Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | End of Occultation

As most of you know, the eighth New Moon of the Lunar Year occurs today, September 5, at 7:36 PM local time. Traditionally, this is when I emerge from my Summer Occultation, which this summer included a Forty-Day Retreat. The Harvest Moon is coming up on September 19, with the Autumn Equinox four days later on September 23 at 4:44. AM. So it is shaping up as a celestially significant month. Make your plans accordingly. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Turkmenistan | Ashgabat | White Marble Buildings

In an Earlier Post I commented on Ashgabat’s incredible array of huge white buildings. Well, it is now official: Ashgabat has More White Marble Buildings per square foot than any other city in the world.
Guinness World Records editor-in-chief Craig Glenday on Saturday awarded Ashgabat the record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings, saying it "shows that the architectural re-styling effort led by the Turkmen government has come to a high spectacular level".
White Behemoths in Ashgabat
As noted earlier, Ashgabat is already in the Guiness Book of World Records for the world’s largest handmade carpet and the world’s largest ferris wheel.

In an impressive architectural re-styling effort led by the government of Turkmenistan, an area measuring 22 km² (8.49 mi²) in the capital Ashgabat boasts 543 new buildings clad with 4,513,584 m² (48,583,619 ft²) of white marble. If the marble was laid out flat, there would be one square metre of marble for every 4.87 m² of land. The main avenue, Bitarap Türkmenistan Sayolu, is 12.6 km (7.83 miles) long and lined with 170 buildings clad with a total of 1,156,818 m² (12,451,835 ft²) of white marble.

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.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Uzbekistan | Khwarezm | Janpiq Qala

From Gyaur Qala we drove southeastward 4.5 miles to Janpiq Qala. Built in the ninth or tenth century a.d. during an economic boom in Khwarezm, it was situated on the site of an older fortress dating back to the period between the fourth and first centuries b.c. The walled city, measuring 1500 feet long and up to a thousand feet wide, developed into a substantial craft center with quarters devoted to weaving, stone carving, blacksmithing, and the manufacture of glass and pottery. It was also an important trade entrepôt on the Amu Darya where goods from China, India, Egypt, and the Volga River and Black Sea regions all washed up. Russian researchers have suggested that a large breach in the southern wall was made by the besieging Mongols when they attacked Khwarezm in the winter of 1220-1221, perhaps with a huge battering ram. How much other damage the city suffered at the hands of the Mongols is unclear, but the city did recover and it eventually regained much of its former prominence (the breach in the southern wall was repaired). The city was attacked yet again by Amir Timur (Tamerlane) when he swept through the area in 1388. It never recovered from this onslaught, but the substantial ruins of the fortress and citadel walls have survived to the present day. 
Janpiq Qala (click on photos for enlargements)
Eastern wall of the fortress

Tower at the northeast corner of the fortress
Northern Wall
Northern Wall
Western Wall
Western Wall
Remains of tower in the wall
Eastern Wall
Tower in Eastern Wall
Outside of wall showing the opening allegedly made by the Mongols
Inside of wall showing the opening allegedly made by the Mongols
Entranceway from the outside
Entranceway from the inside
Southern Wall
Interior of the fortress 
Interior of the fortress 
 Ruins of Citadel 
 Ruins of Citadel 
 Ruins of Citadel 
Ruins of Citadel

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Uzbekistan | Navroz Holiday | Tower of Silence

As I mentioned earlier one reason I came to Bukhara at this time was to observe the Perigee of the Moon. The other was to celebrate the Spring Equinox. As you all know, the Equinox occurred yesterday, March 20. In Bukhara the actual time was 4:02 PM. Navroz, the so-called Persian New Year, begins today, the first full day after the actual Equinox. This is a big holiday in Bukhara. Although it is now celebrated as an Islamic holiday its roots go back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism. According to legend Zoroaster himself, founder of Zoroastrianism, introduced the practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox as Navroz. The Equinox is also significant to various shades of Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and even some Post-Modern Neo-Pantheists (I am looking at you, David Weinberger).

Given its allegedly Zoroastrian origins I thought the best place to observe Navroz was at Chilpak, the so-called Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, located on the banks of the Amu Darya 285 miles northwest of Bukhara. I have been to the Chilpak Tower of Silence before, in 2010, and had planned this trip then. 

I hired a car and proceeded to the site on the afternoon of the 19th. That night my driver and I stayed in a truck stop about five miles away from the Tower of Silence. We hired a private dining room with a low table and mats on the floor so that when we were done eating we could just stretch out and rest for the night. The room was $6 a night per person. The magnificent fish dinner we had, however, set me back $15. That was for one kilo of fish (you order by weight) fresh from the Amu Darya River just a couple of miles away, and all the fixings (bread (naan, actually), pickles, pickled tomatoes, carrot slaw, fresh onions, sour cream, tomato-based fish sauce, etc.) plus of course all the green tea you could drink (I will observe a dignified silence about the quality of the tea; this was, after all, a truck stop). 

