Stage 17 – Uzbekistan, Afghanistan & Turkmenistan: Turkestan [2/2]
The stretch of country ahead of me incorporated some of the least-visited corners of Central Asia; provincial market towns of northern Afghanistan, and a string of sleepy kolkhozes (collective farms) and eerily quiet cities in the desert wastes of Turkmenistan. Both seemed trapped in time, but in very different ways. In Afghanistan, the decades of war have stunted any modernisation of an already very traditional society for two generations, giving one the impression that parts of the country have changed little since the thirteenth century. Turkmenistan on the other hand had emerged from the ruins of the USSR in 1991 and became even more insular and xenophobic, leaving the country with a pervading sense of lassitude, trapped somewhere in the 1980s and forcibly ignoring the outside world. For all its forlorn and end-of-the-world feel however, the area was historically at the heart of the great empires of Central Asia, with the oasis of Merv one of the world’s oldest settlements, and perhaps at some point just prior to the Mongol invasion, the largest city in the world.
Duncan and I leave the company of our hosts Elias, Aimal and Ramesh in Mazar-e Sharif (Mazar) on the morning of the 16th December 2009. We head east out of the city, onto the fertile plains between the northern edge of the Hindukush and the Amu Darya. Now, in winter, the weather is cool and the landscape bleak, with only the bright white puffs of wool in the parched cotton bushes standing out from the endless shades of brown. Either side of the road is a continuous stream of small fortified farmsteads, old forts, shrines and ancient crumbling hills which dot the otherwise flat plain, all of the same beige of the native alluvial soils. It is clear that people have inhabited this place for aeons; it has the feeling of generations of cultivation and construction, with many mud-brick buildings slowly returning to the soil. Low graves and shrines are marked by colourful votive rags, which flutter in the brisk winter breeze. An old Soviet pipeline runs along the roadside, broken in places; another construction project now left to the work of time and the elements. The brand-new, western-funded road on which we’re driving is the latest layer of history in this landscape, an artery of a new Silk Road bringing goods from Europe and Turkey through Iran and Turkmenistan to fuel the nascent construction boom across Afghanistan.
Our first stop is the market town of Aqcha, which is predominantly Turkmen. Afghanistan’s Turkmen community left the Turkmen heartlands at the time of the Russian invasion in the late nineteenth century and remain isolated from their brethren in the independent state of Turkmenistan, retaining a far more traditional lifestyle. We pull up on the muddy main street of the town, and head into a local chaikhana for lunch, before heading out to explore. The streets of Aqcha could be straight out of a nineteenth century photograph; men (and only men) are almost all bearded, and wear voluminous turbans of white, grey or light blue. Men ride horses, or lead horse-carts through the streets, laden with cotton or other goods for sale. The bazaar is ramshackle and rustic with wooden canopies overhanging the entrances to rows of shops which line narrow streets lined with fully grown trees, now totally bare. The range of wares is large, but wool, carpets and jewellery are especially well-represented, and the whole place has a real timeless, Silk Road atmosphere. The Turkmen people are slightly reserved at first, and naturally surprised to see two westerners ambling through the bazaar, but curious glances almost always turn to soft, friendly smiles upon greeting. The range of faces is intriguing; from strongly Mongol to Aryan, highlighting the mixed ancestry from the long history of invasion and migration which characterises the region.
In the afternoon we return to the main road and continue west towards Sheberghan. Small patches of brilliant green grass seem to make use of the cool damp winter, and are attended by Turkmen shepherds grazing their flocks. At one point we pass a large old walled fortress which like so much in the area, is in a state of advanced decay. We stop when we see some armoured vehicles of the Swedish Army, who are based in Mazar. They stop traffic in both directions on the road, and deploy with weapons drawn against a wall on the south side of the road, and seem to be targeting something in the distance which is invisible to us. Other cars are waiting patiently behind and there is no gunfire, so we wait for a few minutes before moving on when signalled to do so. It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like a hostile situation in Afghanistan.
