Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mongolia | Chingis Khan Rides West | March from Mongolia to the Realm of the Khwarezmshah

I posted earlier about the Death Of The Naiman Adventurer Khüchüleg. With Khüchüleg no longer in the picture, Chingis Khan was free to invade Khwarezmia and avenge the Deaths of His Envoys to Otrar. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, he announced:

I shall set out against the Sartaul people [Khwarezmians],
To take revenge
To requite the wrong
for the slaying of my hundred envoys with Ukhuna at their head . . .”

His anger over the murder of his envoys to the Khwarezmshah may have cooled, but his resolution to exact retribution had stiffened. His intelligence networks would have informed him that while the Khwarezmshah was inflicted by infighting among his family and court and by rising discontent among the populace of his empire, he was still capable of putting half as million or so soldiers into the field. It would not do to ride off half-cocked against such an enemy. Chingis organized the invasion of Khwarezmia in the same step-by-step methodical way he had attacked and finally defeated the Chin in northern China.

As the final preparation were being made to depart from Mongolia one of his wives, Yesüi Khatan, decided it was time to speak up. Yesüi Khatan seemed to hold a special place in the heart of Chingis Khan. She was a member of the Tatar tribe whom the Mongols had earlier defeated. He had first married her younger sister, but the latter soon intimated that her older sister Yesüi might be a better wife for Chingis. In the confusion following the defeat of the Tatars the older sister Yesüi had somehow disappeared. Chingis sent men to track her down and they eventually found her in the company of a man to whom she had been betrothed . . . Continued.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Turkmenistan | Dehistan

After our Visit To Nohur we continued west across the plateau of the Kopet Dag Mountains, finally dropping back down to the desert near the village of Kruzde. 
Village of Kruzde (click on photos for enlargements). 
Continuing on the main road west through the desert fronting the Kopet Dag Mountains we eventually arrived at a tiny town called Garaagas where we pulled into a truck-stop for lunch. If the old American saw that lots of tractor-trailer trucks in front of a diner indicated good food it looked like we were in for a treat. There were nine trucks, all but one with Iranian plates, in the parking lot. The Iranian border was less than five miles away, although the actual border crossing was about forty miles to the west. This may be the first truck stop in Turkmenistan after crossing the border. Actually there were only two drivers in the diner. The rest were apparently sleeping in their trucks. There were two tables with chairs and two low tables on platforms equipped with pillows so you could stretch out and relax while you ate. The cook, a saucy looking woman in her twenties, took your order at a window opening into the kitchen. She must take a lot of guff from the clientele in a place like this, but she appeared fully capable of taking care of herself. She announced that the only thing on the menu was fish, fried. It seemed a bit odd to have fish out here in the middle of the desert, but my driver reminded me that we were only about seventy-five miles from the Caspian Sea. He assured me the fish was fresh and had never been frozen. The fish were probably dropped off here every couple days by dealers plying the highway between the sea and Ashgabat. With the fish we had cabbage slaw, fresh naan (flat bread), and green tea. The fish was white, flaky, not too bony, and delicious. The tea wasn’t fit to slop down hogs (perhaps in part because of the local water) but hey, this was a truck stop. The truckers, I noticed, were drinking Nescafe, probably for its more pronounced caffein buzz (it also disguises the taste of bad water better than tea).  

Just beyond Garaagas we turned off on a gravel road and headed west-northwest through the desert. Soon we stopped. It was time for my driver’s afternoon prayers. Rolling his prayer mat out on the sand, he performed the appropriate prostrations and orisons while I examined the flora of the desert. 
Flora of the desert. Unfortunately my driver did not know the name of this interesting plant. 
My driver reminded in both appearance and demeanor of a Turkish David Puddy, Elaine’s on-again-off-again boyfriend on the old Seinfeld comedy show. He seemed calm and unflappable but with a sometimes eerie sense of detachment. For someone who had worked extensively with tourists like myself he knew very little English, only a few words in fact. We communicated entirely in Russian. In our time together he never made the slightest attempt to initiate a conversation, which was reason enough to like the guy. That we could drive for hours without exchanging a word was probably even a bigger relief to me than it was to him. In any case he was an excellent driver, and I had no reason to complain about anything. 

After thirty miles we came to the bleak and isolated village of Madau. Sand dunes loomed on all sides and there was not a stick of vegetation around any of the single-story abode houses. The sandy streets were completely deserted. Apparently everyone was indoors. I asked my driver what people here did for a living and he answered laconically with one word: “Gas.” Beyond Madau we veered northward and after about fourteen miles I spied two minarets looming on the horizon. These signaled that we were approaching Dehistan. 
Minarets and ruins of Dehistan looming in the distance

