Stage 5 – Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: The Great Deserts
The two great deserts of Central Asia; the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sands) in Uzbekistan, and the Kara Kum (Black Sands) in Turkmenistan, for a long time served to isolate the interior of Asia, both by the physical difficulty of traversing such an unforgiving, waterless waste and by the barbaric Turkmen tribes who would rob and either kill or kidnap outsiders caught in the region. When the first European explorers penetrated these sandy frontiers of the known-world, to the Khorezm Oasis, they were shocked to see white slaves; Russians kidnapped from the frontier of then Tsarist Russia. My route would now take me through these deserts in order to reach the Iranian frontier. On leaving Uzbekistan in August, I’d had more than my fill of over-restored and museum-like relics of the old Central Asian khanates (kingdoms), but on this second visit the country would reveal a few new and more subtle attractions. In contrast, my crossing of Turkmenistan, which I had not planned to visit until recently deciding to avoid Afghanistan, would offer a fascinating glimpse of one of the world’s most reclusive countries.
It’s the 10th October 2007. I’ve just left Tajikistan and after a typically arduous entry into Uzbekistan, I’m on the final stretch of the M41 heading south to the city of Termez which lies on the Amu Darya facing Afghanistan. After all the rough roads and basic conditions of Tajikistan’s mountains, it’s refreshing to be in the balmy late-summer heat of Uzbekistan’s southern plains, driving on roads which are asphalted and in pretty good shape. So high are my spirits in fact (boosted by the fact that in no-man’s land the car had stopped, and what in my auto-hypochondria had been a terminal engine problem had in fact been a battery terminal problem: the cable just needed tightening), that I decide to try my hand at a little ‘induced-hospitality’. I stop at a random point on the road where some farmers are returning from the day’s work and ask a loaded question; ‘Is there a hotel here?’ Of course, there isn’t, we’re surrounded by fields and farmsteads, but one of the farmers immediately invites me to stay at his home.
The family home, a simple but spacious single-storey house typical of the region is set in a courtyard strung with vines and walnut trees, and sparsely furnished though comfortable in the interior. The family are Uzbek cotton farmers, living in a region which is populated fairly equally by both Uzbeks and Tajiks. In the course of the evening a parade of people come through and with my few words of Russian, conversation is extremely limited. I soon begin to realise, as neighbours and distant relatives come through to meet me, that I’m probably the first foreigner most of them have ever had any contact with. It’s something of a privilege, though also quite hard work. The men recline, cracking walnuts and drinking cups of light green tea one after another, heated on a simple electric hob, while the women generally attend to household chores though occasionally come to join the conversation. Dinner is shorpa, a tasty meat and vegetable broth with the ubiquitous nan, thick round loaves of heavy bread made in a wood-fired oven. In the morning, I’m given a bowl of delicious fresh yoghurt for breakfast into which my host throws three huge lumps of crystallised sugar, whilst the local children who have caught wind of my presence cup their faces onto the windows from outside to get a look. Before leaving, I wish to give the family a gift of some kind and find a box of Iranian dates which I had picked up in the barren bazaar of Murghab in the Pamirs. This causes a worried look on the faces of the women who soon produce a football-sized bag of walnuts as a reciprocal gift. As interesting and life-affirming as it is, such encounters are quite tiring as one is a constant source of attention and interest. There are people who travel using such spontaneous hospitality routinely, though personally, a quiet night alone in the car suits me better on most occasions.
Termez is a pleasant enough place and the regional museum has an interesting array of neolithic artefacts found in the nearby mountains, but I press on in the afternoon, winding up a pass in the Kugitang Mountains which are thrust out of the ground in great jagged ridges like huge rows of teeth. Beyond the pass the road slowly descends and crosses the plains to the small city of Shahrisabz. It was in the vicinity of Shahrisabz, known at the time as Kesh, that Amir Timur (Tamerlane in the West), was born in 1336. A controversial figure who saw himself a descendent of Chinggis Khan and sought to restore the great man’s empire, Timur was both a patron of the arts (seen in all the Timurid buildings scattered throughout the region), and a vicious destroyer and butcher of the civilisations he encountered when expanding his short-lived empire beyond its Central Asian heartland. Although born in modern-day Uzbekistan, Timur was of Turko-Mongol stock and his credentials as anything other than a distant ancestor of modern-day Uzbeks is highly questionable. Nevertheless, he has been rigorously promoted as the national hero of independent Uzbekistan and in most of the cities where an old statue or bust of Lenin was taken down and disposed of, a statue of Timur on horseback has appeared. Young schoolchildren will obediently tell how they love the great Amir Timur.
One of Timur’s greatest constructions was his own summer palace, the Ak Saray (White Palace), in Shahrisabz. Unlike his other masterpieces in the country, the Ak Saray remains very much a ruin; only stumps of its sixty-five metre archway, the largest in the world at the time, remain and the outer tiles are only patchily present on the building’s vast exterior. This however immediately gives the place a more authentic historical patina without the hasty restoration found elsewhere. What remains of the tilework is noticeably finer than that recently created and used to restore Samarkand’s Registan, for instance. The town also houses the surprisingly restrained building that was intended to be Timur’s mausoleum, though following his death in Otrar (in present-day Kazakhstan) after an unsuccessful campaign in China in 1405, his body was only brought back as far as Samarkand where it remains today.
I’m happy to reach the Bahodir’s guesthouse in Samarkand where I run into Miguel again, who is finally planning, after five years away, to return home to see his ageing mother. I then head back to Tashkent to collect a visa for Turkmenistan. During this ten-day sojourn in the capital, I have a random but highly significant meeting with a Swiss traveller named Fabian. I’d spoken to him briefly in the guesthouse in Samarkand but when I chance upon him in a metro carriage he tells me that the Pakistan Embassy is issuing visas with minimal fuss, and as a result I accompany him to the embassy, ultimately deciding to go to Pakistan after my upcoming visit to Iran, rather than crossing the Persian Gulf to Arabia.
Tashkent is one of my favourite cities. It was almost entirely destroyed in 1966 by an earthquake and as a result most of modern-day Tashkent was built as a giant, monumentalist city of the Soviet Union during the heady days of the 1960s and ’70s. Most visitors spend as little time as necessary here (as I did on my first visit), but with free-use of the Grachev’s flat, and plenty of time waiting for visas, I being to fall in love with the place. It’s absolutely different from the rest of the country; cosmopolitan, down-to-earth, and free of tourists. It’s something of a multicultural city (within Soviet limits) with large Russian, Korean and Tatar communities. In a county where all traces of the Russian and Soviet periods are being systematically erased; monuments dismantled, names changed, histories re-written, Russians have tended either to leave (like the Grachev’s), or at least to flock to the capital. Those few Russians that I saw in the countryside and provincial towns, who had ‘gone native’, were few and far between. Without the support of the extended families which the native Uzbeks and Tajiks usually have, such Russians often looked pretty desperate. Government policies and national pride have marginalised the Russian language (though almost everyone over the age of twenty-five can speak the language); a major impetus, along with economic chaos and rampant corruption, for Russians to leave. However in many parts of Tashkent, such as the area in which I’m living, Russian is the language on the street.
Nail, the son of the Suleimanov’s who live in the flat next-door to the Grachev’s, is an interesting example of post-Soviet identity. Born and brought-up in Tashkent, Nail is Tatar on his father’s side, and half-Bashkir (a Turkic nation from the Urals close to Tatars), half-Russian on his mother’s. He is what Kapuściński would call Homo sovieticus, that is, a product of Soviet multiculturalism. Yet despite never having lived in Russia and being just one-quarter Russian, he considers himself more Russian than anything else. Nail would refer to Uzbeks as ‘national people’ and clearly distanced himself from their traditions and culture. He embodied the sentiment of many Russians I met in Central Asia; people whose forebears had been of the hegemonic Russian state, had brought the unifying language, and who often held the belief that they had come as a civilising force to ‘uplift’ the backward Asian nations, now saw themselves in the opposite field, marginalised ethnically, linguistically and economically. It was a surprise at first to see that most of the beggars in Tashkent, and Bishkek for instance, were ethnic Russians, very often the elderly, and it’s an unfortunate social phenomenon which can be seen across many of the newly independent states of the Former USSR (including the Baltic countries which have joined the EU). Nail, predictably, has since moved to Russia and is currently seeking Russian citizenship.
