Stage 34 – Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan: The Caspian Lowlands [2/2]

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After almost two weeks in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region, exploring necropoles and ancient Sufi pilgrimage sites and taking in the spectacularly remote sights of the Ustyurt Plateau, I am at the far-flung Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan border. Ahead of me lies my third transit of this secretive and recalcitrant dictatorship, once more on a five-day transit visa, which restricts me to a fixed route (from which I will deviate), but is the only means of independently exploring the country. In this short time I hoped to glimpse something of the culture and traditions of the seemingly timid Turkmen people, and explore some of the myriad of historically important ruins which fill this country, poised historically on the frontier between nomadic and settled civilisations.

Sodium Sulphate Pool, Garabogaz, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Sodium Sulphate Pool, Garabogaz, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

It’s the morning of the 23rd June 2014 and I’m first in front of the gates of the Garabogaz border crossing. I watch a teenage soldier open the first of the double gates, carefully inspect the raked dust for footprints, then sweep it into a pan and open the second gate. Getting into one of the word’s most closed countries is a lengthy and expensive process, as I have learned from my two previous visits, and it is not until 12:20 that I am free to leave, on more terrible, muddy tracks, passing a crashed MiG 15 jet at the roadside soon after leaving the border crossing. As I climb a gentle ridge, passing an abandoned police check-post, a sweeping curve of the turquoise Caspian comes into view once more, looking more like the Pacific Coast with its breaking waves bringing ashore a little mist and with it a beautifully cool, damp breeze, reducing the air temperature to just 28º C as if a giant air-conditioner had been switched on. The first point of civilisation is the bleak sodium sulphate mining town of Garabogaz, an almost apocalyptic scene of derelict-looking Soviet-era industry, rotting pipelines and partly occupied apartment buildings amid pink and brown evaporation pools. After Garabogaz, the road becomes paved once more as it passes through scrubbier territory, past the inlet of Garabogazkol, a large, hyper-saline lagoon intermittently connected to the Caspian sea. After hours of bleakness, the narrow, lumpy road suddenly transforms into a six-lane highway and leads into the port city of Türkmenbaşy, where I stop for the night.

Türkmenbaşy, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Türkmenbaşy, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Türkmenbaşy (named after the first president of Turkmenistan), formerly Krasnovodsk, was Imperial Russia’s point of entry into the Trans-Caspian region, railhead of the Trans-Caspian railway which ran to Bukhara, Samarkand, and later Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. It was a key staging post for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and a base in campaigns against the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara, and against the Turkmen tribes. Today, it remains a busy port, and the freight wagons of the Trans-Caspian railway are still transported by ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku. I’m hosted in Türkmenbaşy by Dowlet, a young Turkmen who lives with his wife in a single-storey house perched in hills overlooking the city centre. From the outside his house is plain, but inside are large rooms with little furniture, and rugs, some hand-made and very fine, covering the floor, as in Persian homes. Dowlet and I sit at a tablecloth set on the floor, his wife waiting on us and bringing us large quantities of food. After eating, as it is getting dark, Dowlet takes me out in his car for a drive to the coast, where the government has spent around a billion dollars developing the glitzy seaside resort of Awaza which is practically deserted, another example of the Turkmenistani government spending vast quantities of the country’s oil revenues on projects of no real value to the populace.

Yangykala Canyon, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Yangykala Canyon, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

I have a quick look around Türkmenbaşy with Dowlet in the morning; the city is attractively sited on the northern edge of a rocky bay, and with the activities of a port, does not have the eerie, comatose atmosphere of most of the country’s cities. However, aside from a few old Tasrist and Soviet-era buildings, there is little to see, and so I head east into the desert, peeling off my mandated transit route on the M37 at a lonely junction, onto an empty single-track road. After around 120 kilometres I reach the village of Goshaoba, after which the road deteriorates as it enters starkly barren desert. As I begin to climb for a final time onto the Ustyurt Plateau, I see once again the familiar banded reds and greys of the plateau’s edge, until I reach an unmarked side-track which climbs to a stunning viewpoint looking back over the terrain I have just driven through, adjacent to which is a wide badland area known as Yangykala Canyon. The view over the canyon is mesmerising, with endless erosional incisions made into two long, parallel escarpments of white and brown rock, separated by a dry, meandering riverbed in older, bright red rock, giving a quite other-worldly appearance.