The landscape becomes flatter, and the settlements sparser as we approach Sheberghan and turn south towards the small provincial capital of Sar-e Pol. Low, rounded hills covered in lush green grass appear along the roadside, surrounded by villages of simple mud-brick dwellings where men are harvesting the last of the cotton crop. Sar-e Pol has a slightly different feel from Aqcha; it’s population are largely Tajik and Uzbek, and it’s a market town for the communities of the mountains to the south. Parts of the town seem almost totally untouched by modernity, with unadorned flat-roofed mud-brick houses like those in the villages on the road from Mazar. There are also a number of simple but elegant Bukharan-style mosques with outdoor courtyards covered by roofs supported with carved wooden pillars. Camels walk the muddy streets of the bazaar having been lead in from the surrounding desert transporting goods for sale or trade. At the edge of town, amid a concentration of graves which make the surrounding landscape a plain of hummocky grass is the simple white-washed shrine of Emam-e Khord. Signs of animal sacrifices, as well as the more common prayer rags hanging from stakes above graves hint at an ancient paganism which is practised by some in this most remote corner of Central Asia.
We spend the night in a cosy chaikhana whose walls and floors are covered with colourful rugs, drinking cups of green tea and eating a tasty meal of pulao; rice with meat, sultanas and shredded carrots, accompanied by a small round Uzbek-style nan (bread). Sar-e Pol is the end of a newly-surfaced spur road – beyond here are rough mountain tracks which lead to Bamiyan and the mountainous centre of the country – and so we retrace our steps north to the main road.
We stop in the town of Sheberghan, which was once the capital of an independent Uzbek khanate, and remains the most strongly Uzbek-dominated city in the country. The city is larger and more modern than either Aqcha or Sar-e Pol, with a dusty bazaar full of very friendly Uzbek traders, and Uzbek, rather than Dari is the language one hears on the street. Any remnants of the city’s past however seem to have long been destroyed by war, and after a brief stroll Duncan and I retire to a chaikhana and play cards over endless cups of green tea. In the evening we move to a different chaikhana for dinner, and sleep on the floor of an upstairs room. At around 03:00 I’m awoken by a figure standing at my feet carrying a machine gun. He turns out to be one of two policemen who visit us in the night to check who we are, then advise us that the chaikhana is not secure for foreigners. I shrug my shoulders and say that we’ll leave in the morning, and the officers, after looking rather incredulous, leave us to sleep. I imagine most foreigners they deal with are cosseted in bullet-proof vehicles with private security, and breeze into an expensive hotel.
West of Sheberghan the landscape becomes increasingly arid and the small mud-brick villages of domed houses thin-out, then disappear altogether, leaving the landscape marked only by the occasional crumbling caravanserai or whitewashed shrine. After Andhkoy, the road heads south and soon the landscape changes once more; low, powdery hills appear on the horizon, criss-crossed by endless sheep-trails which give them a velvety texture from a distance. Flash-floods and ephemeral rivers cut into this landscape of soft, loess-like soil, sometimes ruining entire villages which are left to slowly wash away. The road winds into these hills then crosses a low pass and descends into the town of Maymana; the end of the main road before it disintegrates into a terrible mud-track and enters Badghis Province – one of Afghanistan’s poorest – which presently suffers from a high rate of banditry, just as it did when Robert Byron passed through in 1934.
Maymana has something of the air of a desert outpost, yet is large and busy enough to almost feel like a city. It’s the capital of the province of Faryab, which has been suggested as the birthplace of the ninth century philosopher and mathematician Al-Farabi (Alpharabius), a key figure in the Islamic Golden Age of thought, which developed the ideas of thinkers such as Aristotle and would subsequently fuel the Enlightenment in Europe. Like Sheberghan, Maymana was at one time an independent khanate, and has been historically important as an entry-point to Afghan Turkestan, on the trade route from Herat to Balkh. The town seems to have weathered the war slightly better than others in the region; the central streets retain an orderly grid-plan, lined with roadside channels and mature pine trees, and some of the streets in the bazaar are cobbled rather than the usual morass of sticky mud seen elsewhere. The population of Maymana are largely Uzbek, though with a significant Pashtun minority. This region of Afghanistan is not part of the traditional Pashtun heartland, but the eighteenth century Pashtun ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani, effectively the founder of modern Afghanistan, moved his own people into these far-flung frontiers of his empire.