Whilst in the Metro one day I get to know Akbar, an Uzbek student of languages. Eighteen year-old Akbar seems extremely glad to meet a native speaker of English and insists that I visit his Lyceum. Slightly daunted, I enrol Fabian as a companion, though not being a native English speaker, he is of somewhat lesser interest to Akbar and his friends. We are taken along the corridors of the old Soviet building to briefly partake in various classes, and are expected to be experts in each discipline; I have to recall some mathematics and Fabian some IT skills, though neither of us get far in the Uzbek-language class. Most of the teaching seems to be by rote and repetition. The visit culminates with an assembly where we’re wheeled in front of the entire student body of eleven to eighteen year olds and asked questions. Here we get an insight into what education is in a totalitarian state. The questions we get are exactly the same each time; ‘What is your favourite [Uzbek] national dish?, ‘Do you know any words of Uzbek?’ and ‘Do you like Uzbekistan’ are common examples. The only slightly intelligent question comes from a teacher: ‘What do people in your country think of Uzbekistan?’ This is a difficult question; firstly, what proportion of British adults I wonder, could point at Uzbekistan on a map, or are even aware that the country exists? I try to think what might be carried in the news; a president that boils his enemies alive, one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, child labour, the Aral Sea disaster, remnant Soviet bio-weapons… A few moments’ quick thinking and I tell them: Samarkand, cotton and the delicious national dish, plov. This goes down very well.
The Soviet Union’s educational system may not have been free from Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, but the country had very nearly 100% literacy, the highest in the world. In Central Asia standards of education at all levels, have plummeted since 1991 thanks to poor teachers’ salaries (in 2007 a teacher might earn $100 per month in Uzbekistan), a lack of quality materials in the newly adopted national languages, endemic corruption and general neglect of the educational sector.
From Tashkent I return to Samarkand, bid Miguel a final goodbye and set off, passing Bukhara and then entering the Kyzyl Kum Desert. After leaving the city the road heads for around three-hundred kilometres roughly parallel to the Amu Darya through barren land until reaching the Khorezm Oasis. Driving alone in the benign autumn temperatures, on this quiet desert road, is something close to bliss. Sand dunes appear in stretches, often spilling onto the highway and on the horizon distant rock formations float like islands in the desert haze. Nearing the oasis, a narrow band of fertile greenery skirts the river, beyond which I enter the barren autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan where the irrigated land suddenly gives out to parched desert. Here lie a number of crumbling, neglected earthen castles, part of the outer defences of the ancient Persian satrapy (province) of Margiana whose capital was at Merv, in modern-day Turkmenistan. As I sit in the lengthening afternoon light in the ruins of Ayaz Kala, one of such castles, it’s easy to imagine this being the edge of an empire; the forbidding wastes beyond being terra incognita, the lands of the Scythians whose defence against the armies of the Persian Emperor Cyrus I was chronicled by Herodotus. What an intriguing concept it must have been for there to have been a part of the world about which nothing whatsoever was known.
Happy at seeing something in Uzbekistan which doesn’t look like it was built yesterday, in the most delightfully remote and evocative location imaginable, I push on to the republic’s capital Nukus for a couple of beers in a hotel bar I’d taken a liking to in August. I’m immediately struck, now that I’ve spent considerably more time in Uzbekistan, that the Karakalpaks, whilst physically isolated in this bleak and blighted corner of the country, seem rather more open and worldly than their down-country fellows. Out here, away from the watchful eye of the Tashkent regime I begin to notice that there is individuality to buck the authoritarian uniformity which seems to stifle not only freedom of speech, but freedom of thought, in other parts of Uzbekistan. People here seem to have some notion of the world around them. As Karakalpak is linguistically very close to Kazakh, the television is showing Kazakh channels. People look to Almaty, not Tashkent, as their cultural and economic hub.
