Thursday, May 28, 2020

Turkmenistan | Tagtabazar | Yekedeshik Cave Complex | Part 1

Wandered by the Yekedeshik Cave Complex located 290 miles as the crow flies southeast of Ashgabat. To get there from Ashgabat you have to drive 230 miles to Baramaly, the nearest town to the ruins of ancient Merv, and then drive south 120 miles to Tagtabazar, the nearest town to the caves. The actual driving distance is well over 300 miles. From Baramaly the road follows roughly the valley of the Murghab River, which begins on a plateau located between the Band-i Turkestan, Gharjistan, and Paropamisus mountains in what is now Afghanistan. From its source the Murghab flows north approximately 510 miles before disappearing into the sands of the Kara Kum Desert. As we shall have ample opportunities to see, the Murghab Valley vies with Egypt and Mesopotamia as the home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

South of Barmamaly a new highway is under construction and the temporary dirt roads are clogged with trucks, tankers, and buses bound for the natural gas processing plants which lie off in the desert to the right. Companies from Russia, India, Turkey, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia have all built plants here. It is the natural gas processed in these and other plants that have paid for the Expanses of White Marble in Ashgabat. After about fifty miles we past through the industrial zone and traffic thins out considerably. Although the Murghab Valley south of Baramaly is flanked on both sides by desert, the valley bottom itself is quite fertile. This land has been cultivated for at the very least the last 4000 years. In early May extensive fields of winter wheat lining the road are just starting to take on a hint of yellow. Numerous towns and villages lie along the river to the left. 

We pass through one of the ubiquitous police posts where my papers are checked and then just before Tagtabazar are stopped at a border zone checkpoint where my permit to travel in a restricted border area is perused. The Afghan border is, after all, just fourteen miles away. Although the Yekedeshik Caves are not quite on the well-trodden tourism path in Turkmenistan a trickle of visitors from other countries do come here and the border authorities are used to dealing with them. It takes the officials only twenty minutes to determine that my papers are in order. 

There appears to be little of interest in the small town of Tagtabazar itself. We cross the bridge over the Murghab and turn off on the dirt road which climbs the high bluffs to the east of the river. The river bottom is at an elevation of roughly 1120 feet. The entrance to the caves is in the side of the bluffs about 350 vertical feet about the river bottom. 
The Murghab River fourteen miles downstream from the Afghanistan border (click on photos for enlargements)
The entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex, roughly 350 vertical feet above the valley bottom of the Murghab River, can just be seen near the center of this photo. 
The entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex with the valley of the Murghab River stretching off to the south. 
The valley of the Murghab River. Although flanked by desert, the valley bottom itself is heavily cultivated.
Entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #2

The Wolves did not reappear last night. Bayarkhüü had come back from the horse herd at sunrise, about 4:30 a.m, grabbed a quick cat nap and was back up at seven. We meet with Batmönkh and him in the ger to discuss our itinerary. I tell him I want to visit two places; the source of the Mungaragiin Gol and the source of the Khoogin Gol but that I really don't care how we get there. I told Batmönkh to pick the route. He allows that he has been to both places several times and he did not anticipate any problems. I had figured that the most direct route to both places and back would cover about seventy miles. Spread out over eight days this would be only 8.8 miles a day, which did not sound too onerous. I told Batmönkh we would take our time and enjoy the country.

Loading the two pack horses was facilitated by the three large Kazakh saddle bags of heavy handwoven cloth that I had bought on my last trip to Xinjiang. At eleven o’clock we bid farewell to the rest of the people at the ger and rode west through a thick larch forest. Just as we were leaving, Yooton finally admitted that this was the first horse trip she had ever been on. She had been born in Zavkhan Aimag but her family moved to Ulaanbaatar when she was a little girl and she was now nominally a city person. But as they say in the States, you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy. The same thing seems to apply to Mongolian girls. Yooton seemed perfectly at home on a horse and indeed looked charming on her all-white mount, which perfectly matched her stylish white ski jacket. A few amber-colored horse flies chivied our horses but so far there was no sight of the dreaded green-eyed monsters.
Yooton looking stylish in her white ski coat (click on photos for enlargements)
We cross 5,757-foot Ovoolgo Pass and drop down into the valley of a small creek, which we follow upstream for two hours. At four o’clock we arrive at some log corrals near the headwaters of the stream. This is the winter camp of Nergui’s younger sister, who is married, Batmönkh tells us. We will spend the night here. I am a bit surprised at stopping so early—some horsemen I have been with refused to stop until the sun had gone down—but like I said we were in no real hurry. Batmönkh assures us we will have no trouble reaching our goals in eight days. We quickly brew up a pot of Taiwan Oolong which we drink while Nergui prepares dinner.
Nergui preparing our first dinner on the trail
As she cooks she tells you about her name. She was her parent’s first child. Her mother had already had several miscarriages and she was very sickly when she born. Indeed her parents did not expect her to live and did not even bother to give her a name. Although very weak and sickly she survived a month, and finally her parents had to take her to the local authorities to register her birth. “What is the child's name? ” asked the official. Her parents admitted that they had not yet given her a name. On the form the official wrote “Nergui” (ner = name + gui = not). So she became “No-Name.” As soon as she was named, however, her health immediately improved. She has been fit as a fiddle as since.

