Saturday, May 18, 2024

Merv, Ashghabat & Darvaza, Turkmenistan

We crossed the border into Turkmenistan via land through Uzbekistan and it was quite the process to get through immigration, the country is actually known to have the most restrictive visa policies in the world and that's why a tour company comes in handy because they handle everything. As I had mentioned in a prior post, I chose Advantour and I can't sing their praises enough! they were amazing.

We had to take a covid test before getting to immigration then at immigration, we waited for about an hour as our Turkmen guide handled the immigration process. Even though the whole process was rigorous, the border agents and guards were so friendly and seemed excited to see folks who looked different from them. Once we were done with immigration and were let through, we got onto our tour bus and begun a 4 hour bumpy ride to an ancient city called Merv, where our tour would begin.

The Silk Road metropolis of Merv was believed to be the largest city in the medieval world, boasting a population of over a million. It was known as the Gate to Central Asia and was important for trade and politics in the 9th - 10 century, it has such a long history that's fascinating and it was known by various names through history as it fell under various rulers. The city unfortunately got razed by the armies of Genghis Khan in 1221 and never recovered after that. 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum built in 1157, Sanjar was the longest reigning Muslim ruler until the arrival of the Mongols.

From Merv we took an evening flight to the capital city, Ashgabat. We arrived late at night and what stood out was the contrast between where we had come from, and the capital city. During our drive to Merv from the border we passed through places that looked so remote and since Turkmenistan is 80% desert, everything looked so dry as you would expect in a typical desert setting. Ashgabat was all about the bright lights and grandiose buildings and monuments, I felt like we were entering an arcade with all the array of lights.

The following day we had a walking tour of the city, it was overcast so everything looked dull but I can only imagine how all the white marble buildings would have looked like in bright sunshine. Ashgabat is actually known for it's white marble buildings and grandiose national monuments, they are even in the Guinness book of world records for having the highest concentration of marble buildings.

Monuments of historical figures through the country's history.

We left the bright and shiny lights of Ashgabat to head back to the desert to visit the popular Darvaza gas crater. This crater is located in Karakum desert to the north of Ashgabat, the drive was really bumpy which once again, is such a stark contrast from the smooth roads in Ashgabat. The crater, also known as Gate to Hell or Door to Hell, is a burning natural gas field that was unintentionally created by Soviet geologists when an accident led to equipment falling into a newly formed hole, from which gas begun to escape.

Concerns about the potential release of poisonous gas led the geologists to ignite the gas with the hope that the fire would be extinguished after burning through the fuel but over 50 years later, the fire is still burning. 

During the day the crater looks like a regular fire pit and there is nothing outstanding about it, until nighttime. At night is when the fire really gets illuminated and draws your attention.

We stayed overnight in Karakum desert and got the opportunity to sleep in a yurt which was actually pretty comfortable. 

That's it folks! Turkmenistan was an interesting experience and I am glad that we got to visit even though I think living there would be somewhat boring. It just seemed so empty without much to do, that was my personal impression of the places we visited. I could be wrong so take it with a grain of salt.

Quick Facts:

Capital city of Turkmenistan is Ashgabat

Main languages spoken are: Turkmen, Russian and Uzbek

Their currency is known as Manat and $1 is equivalent to 3 Manat

Turkmenistan is a large country but is sparsely populated by about 6.4 million inhabitants 

A large territory of the country is desert, Karakum desert occupies 80% of the country

Photos are restricted in certain areas and you are not supposed to take photos of the police, army and security. Even when you see the president's photo hang somewhere, you are not supposed to take a photo of it, several folks in our tour group tried taking photos but were stopped by security. 

Ooh! and one more thing, just don't discuss the politics of the country while in the country. 






Monday, May 13, 2024

Penjikent & The Seven Lakes, Tajikistan

Tajikistan is the smallest country in Central Asia and also happens to be landlocked. Over 90% of the country's territory is mountainous, making Tajikistan known worldwide as one of the largest mountaineering centers that attracts tourists who love outdoorsy activities like trekking. Truly, the landscape of the country is beautiful! and any nature lover would fall in love with what Tajikistan has to offer.

I was based in a city called Penjikent which was once an essential town on the Silk Road and prior to that it already had a long history dating thousands of years back. The city is strategically located to take an excursion to the Marguzor Lakes (seven lakes) which is a series of interconnected mountain lakes that have vibrant colors that are always changing depending on the climate. First day in Penjikent was spent checking out some of the main sites such as:

The National Museum - I highly recommended checking this out and learning the history of not only the country, but the city itself, for greater appreciation of it's long history. 

