So Sunday turned into a bit of a bummer. The day started off bad enough when I spent a few minutes taking pictures in the hotel and realized that the focus on my camera was not working properly. I never noticed it when I tried out the camera in Mary, but the camera only focuses on a portion of the pictures. Anything to the left of center is blurry and out of focus. I was completely bummed. Now I do travel with a backup camera, but it is a piece of junk compared to my beloved Lumix camera.
The second problem arose when I saw tanks and men in uniform outside my hotel. Uh … are we under attack? It turns out that the military was practicing for its annual military parade and as a result, the roads were blocked off everywhere. And this explained why Tachmurad was 20 minutes late to meet me. We ended up walking all the way around the hotel, down a road and to a back street to find Murad and the car.
Once in the car, Tachmurad advised that we would not be able to visit some of the sites on my list for the day, including the Presidential Palace and Independence Square. I was not happy about that. And was even more unhappy about my camera. I explained to Tachmurad the camera issue and he said he would see if we could find someone to have a look at it after our modified tour of the city.
So for the next half hour, we dodged blocked off streets and men in uniform in order to visit Nisa, an ancient city approximately 18 km southeast of Ashgabat. Nisa is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the capital of the Parthian Empire, which dominated this region of central Asia for almost 600 years from the mid 3rd century BC to the early 3rd century AD. Nisa was a major hub for trading and was integral to the Silk Road.
We finally reached Nisa and spent about an hour wandering around the ancient site. There were little windows in the old walls, narrow streets, the remains of pillars and large open areas where throne rooms and guest rooms used to be. I actually loved the site and thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the old mud brick ruins.
And while we wandered around, we saw a goat perched on one of the remaining walls. It stood there in quite a regal position staring off before it sprinted away, only to be shortly followed by a young man who was clearly chasing after the goat. We quickly learned the goat had escaped from a nearby village and the young man had been running after it ever since. A few minutes later we saw the young man on another portion of the wall holding the goat by the leg and telling us he is going to make the goat his dinner. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but clearly the fella was pretty angry at the goat.
After the visit, we walked out of the large fortress and into the already hot morning. We started our trip back to the city with the drive taking us past the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel (according to Tachmurad) to the Monument to Neutrality, a 95 metre tripod monument to Turkmenistan’s official position as a neutral in the world. Now apparently a prior neutrality monument built by the first President of Turkmenistan in the 90s was removed from the inner city by the current president. The new monument is now located in the Ashgabat suburbs. And an interesting fact: the prior monument had a statute of the first president at the top, which rotated to always face the sun. The new monument is topped by this same statute of the former president, but it does not rotate.
Now the best part about the monument was that we arrived just at the time of the changing of the guard, which harkened back to the Soviet era. Three goose stepping soldiers made their way to the guard gates at the front of the monument, there was some theatrics and then the old guard goose stepped back to where the new guards had come from. It was all perfectly timed and completely brilliant. Unfortunately, my lack of focus on my camera did not make for the best pictures, but I was able to capture a bit of the event.
So the next stop was the Ashgabat National Museum of History. As we entered, I was advised I had to give the man at the door my bag. Uh that would be a big fat no. I have my passport in the bag as well as my cash. After some discussion and assurances that my camera would not come out of my bag, I was permitted to enter.
Now in order to visit the museum, I had to be accompanied by a museum guide. The guide spoke excellent English and was as nice as can be. She told me that the museum was comprised of 7 sections, including the independence section dedicated to Turkmenistan’s president and the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, a Bronze Age section, an ancient history section, a section dedicated to Merv and Konur Urgench, and a section dedicated to the Turkmen carpets.
The museum was of course built of white marble and consisted of a big rotunda, two tiers and lots of gold. The museum contains a lot of archaeological and ethnographical finds from throughout the country including ancient art, sculptures, jewelry, coins, household utensils.
As we wandered around, the young woman would point out interesting objects and give me a brief history of what I was looking at. She was not overbearing and was actually incredibly informative. And like the museum in Mary, we were constantly being watched. It’s like they do not trust anyone, especially tourists.
