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. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Iran | Shiraz | Nasir al-Mulk Mosque

Wandered down to the city of Shiraz to visit the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. Mirza Hasan Ali Nasir al-Mulk, a panjandrum in the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925), commissioned the mosque in 1876 and it  was finally finished in 1888. The mosque is known locally as the Pink Mosque because of the pink color incorporated in many of the tiles decorating its exterior and interior. According to local sources tile makers developed a method of using the color pink in tiles only in the mid-nineteenth century. They used the color with exuberance here. The mosque is also famous for its stained glass windows. While I was there a professional Chinese photographer was taking photos of luxuriously dressed Chinese models lolling in the pools of colored light cast by the stained glass. The models were wearing full-length dresses and headscarves. Some had donned beaded veils covering their faces below their eyes. The poses they had assumed were rather suggestive, however, and I could not help but wonder how they got away with this in a mosque. I waited until they left to take my own photos
 Entranceway to the  Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
 Courtyard of the  Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
 One end of the courtyard
 Interior of the mosque
  Interior of the mosque
 Inset in the interior of the mosque
 Interior decoration 
Detail of interior decoration

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 me 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.