Friday, September 27, 2002

Golden Statues and Sand Blasted Gas Holes

Currently in Ürgup, very close to Göreme in Kapadokya, Turkiye. Everything is fantastic - perhaps I'm still on a high after this morning's dawn balloon ride over the bizarre landscape of this region - fairy towers, cave dwellings and fields full of melons.

Anyway, update time - albeit a little time-lapsed. From Ubekistan we crossed into north-eastern Turkmenistan (eventually, after about 6 hours at the border getting rubber-stamps and filling in forms to carry from one person to his neighbour).

Turkmenistan. A very strange place. In our first afternoon we visited the bazaar in Dash-Orguz a small city separated from the rest of the country by the black desert. Small city, big tower blocks, quite a lot of sand, huge posters of Turkmenbashi everywhere (the president-for-life, who's changed his name to mean 'head of all Turkmen'), incredibly happy, smiley people and lots of melons (often given away free if you take a photo of a melon seller). After
shooting off rolls and rolls of film as the sunset at the bazaar and the crowds of locals wondering who on earth would want to visit their city grew our local guide finally returned, having registered us with the local authorities.

Bush camp in the desert then the next two days spent driving through the black desert (it's BIG, about 40-50 degrees at this time of year and very sandy). Stopped off at Konye-Urgench, and old capital city almost totally annihiliated by Genghis Khan then finished off by Tamerlane. There is now just an expanse of sand and about 7 or 8 buildings, most post-dating the conquerors' rampages.

Then Darvaz. ... Hell on Earth. Used to be a mining town, then there was an ENORMOUS gas explosion (the crater is more than 30 metres across and almost twice as deep) so the Soviets pulled out. Now there are just people living in houses in the shadow of rusting industrial equipment and Soviet vehicles with no tyres. And the wind blows. And there's no food or water - everything has to be driven in from the south (more than a day's drive) or the north (about a
day's drive). And the wind blows. And there did not appear to be anything to do - no jobs, no tourism, no industry. And the wind blows. And blows. And blows sand over, under, round and through everything. Houses full of sand, bread full of sand, eyes, fingernails and hair full of sand, cameras full of sand, teeth full of sand. But they still live there, and some of them say they
don't want to move - they like it there. A kind of localised patriotism of the highest degree. Admirable in a way, but I cannot see the attraction myself.

Also, considering the conditions, the locals were incredible - happy-go-lucky and full of smiles, joking and laughing with me, showing me their houses and puppies and village - despite an almost complete language barrier and no mention of money.

So, on we went, to Jerbent just before sunset on the second day. A much more pleasant desert town. Lots of sand, but in a somewhat more manageable way, lots of camels (who's milk, even fresh from the camel, tasted like a sort of fizzy liquid cheese. Won't be tasting that again in a hurry!), women making woven and felt carpets, yurt hospitality (ie. tea and bread in a nomadic
tent), and an old woman trying to convince me that her youngest daughter (about 17) was the best one for me (in sign language). I tried to explain that I prefer older women and I think she gave up with more smiles and laughs.

OK. out of time (again). Will be in Istanbul soon, so I should be able to catch up to date before I head into the middle east. Thanks to everyone who's been emailing me, I haven't had the chance to read them all yet, let alone reply, but I've got plenty of time in Istanbul so hold tight!

Still to come -

the golden statues of Turkmenistan and Ashgabat - the capital city, whose name means 'city of love'

Azerbaijan - land of fire, where men have been worshipping oil and natural gas since the year dot - it's not solely an obsession of modern capitalism after all!

Georgia, land of St. George, precariously perched churches and incredible hospitality (even compared to central asia)

and Turkey!


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