Gravestones, Gozli-Ata Shrine, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Gravestones, Gozli-Ata Shrine, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Sadly, the tight time constraints on my visa mean I have to tear my self away from the viewpoint and return to the main Türkmenbaşy – Ashgabat highway, though on my return journey I stop at the nearby shrine of Gozli-Ata, where the grave of the twelfth century Sufi mystic and student of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi sits in a beautifully remote desert location, surrounded by scraps of the multicoloured desert escarpments which I had just looked over at Yangykala. Around the twin-domed, modern mausoleum of Gozli-Ata himself are an array of gravestones, some familiar koytases, presumably of Kazakh origin, but also more distinctly Turkmen types, simple, carved headstones of different shapes according to different Turkmen tribes, with crude inscriptions in Arabic and later Cyrillic. Some have large stylised heads, looking very similar to the pre-Islamic balbal; others have large, stylised rams horns, but most common is the cross-like cloverleaf, belonging to the dominant Yomud Tribe. Amongst the graves are some highly esoteric offerings which hint at strong pagan influences: hairpins (an offering for an ailment of the head), stacked stones left by those giving prayers (which are turned if the prayer is answered), a profusion of teapots and even a samovar at selected graves, small baby cradles (for fertility), and an odd wooden trellis of long-dead tree trunks elevated on stones, heavily tied with votive prayer scarves, under which women squeeze themselves for good health or fertility. It’s a deeply intriguing spot and a thought-provoking glimpse into the fascinating and seemingly very private Turkmen faith.

Desert Road, near Irkli, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Desert Road, near Irkli, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

The return journey takes me first to the junction near Goshaoba, then south through initially very desolate terrain, passing oddly lifeless villages amongst encroaching sand dunes. At one point, dunes inundate the road for several kilometres and I find myself engaging four-wheel-drive, passing a row of pylons whose power lines have been ripped off and lie flailing on the dunes. This is a pretty accurate picture of the acute and absolute neglect of rural communities by the Turkmen government. Later, passing the forlorn town of Oglanly, the road climbs to the western slopes of Great Balkan mountain, whose summit is wooded and whipped by clouds, an odd sight when compared to the absolute desolation I have driven through for much of the day. Descending a long, gentle gradient, I rejoin the M37 at Jebel, back on my transit route, stopping for the night in the next town of Balkanabat.

I’m hosted in Balkanabat by Ejesh, who lives with her husband in a modern apartment. Ejesh is very confident and communicable, and in contrast to my previous night’s stay with Dowlet in Türkmenbaşy, I find myself speaking almost exclusively to her, while her husband remains largely quiet. She gives me many insights into the shadowy spirituality of Turkmen culture, explaining what I have seen earlier in the day at Gozli-Ata’s shrine. Despite being outwardly very modern, Ejesh explains to me that there are still strong tribal customs, meaning for instance that her father-in-law may never see her face, something which I find very surprising in such an outwardly modern, post-Soviet society. Ejesh explains that she personally disapproves of such customs, but is bound by them as a Turkmen, a people who she describes as the most traditional in the Central Asian republic of the Former USSR.

Misrian, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Misrian, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

After a quick look around Balkanabat in the morning I get back on the road, turning off the M37 at Gumdag, still on my dictated transit route south to the Iranian border. The road enters desert once more with low, pale-yellow sand dunes on either side, and various infrastructure and rusting detritus from the local oil industry. I stop in the village of Bugdayly for a late lunch at a cafe run by young Uzbek women, popular with friendly Turkish lorry drivers, which I soon realise doubles as a brothel. A few kilometres beyond the village, again using waypoints built up from satellite maps, I sneak off the road and onto tracks across the takir (mudflats) which seem to head for nowhere at all. Historically, this area was the Dekhistan Oasis, inhabited since the late third millennium BCE, and at the peak of its power between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. At this time, Dekhistan was part of Hyrcania, an outer satrapy of the Persian Empire, a caravan stop on the branch of the Silk Road connecting Persia to the Khorezm Oasis on the Amu Darya. Dekhistan was abandoned in the early fifteenth century for reasons that are not clear; perhaps a collapse of irrigation systems, or deforestation, and the area remains unpopulated to this day.

As I get further from the road, in the hazy distance I’m delighted to see the sentinel remains of Misrian, the long-abandoned capital of Dekhistan, around twenty kilometres away. I make my first stop at Mashat, a medieval graveyard of a few lone Turkmen graves and older, crumbling mausolea centred upon the Shir-Kebir Mosque which, dating from the ninth or tenth centuries, is the oldest extant mosque in Turkmenistan, and one of the oldest in Central Asia. After stopping to admire the beautiful floral stucco of the mosque’s triple-arched mihrab, I drive over to the ruins of Misrian, entering via a breach in the ruined city’s double defensive walls and carefully driving past pile after pile of scattered bricks towards the city’s only standing monuments. Around a central courtyard is the thirteenth century mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed, with a collapsed outer portal still bearing beautiful turquoise Kufic lettering and, nearby, the truncated remains of a minaret. A little further away is the similarly truncated eleventh century Abu-Jafar Ahmed minaret with three beautiful bands of Arabic and striking geometric designs, and which may still be climbed for a fantastic view over the ruined city, which is a sea of collapsed masonry.

Beach, Ekerem, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Beach, Ekerem, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Aside from a timidly-friendly Turkmen family who briefly visit, I have Dekhistan all to myself and in the late afternoon, drive the truck into the city’s inner courtyard. Whilst not as impressive as nearby contemporaries Merv or Balkh, Misrian is somehow more atmospheric for being utterly ruined and forgotten to the outside world, and I feel deeply privileged to be here alone. As I cook and eat, and later sleep under the stars in this ancient Silk Road city, imagining the camel trains and mystics who for centuries passed through, I am once again fulfilling my dreams as a traveller.