As usual, we spend our time exploring the city, and taking breaks for cups of green tea in chaikhanas, which for us have become something of a substitute for pubs and bars. We are refused permission to stay overnight in a chaikhana due to security concerns, and end up staying in the basic Municipal Hotel, right in the centre of town. Dating from the 1920s, I imagine it is almost certainly the same hotel which Robert Byron stayed in, which is some compensation for being denied the convivial atmosphere of the chaikhana.
The following day we head north once more, back to the town of Andkhoy, the last point of call before entering Turkmenistan. We make a phone call back to the guys in Mazar, as I am expecting an important customs document for the car to be sent there, and hear some tragic news; Ramesh has been in a car accident and is in a coma in a US Army hospital.
As we emerge from the hills once more, onto the desert plains near the Turkmen border, I see something which fulfils one of the mental images I had of Central Asia, long before the journey started. Just beyond the roadside, a man on horseback leads a caravan of six dromedary camels, lightly laden on their way back from town. These camels are not for tourist rides, but are being used to carry goods to market; for just a moment, I am seeing the Silk Road in the thirteenth century.
The sense of timelessness is continued in Andkhoy, which is a muddy and slightly shambolic frontier town, one in which trade unfolds as it has done for centuries. Duncan and I find a room in a large chaikhana, then set out to explore the town which I immediately fall in love with. Many goods are brought here by camels, often colourfully decorated with pommels and with beautiful carpets thrown over their humps. The buildings of the bazaar are delightfully ramshackle; at the edge of the ankle-deep mud which fills the streets, the shop-fronts are shaded by canopies of rickety wooden beams, covered in mud and straw to fend off the fearsome summer sun. Under these canopies sit the mostly Uzbek shopkeepers, all in flowing turbans and sometimes wearing thick traditional kaftans, some sitting out on beautiful, frayed old Turkmen teke carpets or Bukharan rugs. The whole scene is my Silk Road fantasy come true; what I am seeing is probably very close to what Marco Polo saw on his Silk Road epic ‘The Travels’. I feel like I am seeing the very last vestige of the Central Asia of old, untouched by the Soviets or indeed by modernity at all. It’s the kind of scene one hopes to see when visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, touted as being centres of Silk Road history, but comes away from disappointed, for the streets there are sanitised, and the bazaars full of Chinese rubbish.
Andkhoy is a famous centre of carpet production, and we visit a number of stalls where gorgeous silk carpets are being finished, and are displayed for sale. I have a strong disliking of souvenirs, but I do look longingly at a beautiful 1 x 2 metre silk carpet of dazzling quality, which at $250 (before haggling) would be less than a tenth of its value in Europe. Regrettably I decide that the carpet would not fare well in the truck, and settle for a tiny, second hand rug which contains a fantastic amount of dust.
Another thing which Andkhoy is famed for is some coarse, locally produced moonshine, and after some sordid enquiries in the bazaar, which elicit winks and conspiratorial smiles in response, we procure two measures, sold in small clear plastic bags. Back in our room after dinner, we drink the stuff which, judging by flavour might be watered down rubbing alcohol or nail-polish remover. As well as being absolutely revolting, it inspires us to violence and we have a good fist-fight before turning in to bed.
The next morning is grim; head and body ache in equal measure. I also need to make a trip to Mazar to see our friends, and to chase my shipment which should have arrived. We decide to take a taxi, and arrive in Mazar to find Aimal, Elias and Ashraf understandably glum, rather different from their normal exuberant selves. Ramesh is in a critical condition and, being in a US Army base, may only be visited by immediate family, or by Aimal who works there. My DHL shipment is nowhere to be found, and it turns out that they had misinformed me; they in fact cannot deliver to private addresses in Afghanistan, and my vital customs documents, without which the car cannot enter Iran, are languishing in Kandahar Airbase. Luckily, I am able to call on AJ in Kabul to collect them from their office in the capital, and send them on to Herat with a more competent and better-connected courier.