The next morning at dawn we proceeded to the Tower of Silence. My driver waited in the car while I climbed to the top to perform the appropriate orisons. 
The Tower of Silence from the distance. The structure at the top is man-made (click on photos for enlargements)
The man-made addition to the summit of the hill. The dating is uncertain, but it could well be over 2000 years old.
 Entryway to the top of the man-made structure
 Cult site at the top of the monument. Zoroastrians brought their dead here and left them so that their bodies could be stripped down to the bone by vultures and the desiccating heat of the sun. The bones were later stored in ossuaries. I shudder to think of the scenes that must have been played out here. 
View from the top with the Amu Darya in the distance

Monday, March 18, 2013

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Old Town | Dish Girls

This time of the year in Bukhara the sun rises about 7:00. Every morning fifteen minutes or so before sunrise I leave my guesthouse and wander around the city. There is hardly anyone on the streets at this hour and I pretty much have the place to myself. One morning the city was dusted with fresh snow. I walked through the First Trade Dome and past the old Magok-i Attari Mosque to the Second Trade Dome. The old codger who looks after the tomb of Ahmed I Paran, located inside the trade dome, was there, as he always is come rain, snow, or shine. He studiously ignores all foreigners and I do not bother greeting him
 Trade Dome #1 with fresh snow (click on photos for enlargements)
Trade Dome #2 with fresh snow
Abdullah Khan Tim
 Snow of the domes of Abdullah Khan Tim
From the Second Trade Dome I walked north past the Abdullah Khan Tim and through the Third Trade Dome into the so-called Old Town, located on slightly higher ground just east of the Ark, or Citadel. This is the very oldest part of Bukhara. Archeological findings here date back almost 2500 years. When Chingis Khan invested Bukhara in 1220 most of today’s old town was known as the Shahristan, or Inner City, and was surrounded by a wall. This inner wall was probably destroyed in the sack of the city and the fire which followed, and it is not clear if it was ever rebuilt. The outer wall, around the rabat, or outer city, was rebuilt or repaired, only to the damaged or destroyed again several times until the final version of the Outer Wall, sections of which still remain to this day, was built. 
Street in the Old Town
Wandering down one narrow street I pass by a man who looked to be in his sixties sweeping the snow off his steps with a twig broom. He greeted me in Russian and asked what country I was from. I said I was from America (I am an American citizen although I have not actually lived there in many years). Switching to English he said, “Come in and have tea.” I have never turned down a bowl of tea in my life. He welcomed me into his house and after I had taken off my shoes ushered me into a room furnished with nothing but carpets, a thin pad on the floor, and a low table. Actually, it pretty much like the tea room of my hovel in Ulaanbaatar and I felt very much at home. “Would you like black or green tea,” he asked. Since it was still early morning I said black. “Wait one minute, my daughter will bring you tea.” After a minute or two the door opened and in strode a young woman with a tea tray. Much to my surprise, it was one the “Dish Girls” I had met on my previous trip. She was momentarily startled to see me sitting in her home, but quickly recovered. Her sister, who also sells dishes and who I had also met, came and in and sat down. Both young women of course sat on their knees with their shins tucked under them. I find it almost impossible to sit this way and assumed a half-lotus position instead. A full lotus hardly seemed appropriate for morning tea with two young ladies. “Well, this is really a coincidence that I should meet you again,” I offered. “Bukhara is a very small place. It is not strange that we should meet again,” said the first young woman. We then chatted for half an hour about tea (the women allowed that they themselves never drank black tea), carpets (the carpet on the floor  was remarkably like the machine-made wool carpets produced in Ulaanbaatar), the dish business (already a lot more tourists in town this month as compared to this month last year), and of host of other ephemeral topics.

The women said that I must stop by the street where they sell dishes and visit them again. I did not say that I had been avoiding this street. Last time I was in town I had promised them day after day I would buy something and then finally sneaked out of town without getting anything. I had planned to stop by just to say hello near the end of my trip, when they would have little time to cajole me into buying anything, but now I said I would stop by today. 

I continued my peregrinations and at about ten o’clock wandered down the street where the girls sold their wares. This year their dishes were set out right by the side of the Mir Arabi Madrassa. They saw me coming two hundred feet away and started shouting “Don! Don! Come here, Don!” As I approached one woman with hair dyed a curious shade of orange ran up to me with arms outspread and gushed, “My darling, you are back!” This jest elicited gales of laughter from the other girls, since an old goat like me could hardly be anyone’s darling. The girls get bored standing out here all day, especially on cold and blustery days like this when they see very few tourists, and are eager for any diversions. I guess I qualify as a diversion. They had lots of news. The Queen Bee of the group had gotten married and was quick to show me a photo of her husband on her iPhone. To my amazement her husband was the co-owner and salesman of the Abdullah Khan Tim Carpet Store who I had talked to the day before. I had met him several years earlier when he was working at the different store. Small world! One of her friends pointed out that she was already pregnant, although she had only been married since last November. “Not wasting any time, are you?” I offered. She smiled demurely. Although I talked to the Dish Girls for at least thirty minutes, oddly enough not one of them said a word about buying any dishes. Apparently they had already decided that as a customer I was pretty much of a bust. 
Dishes for Sale
Dish Girl whose father invited me in for tea. 
Dish Girl married to the co-owner of the Abdullah Khan Tim Carpet Store on the right, and friend.