Very early in the morning I drive out of the city, finally crossing the slow and muddy remnants of the Amu Darya which last month in the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan had been a brilliant blue mountain river, and head towards the Turkmenistani border. This second visit to Uzbekistan has given me a far clearer view of the country and an insight into today’s Central Asia, for, whatever its problems, economic, social and political. Uzbekistan is very much the heart of Central Asia.
While Karimov’s government has chosen Timur as Uzbekistan’s national hero, Sapamurat Niyazov, the recently deceased president-for-life of Turkmenistan, had a slightly different strategy; he chose himself. The elaborate, eccentric and rather tragic personality cult of Niyazov, who styled himself as Turkmenbashi, or ‘leader of all Turkmen’ seemed to be all that graced the western media about the country. That and its deep isolation and insularity; perhaps no other nation besides North Korea does more to deter the flow of information into and out of its borders. To get into the country with a tourist visa requires a pre-arranged tour and constant supervision by a state tour-guide. However, with a transit visa, which I am using on this crossing of Turkmenistan to Iran, one can move with relative freedom in the country, though only on the pre-determined routing, which is stated on a document given to me upon entry. Taking one’s own vehicle into Turkmenistan incurs considerable costs; over $100 on this occasion, though with diesel heavily subsidised at just over US$0.01 per litre at the pumps, the cost is somewhat offset.
After all the paperwork at the border is completed by surprisingly friendly and helpful staff, I’m on my way through a familiar landscape of irrigated cotton fields to the rather isolated town of Konye-Urgench. Konye, which in Turkic, means ‘old’, refers to this being the once important city of Urgench, capital of the Khorezm Oasis whose fortunes were destroyed once by the Mongols in the early-13th Century (in one of their bloodiest episodes, quite an accolade), then definitively in the late-14th Century by Timur and a shift in the course of the Amu Darya. The sense of destruction and dereliction here is palpable, though a number of impressive pieces of architecture remain. In some ways it’s my favourite of the old caravan cities of ex-Soviet Central Asia, with far, far more to see than Otrar in Kazakhstan for instance, and far more atmosphere than Khiva or Bukhara. The finest monument is the (Timurid) 14th Century Törebeg Khanum Mausoleum. The interior of its exquisite roof consists of twelve blind arches about the inside circumference of the squinched dome, representing the months of the year, and a hugely intricate faïence ceiling incorporating 365 geometric designs to represent the days of the year. It’s a masterpiece of mathematical art. The nearby 11th Century Gutluk Temir Minaret which has a considerable lean, reaches a height of sixty metres and is the third-highest brick minaret in the world. Finally there is the 12th Century tomb of Khorezmshah Il Arslan, (from a dynasty directly responsible for unleashing the fury of Chinggis Khan on civilised Asia just fifty years after his death), which with a neat conical dome has echoes of an Armenian church. I stay the night at some sort of homestay at a small farm building just outside of town. The Turkmen family are very friendly but slightly aloof; a trait I would find in many Turkmen. Perhaps it’s a trait of Turkmen people, or perhaps in this reclusive country, people feel uncomfortable having too many interactions with a foreigner.
In the morning I set off to make some real progress across the country. The road runs almost due south across the heart of the country, spanning the wastes of the Kara Kum Desert from north to south. Judging by the road surface, it too was sacked by the Mongols. The vegetation becomes poorer and sparser with distance from the city until suddenly stopping at what must be the last irrigation channel, giving way to the desert. There is no trace of human activity here, but once or twice in the distance I spot some tempting old ruins, much like those I’d seen a few days earlier in the vicinity of Ayaz Kala. To this day, I long to have the time to fully explore this most recalcitrant of countries.
