Greetings from on board the Akedemik Hassan Aliev, in the middle of the Caspian Sea en route from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan (named by former Turkmem president Turkmenbashi after himself) to Baku, Azerbaijan. When I last wrote, I was in Ashgabat preparing for the five day journey to the Caspian Coast.
From Ashgabat, my first stop was at Geok-Depe, the site of a brutal massacre of approximately 15,000 Turkmens by the Russians towards the end of the 19th century, which marked the end of Turkmen resistance to Russian colonization. Russia was primarily concerned in the 19th century with finding a “natural” southern border to its empire, with the hopes of ending nomadic raids into Russian areas. Turkmen nomads, partly just for sport, would raid Russian villages and capture Russians to be sold in Central Asian slave markets. The Russian general in charge of the battle of Geok-Depe, Skobelev, later defended the brutality with which he crushed Turkmen resistance (theft of belongings, capture of women) by saying that Asian people do not understand what it means to simply lose a battle; only by taking everything that that person has will he truly understand that he has been beaten and cease resistance. While General Skobelev was criticized in Russia, Ashgabat’s main street and main square were given his name.
Today, the walls of Geok-Depe’s fortress remain, but there is little else historical to see. Instead, Geok-Depe is the site of Turkmenistan’s first Mosque post-independence, Saparmurat Hajji Mosque; the Mosque, constructed from white Italian marble by French company Bouyges, was constructed in commemoration of the pilgrimage to Mecca by former-General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Nizayov, transformed by the collapse of the USSR into head of the Turkmenistan Democratic Party and first president of the Republic of Turkmenistan. Nizayov later transformed himself into Turkmenbashi, which translates roughly into “Leader of the Turkmen”. From his first pilgramige to Mecca (he naturally was Atheist as General Secretary of CPT), Nizayov supposedly brought back $10 billion in aid money from the Saudi Arabian government. What better way to spend this than on the construction of public glory projects constructed out of the finest European materials and by a French corporation to beat?
The Mosque itself, while completely empty of worshippers, is indeed a beautiful and remarkable structure, and the industrial-strength airconditioning blasting out cold air into the Mosque’s cavernous interior (electricity is free here remember) made for a refreshing cool-down spot from the 43 degree temperatures outside.
From Geok-Depe, I travelled 100 km or so into the Kopet Dag mountains that make up the border with Iran to the village of Nokhur. The local people of this village in the mountains have retained, perhaps through their mountain isolation, a special dialect of Turkmen along with strong evidence of pre-Islamic customs. Something very unique to Nokhur is the presence of goat and sheep horns on each grave in the Muslim cemetery (see photos below). After a stop at the cemetery, I visited the town’s holiest shrine, the Shrine of Qyz Bibi, protectress of spring water and fertility of women. While today the site is home to a Mosque, the shrine most likely dates back to pre-Islamic Zorastrian times. While sitting on a wall next to the Mosque, some very insistent pilgrims plied me with fanta, plov, cheese, bread, and sweet melons.
In true lazy-Central-Asian traveller style, my guide took me by gas-guzzling jeep an hour or so up to the highest point in town, with fantastic views of the valley below the Kopet Dag mountains. From there, it was back down to the town to stay in a charming local honestay and to enjoy copious amounts of delicious homecooked food and local hospitality.
From Nokhur, the next stop was the town of Balkanabat, home to no tourist sites whatsoever, but a four star hotel nonetheless. The Lonely Planet was very unkind to this town, and while there is really nothing to do and see for tourists, it has quite a nice Russian vibe with Tsarist-era buildings positioned on treelined streets. There was a pretty decent outdoor Russian restaurant with dancefloor in the main square as well; this place was quite amusing for the fact that despite the DJ’s choice of Russian techno/electro music, the majority of the clientele were families with small children, who seemed quite happy getting their groove on on the strobe-lit dance floor while their parents enjoyed their meal.
