Silk Road Tours offer private tailor made journeys to Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan and is perhaps the least well known, intensely fascinating and at times slightly strange country in Central Asia. Its capital Ashgabat has been transformed from a humdrum regional Soviet capital to a gleaming metropolis of white marble and flowing fountains. The long history of Turkmenistan is attributed by the dinosaur footprints to be found Kugitang Mountains while ongoing excavations at Gonur Depe are revealing a newly discovered civilisation from the 2nd Millennium BC that in its size and sophistication rivalled those of the Near East. The city of Merv in the Ahal Oasis was once one of the most important cities on the Silk Road and ancient Nisa and important city of the Parthian Empire.
The country itself dominated by the Kara Kum or Black Sands desert which helps explain the strong nomadic traditions amongst its people. Turkmens are generally quite conservative and very proud of their cultural identity and it is common to see women wearing long traditional brightly coloured dresses. However over 50 years of Soviet rule have left their mark particularly with regard to vodka – meals can be accompanied by much toasting! A holiday to Turkmenistan is one of the best experiences in Central Asia.
Tours that visit Turkmenistan
Ashgabat was until recently a fairly dull provincial capital but has been transformed in the last 15 years in a slightly surreal, bizarre gleaming capital of white marble. The transformation was begun under Turkmenistan’s first President after independence who went as far as define the size that all the marble tiles had to be, Ashgabat now holds the world record for the most number white marbled buildings! As well as building a city of white marble Turkmenistan’s Presidents have filled the capital with monuments which seem to appear almost everywhere – notable are the Arch of Neutrality, Memorial Complex and monument to the Ruhnama, the first President’s philosophy on life which is a best seller in Turkmenistan.
One of the most awe inspiring sights in Turkmenistan is the Darvaza Flaming Gas crater or the ‘Doors to Hell’ as the local know it. The crater is the result of oil exploration by the Soviets in 1971 that led to the collapse of a gas pocket which the geologists set alight fearing methane poisoning to nearby towns. They expected the crater, some 69 metres in diameter and 20 metres deep, it to burn for a few weeks but some 40 years later it is still burning. The eerie effect is best seen at night and lends the opportunity for some wild camping out in the Karakorum desert – a wonderful experience in itself.
Two places of interest outside of Ashgabat and well worth a visit are the UNESCO World Heritage site of Parthian Nisa and the Arkadash stud farm. The impressive site of Nisa was one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire being an important trading hub before being destroyed by an earthquake around 10BC. Close by is the Arkadash stud farm which breeds the Akhaltekke horses which are recognised as the oldest pure breed horses in the world. Their lineage is directly linked to the ‘Heavenly Horses of the Ferghana Valley’ which supposedly sweated blood and which the Chinese desired so much it led to the start of the Silk Road. The visitor can see these fine horses being put through their paces and the opportunity to ride these magnificent animals is possible – though only for experienced riders!
Located deep in the heart of the Karakorum desert lies the fascinating Bronze Age site of Gonur Depe, once an important centre in the Oxus civilisation which flourished in the 2nd millennium BC. This and associated sites remained completely forgotten until being rediscovered during surveys by Soviet archaeologists in the 1970’s. Having lain abandoned and forgotten since the river shifted its course, the site has a remarkable state of preservation with houses, palaces, industrial areas as well as the royal necropolis all easily discernable. The journey to Gonur Depe takes about 3 hours with the irrigated areas gradually giving way to the desert, along the way remains of other archaeological sites can be seen as well as wandering herds of camels and goats. A specialist guide will escort you on your tour of this magnificent site and there is the opportunity to camp overnight beside Gonur Depe – a wonderful experience as the sun sets over the ruins.
The vast and impressive site of Merv, located in the Murghab Delta fed by waters from Afghanistan, covers over 2000 years of history. At its height it was an important oasis city on the Silk Road as well as a centre for Islamic scholarship. The earliest and smallest part of the site is Erk Gala built in the 7th century BC during the Achaemenid period and was used as the acropolis during the later Hellenistic phase which saw the city expanded with walls some 2kms in length. The medieval period saw further expansion with the foundation of Soltan Gala which has city walls some 12kms in length while the earlier Erk Gala seems to have been maintained as an industrial suburb. After the Mongols brought destruction to Merv a smaller Timurid city was founded to be finally destroyed in 1789 and the inhabitants deported to Samarkand and Bukhara where they retain their unique identity. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Merv is today rightly regarded as one of the most important historical sites in Turkmenistan.