We retire as soon as the sun went down. Yooton and Nergui share a tent and the last thing I remember hearing before falling asleep in my own tent is both of them laughing uproariously about something. About three in the morning I awoke to what I thought was rain pounding on my tent. I looked outside and was surprised to see an inch of snow on the ground. It was June 11. As soon as the sky turned gray I got up, started a fire, and brewed up a pot of Puerh Tea. I threw out my carpet on the snow and sat down to savor the dark brew as big wet snow flakes drifted down through the pewter colored sky. How many times have I contemplated suicide, only to be drawn back from the brink by the thought: “But what if I am reborn in a place with no Puerh Tea?”

Batmönkh soon emerges from his tent and we hold a desultory conversation in my limited Mongolian. He sips the Puerh tentatively at first but then gulps down the bowl and accept another. Although Puerh could hardly be more different from the the traditional Mongolian brick tea I have never met a herdsman who did not like it—this despite the fact that as a rule countryside people are not particularly keen on innovations in food or drink. On one camel trip in the Gobi the camel guys often insisted on a rest stop for no other reason than to brew up a pot of khar tsai, or black tea, as they called Puerh (real black tea, like the Yunnan I have with me, they call “red tea”).
Batmönkh brewing up another pot of Puerh tea
Soon Yooton and Nergui emerge. I tell Nergui not to cook: we will have just tea, bortsog, and beslag for breakfast. Yooton, it turns out, had borrowed a purple deel from Batmönkh’s wife, which she now dons, along with winter hat, scarve, and gloves. The snow is falling even harder as we load the horses and begin the climb to 6,788-foot Temeegiin Davaa (Camel Pass). Batmönkh does not how the pass got this name. Camels are not all that common in these forested mountains. He allows, however, that he has a few camels. Like many herdsmen he likes to have all five kinds of Mongolian livestock: horses, cattle (including yaks), sheep, goats, and camels, even if the camels are mostly for show. He doesn’t ride them, but sometimes he does use them to tote loads when moving his ger.
Yooton bundled up for the trip over Temeegiin Davaa
Nergui in her utilitarian but nevertheless stylish deel
Climbing toward Temeegiin Davaa
It is downright wintry on the pass, with a stiff wind blowing the snow horizontally. Although the trail on the other side of the pass is not really very steep, Batmönkh insists we all get off our horses and walk them down to the next valley. As I would discover, Batmönkh never rides his horses downhill for any appreciable distance. It is hard on the horse’s legs, especially when it is carrying a one hundred kilo-plus load like myself. Reaching the valley we follow a small creek downstream. At the head of the valley, just visible through the snow and mist, is 9,468 foot Marchlaga Uul. Off to our left soon appears 9,193 feet Baidalag Uul. According to Batmönkh baidalag is a Tsaatan word for a kind of plant which flourishes on this mountain. The Tsaatan, or Reindeer People, who inhabit the mountains west of the Darkhad Depression, use this plant to make tea, he says. In recent years, the Tsaatan, with their unusual nomadic lifestyle centered around their reindeer herds, have become the biggest tourist attraction in the area. Most people who come to the Darkhad Depression probably come to visit the Tsaatan. There are now no Tsaatan in the area we are going however.
Walking the horses down from Temeegiin Davaa
Soon we turned left out of the valley and started climbing toward Adar Pass. The snow ceased and patches of cobalt blue sky broke through overhead. By noon the latest snow was pretty much melted on the southern side of the mountain we were on. A surprising number of wildflowers were in bloom. I greeted several old friends from Alaska, including northern anemones, Arctic poppies, and forget-me-nots, and stopped to chat with several of them. They said that they were glad to see me too. Northern anemones, which have the charming name of “tsasnii tsagaan” in Mongolian (tsasnii = snow + tsagaan = white, ie, Snow Whites), are always one of the first flowers to appear, often when there is still snow on the ground; likewise Arctic poppies, known as jamyan myadag. Also in bloom was a bush about two feet high with purple flowers and intensely aromatic leaves known as tsakhildag—I don't know the English name. Batmönkh claims that just breathing the aromatic scent from the crushed leaves of this plant strengthens the lungs. Then Batmönkh points out a small plant with purple flowers he calls suman sogoo. He says an infusion made from from the dried stalks and flowers of this plant is good for strengthening women’s wombs. Batmönkh, who seems to know a lot about plants, opines that the Darkhad Depression and surrounding mountains are the best places in Mongolia for medicinal herbs. This is just one of the many things which make the Darkhad Depression special, he says.
Rider of the Purple Tsakhildag
Suman Sogoo
Nergui amidst anemones and poppies
Yooton and Arctic poppies
Ascending the Ikh Cöögt Gol
Yooton all smiles while ascending the Ikh Cöögt Gol
There is still snow and a sharp wind on 8,094-foot Adar Pass. The other side ramps down very gradually to the Baga Cöögt Gol and we walk our hours down only the steepest parts. We lunch along the Baga Cöögt Gol and then climb to Khush Zurkht Davaa (Nut’s Heart Pass) and descend back down to the Ikh Cöögt Gol, which we follow upstream. At about six in the evening Batmönkh calls a halt and we camp in the mostly treeless tundra on the upper Cöögt Gol. The source of Mungaragiin is just over a pass near the head of this creek.
Nergui and Yooton, both of whom had just washed their ebony locks, enjoying the warm evening sun on the Ikh Cöögt Gol
Nergui in culinary mode

Monday, May 4, 2020

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.