108 images Created 4 Apr 2015
Off the beaten path in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is one of Central Asia’s lesser known ‘stans, yet one of its most fascinating. A large country bordered by the Caspian Sea, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, it has emerged from its time as an SSR into a nation rich with resources, politically neutral, running headlong into modernisation, yet also ruled by personality-cult leaders who impart few freedoms on its citizens. Most visitors pass through the country, if they stop at all, to see Merv and Konye-Urgench, two <a href="http://bit.ly/1b5Nw3q">Silk Road cities</a>, as well as the Darwaza gas crater, but spending more time and renting a car to get way off the beaten path reveals a friendly, history-rich, diverse country, with many untold stories the locals are happy to share with an intrepid traveller. The capital, Ashgabat, blends old Soviet neighbourhoods with gleaming ultra-modern buildings lining wide boulevards, dotted with monuments to the nation’s history or its current leaders. Locals seem content with the country’s progress and are welcoming, inviting me to attend a wedding on my second day – a sign of the hospitality that would greet me throughout. Several hours outside of Ashgabat, en route to Silk Road ruins, is a village that blends animism with Islam and practices polygamy – and was allowed to continue in its ways through Soviet times. The ever-growing oil & gas industry marks the landscape through the west, but there is pride in these resources – particularly given that citizens enjoy great subsidies. The northern Yangikala canyon is unknown even to most locals – a parched, colourful and surreal landscape with occasional small villages and storied Sufi shrines nearby. On the other side of the Karakum, the remains of the Amu Darya River flow between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, creating fertile land near Dashoguz, the country’s third largest city. Produce-filled markets, more Silk Road ruins, and the inevitable cotton fields abound, despite the increasing salinisation of the land. The vast Karakum desert, one of the world’s driest, was a brutal and historically feared desert, with its many stories of bandits and slavery; today it contains fascinating villages, including one where a young girl writes poetry documenting the disappearing stories and pride of desert life. The well-known Darwaza (“Gates of Hell”), in the desert’s north, attracts tourists to see the fiery crater accidentally created more than 40 years ago. By day, it’s just a hole in the ground, but by night it glows, emanating light and heat from the burning gases deep inside. Crossing the Karakum, you reach an even more ancient site than the famed Silk Road cities: Gonur Depe was a large Bronze Age settlement, with a fire-worshipping culture, that the original archaeologist believes was related to early Zoroastrianism. As rivers shifted, the city fell into decline, not be discovered until 1972… and while excavations continue, the remarkable ruins are rarely visited by travellers even today.