Wednesday, March 27, 2019

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.

Greece | Thessaloniki | Alexander the Great

The train left Athens on time at 7:18 a.m. and arrived at the train station on the western outskirts of Thessaloniki forty-six minutes late at 1:27 p.m. According to my GPS my hotel near the center of the city was nine-tenths of a mile away. I had planned to walk, but that morning in Athens I had checked the weather forecast and discovered that temperatures were expected to reach 100º F. by mid-afternoon. The forecast for the next day was 105º F., which would tie the highest temperature on record for the date. There was a long line of taxis at the train station,  and after being staggered by the heat when I stepped off the train I was sorely tempted to take one, but I finally decided to stick to my original plan and walk. I had this fantasy of entering the city on foot through one of gates in the fourth-century walls around the city, as if I was a humble pilgrim wandering through the domains of Byzantium. Of course if I started feeling queasy from the heat I could always hail a taxi.

Following the arrow on my GPS through several side streets and alleys I finally arrived at the Letalia Gate, which was one of the four major entrances to the ancient city. The monumental tower that housed the gate is long gone, although the ruins of the old fourth century walls can be seen to the north and south. 
Fourth Century walls to the south of the old Letalia Gate (click on photos for enlargements)
Fourth Century walls to the north of the old Letalia Gate
Busy Agiou Demetrioui, one of the main east-west trending streets through the city, now runs  through the gap in the city walls. Just inside the walls, to the south, can be seen the domes of the 14th century Church of the Apostles, one of the fifteen or so Byzantine-era churches in Thessaloniki that have survived to the present day. Had I been a fourteen century pilgrim I probably would have headed straight to the church to give thanks for my safe arrival in the city, but now I was more concerned with getting to my air-conditioned hotel. I will return however. I am visiting Thessaloniki not on business nor because, as one web site claims, it is the “hippest city” in Greece, chock full of boutique hotels, chi-chi cafes, trendy restaurants, and overflowing bars and discos, but instead to wander at random and daydream among the city’s Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman-era monuments and ruins. In short, I am an unapologetic antiquarian and an unrepentant flâneur.

I proceed east along Agiou Demetrioui until the arrow on my GPS veered sharply to the right, then turn south on Ionos Dragoumi. After a few blocks I arrive at the Pella Hotel, named, presumably, after the town of Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, located twenty miles west-northwest of Thessaloniki. Reviews on the internet damn this place with faint praise; it is “adequate”, “acceptable”, “simple but clean”, “good for an overnight stay”, etc. Back in the 1950s it may have been a pretty ritzy joint. Now it appears to be the haunt of lower-tier traveling salesmen, down-market tourists, and grubby backpackers splurging on a bed, shower, and air-conditioning. The receptionist was certainly cordial. I was a bit taken back by her effusiveness; for a second I had the strange sensation that I had been here before and that she were welcoming me back. Unusual for a hotel in the Eurozone, she did not ask for any ID. Despite the warm welcome I am exiled to the seventh floor, but I heave a sigh of relief when I see the perfectly adequate desk and chair and the nearby electric outlets. At least I can work comfortably on my computer. The narrow single bed is, in a word, acceptable, and the pillow is firm and chunky and can do double duty as a meditation cushion. The air-conditioning works and there is even a small balcony. After storing my portmanteau in my room I walk down Ionos Dragoumi to the harbor area and then turn left on the esplanade along the sea.
Aristotelous Square, which extends north from the Esplanade
The Esplanade
Finally I reach the statue of Alexander the Great (356 b.c–323 b.c.) One of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cassandros, founded  this city in 316 b.c. and named it after his wife Thessalonica, who was the daughter of Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander’s half-sister. Alexander was the son of Philip and the notoriously snake-loving Olympias (so memorably played by Angelina Jolie in the 2004 epic Alexander), while Thessalonica was the daughter of one of Philip’s other wives. Alexander the Great had, of course, died seven years earlier in Babylon, so he never got to see the city named after his half-sister Thessalonica.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Greece | Thessaly | Kalambaka | Meteora #1

The corner take-out that I frequented  in Thessaloniki raised the price of chicken souvlaki from 2.50 to 2.75 euros. That signaled the end of my love affair with Thessaloniki. The heart is so fickle! The next morning I walked a mile through a persistent drizzle to the train station and caught the train south to Kalambaka, home of the Meteora monastery complex. I have Been Here Before, but was eager to return when it was cooler and the environs less crowded. It is the shoulder of the tourist season, and prices of hotels and meals have started to drop. It is certainly cheaper than Thessaloniki. And the weather is fantastic! Hard frosts at night but warming into the 50s F. in the afternoons. Great for hiking. Gorgeous foliage.
St. Nicholas Monastery, one of six monasteries in the area now open to the public (click on photos for enlargements). 
Monastery of St Barbara
Great Meteora Monastery
Monastery of Barlaam
From the road a trail climbs up 715 vertical feet through the chasm to the left of Barlaam Monastery.


Trail to Barlaam Monastery
Trail side shrine
Avian voyeurs would have a field day here. I saw at least fifteen or twenty different kinds of birds.