Roughly halfway along the road, near where the village of Darvaza once stood (before the president took a disliking to it and had it levelled), lies one of Central Asia’s most unusual sights. The flaming Darvaza Gas Crater is the result of the collapse of a cavern during gas prospecting in 1971; the natural gas emissions were ignited in an attempt to burn them off but the crater has been ablaze ever since.
It’s close to sunset when I pull off the road, into the desert around the crater, but I take the wrong route into the dunes and my progress is eventually stopped by the only railway line in the entire desert, with the crater on the far side. However darkness soon falls and I can see the rough position of the crater, given away by a glowing in the sky to the south, and I take off on foot, heading straight for it. My first glimpse of the crater, after cresting a low hill, is breathtaking; it looks almost like a pit of molten lava or perhaps, as the locals call it, a door to hell. I spend a few hours on the crater rim, the wind occasionally bringing gusts of scalding air up from the fiery depths, singeing my hair and frying black desert beetles which charge suicidally towards the light. I marvel at being alone, at night, in the now otherwise freezing desert, at this most bizarre of places. Luckily, I have marked the location of the car on my GPS (or I’d never have found it until morning), and make a direct line back to it in the absolute darkness, tripping over small shrubs and falling down sand dunes.
Just after the crater, the road to the capital becomes perfect asphalt and I pass numerous dromedary camels slowly plodding along the roadside, before arriving in the capital Ashgabat in the afternoon. This small desert outpost of a city was almost completely destroyed in 1948 in an earthquake which killed roughly two-thirds of the population (I would meet a survivor in north-eastern Ukraine in 2011). As capital of the Turkmen SSR, Ashgabat was of relatively minor importance during Soviet times, but since independence in 1991 has been built up into an exceedingly unusual city.
After from hoarding it for himself (a figure of perhaps $3 billion was held in banks abroad), Turkmenbashi enjoyed nothing more than squandering the income from Turkmenistan’s vast gas and oil reserves on building up his capital (in stark contrast to the neglect in almost all other parts of the country) into a city somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. Perhaps the most famous of the startling structures which Turkmenbashi had erected in the city is the Arch of Neutrality, a white tapering tower set upon a large tripod, on top of which stands a golden statue of the despot which turns throughout the day in order that the sun is continually shining on his face. There’s also the Independence Monument which has the form of a giant lavatory plunger, and a giant representation of his book the Ruhnama, a mix of history, imagination and rambling poetry and philosophical platitudes.
This Ruhnama would eventually be promoted by Turkmenbashi to equal status with the Qur’an in the country’s mosques, and the two would be recommended as the only books Turkmen should read. A copy of the Ruhnama even orbits the Earth in its own satellite along with the Turkmen flag. However, Turkmenbashi didn’t limit himself to strange buildings; the most bizarre facets of his reign were some of his decrees, which included changing the names of the months of the year, and of the days of the week (names included that of his mother, and of course himself), inventing holidays (including ‘Melon Day’), closing all hospitals in the country outside of the capital, banning long hair and beards, banning dogs from the capital, banning opera, ballet and circus, and even banning gold teeth (a favourite throughout Central Asia), encouraging citizens instead to gnaw on bones to strengthen their own natural teeth. Alongside these absurdities there was of course also a darker side of repression, incarceration and disappearances of ‘dissidents’ to the reign of one of the most totalitarian dictators of modern times.
With all these diversions, I almost forget about trying to find the ‘real’ side to a city where many central streets are deserted, with almost no normal, everyday activities to be seen. Central Ashgabat feels sterile, cold and distant, with no discernible soul whatsoever.
