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  • Writer's pictureToby A. Cox

Turkmenistan: Mirages of the past, visions of the future

Turkmenistan is the eleventh least visited country in the world (I Googled it).

Turkmenistan is located in Central Asia, neighbored by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.  

Maybe this is why it always seemed like the most mysterious of the Central Asian countries. It’s been pretty closed-off for the decades following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is reputed to be the 'second craziest country' after North Korea.

Getting a visa was not easy - it took weeks to get approval and required buying a tour package (more on this in a later post). My friend and I learned that it was cheaper to go via land border rather than to fly into Ashgabat (very expensive). We met our driver once we got through the border and began our journey. First stop? Konye Urgench.

Turabek Khanum Mausoleum

 Ceiling of Turabek Khanum Mausoleum

Outer and inner domes of Turabek Khanum Mausoleum

Konye-Urgench is an ancient city of the Silk Road that was inhabited until the 1700s. It was surprisingly spread out with numerous mausoleums and mosques left behind, reminding people of what it once was.

I observed people praying at the doors of the mausoleums and touching the wall as they walked around them.

At some of the sites, people would walk around and under branches sticking up from the ground with pieces of cloth tied to them.

No one was able to explain these rituals to me other than they came from Shamanism / Zoroastrianism / Buddhism (no one knew for sure). The internet also wasn't any help (if you know anything about these rituals, please comment or send me a message! I'm genuinely curious).

Next stop? The gates of Hell ... really.

The Darvaza Gas Crater has been affectionately nicknamed the Gates of Hell. Why? Well, it’s a large hole in the ground that has been on fire for nearly 5 decades. Located in the Karakum desert, the crater burns day in and day out as it has been doing since 1971. According to numerous sources, Soviet engineers learned that the area was rich in natural gas and decided to try and extract it. However, the mine collapsed and they decided to set it on fire so the gas would burn instead of potentially poisoning nearby communities.

Now, the giant, fiery hole in the ground is a site many visitors camp out in the desert to see. There are no railings, so you can get as close to the edge as you dare, but beware, the drop is steep and it is very, very hot, so you would probably die if you fell in. (I had a few nightmares about tripping and falling in).

Next stop, the city of Ashgabat.

Coming from the village being taken over by sand and seeing how challenging life must have been there, made Ashgabat all the more shocking. Ashgabat is eerily grand – white marble buildings with gold trim, rows upon rows of white street lamps with gold decorations, and white statues with gold lettering. Hundreds of fountains running constantly, churning out gallons of water, most of which is likely evaporating. The entire city felt like it was echoing a vision of what a futuristic city should look like.

Ashgabat was the strangest city I’ve ever been to. It was beautiful and clean, but also a painfully obvious manifestation of enormous wealth inequality.

It was also empty – the day we arrived my friend and I walked around the downtown area and it took us a few hours before we saw another person walking on the sidewalk and even longer to see a car. We later found out that the president had announced the day to be “Bike Day" and banned cars until 4pm.

Overall, Ashgabat reminded me of what I imagine a millionaire’s mansion to be like- beautiful, glitzy, clean, and large with good food, but meant for looking or visiting, not to be touched or lived in ... a mirage of wealth and and abundance surrounded by villages being reclaimed by the desert.

We left Ashgabat very early on a Tuesday morning and flew to Mary, but before going to the city, we took a 2 hour detour to the ancient city of Gonur. Archaeologists are currently working to excavate and reconstruct parts of the city to bring it back to life, but it was already teeming with life, in my opinion. The ancient city was like maze of walls, crumbling and dusty, but enough to show what it must have been like.

Shards of ancient pottery littered the pathways and lizards scurried between walls. I wandered through what had once been rooms, my imagination running wild and making up stories about the people who once lived there.

After lunch, we continue to Mary, another ancient city which has withstood time and continues to thrive thanks to a successful cotton industry.

On the last day, before we crossed back into Uzbekistan and then into Kyrgyzstan, we drove to Merv, another ancient city. Merv was cool, but unlike Gonur, it didn’t drive my imagination.

Now, I'm back in the US, going through memories and interviews I have collected over the last 9 months. I'll be posting more soon!

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