The return journey by taxi the following day, during which Duncan and I sit in the boot of a Toyota Corolla estate playing cards, becomes eventful when the driver is stopped by police. The officers find some reason to request a fine from the driver, who becomes enraged, losing his cool and shouting wildly at his tormentors. As he returns to the car to fetch something – his glasses, or some documents – the officers believe he is reaching for a weapon and wrestle him to the ground, guns pointed at the back of his head. After this everything is resolved, and the driver calmly returns and continues chatting and laughing with the other passengers. It’s a good demonstration of the desensitisation of people to violence and danger which belies their friendly and good nature; an ugly consequence of generations of war.
We leave Andkhoy the following morning for Turkmenistan, a necessary side trip on the road to Herat in order to avoid Badghis Province. The border crossing at Aqena, a place which is not marked on any maps I have ever seen, is in the middle of the desert 30 km north of town. It’s an arduous drive over muddy desert tracks gouged out by lorries into deep ruts, and it’s not until around midday that we arrive at the tiny border compound. After leaving Afghanistan we enter the gleaming Turkmenistan border complex at Imam Nazar, which has been funded by the US as a key supply route into Afghanistan. After considerable form-filling and various payments, we are loosed into the back-door of one of the world’s most inaccessible countries. We drive through featureless, scrubby desert past the Zeid reservoir and over the Karakum canal, another Soviet super-project with disastrous consequences, which takes large volumes of water from the Amu Darya and has played a major role in the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In the late afternoon, we reach the town of Atamurat on the Amu Darya, and find a clean and comfortable hotel room in the centre.
We awake to a warm winter morning in Atamurat, (which unofficially recorded the highest ever temperature in the USSR; 51.7ºC in 1983) and have a walk around. Once again it’s a sharp cultural contrast between Afghanistan and the former USSR, though the citizens of Turkmenistan are very reserved, if friendly. The city has some streets of neat nineteenth century Tsarist buildings, including a neglected old church with plastic sheeting over the windows and a collapsing sheet iron roof, but there is nothing of specific interest. We walk onto a huge pontoon bridge across the Amu Darya, finally allowing us to get close to the turbulent, muddy waters of this great inland river.
We take the road which tracks the left bank of the Amu Darya, though the river never comes into sight after leaving Atamurat, and soon stop at the first of two Seljuk shrines which lie a short distance out of town. The shrine complex of Astana Baba is today a fusion of several buildings of various ages, and provides a touching insight into the secretive and mystical form of Islam which these taciturn people practice. We enter the shrine through an elegant portal, which contains large fragments of ancient Kufic stucco and fine, mosaic-like brickwork. We walk into an almost cavernous room of vaulted ceilings and low arches, beyond which lies the dimly-lit central chamber of the mausoleum below the large brick dome, whose floor is covered in striking Turkmen rugs. The tomb of the saint Astana Baba, whose identity is unknown is also draped in a rug upon which cash offerings are made. The shrine has developed a reputation for healing and is evidently popular as several Turkmen families, all smartly dressed, enter the shrine whilst we are there. On a large rug at one side of the room, the families kneel in the Islamic style, with their palms upheld and heads slightly bowed, and are lead in prayer by a woman. In all my years travelling in the Islamic world, I don’t ever recall seeing a woman leading prayer, and I’m left wondering if this is the result of Soviet gender-equality, or perhaps a far deeper one relating to the pre-Islamic roots of Turkmen spirituality, which are evident perhaps in the votive prayer rags flapping from the trees outside the mausoleum, or the ‘evil eye’ talismans which hang in every shop and car. The second building is the Alambedar Mausoleum, a small and elegant, almost cubic mausoleum with fine exterior brickwork, which represents a very fine example of eleventh century (i.e. pre-Mongol) Seljuk architecture, though has been shown not to contain any body, and seems not to attract the same crowds.