The one place where I do find some activity, on my last morning in the country, shortly before leaving for the Iranian border, is the Tolkuchka Bazaar, located a few kilometres north of the city, well away from the ghostly streets and lunatic monuments. In stark contrast to the city centre, this huge and sprawling market is perhaps the most colourful and interesting bazaar I’ve ever seen in Central Asia. It seems that the local population (and in Central Asia, city life always revolves around the bazaar) flocks here to get away from the surreality of the city centre, patrolled by police and devoid of amenities. Here one feels far less controlled,and in the narrow, bustling lanes of the bazaar where colourfully dressed Turkmen women go about their shopping, I am back in storybook Central Asia. The bazaar sells everything imaginable, but the most interesting stalls are those selling carpets. In a region where nowadays most people buy and sell only the large, bland machine-made carpets from China, here there are still plenty of real Turkmen rugs. In deep reds, crimsons and blacks with their dazzling hexagonal teke designs, each different style representing a different Teke tribe. These are in my opinion the most beautiful of carpets, but as exporting a rug of any substantial size is troublesome, I settle upon a very small piece, still emblematic and hand-made, which costs just two US Dollars.
But what of the Turkmen people, who had to suffer the erratic decrees of the president which titillated international audiences reading the odd despatch from Turkmenistan? What of the Turkmen, who were once the scourge of the Central Asian deserts; fierce, barbaric, marauding tribesmen; murderers, rapists and plunderers? The Turkmen were the last people to be added to the Tsarist Russian Empire (after two stunning victories over the Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries) in 1878 following the Russian siege of Geok Teppe which could fairly be described as genocide; every last Turkmen was butchered, men women and children. It was about the Turkmen that the Russian general Komaroff famously said: “The harder you hit them, the longer they stay down”. Perhaps that’s what’s happened. In my five days I have met few Turkmen, but in those I have met I see no resemblance in behaviour to the Turkmen described in history. I’ve found Turkmen people friendly and mild almost to the point of timidity, reserved, and totally apolitical. They seem to live in a vacuum, utterly removed and unaware of the outside world, perhaps as they always have been, preferring to tend to their immediate needs and little else, and to not get involved with anything that doesn’t concern them. They are amongst the most culturally isolated people I have encountered. I would meet further Turkmen in Iran and Afghanistan over the coming years, and revisit the country in 2009, but nothing has ever really changed this opinion of mine; that Komaroff gave them such a blow, then the Soviets, then Turkmenbashi, that the Turkmen have no perception of any modicum of political self-empowerment. From the bazaar, I cross Ashgabat one final time, through more soulless, spotless, empty streets, and climb up into the Kopet Dag Mountains towards Iran and another world altogether.
So concluded my 2007 journey through Central Asia and through the Former USSR. I’ve greatly enjoyed the region with its rich, interwoven history and all the monuments which testify to this, and the vast, open landscapes so different from anything in my native western Europe. I’d also had an insight into perhaps the most interesting facet of the region; five brand-new countries which have never before existed as independent entities, which are struggling to extricate themselves from the economic chaos of the collapsed USSR, to organise themselves and establish and assert a national identity in this geopolitical region nestled between Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. I’m thankful for being one of the first generations in history to have freely explored the region, and have developed a deep interest in, and affection for it. 2007 would not be the last of my Central Asian journeys.
This was INCREDIBLY fun & interesting to read. I’m quite eclectic anyway, and have researched Central Asia before, but you gave tremendous insight. I’m also the type who likes to travel for weeks or months, to quiet, uncommon places. Although in a different economic class, I relate very much to your writing style, humor & sense of justice. (I heard about the “boiling” incident, too.) What I’d give to know you as a friend and travel along with you on some of these epic voyages.
Thank you very much for your comment. I am late to respond to it as I was on another trip at the time you wrote.
Indeed, I like to travel slowly and learn about the places I pass through, and prefer to write about the places themselves rather than just myself and my direct experiences. I am always happy when someone else appreciates this.
I’m not quite sure how to interpret your comment about economic class, but I want to be clear that I do not come from a moneyed background (in local terms at least), and I’m no trust fund manager. Rather, I have just known what I want to do for some time now, and single-mindedly made decisions in life in order to follow it; at the same time sacrificing many other things. I believe one’s resolve and dedication are far, far more important than money.
I wish you many enlightening journeys off the beaten path!