Friday, May 17, 2013

Turkmenistan | Ashgabat | History Museum

My initial interest in Turkmenistan was spurred by my researches into the Mongolian Invasion Of Khwarezm, the ancient realm straddling the lower Amu Darya River and its delta where it flows into the Aral Sea, in the winter of 1220-21. The territory of old Khwarezm is today encompassed by both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I had earlier visited Khiva, Janpiq Qala (fortress), and Gyaur Qala in the part of Khwarezm now in Uzbekistan, all sites attacked by Chingis Khan’s sons Ögedei and Chagatai as the Mongols swept through the region. The old Khwarezm capital of Gurganj is in Turkmenistan, however, eight and a half miles from the border and thirteen miles from Gyaur Qala. The ruins of Gurganj are close to the city of Konye (old) Urgench, not to be confused with the new city of Urgench in Uzbekistan. I of course wanted to visit Gurganj, which had put up the fiercest resistance of any city the Mongols had up to that point in time encountered in Islamic Inner Asia, but since I had no Turkmenistan visa and only a single entry Uzbek visa I was unable to cross the border.

Immediately upon my return from Uzbekistan I launched plans to enter Turkmenistan via its capital of Ashgabat and travel north to Konye Urgench. I soon learned that travel by foreigners in Turkmenistan was not a stroll in the park. A visa could only be obtained after a government-approved tourist agency had obtained a Letter of Invitation from the Turkmenistan authorities and most if not all travel agencies will not get you the Letter of Invitation unless you arranged your entire trip, including transportation and accommodations, through them. So it appeared pretty much impossible just to wander about on your own.  I contacted a travel agency in Ashgabat and told them that I wanted to visit Konye Urgench plus a number of other historical sites, some of them directly connected with the Mongol invasion and others not, which had turned up in my various researches. They very quickly responded with a detailed fourteen-day itinerary including most of the places I had mentioned and a few which they thought might be of interest to someone like myself who appeared to have an historical turn of mind. I had not heard of some of these places, but since they appeared to be on the route to the places I was interested in I thought I might as well check them out also. Since it would be difficult if not impossible to visit all these place in fourteen days using Turkmenistan’s dicy public transportation system they suggested that I charter a vehicle for the entire fourteen day trip. The travel agency’s drivers, I was told, did not speak English, but since my driver would simply be taking me on the approved itinerary, with pre-arranged stops each night, they did not anticipate any problems.

Actually this plan appealed to me. I had used drivers in Uzbekistan who did not speak English and had managed to communicate with them using my very basic Russian. I expected that my driver would also speak some Russian, since Turkmenistan like Uzbekistan was once part of the Soviet Union and Russian was widely taught in its schools and still used by many segments of the population. If the driver did speak Russian we could deal with simple logistical matters when necessary but the rest of the time I could just sit back and indulge in my own historically inspired revelries and daydreams without the tiresome personal interactions required by the presence of a guide or translator. In short, I would be pretty much on my own, except for the driver who would also be acting as my government-approved escort. 

I emailed a copy of my passport, photos, and personal information to the travel agency and two weeks later received the much-coveted Letter of Invitation. I was to present this to immigration officials at the Ashgabat airport and receive my visa there. Since I was in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at the time, I flew from there on the direct flight to Istanbul (there is a one hour stop  in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but you do not have to change planes). Surprisingly enough—at least to me—Turkish Airlines has two flights a day seven days a week to Ashgabat. After three days in Istanbul examining the recent acquisitions of my favorite Carpet Dealers and checking the  prices of spices in the shops lining the alleys just west of the Egyptian Bazaar (the best quality Iranian saffron is now selling for $925 a ounce), I took the metro to the airport for my 1:00 a.m. flight to Ashgabat. I would make my purchases on the return leg of the trip. 

When I arrived at the airport at 11:00 p.m. I was a bit disconcerted to find lined up at the business check-in counter forty or fifty people, mainly women, all with carts piled high with monumental mountains of baggage. My God, were all these people flying business class? It turns out not. They were small-time traders from Turkmenistan who had flown to Istanbul to buy goods for resale in Ashgabat. Since the business class check-in area was not much in use at this time of the night they had been herded here to get their heaps of luggage checked in.  I and some Chinese men flying business was shown to the front of the line and quickly checked in. The three-hour, 1570-mile flight from Istanbul to Ashgabat left at 1:15 a.m. It was sold out. Eight seats in the sixteen-seat business section were occupied by Chinese businessmen attending some energy-related conference. 

After about two hours we passed over the middle of the the Caspian Sea,  250 miles wide at this point, its inky black surface dotted with brightly lit offshore drilling platforms and gas flares. After another half hour we began our descent through heavy cloud cover to Ashgabat. It was raining hard when we finally touched down at 6:20 a.m. local time. Given all the rigamarole involved in getting an letter of invitation to the country, the procedure at the airport was quite easy. I presented my letter of invitation and was very quickly given a visa. There were no entry or customs documents to fill out and my luggage was x-rayed but not opened.  One of the women operating the x-ray machine said in English, “Have a nice stay in Turkmenistan.”

In the reception area I was met a young man from the tourist agency who whisked me away to my hotel. I had been told earlier that my room would not be available until noon. The plan was to stash my luggage at the hotel, have breakfast, then take a tour of the city in the morning until my room was free. I have very little if any interest in history which postdates the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and since Ashgabat is a fairly new city founded in the 1880s by Russian colonialists I doubted that there was much I would want to see.  The alternative, however, was to sit in the hotel lobby until my room was available. 

My driver, a young man in his twenties, spoke no English but as I had expected he spoke Russian. The rain was coming down even harder as we cruised down the wide multi-lane streets, mostly deserted at this hour of the morning. A bewildering array of huge white buildings reared up out of the rain and fog: the immense gold-domed Presidential Palace fronted with cascades of water; the likewise enormous many-columned Turkmen Parliament building; a vast Exhibition Center set in immaculately landscaped park complete with pools and fountains; the Academy of Sciences Building; the Carpet Museum, which according to my driver contains the largest handmade carpet in the world, duly recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records; a  children’s park containing what at first glance appeared to be a gigantic white candy life-safer but is actually the world’s largest ferris wheel (also in the Guinness Book of World Records); blocks of twelve-or-more-story luxury apartment buildings which seemed to stretch off into infinity; and much, much else. All the buildings seemed oversized, and all were white. The whole effect was almost hallucinatory. I had come to visit thirteen-century historical sites but seemed to have dropped into some futuristic city designed by a Turkic reincarnation of Albert Speer on acid. That I been up for over thirty hours and had guzzled a least half a gallon of coffee in the business lounge in Istanbul, on the plane, and at breakfast in my hotel certainly didn’t help my mental state. 

Having seen enough of Ashgabat for the moment I asked the driver to take me to the National History Museum, which I had heard contained an outstanding collection of 2000 year-old rhytons  and ostrakons from the ruins of the old Parthian capital city of Nisa located about ten miles west of Ashgabat. In front of the museum is a 436-foot flagpole which my driver claims is the tallest in the world; actually it’s the fourth tallest, after flagpoles in North Korea, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan. 
Fourth tallest flagpole in the world (click on photos for enlargements)
National History Museum
I run through the still pouring rain and take refuge in the museum, which is very new, very elegantly appointed, and very quiet. I am the only visitor. I cannot help but notice that the floors, staircases, and immense pillars which hold up the central dome are all made of exactly the same kind of stone which I used for the countertops in the kitchen of my hovel in Mongolia. Someone here has good taste. 
Interior of the Museum. Love that stone!
The next thing to catch my eye is an immense carpet covering a large part of the back wall of the building. This is not largest handmade carpet in the world—that honor apparently goes to the specimen in the Carpet Museum—but this one comes close. It was made to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence following the fall of the Soviet Union. Thirty-eight carpet weavers worked from April 6, 1996 to October 10, 1996 to complete  the 43-foot by 68-foot carpet. It’s a beaut, no doubt. 
43-foot by 68-foot hand-made carpet
The main exhibitions showcasing findings from Nisa, Gonur Tepe, and Merv—all places on my itinerary—are on the second floor. I spend an enjoyable three hours poring over these artifacts and when I next look out the window the clouds have cleared and the sun is shining. It’s time to visit Nisa.