted along streets and squares. And of course there are the policemen at every square or major intersection, guarding over the deserted streets.

In our hotel we suddenly found some WiFi! The first half hour per device was free, we managed to upload 1 post and download email. But Facebook, WordPress, etc are blocked again. Strangely, FB messages work somehow. In front of this 7 floor hotel is a square with congress hall, and in front of it a strange folklore spectacle with dance music and kids in costumes took place. It all seemed so terribly unreal, like a show for people that want to believe everything is fine when everybody can see it is not. As we left at 21:30 hoping to find some food, the show was over and we walked through the crowd of parents and kids. Everybody was very young, and the slim and dark haired girls wore their colourful dresses. You can clearly differentiate the Turkmen girls from the Russian or Uzbek by the stature and faces. The streets are crowded with sedans, many still with their American dealers’ or towns’ stickers on them. Toyota Corollas, Camrys and Avalons have replaced the Ladas, most cars are white and silver and have dark windows. Cheap dance music blasts from the radios.

The next day we went to see the ruins of Nisa, a nearby excavation of a Parthian town and Unesco listed. Again a lot of mud brick buildings mostly hidden under the sandy ground. We learn that when you excavate them they are so fragile that they collapse. After the site we visit the National Museum, where we see items found in Nisa, but also in Merv and other sites. A very interesting insight into a period of approx. 2000 years ago onwards. And we definitely need to check in Mongolia on our way back why these guys destroyed everything crossing their way when they raided the world several centuries ago.

It is 15:00 and we’re done with sightseeing. It is terribly hot and the outlook of spending the afternoon in a city where we can’t get money at an ATM, there is nothing to see, has zero culture or beauty, no Internet, and being under constant scrutiny of a third person doesn’t thrill us. We decide it is time to leave, a day earlier, and get back on the road, into the desert.

Trip data (Day/Total): we lost the trip’s total data somehow these days

– Km driven: 460/?

– Hrs on the road: approx 5,5h/-

– Diesel l/100km: 7,3/?

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