A long journey in two minibuses across the desert from Mary to Ashgabat. Comfortably ensconced in our yellow bus, there was a fracas in the other bus when Rodney & Helen (who did not like the bus anyway) accused Barbara of shutting Helen's arm in the window by deliberately closing the window on the said arm. Net result was a changing of seats at the next stop. Lunch stop for kebabs along the way

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Nadir-Shah Fortress

100 km to the east from Ashgabat there is a medieval fortress built by the order of Nadir-Shah, the Iranian ruler from the Afsharid dynasty. Nadir-Shah Afshar made history in the East owing to his numerous campaigns of conquest; these resulted in the formation of the large empire which, along with Iran, consisted of Armenia, Azerbaijan and part of Georgia, Belujistan, Khiva and Bukhara khanates as feudatory territories, and in 1739 Nadir Shah seized Delhi, the capital of the Great Mogul Empire.

He built many fortresses. One of these fortresses was the Nadir-Shah Fortress in Turkmenistan. The Nadir Fortress is of square form. The fortress had a strategic function. It was a frontier fortress with a military garrison, whose main purpose was to control rebellious Turkmen tribes. Upon suppression of the Astrabad revolt of the Turkmen, Nadir-Shah decided to protect this territory’s boundaries by means of the building of a military fortress there. The length of each vallum amounted to 1,000 m, the walls thickness was 2-3 m, and the height 3m. Inside the fortress, along with the military and household buildings, there was the shah’s palace which has not survived to today. Each of its vallum features 12 watch towers, located along the perimeter. Around the fortress there was a deep moat which now is filled with sand.

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We had been here in 2013 and I realised then, and it was conformed on this year's visit, that Ashgabat is one of the strangest cities on earth. I have a longer write up on the city on that link.

Ashgabat is a relatively young city, having grown out of a village established by Russian officers in 1881. Following its destruction by an earthquake in 1948 the city was completely rebuilt and became the country’s capital following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The first president Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, implemented an increasingly bizarre set of policies that included renaming the months after members of his own family and even changing the word for bread to that of his mother! The Central Palace area was designated 2000 to symbolize the beginning of the 21st century. In 2013 the city was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's highest concentration of white marble buildings.

In July 2003 all the names of streets in Ashgabat were replaced by serial numbers except nine major highways, some named after Saparmurat Niyazov, his father and mother.

Ashgabat is home to a “Ministry of Fairness”, a “Ministry of Carpets”, as well as a “Ministry of Horses”. Many of the white-marble buildings are shaped to represent the purpose of the building. The one that houses the national library is shaped like a giant book. The “Ministry of Health” building resembles a giant cobra, while the “Ministry of Energy” building looks like a giant cigarette lighter.

While water is sparser than the amount of fountains in the city would suggest, Turkmenistan is clearly not short on energy. Every citizen who owns a car is entitled to receive 1,500 liters of petrol free of charge per year. Most other forms of energy are also heavily subsidized by the government. A common saying goes that Turkmens would rather keep their oven permanently running on the free supply of natural gas than ever put it out , only to have to waste a comparably expensive matchstick on lighting it again later.

Turkmenistan has had two presidents since independence in 1991. Firstly president for life Serdar Saparmurat Niyazov, and his successor with the even more complicated name, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. In the mid-80s of the past century Mikhail Gorbachev had installed Niyazov as the head of the Soviet republic. Gorbachev was later quoted as saying that he had picked Niyazov because he was a loyal and compliant simpleton. Niyazov died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest in 2006. However reminders of his legacy are still everywhere. Niyazov adopted the name of “Turkmenbashi the Great”, which translates to “Great Father of all Turkmen”.

In official statements the great leader remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said . Turkmenbashi wrote a book called "The Ruhnama", filled with spiritual teachings, his thoughts, and ad hoc historical facts,. Ruhnama means “Book of the Soul” and he made it required reading at every level of the educational system. It was even blasted into space on board of a Russian satellite. He promised his people that anyone who reads the Ruhnama at least 100 times will have guaranteed access to heaven. To this day the Ruhnama is still sold and taught to students in schools.

The second, and current, Turkmenistan President and Prime Minister is Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov. He was recently re-elected with 97% of the vote. The President's popularity is not hard to explain. Turkmenistan has long operated as a single-party democracy, where the president is elected by popular vote.He owns the country's 39 press publications, five radio stations, seven national TV stations and one press agency.

Perhaps the most memorable quote, however, can be found on page 116 of his new book, which offers an extremely flattering and reverent description of Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader: “Riding on horse, driving plane steering wheel, sea liner, driving powerful KAMAZ, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov not just demonstrates wonderful physical shape and high professional skills in every business, he fixes in people’s minds the image of modern jigit, who has to do a lot. He must be well-educated, physically strong and esthetically erudite. It is not just good desires.”

The Arch of Neutrality is a 250-foot-tall tripod crowned by a golden statue of late president Saparmurat Niyazov. The three-legged arch was 75 metres tall and was built in 1998 on the orders of Turkmenbashi to commemorate the country's official position of neutrality. The monument was topped by a 12-metre tall gold-plated statue of Niyazov which rotated to always face the sun. The arch was located in central Ashgabat . After Turkmenbashi's death, the new president moved the arch out of the town centre, and it is now on a hillside above the town - but the statue no longer rotates to face the sun. Down below there are permanently two soldiers standing guard - as with many things in Turkmenistan, photography is prohibited. When I tried to take photographs of the spectacular changing of the guard, complete with shoulder high goose-stepping and twirling of rifles, the NCO in charge shouted for me to stop.

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Grand Turkman Hotel

“Not one of the worlds great hotels, but not one of the worst either”. Originally built as a Sheraton in 1995, it is now Turkmen government run. We stayed here for two nights. The problem with rooms is that they vary enormously - we were allocated a junior suite, which was large and comfortable. Other rooms were small and dingy. But in spite of it being a suite, the balcony had no furniture on it, and had never been cleaned or swept, and hence was really filthy. Breakfast was middle of the road. Service from the front desk was bad. This is not a hotel that sets out to lure you back, but I understand that it is government owned as are most of the hotels in Ashgabat. So you are not going to get much better elsewhere. It just seems to depend on the manager in charge at the time of your visit as to whether the staff are motivated and the food is of any quality It is worth exploring other options in Ashgabat, but you will probably reach the conclusion that there is not much difference at a price level

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So it was on to the Iranian border and the delights of the hijab for the ladies in our group.

On to next town - Mashad

Back to Overall Itinerary for Silk Road Trip 2016