Now as we were visiting the third room on floor number 2, some woman came over and spoke to my guide in a rather stern voice. I had no idea what was going on, but the guide hustled me through the remaining 2 rooms and then quickly showed me the world’s largest carpet in the carpet section before being reprimanded by the same man who wanted my bag (at least that was my interpretation). The guide quickly escorted me back to the entrance, thanked me for coming and left.
Tachmurad was standing at the entrance and I gave him a WTF look. Tachmurad explained to me that an official delegation was coming to the museum and it had to be cleared of tourists. Oh for the love of God. First the roads are blocked and we can’t get to some of the sites I was supposed to visit, now I can’t even see the museum.
We ended up going to a mall for some lunch, although I really wasn’t hungry after the massive buffet breakfast I had at the hotel. Instead, I wandered around the mall while Tachmurad and Murad ate. Now this mall was constructed of white marble and gold of course, but as I walked around, I found that the mall seemed like an endless parade of the same goods over and over again. There were numerous phone stores, men’s and women’s clothing shops, the odd jewelry store and at least two bridal shops. However, there was no variety to the shops, few products on display and the walkways went in one direction, then reversed to run the the opposite direction with little spinoff walkways that simply ended. And despite the fact that the mall had a tiny little skating rink (big plus), the mall just seemed … off. The vibe was strange and it had very few people despite the fact it was midday. It was the oddest mall I have ever seen.
We left the mall (after hunting for a camera store and striking out) and went to the Russian Bazaar. I was looking for some kind of local handicrafts and was striking out there as well. The Russian Bazaar was no better for handicrafts than the bazaar we had visited in Mary. This bazaar too, like the mall, was an odd mix of shops selling cheap Chinese made goods, phones (what is it about this country and phone stores?), and some produce and baked goods.
By now I was hot and tired and simply wanted to go back to the hotel. I had a camera that would not focus, the streets were blocked, I had been pushed out of a museum and I was not finding any handicrafts. Tachmurad suggested they take me back to the hotel, to which I agreed. I told him I was disappointed I had missed Independence Square and the Park of Neutrality. Tachmurad immediately turned around and apologized. He had completely forgotten the Park of Neutrality so off we set for the park.
The drive took us past massive marble buildings, statutes and roads that continued to be blocked with nary a pedestrian in sight. When we arrived at the park, I saw a single worker painting a grate and that was it.
And the park actually turned out to be the second highlight of the day. If it hadn’t been so darn hot, I would have loved to have stayed there for a bit. Anyway, the park is a massive (and I mean massive) square, filled with trees from around the world, fountains, and statutes of famous Turkmen leaders.
We wandered past the fountain and part way around a large circular monument before taking a path out of the park. During the walk, we passed a few tourists taking pictures, a handful of workers planting flowers, two guys sitting under a tree and that was it. So strange for such a beautiful park without local people enjoying the green space. It’s as if people are discouraged from government run facilities and areas of the city.
We started back for my hotel and made a brief stop at the Azadi mosque, which Tachmurad said was constructed by Turks and built to look like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. And since I have been to the Blue Mosque, I confirmed to Tachmurad that the exterior definitively resembled the Blue Mosque and the interior chandelier was virtually the same.
After the quick stop a the Azadi Mosque, Murad drove me back to my hotel. On the way, Tachmurad said we could now go to the carpet museum because the road appeared to now be open. I declined. I was done. However, I apparently was not done with the closed roads. The road in front of my hotel was blocked and it appeared that the parade practice was in full swing. Good grief! Anyway, Murad had to park about two blocks from my hotel and I had to walk back to the hotel in the horrid heat. I said my goodbyes to Tachmurad since he would not be accompanying me to the airport for my lovely 3:30 a.m. flight to Baku. Awesome, awesome guide who went above and beyond to help me with my camera and to ensure that I enjoyed my time in Turkmenistan. And I really had, but for the hiccups on the last day.
I waved goodbye and made the hike to the hotel with the plan to sleep for a bit until Murad picked me up at midnight for the drive to the airport. It was time to say goodbye to the Stans and hello to the Balkan States of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia where I hope I can solve my camera issues.