After the mausoleums, the road enters small kolkhozes, then plunges into the sparsely vegetated sandy desert which typifies much of Turkmenistan. As we approach the provincial capital of Turkmenabat, the road draws once again closer to the river and fields of cotton re-appear, before we suddenly plunge into the vast, almost empty boulevards of the city which wind between huge, modern government buildings and rows of old Soviet apartment buildings, made rather unconvincingly to look neat and modern with a coat of paint. We find a room in a basic hotel, then set out to see the city. Our fist stop is a small bar, where we meet Vlad, a middle aged Russian artist who hands us each a portrait which he has sketched in the few minutes that we have been in the bar. My heart goes out to the Russians trapped in this country by circumstance, who have no means of returning to Russia and must continue their lives in a country hell-bent on erasing the Russian language and promoting a sometimes rather fictitious Turkmen identity. After a short walk, we find a nightclub and get dead-drunk with some locals, before crawling back rather late to the hotel.
Next morning I am feeling surprisingly fresh – after recovering my shoes and bag from the car – and we set off to cross the Kara Kum desert. The air in the car reeks of vodka and I’m glad we’re not stopped by police our way out of the city, though soon enough we’re in the isolation of the desert, a monochrome landscape of brown wind-blown sand and parched brown shrubs. The drive has the pleasant, soporific quality of desert crossings which I so enjoy, but I’m struck by just how little traffic there is on this road, the only road to link Ashgabat, the capital to the country’s second city which we have just left, and the busiest border crossing on towards Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country where citizens need to apply for permission from the authorities to move from one administrative region to another.
After lunch in the small town of Bayramaly, we drive to Mary, another provincial capital and the country’s fourth largest city. Once again, the city is a mixture of brand new government buildings, such as the striking Haji Gurbanguly Mosque, and crumbling Soviet apartment buildings. It’s clear that almost none of the vast wealth which the country generates from sales of gas and oil is put into anything useful for the general population. Just as striking, and rather more disturbing is the eerie quietness; the city’s vast, monumental highways have light traffic, but there are almost no people to be seen on the streets, and almost no shops, only endless manicured lawns and sterile, ostentations new buildings. A few families quietly wander the park, but the overwhelming impression is bewilderment at where all the people are.
We return to the quiet cotton town Bayramaly for the night, for it is just north of here that lie the remains of what was for a long time one of Central Asia’s most important cities: Merv, in the Margiana Oasis. Situated in the wastes of the Kara Kum desert, where the Murghab river draines into the Margiana lowlands, Merv was an important node of the Silk Road, and a strategic entry-point into either Persia, Afghanistan or the northerly cities of Bukhara and Samarkand beyond the of Amu Darya. Rather like Balkh, Merv has a long history stretching from the time of Asia’s earliest settlements, through the great empires of the Achaemenids, Seleucids, Bactrians, Parthians, Kushans, Sassanians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols and Safavids, before being taken by the Uzbek khans, the Turkmen and ultimately the Russians. The precise location of Merv has shifted through the ages, and thus a remarkable collection of ruins dot a wide area north of Bayramaly, which itself is merely the latest incarnation of Merv, having been inhabited since the sixteenth century.
We start early and drive into Erkgala, the oldest part of Merv, a large circular crater of heavily smoothed mud-walls, which would have been occupied during the times of the Achaemenids and Alexander the Great. We have the place absolutely to ourselves with the exception of a herd of dromedaries who plod along the track without any guardian. We drive down, through the sparse ruins of Gäwürgala, of the Hellenic to Arab eras, which in reality are largely formless, through a breach in some crumbling defensive walls and into the largest of Merv’s incarnations, the mostly Seljuk city of Soltangala. Here is Merv’s most striking monument; the tall, imposing, square, twelfth century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk sultan who ruled his empire from Merv, and who was responsible for first building a shrine to Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif. The once turquoise tile-work of the huge dome is now lost, and parts of the exterior have been rather poorly restored, meaning the structure looks more impressive somehow from a distance, when it rises from the desert haze long before one may discern any more details of the city.