Balkanabat also made a perfect rest stop en route to the shrine of an Arab sufi saint, Goezli Ata, right in the middle of the desert, as well as Yangykala Canyon, an impressive canyon in the desert that was once the bottom of the ocean, millions and millions of years ago. Despite oppressive heat and humidity, I went for a short but fascinating trek into the crater for a few hours, which was littered with fossils of shells and sea life. The sweat was well worth it! The evening al fresco dinner of Shashlyk, Greek Salad, Chile, and tea overlooking this ancient ocean was also pretty incredible, though the night that followed was an incredibly sweaty one, thanks to the still-high humidity.
From Yangkykala, the last stop of my trip was the city of Turkmenbashi on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Now, there is a link across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijan Republic, but the boats that provide this link are cargo boats, namely the Dagestan class of rail ferries constructed in the USSR in the 1980s. While in theory there is a boat to Azeebaijan every day, in practice the boats only leave when full of cargo, don’t take passengers when they are carrying dangerous cargo due to a deadly fire a few years back, and only take 36 passengers (capacity 200) due to a deadly sinking a few years back as well.
Passengers can sometimes wait for days in Turkmenbashi for a ferry to Azerbaijan.
On principle, I have nothing against waiting; however, given that I was in Turkmenistan on a tourist visa and required the accompaniment of a guide, a delay in my departure would cost an additional $115 per day, plus my accomadation and food costs. I knew the risk of this when I booked the trip and kind of just hoped that luck would be on my side and that I would not be delayed. However, given that neither Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, nor Afghanistan had working atms for my bank card, I was running desperately low on cash when I arrived in Turkmembashi.
My guide asked me if I would like to go on board the ferry a day early (I had paid for guide and hotel services until August 14th but we arrived in port on August 13th) if possible; given my fast dwindling cash reserves, I said yes.
Consequently, I did not have a chance to visit Turkmenbashi town; after a quick shower at four-star hotel Turkmenbashi (a very extravagant shower at the rates they charge, but I had already paid for it), we headed to the sea port to see what ferries were available. The Akademik Hassan Aliev had just arrived from Baku, and my guide said the only thing to do would be to wait at the port for information for when it would depart to Baku. He said know one would know when this information would be available but that it was better to wait in port.
After putting my name on the waiting list, I opened up my copy of tome one of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that I bought in Moscow in 2009 and that I have been unsuccessful with on many occasions, and the waiting began. After six hours of waiting, a rumor began floating around that the boat would go to Baku the next day; my guide said that this meant nothing really, as there was still a chance it could depart in the middle of the night. But given that it was 10 pm, he gave his phone number to a police officer in case there was a change, and we went back to the hotel (the previous shower was not an extravagance after all).
After a quick breakfast the following morning at 7 am, it was back to the port for more waiting. While walking around the port, one of the ship crew even asked me if I knew any information about when the ship would go back!!!
Finally, and to my relief, after five hours of waiting, we were given the go ahead to get permission slips to board (in waitlisted priority), and then eventually were given permission to go through customs and immigration. While a lot less painful than Uzbek customs, I was asked if I was carrying any religious books or Wahabi literature.
From customs, I walked onto the ferry to purchase my ticket ($100 the current price) and private cabin on the upper deck ($20) from the English-speaking chief officer. The cabin is actually very clean and comfortable, though stifligly hot without air conditioning in the humidity of the Caspian. I am currently extremely sticky and sweaty! Naturally, the departure of the ferry would not happen immediately; I managed to get through a sizeable chunk of War and Peace while sitting on the deck of the ship in port yesterday. One of the crew told me at 10 pm last night that departure would not happen until 8 am the following morning, so it was with great surprise to me to wake up and see not Turkmenbashi port but open ocean/sea.
After six weeks, a relatively short new Caucasian adventure is about to begin. I truly have grown to love the countries of Central Asia, their hospitable people, their fascinating histories, as well as their fascinating presents, and I have been sitting here today on the ferry plotting when I might return.
But for the time being, I must say I am looking forward to being in the Caucas mountains by this time tomorrow and a temporary respite from all this sweating!