Turkmenistan: A Traveller's Perspective
By: Vandana Hettiaratchi
By far one of the least visited countries in the world, Turkmenistan is the most
mysterious and unexplored of the ‘stans’ in Central Asia.
Yet, this country with its gorgeous landscapes and strange cities, is a jewel waiting to be discovered. Turkmenistan, or officially the Republic of Turkmenistan, is a country in Central Asia bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea.
It’s location on the Great Silk Road provides a huge potential for tourism. Although 80% of the country is covered in desert, Turkmenistan manages to flaunt mountains, sea resorts, historical monuments and wildlife areas among others.
However, foreign tourists are deterred by the restrictive visa regimes with regards to all countries of the world, which is regulated by the Tourism Committee of Turkmenistan.
Historical and Cultural Sites
Turkmenistan is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sights: the ancient cities of
Nisa, Merv and Konye- Urgench. The ruins of the ancient and medieval town Nisa, which was a settlement of Iranian peoples, is located only 18km from the capital, Ashgabat, in the foothills of the Kopetdag Mountains in the Bagir village.
Believed to have been founded by Arsaces I (reigned c, 250 BC-211 BC), some scholars have described it to be the first seat of central government of the Parthians, a major power that lasted almost 600 years.
The fortress of Nisa is divided into two parts; Old and New Nisa. Archeological excavations have shown that traces of human activity dating back to 11 millennium BC, by sedentary population (long before the Parthian Empire) was present.
Some ancient sources mention Nisa as the city of “Parthaunisa” as an administrative and economic centre for the Arsacid dynasty. Nisa was destroyed by an earthquake, which occurred during the 1st decade BC.
Numerous archeological discoveries have revealed monumental clay sculptures, marble statues, utensils and economic documents (mainly accounting wine products and trade) written with Aramaic alphabet in the Parthian language.
Hellenistic works have also been uncovered. Merv was a major Persian oasis-city in Central Asia, found on the historical Silk Route, located in the city of Mary approximately 400km from Ashgabat. Human settlements have existed on the site from the 3rd millennium BC until 18th century AD. It has also been ruled by several different dynasties: the Achaemenid Empire, Turks and Persians.
During its peak prosperity, Merv and its city centre of Sultan Kala, were surrounded with mosques, citadels, libraries, bazaars (market places) a complex water system and trade and commerce boomed. The beauty and richness of Merv attracted politicians, scientists and scholars from around the world.
However, in 1221-22 AD with the invasion of the Mongols, the brilliant flowering of Merv came to a violent end and the city never regained its full former prosperity. The main points of interest in what remains of Merv, are the Erk Gala (a Persian styled fortress which controlled the oasis on the Murghab River), the Gawurgala (a Zoroastrian Fortress) and Soltangala (the remains of the city centre, with a mausoleum and citadel).
Konye- Urgench (or Old Urgench) is a municipality, approximately 537km from the capital and just south of the Uzbekistan border.
It is best known as the site of the ancient town of Urgench, which contains the ruins of the capital of Khwarazm- a part of the Achaemenid Empire.
In the Middle Ages Gurgenge or Old Urgench, was a unique artistic and intellectual environment, and was home to a flourishing school of architecture. The design and craftsmanship of architecture in Khwarazm region was influential to other parts of, now, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Despite the invasion of the Mongols in 1221 which destroyed the city, Gurgenge was rebuilt by the Turks and was believed to be one of their finest cities, with bazaars and impressive buildings.
Under the Turkish rule, Urgench housed the mosque which had one of the highest minarets (about 60m) in the world, at that time. Urgench was a flourishing kingdom. However, the shifting of the economic and political center from Khwarazm to Maverannahr (present day area of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan), in the 14th century and the development of sea routes between Europe and India, led to the decline of what was once a great kingdom.
Today, the ruins of a mosque, fortress, the gates of a caravanserai and mausoleums are visible. Apart from the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there are two other places that are off historical significance and are on the tentative list- the ancient city of Dehistan/Mishrian and the Dinosaur Plateau and Caves of Koytendag.
A once blooming, fertile oasis the lands of Dehistan, on the now barren plain of the Mishrian plateau, was used for about three thousand years for the cultivation of wheat and rice. Settlement on the oasis began during the Bronze Age (2nd Millennium BC), followed by the colonization of the Sassanids in the 7th century AD.
The third era, from the 8th to the 14th century, left the most impressive traces. Dehistan was a booming centre, with developed fortification, artistic merits, high performance technique and several monumental sites, which put it on par with other recognized centres of ancient cultures such as Merv, Samarkand.
There were irrigation canals that provided water to the town, gardens, parks and complex sewage systems and brick-paved roads. In the 15th century, the town was abandoned following the Mongol invasion.
The plateaus of dinosaurs is located in the hills of Koytendag which houses the remains
of the footsteps of huge fossil pangolins. Research has concluded that the footsteps were left by the herbivorous animal and some predatory dinosaurs living there approximately 140-150 million years ago.