Another of Merv’s intriguing buildings is the kepderihana, a windowless, oblong building with curious fluted walls, which is speculated to have been a pigeon house used to collect guano for fertiliser in the fields of the oasis. From a rent in these walls one may look over the scrubby plain towards Sultan Sanjar’s mausoleum, perhaps the finest view in this ruined leviathan of a city. Given the age of Merv, and the continuity of human habitation here, there is naturally an abundance of shrines dedicated to various holy men and notables. Whilst for the most part architecturally bland, these shrines are of far greater interest to the native Turkmen than any of the crumbling ruins. At the mausoleum of Mohammad ibn Zaid, we see a curious ritual; Turkmen women are circambulating a long-dead tree, whose lifeless limbs are draped in prayer rags, whilst throwing berries at the tree in what I presume is some kind of votive ritual.
We leave Merv late in the morning, and follow the Murghab river south, back towards the border of Afghanistan. We stop at another Seljuk shrine, that of Talkhatan Baba, then have a late lunch in the charming cotton town of Yoloten, stepping into a dark café-come-nightclub with a décor straight out of the 1980s and an attractive Turkmen waitress. In small towns such as this, which feel totally abandoned by any central government, there seems to be a touch more life on the streets, and for a moment Duncan and I consider staying for the evening, a final night of fun before entering Afghanistan and Iran. Our transit visas are due to expire tomorrow however, and so we decide to push on. The road is a lumpy and undulating old stretch of Soviet asphalt which passes through low scrubby hills grazed by occasional flocks of sheep led by lonely shepherds. Shrines sometimes dot the small farming communities on the left of the road which otherwise appear to be still and dormant.
Just after dark, we make the mistake of turning off the road and entering the garrison town of Tagtabazar in search of a hotel, and find ourselves at the police station. After some considerable questioning and inspection of documents, we are let off without a fine for deviating from our specified transit route, escorted back to the main road and told we will be met by police at the border town of Serhetabat, and led to a hotel. Upon reaching Serhetabat, nobody meets us, and indeed there is no hotel according to locals. Thankfully, a kind Turkmen man who sees us inquiring in a shop invites us to his home which he indicates he will not be sleeping in tonight, and leaves us with a roaring gas fire and a bunk bed.
Serhetabat marks the most southerly point of the former Russian Empire, and USSR, and is marked thus by a tall black cross. We climb up the hill on which the cross stands, through a crumbling Soviet Army barracks, for a view over the town. Rows of old and rather decrepit Soviet apartment buildings, dotted with satellite dishes march across the town, beyond which in the morning mist lies Afghanistan once more. It was through this town, known as Kushka at the time, that the Soviet Union first invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After lunch we fill the car with diesel and then head out to the border. Just as I’m getting my passport stamped, the border guard looks at me, and asks if I have been to Turkmenistan before. I tell him yes, and he tells me the exact date and place where I entered; he had stamped me into Turkmenistan just over two years earlier, on my first visit, and recognises me (or perhaps the truck).
Thus ended perhaps the most rewarding single stage of the entire journey. In Afghanistan I had finally experienced the Central Asia I had been dreaming of and with Herat just a few hours distant across the border, I had completed the most logistically difficult part of my drive across Afghanistan. Despite Turkmenistan’s repressive government and severe bureaucracy, I had experienced the reserved warmth of the Turkmen people, and had glimpsed an insight into their slightly pagan-influenced Islam. As much as I would love to spend a few months in the country, for the moment at least it is impossible to do so without state supervision, and thus I cherish the brief but unfettered access I have had to the country in my two visits. Underlying everything however is the region’s great history; two cities which were once the centre of the civilised world, rather than a distant and forgotten outpost. Somehow, their dignified ruin merely adds to the melancholic charm of Turkestan.