Map depicting the caravan route from Gorgan to Khwarezm via Dehistan
Located on a major caravan route running from Gurgan in what is now Iran to Urgench on the Amu Darya River, Dehistan was the main city of western Turkmenistan from the 10th to 14th centuries. It flourished especially during the reign of the Khwarezmshahs, who ruled Khwarezmia from the 1150s to 1220. 
The walls of Dehistan. The walled city measured 4200 feet long on the southeast side, 2200 long on the northeast side, 4860 feet long on the western side, and 2620 feet long on the southwest side.
The closest tourist facilities to the ruins were probably eighty-seven miles to the north in the town of Balkanabat. We had brought tents and were prepared to camp out on site, but the caretaker of the ruins, who lives with his wife about half a mile away, agreed to let me sleep in a spare room in his house. His wife made us omelets using fresh eggs from the hens pecking around aside the house. They also had the best fermented camel milk I have had outside of Mongolia.
Another view of the ruins from outside the city walls
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II (r. 1200–1200). Khwarezmshah Muhammad II was ruling Khwarezm when Chingis Khan Invaded Khwarezmia.  
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
The minaret of Khwarezmshah Muhammad II 
Minaret of Khwarezmshah Muhammad II in the foreground and another minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D in the background
Minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D
Minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city

Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Original paving stones from the old city
The double wall around the city
The double wall around the city

Ruins of a tower in the city wall
The double wall around the city
The double wall around the city
Denizen of the ruins
Dehistan was apparently invested and sacked by the Mongols when they moved through Khorasan in 1221. The details of this campaign are sparse, but perhaps Chingis Khan’s youngest son Tolui, or a raiding party sent by him, took the city after he had captured Merv. The city recovered, but was abandoned in the 15th century, apparently after the water table dried up, leaving it high and dry in the middle of the desert.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mongolia | Ulaanbaatar | Soyolma and Davaanyam

Pulled on my mukluks and wandered into town for a showing of new works by Mongolian artist Soyolma and her husband Davaanyam. I already have a number of Soyolma’s paintings on display in the exhibition hall of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. 
 Soyolma and one of her new works (click on photos for enlargements
Detail of new work by Soyolma
Work by Soyolma
Detail of work by Soyolma
Work by Soyolma
Work by Soyolma
Green Tara by Soyolma
Soyolma and Green Tara
Work by Soyolma
Detail of work by Soyolma
Work by Soyolma
Large Triptych by Soyolma. This work was earlier displayed in New York City.
Detail of Large Triptych
Text explaining the Triptych
Work by Soyolma currently on display in the Exhibition Hall of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi
Detail of work by Soyolma currently on display in the Exhibition Hall of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Turkmenistan | Nohur | Kopet Dag Mountains

I was extremely eager to see the ruins of the city of Dehistan, 195 miles northwest of Ashgabat as the crow flies. The city was located on the old flood plain of the Amu Darya River back when the river flowed into the Caspian Sea and not the Aral Sea, as it now does. Dehistan was founded by the Khwarezmshahs who ruled the Khwarezmian Empire up until the early thirteenth century when Chingis Khan And His Boys invaded the region. The buildings and minarets found there, now in ruins, are probably the only examples of structures built under the direction of the last Khwarezmshah, Muhammad II. Now you can understand why I was so determined to visit the site. 

It is possible to drive to Dehistan directly from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The tourist agency from which I had hired a car and driver suggested, however, that I make a detour through the Kopet Dag Mountains and visit the small village of Nohur, where I would be able to spend the night with a local family. Although I was raring to go to Dehistan I thought that it might be interesting to get of glimpse of the Kopet Tag Mountains on the way and so agreed to the detour. 
The Kopet Dag Mountains rearing up along the southern border of Turkmenistan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Kopet Dag Mountains, which constitute the northern edge of the Iranian Plateau, run for some four hundred miles along the southern border of Turkmenistan. From Ashgabat we drove fifty-two miles west through the desert fronting the Kopet Dag to the town of Barharly and then turned southwest onto a gravel road which climbed into the mountains. Nohur is about twenty-four miles from Barhaly as the crow flies, at an attitude of 3100 feet, some 2650 feet above the desert immediately to the north. The Iranian border is just sixteen miles away to the south. 
 Climbing into the Kopet Dag Mountains. An apricot orchard can see seen in the bottom of the valley. 
The village of Nohur is inhabited by an ethnic group known by the same name, the Nohurs. According to one legend, perhaps apocryphal, the Nohurs are descended from the soldiers of the Greek adventurer and gadabout Alexander the Great. Whatever their origins, they are decidedly different from the usual Turkmen and speak a dialect incomprehensible to outsiders. They maintain their ethnic purity by marrying only within the group. Although known for their strict adherence to Islam, elements of animism and Zoroastrianism can be detected in their religious practices. They are also famous for their work ethnic and members of the group who have established businesses in Ashgabat and other cites have achieved considerable wealth and power.

One of the most unusual features of the town of Nohur is the local cemetery. Almost all grave markers are topped by the horns of mountain sheep and ibex collected by local hunters.
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
Nohur is also known for its silk weaving. The silk itself is imported from Iran and hand-woven using traditional local designs. 
 Silk Weaver. As can be seen, the woman has a scarf over her mouth. Nohur women traditionally wear a scarf over their mouths “so that they will not say silly things,” at least according to local lore. 
Silk Weaver
The house where I spent the night. The owners were a man and woman in their sixties. They had a daughter with a small baby who was the apple of everyone’s eye. The woman made a mean mutton plov. They also had wonderful local butter, honey, and cherry juice.
 Plateau west of Nohur
Plateau west of Nohur
Ramparts at the edge of the plateau
Village at the base of the ramparts. This village had wonderful honey for sale.
Two silk hangings I bought in Nohur, now in the galleria of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. The painting is by the father of Mongolian Artist Mönkhtsetseg.