Koytendag (spelled also as Kugitang) Nature Reserve is situated in the extreme east of Turkmenistan (on the Uzbek border). Apart from the dinosaur footprints, the reserve is home for the rare Heptner’s markhor- an endangered goat-antelope. The highest mountain of Turkmenistan (Ayrybaba or Air Baba), of 3137 metres is situated in this nature reserve.
Attractions in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan also flaunts numerous nature reserves. The Badhyz State Nature Reserve
is a protected area that extends over 877 square kilometres in the Mary and Akhal Provinces.
The reserve is an important stronghold of the Asiatic wild ass. There are currently, 650 wild ass in the sanctuary. Other fauna present in this protected area urial, goitered gazelle and wild boar. Predators include Persian leopard, striped hyena, grey wold, red fox and Asiatic wildcat.
Repetek Biosphere State Reserve is a desert nature reserve, located in the Karakum Desert approximately 70km south from Turkmenabat. It is best known for the zemzen- a desert monitor.
The landscape is arid, with extensive ridged sand dunes. There are 21 species of trees that grow within the reserve. Suprisingly, the Black saxual- a plant rare to most part of Central Asia covers 4.5% of the reserve.
Both these two reserves, are on the UNESCO tenative lists of World Heritage Sites. Other famous nature reserves are the Amyderya Nature Reserve and the Hazar State Nature Reserve.
The Darvaza Gas Crater
Turkmenistan is, also, the location for the infamous `Gates to Hell’ or the Darvaza gas
crater. Located near the Derweze village (about 260km from Ashgabat) in the middle of the Karakum Desert, the crater created in the 1970s.
Soviet geologists and engineers tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas (which was initially thought to be an oil field site). The ground beneath the drilling collapsed resulting in the 70 metres (230ft) deep crater.
However, despite assuming that the poisonous gases that were released into nearby towns would burn out in a few weeks, the gas has continued to burn for more than four decades and continues to burn today. The crater has been featured in serveral television shows and movies, and is an important tourist attraction in Turkmenistan.
In the western part of the country, the virtually unheard of Yangykala Canyon is located,
170 kilometers east of Turkmenbashi (590km from Ashgabat). The Yangykala Canyon is a vast rock landscape with pink, red and yellow coloured rock walls, reaching the height of about 60-100 meters.
The landscape was created more than 5.5 million years ago and is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in all of Central Asia. This remote canyon’s most famous formation is the viewpoint known as the `Jaws of a crocodile’ which allows panoramic views of the surrounding desolated valleys.
Cities in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has six main cities of historical and cultural significance; Ashgabat,
Balkanabat, Dasoguz (formerly Tashauz), Mary, Turkmenabat and Turkmenbashi. Historically, most of these cities were oases along the Silk Road. Most of these cities are accessible by road or through domestic airlines, which are easier and faster.
Ashgabat is a showcase capital. Designed at the cost of billions of dollars to show the
world about the glories and accomplishments of the Turkmen people, the city is artificial with a collection of white marble buildings across a long, dry valley. It is a highly regulated capital city, with a curfew time of 11pm which makes its crimes rates extremely low.
The main attractions in the city are the marble buildings, the Turkmenbashi Cableway - a cable car climbing up to 1290 meters which provides panaromic views of the city, the Tolkuchka Bazaar- one of the most colourful bazaars in Central Asia, the National Museum and the Ashgabat Flagpole which is the fourth largest in the world.
It is also possible to visit Kow Ata underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour from Ashgabat.
The cave is more than 200 meters long and it is possible to swim all year round in the warm, mineral rich and medicinal waters. Balkanabat tends to be a stopover on a trip from the capital to Turkmenbashi and is the starting point for excursions to Dehistan and the Yangykala Canyon.
Other points of interest are the Gozli Ata mausoleum of a highly respected Sufi teacher and the ruins of Tarshavat. Dashoguz (translated to `Stone Spring` is a former Soviet town founded in the 19th century. It is a transit point for excursions to Konye Urgench, although there are local Bazaars which can be visited.
Turkmenabat, the second largest city in Turkmenistan is a convinient transit point for
travels to the Kugitang Nature Reseve, Mary/Merv or to Uzbekistan. In the city it is possible to visit the Lebap Regional Museum which showcases a silversmith workshop and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Other points of interest include the Amul’ Settlement (10 km from the city centre) which is a fortress settlement, built in the 10th century, the Allamberdar Mausoleum and the Astana-baba Mausoleum.
Turkmenbashi is a coastal city on the Caspian Sea, 560km from Ashgabat. From 1869 to 1920, the city (then known as Krasnovodsk) acted as Imperial Russian base of operations against Khiva and Bukhara, and the nomadic Turkmen tribes.
In 1933, Krasnovodsk was renamed `Turkmenbashi,’ meaning `The father of Turkmen’. Points of interest in Turkmenbashi are the Museum of Regional History, Church of Archangel Michael and the Japanese Memorial - which is dedicated to the Japanese prisoners of war who constructed roads during the Second World War.
It is also possible to go swimming in Awaza which is a popular beach resort, 8km from the city.
Turkmenistan has something for everyone. From old, historical sights to diverse landscapes, Turkmenistan is a prime off-the-beaten-path destination.
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