> On The Silk Road - Turkmenistan


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Yes - I am still alive and currently in Mashad - the holiest city in Iran.

I am afraid that this might be a long email again, but there was no internet and no time in Turkmenistan - so I could not catch up earlier ...

Left Boxoro as planned early the next day. There was a bit off tension since we had got the guy we were negotiating with down to USD20 and the right to spend an hour looking for more passengers but at the last minute we found someone willing to go immediately for USD15. So we dumped the first guy when he turned up and told him he was ripping us off - revenge on all the other taxi drivers in Uzbekhistan. Pretty petty I know - but I reckon it is still Uzbekh taxi drivers 4 - Paul 1! The minibus drivers on the other hand are friendly and straight forward and only charge a standard 50% markup for being a stupid white guy.

We set out across the (inceasingly) desert for 100K to the border and arrive about 9. There follows about 1 hour of hastle with customs as they try to find something worth a bribe - saying "Do you have narcotics?" was obviously not going to work but they tried it anyway. The carpets caused all sorts of problems (an ongong story). In the end the custom guy demand that we swap mobile phones because mine was worth a lot more than his and Nokia would give me a new one anyway (very advanced comercial thinking - I thought). I did the stupid tourist thing and pretended not to understand.

Finally the boss came out of his office and said something that equates to "Get these smelly tourist out of my custom hall" and we were off.

At the Turkmen side it all started again - this time 1.5 hours. Turkmen does not allow export of carpets (that I know) and therefore the import and then export of Uz carpets caused a huge flurry of paperwork and ins'allaha's. Finally - my passport disappeared for 30 minutes because of "problem". Through all of this - Antonina - the person who was supposed to fix the TM side for us - was being very Russian in the corner and shrugging her shoulders. In the end - we tried standing so we blocked the exit, smoking, smiling at all guards and quietly saying "passport" to everyone. It seemed to work :)

All of this in about 42C in the middle of the desert with no water (I left the bottle at the hotel because of the taxi confusion - stephen only had 1/4 bottle). Two desicated less than white guys emerge into TM. Antonina - of course - had no water on hand :( Antonina and her driver, of course, had no petrol (despite sitting there for 3 hours complaining because we were late).

So we head to Turkmenbad to get petrol. Turkmenistan is, of course, a huge oil producer so it should come as no shock that it is practically impossible to get petrol outside of the capital - and we are about as far from the capital as you ca get. We queue at one place for about 30 minutes - but they run out as soon we get the front. After two more tries we get a tank full. This activity rules out lunch (who needs food) but we do get some water (slurp).

Al over the place there are pictures of Turkmenbashi ("leader of the turkmen") - lifetime president - and signs showing his colectively thoughts - mostly translates as "one people - one nation - one Turkmenbashi". As Stephen said - If you put your picture over a petrol station with no petrol in Aus - you would be lynched!

Finally we head south - crossing the Amu-Darya (or Oxus) which is about 1km wide at this point using an antique pontoon bridge that creakes and groans under the passing lorries.

The rest of the journey is a straight road through the desert. The desert here is the Karakol or black sand desert - but the sand looks the normal colour to me. The desert is coverered by juniper and tamarisk bushes and looks exactly like large parts of Ausralia - not the sand dune type of desert here. Now we have petrol - we can turn the air con on which is a blessing since the temperature climbs to about 48C.

Finally we reach the Mary complex after about 3 hours.

There are whole complex of cities through the ages around the Murghab river that flows from Afghan and disapears in the the Karakol. This river as slowly been moving south so the cities ae laid out in a line rather than on top of each other. I will go though these in historical order rather than the order I exerienced them.

Gonor Depe (ancient Marghum) is about 60KM deep in the desert and is a 4000 year old bronze age city discovered about 30 years ago by a russian archealogist. It is (probably) the oldest fire worshiping civilisation discovered and therefore (probably) the birth place of Zoroastrianism. Zarathrustra may been here! There is an amazing palace complex emerging from the desert as they dig - and disapearing back to the desert as they do not have the money to preserve it (Turkmenbashi obviously has other demands on his billions). This includes fire and water worshipping places, throne rooms and what looks a complete bathhouse! There are fre places with chimneys (it gets very cold here in winter). They have found so much fine pottery that they leave must of it place and only take the whole ones.

They have also found the recipe for Soma - which was used excessively here. Ephedrine, opium and cannabis fermented in milk!

30 Km south west of this is Merv - itself five cities.

The earlest is Erk Kala - which started about 700BC and was visited by Alexander. Remains of a the walls and central palace.

Then there was another Kala whose name I hae forgotten. This was the large city of Merv or Margiana (600 hectares and about 1 million poplation) that was sad to rival Rome and reached it's peak around 1100 AD. This city was told destroyed by Jinghiz Khan and there are only walls left. There was a later Timurid palace and city - remains of the palace.

Modern Mary is a stalinist dump covered by Turkmenbashi posters, statues and fountains (TM has the highest per capita water use for fountains thanks to the great leader).

After one and a half days - head south again for Serakhs and the Iranian border. There is more gesticulation and paperwaving and complaints about exporting carpets but this time I am with Oleg and Oleg knows how to get people through customs. It only takes about 1 hour (medium time according to Oleg - they only searched one bag). temperature accprding to the thermometer in Oleg's (no aircon) van is about 48C.