I make my way back to the road in the morning and spend the day driving through more bleak desert, past oil pipelines and wasteland often scarred by oil production. I stop for lunch in the coastal village of Ekerem, which has a beautiful sweeping beach of grey sand and shells, leading up to a tanker terminal. From Ekerem the road runs close to the coast, though wide mud flats mean the sea is rarely in sight. Near a group of oilfields, nodding donkeys and gas flares, I pull off the road and follow dusty tracks which climb up to the flanks of the Ak Patlawuk mud volcano, a curious geological phenomenon where sediments underlying the edge of the Caspian Sea are liquefied and forced to the surface in what looks like (but is not) a fumarole. Over the years, this mud has built up into a large expanse of dessicated mud flats, centred around a small cone out of which mud gently bubbles and erupts into a pool of rather foul-looking brine.

Ak Patlawuk Mud Volcano, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Ak Patlawuk Mud Volcano, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

In the evening I reach the district capital of Esenguly, the southernmost settlement along Turkmenistan’s coastline, just twelve kilometres from the Iranian border. After two travelling days in the heat and dust I am keen to have a shower, and so stop in town to find a hotel; a decision I will come to regret. Esenguly, like nearby Çekişler is a coastal settlement made up of rather attractive wooden houses, surrounded on all sides by wide shaded verandas with colourfully painted beams and window frames. I find a small and very basic local hotel in which to stay, and after the owner arrives, I am told that I am his first foreign guest. I need to register with the police, who arrive at the hotel and are very friendly, casually asking to look over my photographs. I then go our for a walk around the town, escorted by the owner. Local people are friendly but seem reserved and even suspicious of me, the product, I imagine of having perhaps never seen a foreigner in town, and having grown up in a very sensitive outer border zone of the USSR, and now of Turkmenistan, a country even more closed and fearful of the outside world. I return to the hotel contented, having seen everything I have wished to see on this brief transit of the country. I drink what will be my last beer for some time (I will enter Iran tomorrow), and am invited to dinner by the other guests of the hotel, a party headed by an ebullient Turkmen businessman who talks to me at length about his life; in short he was once a powerful figure in the Soviet and later Turkmen armies, but for reasons that he does not make clear, he has fallen from grace.

The trouble starts at around 23:00 when the police return, this time with agents from Turkmenistan’s KGB who are brutish and ill-mannered. What initially seems like a casual questioning becomes an interrogation, and my laptop, cameras and mobile phone are taken and searched; something I regard as a gross invasion of my privacy. All through the experience the officers wield their absolute power over me, and make no attempt to hide the joy it brings them. My ‘crime’ is having deviated from my transit route, and I am made to write a letter of confession. What excites them further is the fact that I have stayed with Turkmen citizens, and to my horror their numbers are taken from my phone, each receiving a call from the police. For Dowlet this amounts to nothing more than some questions, but Ejesh, whom the police imagine I have had some illicit relations with (also a crime in Turkmenistan) is harassed for days after. My photographs of Turkmenistan are copied and erased from my camera, seemingly more by their bumbling incompetence than on purpose (I later recover them from my memory card), the officers lying and telling me that they will be returned at the border the next day.

Esenguly, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

Esenguly, Balkan Region, Turkmenistan

In the morning another protracted questioning begins, becoming quite ludicrous at times, though every banal and fictional answer is dutifully noted in a worn notepad. The car is searched and all my documents again examined in minute detail; at this point I realise that these small-town guys are simply wasting my time to ensure I will drive straight to the border. One dim junior is sent off to photocopy my Turkmenistan visa, but comes back having copied the Iranian visa. After tedious hours of intimidation from these incompetents, I am finally allowed to leave, and waste no time getting to the border. The road is an atrocious unsurfaced mess of hard-baked mud passing utterly bleak settlements, and I’m very happy to reach the border station in the sweltering afternoon heat. After being made to write another letter of confession (by a customs officer, whom I had run into two days earlier in the cafe-come-brothel in Bugdayly), I am finally stamped out of the country and join the line of lorries heading into Iran.

I leave Turkmenistan feeling greatly relieved not to have suffered worse from the authorities, though also must admit to myself that it is my fault for having deviated from my transit route, and not hidden the evidence of it. The police run-in has left a bitter taste after what were four wonderful days in Turkmenistan, a country I am very fond of. What is really sad however is the plight of the Turkmen people who live under the absolute power of the regime, one which squanders the country’s wealth on mindless building projects and uses it to enrich a select few, whilst the country’s infrastructure outside of the main cities simply rots away from neglect. To this day, I long to have free access to Turkmenistan’s many natural and historical attractions, but these thoughts are far in the back of my mind as I cross the small, currently dry bed of the Etrek River and enter Iran, which comparatively, feels like a free country.

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