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. 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Eej Khairkhan Uul

Eej Khairkhan Uul (Mother Dearest Mountain)
Eej Khairkhan Uul (Mountain), one of the most revered sites in Gov-Altai Aimag, is steeped in legend. It seems that once, a long time ago, Eej Khairkhan was married to Aj Bogd Mountain far off to the southwest. But Aj Bogd was old, his head was topped with white year round, and his wife was not happy. Far off to the northeast she could see Burkhan Buudai Mountain. Burkhan Buudai was so handsome, standing tall and proud against the turquoise sky. Aj Bogd’s wife could not take her eyes off of him. With each passing day she liked Aj Bogd less and felt more and more desire for Burkhan Buudai. Finally she decided she must flee to Burkhan Buudai. But Aj Bogd became suspicious of his wife. Every night after she went to sleep he would hide her deel so she would have nothing to wear if she decided to run away. One night his wife woke and decided the time had come to run off to her heart’s desire. But she could not find her deel. In her haste she put on Aj Bogd’s deel and then ran off to Burkhan Buudai. Her husband woke up and saw her fleeing across the desert. In his anger he grabbed a big handful of sand and threw it at her. His deel was much too large for his wife and the hem was dragging on the ground behind her. The sand landed on the tail of the deel and held her down. She could not move. She has remained to this day in her present location halfway between Aj Bogd Uul and Burkhan Buudai Uul. The sand which fell on the tail of her deel can still be seen as the big dunes to the southwest of the mountain. But fate was not entirely unkind. Her past was forgotten and she was no longer remembered as an unfaithful wife. Her twin peaks, resembling breasts, standing alone in the desert brought comfort to countless lonely caravan men who could see her from far off and eventually she became known as Eej Khairkhan Uul (Mother Dearest Mountain).
Another View of Eej Khairkhan Uul
Another View of Eej Khairkhan Uul
Eej Khairkhan Uul is ninety-nine miles as the crow flies south of the Gov-Altai Aimag capital of Altai and 24.6 miles west of the sum center of Bayan Tooroi, an oasis town which is the headquarters of the vast Gobi A Protected Area. The unpaved road from Altai—at 7153 feet, the highest aimag capital in Mongolia—to Eej Khairkan and Bayan Tooroi first passes through the Shar Shorootyn Mountains Via 9099-foot Dötiin Pass, then drops down into the Biger Depression and the Town of Biger at 4300 feet (famous for its vegetables, especially enormous potatoes, and vodka made from yak milk). From Biger the road climbs some 5200 feet, crosses the main spine of the Gov-Altai Range via 9428-foot Öliin Davaa, and then passes through the town of Tsogt before dropping down to the desert floor of the Gobi. The twin peaks of Eej Khairkhan Uul are clearly visible standing alone to the south. A parking lot and informal campgrounds are located near the base of the mountain (N44º56.066' – E096º15.125', 4256 feet elevation). There is no water near the mountain. The most convenient place to get water is Bayan Tooroi.

The flanks of the mountain are covered with unusual rock formations, many of which have legends attached to them. Some of the rock formations appear to have been carved by water, leading some to speculate that the flanks of the mountains were lapped by the waters of the vast seas which once covered what is now the the Gobi Desert.
 Water-carved flanks of Eej Khairkhan Uul
 Water-carved flanks of Eej Khairkhan Uul
The sides of the mountain are strewn with rocks assuming fanciful shapes, most of which have legends attached to them.
 This is the famous Sea Gull Rock
 In the background is the Sea Gull Rock. In the foreground is the Hungry Mouth Rock. The Uvela at the back of the mouth can be clearly seen. 
This is the Babies’s Footprints Rock. The rock is covered with what looks like the footprints of babies. Women who want to get pregnant often come here to make a milk offering and pray for children. 
This rock is shaped like the silver ingots which used to be used in Mongolia for money. Thus people make khadag (prayer scarves) offerings here if they want to get rich.
Another view of the Silver Ingot Stone
The Dinosaur’s Head Rock 
The most famous rock formations are the so-called Nine Pots, a series of nine cascading pools which are filled with rain water (locals do not advise drinking this water, although it could be boiled and drunk in an emergency). The bottom-most pool is a third of a mile from the parking lot at N44º55.941' – E096º14.816'.
Three of the Nine Pots
The bottom two Pots
The Bottom Pot. Said to be eighteen feet deep. At least two people have drowned in this pot in the last several years. Alcohol was a factor in both incidences. 
The Bottom Pot
One of the upper Pots
The Bottom Pot
The Bottom Pot
The Bottom Pot
Further up the valley, at N44º55.647' – E096º14.458', three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot, is the hermitage of a monk known as Ravdan. A Torgut Mongol, Ravdan was a disciple of Dambijantsan, the Notorious Ja Lama. After Dambijantsan was assassinated in 1923 at his Fortress At Gongpochuan, in current day Gansu Province, China, Ravdan came here to Eej Khairkhan Uul and made a shelter for himself by building a wall over the entrance of a natural cave. He kept one white horse and one white camel and soon became known as the “Lama with One White Horse and One White Camel,” perhaps an echo of Dambijantsan’s nickname of the “Two White Camels Lama.” Ravdan lived alone at the hermitage he built but there was a woman named Munidari who lived nearby and brought him food every day. Some locals now say the two got married; others say not. Ravdan soon became known far and wide for his spiritual qualities and many people came to him for his blessing and advice.
Ravdan’s Hermitage
Ravdan’s Hermitage
A pilgrim at Ravdan’s Hermitage
The interior of Ravdan’s Hermitage
An eight-two year old man named Sodnompil who currently lives in the Village of Tsogt near Eej Khairkan says his father once gave Ravdan a horse. Every day Lama Ravdan would take this horse and water it at a small rivulet known as Tsoojiin (“Lock”) Gol, on the south side of the mountain (this rivulet is now reportedly dry). He also says Lama Ravdan was well-known for producing rain. He says there was a herdsman on the west side of Eej Khairkhan Uul who also farmed some small fields. There was a drought one summer and his crops were dying. Lama Ravdan came and offered to make it rain. He sat down and began various meditations. Although there was a perfectly clear sky a dark cloud soon appeared from beyond Eej Khairkhan Uul and then drifted above the farmer’s fields. Soon it rained and then the cloud disappeared. Lama Ravdan fame, Sodnompil claimed, spread even farther after this incident.

Ravdan died in 1928. Munidari went on living by herself for many years. Ravdan’s hermitage is now a much revered pilgrimage site, visited by people from all over Mongolia who come to pay their respects to the Lama with One White Horse and One White Camel.

Not far from Ravdan’s Hermitage is the famous Penis Stone. Young women often come here to pray that they will find a good husband.
 Pilgrim awed by the Penis Stone
 Pilgrim worshipping the Penis Stone
 Pilgrim worshipping the Penis Stone
Pilgrim exuberant after a visit to the Penis Stone