Ancient Ruins - Got to visit an archaeological site which was once a settlement dating back hundreds of years. In the process, ran into some kids who were flying kites which was cool. The kites looked like real birds too!

Random siting during the drive round the city.

Also visited the local market which was bustling with activities and people, I thought I took photos but turns out I didn't.

The second day in the city was reserved for the main attraction which is the Seven Lakes, the lakes are in the Fann Mountains, the lowest lake has an elevation of 1640 meters (5381 feet) while the highest has an elevation of 2400 meters (7874 feet). We (tour group) were driven by a minivan through the roads passing by each lake, the terrain was rugged and rough and every time we got to a lake the minibus would stop for 10 -15 minutes as we got off and admired the sites and walked around a little bit. The weather was overcast which made the lakes look all the same but when the sun eventually came out the colors got enhanced and looked beautiful!

Surprise! guess who joined me on this great adventure, my husband.

We drove by 6 lakes but since the terrain to the 7th lake was too rough, we had to hike up to the last lake. Prior to beginning the hike we stopped for lunch with a local family and got an insight into their daily life. After lunch we begun the hike up to the 7th lake.

The hike to the 7th lake was to take a total of 2 hrs going up and down, it was fun and games until the high altitude got to me. I was panting like a dog and was getting exhausted so fast, honestly I was miserable during the hike up and to make matters worse, it begun raining.


I finally made it to the 7th lake and felt such a sense of accomplishment because that hike up almost knocked me out and I almost gave up several times but thought what a shame it would have been to come this far and miss out on the 7th and last lake.

That's it folks! going back down the mountain was much easier than going up and even though I was wet from the rain and exhausted, I was glad to have gone on this adventure. We ended up having a really nice dinner in the evening before calling it a night.

Quick Facts:

The capital of Tajikistan is Dushanbe

Official languages are: Tajik and Russian

Their currency is called Somoni and $1 is equivalent to about 11 Somonis

The country is landlocked and in about 93% mountainous

No Visa needed for American passport holders

Friday, May 10, 2024

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Next stop after Kazakhstan was Kyrgyzstan, I flew into Bishkek the capital city which appeared to have a slower pace than Almaty. Over 90% of the country is mountainous and with that, you get such beautiful views of the mountains surrounding the city. I had a short walking tour in the center of the city and got to see some of the sites see below:

Lenin Statue - This was erected in 1984 and after the fall of communism all statues of Lenin were taken down but this one still stands. 

Ala Too Square - This is in the center of the city and the largest square where people gather for events or hang out. If you are interested in soviet era architecture, you can see several buildings around the square depicting this. I personally don't find that type of architecture aesthetically appealing.

Love how colorful these slippers are, this was at the local market.

Central Mosque at night, so pretty!

I spent a day in Bishkek which I think was enough, the following day I headed to check out The Burana Tower located 80km (about 50 miles) from Bishkek. This historical tower is a minaret that was built between the 10th & 11th centuries and is one of the key historical sites in the country, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is actually one of the most famous minarets in Central Asia, the architecture is pretty impressive and it actually used to be taller than what is seen now. The cool part is you can actually get inside and climb to the top.

Close to the tower is an ancient burial site marked with interesting stone carvings

How beautiful is the scenery below? this was during the drive out of Bishkek, views like these were a dime a dozen, I couldn't get enough though.

Had the pleasure of observing traditional Kyrgyz national horse games. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz people were nomadic and had to be very well experienced in riding horses, fighting on horses and picking stuff up from the ground while riding a horse. These games although entertaining, are also a form of training for the riders and watching them you can't help but be impressed by how skilled they are on horses. They start teaching kids as early as 4 years old how to ride horses so you can imagine how skilled they are by the time they reach adulthood.

I got the opportunity to see how a yurt is constructed and was able to get in one to get a feel of it, they are so cozy and cute with carpet laid on the ground and decorative items hang inside. I certainly wouldn't mind camping in one!

That's it folks! if you love hiking and natural landscapes, Kyrgyzstan is definitely the place to check out. 

Quick Facts:

Islam is the Dominant religion in the country

Main languages spoken are: Kyrgyz, Russian and Uzbek

Their currency is called Som and $1 is equivalent to 88 Some

No Visa needed for American Passport Holders.

The country is landlocked lying in the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges.