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.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Turkmenistan | Darwaza | Portal to Agharta

One of my main objectives while in Turkmenistan was visiting the ruins of Urgench, which had been trashed by the sons of Chingis Khan back in 1221. Urgench is 290 miles north of the capital of Ashgabat. It is possible to drive from the capital to Urgench in one day, but most tourists like myself prefer to drive to the Darwaza Crater, 150 miles north of Ashagabat, spend the night there, and then continue on to Urgench the next day.

The Darwaza Crater is widely touted as the Portal to Hell. Indeed, the word darwaza reportedly means “portal” in the Turkmani language. The portal is not, however, a natural phenomenon. It was created in 1971 when geologists accidentally drilled into a huge underground cavern filled with natural gas. The cavern collapsed, leaving a crater about 230 feet in diameter. To keep from poisoning the local environment the geologists set fire to the huge amounts of natural gas seeping from the crater. They apparently thought the gas would burn off in a few days or weeks. Instead, the gas has been burning ever since and the leakage shows no signs of abating. No one has offered an estimate on the value of the gas which goes up in flames here each day. Natural gas is so plentiful in Turkmenistan that no one seems to care. 

The crater is in the middle of the Karakum Desert. There are no facilities in the area. Like the thirty or forty other tourists who spent the night there, I brought my own tent and vittles. There were people from Russia, Germany, Austria, Australia, Hungary, and other sundry locales. The people from Australia said they they had come to Turkmenistan specifically to see the crater. They had driven from Ashgabat that day and were returning there the next morning. 


There are other reputed Gates to Hell, including One In Turkey (this Turkey video also has views of Darwaza). Thanks to Snuggles in Richmond VA for bringing this video to my attention.
 View from Space: Darwaza, the Gate to Hell, is the small dark spot in the middle, not the larger gray area (click on photos for enlargements).
 The Darwaza Crater is about 230 feet in diameter
 Darwaza Crater
People on the edge of Darwaza Crater. On the downwind side the heat emanating from the crater is almost unbearable.
Darwaza Crater at night: Dante would have loved this place.
There are rumors that the cavern which the geologists inadvertedly drilled into was an extension of Agharti (also spelled Agharta), the underground Kingdom described by Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre and Ferdinand Ossendowski. The King of Agharti was reportedly none too pleased by this incursion into his domain and has been in a snit ever since. See the King of Agharti’s Predictions. His threat to return to the surface of the earth in 2012 was not fulfilled, however, and at this point in time the Darwaza-Agharti connection must be relegated to the realm of pure speculation.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mongolia | Ulaanbaatar | Chingis Khan’s Birthday

Today is the celebration of the 851st birthday of Chingis Khan. It is generally accepted that he was born in 1162, but there has been some question about the actual day of his birth. It has now been decided to celebrate his birthday on the first day of the first month of winter according to the lunar calendar, which this year is November 4, according to the Gregorian Calendar. (It should be mentioned that the actual New Moon was yesterday at 8:49 PM. November 4th is the first full day of the first month of winter.) Today is a national holiday and most offices and stores are closed. Don’t know if bars will be open or not, but if they are things could get rowdy by evening. I am spending the day in my hovel. 

I attended Chingis Khan’s 840th Birthday Bash at Khodoo Aral back in 2002. Oddly enough the First Blog Post I ever made was about this event.
Uyana, then a Ulaanbaatar resident, cooling her heels in the Kherlen River while on the way to Chingis Khan’s 840th Birthday Bash at Khodoo Aral in Khentii Aimag. I have heard that she is now working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. How can good kids go bad?  (click on photos for enlargements).
 Chingis Khan’s 840th Birthday Bash
 Locals honoring the memory of Chingis Khan at the 840th Birthday Bash
 Shaman at the 840th Birthday Bash
Uyana and young swain at the 840th Birthday Bash at Khodoo Aral.  Over 5000 people attended the wingding.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Turkey | Istanbul | Theodosian Land Wall

While wandering through Istanbul I stayed in a hotel in the Topkapi district, hard by the Theodosian Land Wall of Istanbul. This area is about three miles west of Sultanahmed, the heart of old Istanbul. The hotels out here are a lot cheaper than closer to the center, and the pace is a lot less frantic, especially on the quiet side street where I am staying. There are numerous small restaurants and tea shops in the immediate area if one cares not to roam, but it is only a fifteen or twenty minute ride on the metro to the Area of the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmed, in case one wants to immerse oneself in the hubbub of the city. And of course Topkapi is a convenient starting point for wandering along the ancient Theodosian Land Wall of Istanbul. 

As John Julius Norwich points out in Volume 1 of his magisterial three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
It is one of the clichés of Constantinople [Istanbul] that it should, ideally, be approached by the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain . . . 
The Theodosian Land Wall was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450 A.D). According to one account the wall was completed in 413 A.D. In the following centuries innumerable invading armies, including those led by Notorious Badass Attila the Hun, would throw themselves against the Land Wall, but no one ever succeeded in breaching it until May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman armies led by Sultan Mehmed II broke through and seized the city. Thus the Land Wall had stood involiate for at least 1040 years. 

The Land Wall extends from the Sea of Marmara on the south 3.4 miles to the Golden Horn on the north. Topkapi, where I stayed, is about in the middle, making it a convenient starting point for walks to either end. 
 The heavily restored Theodosian Land Wall near Topkapi (click on photos for enlargements)
  The Theodosian Land Wall near Topkapi
 One of the many towers in the wall
 Unrestored ruins
Unrestored ruins and a section of restored wall
 The wall has suffered through many earthquakes in its 1000 year-plus history. Whether this crack in a tower is a result of an earthquake is unclear.
 Tower in the Wall
  Tower in the Wall
  Tower in the Wall
 Section of wall
Section of the Land Wall approaching the Golden Horn. This part of the wall was built later and is not considered part of the Theodosian Wall. 
Some areas along the outside of the wall are now used as truck gardens
 Truck gardens
  Truck gardens
 Produce from the truck gardens
 Flower beds and markets along the outside of the wall
 Street running along the inside of the wall
 One of the numerous gates in the wall

  One of the numerous gates in the wall
Topkapi Gate. My hotel was just inside this gate.