We drove from Bukhara to the Turkmen border. Neither country possesses polite border guards,;here both lots had the charm of the normal Homeland Security man at Kennedy Airport. So it took a few hours to be processed by both sides. There was a walk over the Oxus River, where we were invited to leave the bus to "lower the weight" on the temporary bridge - a particularly pointless exercise as our combined weight was less than a ton, and lorries of much greater weight than the bus thundered over. It was interesting to note that when we crossed the Oxus previously in Uzbekistan, that photography was forbidden - here nobody seemed to worry. Norma had a lot of difficulty in doing this walk, though thankfully all our suitcases were still on the bus.

Along the way our driver stopped to buy fish from the boot of a car : we stopped for lunch in Turkmenabat in a very strange night club with dark padded purple velver interiors called "The Tractor": and for loo stops along the road : before reaching Mary, our jumping off point for Merv

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Merv was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today's Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Du Huan, a Chinese soldier who lived in captivity in Merv for a decade in the eighth century AD, described the fertility of the oasis: “A big river … flows into its territory, where it divides into several hundred canals irrigating the whole area. Villages and fences touch each other and everywhere there are trees.” Over the centuries, Merv’s inhabitants built and maintained a series of dams and dykes on the Murghab river and a network of canals and reservoirs to ensure the supply of water to the city. The position of mir-ab, or water bailiff, was an important post in Merv: according to contemporary medieval accounts, he had a force of 10,000 workmen under his command, including a team of 300 divers who routinely patched up the dykes with timber. Their labour maintained the dam on the Murghab, preventing the accumulation of silt and regulating the flow of water into Merv’s canals in times of drought and plenty.

In 1221 Merv opened its gates to Tolui, son of Genghis Khan, chief of the Mongols, on which occasion most of the inhabitants are said to have been butchered. The Persian historian Juvayni, writing a generation after the destruction of Merv, wrote "The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans. .., the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. To each [Mongol soldier] was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the mountains became hillocks, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty." Some historians believe that over one million people died in the aftermath of the city's capture, including hundreds of thousands of refugees from elsewhere, making it one of the most bloody captures of a city in world history.

Excavations revealed drastic rebuilding of the city's fortifications in the aftermath, but the prosperity of the city had passed. The Mongol invasion spelt the eclipse of Merv and indeed of other major centres for more than a century. After the Mongol conquest, Merv became part of the Ilkhanate and was consistently looted by the Chagatai Khanate. In the early part of the 14th century the town became the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church under the rule of the Kartids, vassals of the Ilkhanids. By 1380 Merv belonged to the empire of Tamerlane

In 1788 and 1789, the Bukharan Shah Murad Beg razed the city to the ground, broke down the dams, and converted the district into a waste. The entire population of the city and the surrounding oasis of about 100,000 were then deported in several stages to the Bukharan oasis and the Zarafshan Valley.

When George Curzon visited the ruined city of Merv in 1888, the vision of its decay overwhelmed him. “In the midst of an absolute wilderness of crumbling brick and clay,” the future viceroy of India wrote, “the spectacle of walls, towers, ramparts and domes, stretching in bewildering confusion to the horizon, reminds us that we are in the centre of bygone greatness.” And he noted " “Very decrepit and sorrowful looked those wasting walls of sun-dried clay, these broken arches and tottering towers; but there is magnificence in their very extent, and a voice in the sorrowful squalor of their ruin.”"

Modern-day visitors to the site of Merv in southern Turkmenistan can still tour its dusty, windswept remains. Like Curzon, they might struggle to imagine the true size, density and lushness of one of the world’s greatest vanished cities. Basically apart from four or five reconstructed buildings, there is virually nothing there. You have to imagine it at its prime. It was certainly big in area.

We had been here before in 2013 , but this time I was (post Bukhara bicycle) in no condition to climb the walls. We had a spendid song recital by Barbara in the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

An article in the Guardian

Satellite Map

Artist's reconstruction

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Mary Hotel

This is a typical "Communist Era" hotel. A lot of money was thrown at the building and the bling, but no follow up with staff training. The bedroom was clean and I had no problems with it. Wifi was a bit iffy. Although there was a kettle in the room, there were no tea or coffee bags - you bought them from reception at about $1 each

We had the misfortune to have to eat here for dinner on our first night (late arrival from Uzbekistan). Nobody else in the large dining room, food was poor and many things including drinks were "unavailable" Breakfast was a similar disappointment with the buffet not being replenished as it ran down, and staff being generally disinterested.

The level of English of the staff was not good, but I don't think that one has a right to expect good English in an out of the way spot like this. So it is probably as good as it gets in Mary . I think it is sad, as with a decent manager and staff training, it has the potential to be a really good hotel.

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On to next town - Ashgabat

Back to Overall Itinerary for Silk Road Trip 2016