Bukhara, Uzbekistan

After catching the overnight train from Ashgabat to Turkmenabat (which was really quite  comfortable and pleasant), we headed to the border town of Farab. There we departed Turkmenistan and crossed the border to Uzbekistan.  The whole process took about three hours, which was about half the time it took to cross from Iran to Turkmenistan!  The border crossing process is an experience in itself, as you have to fill out a number of forms which are in the local language (no English, but thank goodness there were examples available), declare all your currency, be examined by a doctor, and so on.

We caught a shared taxi from the Uzbekistan border town to Bukhara, our first destination. It was about a hundred kilometres away however the taxi drivers wouldn’t negotiate with us, and we ended up having to pay US$20 each to Bukhara, which seemed to be the going rate according to the Lonely Planet. However, we were packed in with two other adults, the driver and a teenage girl so it wasn’t the most comfortable of rides! There seems to be a separate ‘tourist rate’ for taxi drivers in Uzbekistan, and they don’t seem to budge on their rates.

In Bukhara we stayed at a lovely B&B run by an Uzbek family (Medina & Illyos). It was US$10 for each of us, which included a hearty breakfast.  Location wise it was close to all the main sights so we spent the afternoon wandering around Lyabi Hauz, a plaza surrounding a pond where we had lunch (plov, a rice dish with carrot and lamb, and laughman, a noodle dish). The plaza is bordered by two beautiful medressas (Nadir Divanbegi and Kukeldash Medressa), the Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka building and nearby Taki Sarrafon bazaar.  Probably the most popular photographed in the plaza is the statue of Hoja Nasruddin, a likeable Sufi myth-like man on his donkey (who features in a lot of the Bukhara artwork and handicrafts). We spent the late afternoon sunlight exploring and photographing the Kalon Minaret and Mosque and the beautiful Ulugbek Medrassa and opposing Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa.

The following morning we headed to the Ark which unfortunately was closed. Only a few days earlier some of the wall had collapsed and the complex was being repaired.  We then headed to Fayzulla House where we spent a few hours exploring the former house of Bukhara’s famous governors, Fayzulla Khojaev who worked with the Bolsheviks and led the overthrow of the Khan.  Afterwards, we headed back to Lyabi Hauz for some lunch before searching for one of two of the last synagogues in Bukhara. We found one which was under restoration.  Spent a bit of time wandering around wider Bukhara – with the intent of going to the Farmer’s Market (for fruit) and Asaka Bank.

We enjoyed Bukhara, it was a peaceful town, great for exploring by foot and very traveller friendly.

Uzbekistan national staple dishes Laghman and PlovNasreddin Hodja a Seljuq satirical Sufi figureNadir Divanbegi Medressa facade
Nadir Divanbegi Medressa facade close-up mythical animalsNadir Divanbegi Medressa facadeSonya in front of the blue mosaics
Nadir Divanbegi Medressa facadeNadir Divanbegi Medressa facadeKukeldash Medressa facade
Intricate interior arch designs of Kukeldash MedressaOne of the interior arch in the Kukeldash MedressaOne of the interior arch in the Kukeldash Medressa
Inside the Kukeldash Medressa, puppets are visibleHand made paper-mache puppetsBlue medressa window
Looking over Lyabi Hauz pondLooking through the arch of a medressaTaki Telpak Furushon Bazaar
Uzbek artist paintingHandy craft painted wooden chess setHandy craft painted wooden happy Uzbek old men
Nadir Divanbegi KhanakaMaghoki Attar Mosque now carpet museumMaghoki Attar Mosque now carpet museum
Abdul Aziz Khan MedressaAbdul Aziz Khan MedressaAbdul Aziz Khan Medressa
Abdul Aziz Khan MedressaAbdul Aziz Khan Medressa stalactitesAbdul Aziz Khan Medressa stalactites
Abdul Aziz Khan MedressaKalon MinaretKalon Minaret
Turquoise dome of Mir i Arab MedressaMir i Arab MedressaKalon Minaret
Kalon Minaret and Mir i Arab MedressaKalon Minaret and Kalon MosqueKalon Minaret, Mosque and Mir i Arab Medressa
Fortification walls of the ArkFortification walls of the ArkEntrance to the Ark
Uzbekistan musicians in traditional dressBolo Hauz MinaretInsmail Samani Mausoleum

Derweze gas crater – “the gateway to hell”

The Derweze gas crater is located 260 kilometres from Ashgabat. It is a collapsed natural gas cavern which was lit to burn-off poisonous gas, this was all in 1971, and today it is still burning as brightly.

We negotiated a ridiculous $150 taxi ride from Ashgabat, mainly because I initially planned to go to Konye-Urgench and then Turkmenabat, but realised this route passed through Uzbekistan and we didn’t have that entry-point on our visa, when I worked this out I informed the driver to go back to Ashgabat instead.

The main road lies about five kilometres west of the crater, the driver, with his sedan car, attempted the dirt tracks, but we nearly got bogged. We found a small local site with a yurt and negotiated with a local to take us to the crater in his four-wheel-drive for a further ten dollars.

We approached the crater after sunset, but not dark enough to experience the full effects. I did expect it to be bigger, but was not disappointed with the heat and power felt when standing near. As with all exciting things, Sonya warned me whenever I stood too close. Our taxi driver enjoyed it as well, I don’t think he even knew it existed prior to our visit.

Derweze gas crater - the door to hell
Derweze gas crater - the door to hell
Derweze gas crater - the door to hell
Derweze gas crater - the door to hell
Derweze gas crater - the door to hell

  1. Derweze gas crater
  2. Yurt

Ashgabat – a city of white marble

From Merv we headed south-west to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, a long four hours in a shared taxi mainly due to the appalling road conditions (unmaintained dirt roads in Australia are main roads in Turkmenistan).

Ashgabat is an interesting city, every building is a large white-marble building, usually with gold trimmings.  This was the vision of previous president Saparmurat Niyazov, who also built numerous fountains and gold statues of himself. All this gives Ashgabat a very unique look.

We didn’t dare to take photos due to the stories we had heard of other travelling being detained by police, that with the fact all buildings looked like government buildings with guards on every corner. A number of times we were reminded not to take photos even though we didn’t even have the camera visible. The Russian bazaar was something we hadn’t seen before, an outdoor bazaar with refrigerated displays selling cheeses and meats, when we tried to take photos we were quickly instructed to delete them.

Finally, for some reason, everything is closed as well, the Earthquake Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and even the twenty-million dollar Turkmenbashi Cableway. At the cableway we did get to take photos with fields of poppies, as imagined, they grow like crazy in this region.

Lush green and red fields of poppies
The white-marble city of Ashgabat
Sonya in a field of poppies
Earthquake memorial, a bull with a globe and a women holding a child

Ancient Merv, Turkmenistan

Our first stop in Turkmenistan after crossing from the Saraghs border was the town of Mary. We stayed at the Hotel Terminal near the train station (or wokzal , in Turkmen) after striking a deal with the taxi driver. I would probably not recommend this hotel as it was rather unclean and lacked even the basics (i.e. curtains, blankets). However, it was late at night by the time we arrived, so we had to make do.

The following morning we had breakfast at a Russian restaurant. We had buckwheat with sausages, and meat dumplings in soup which was delicious. We then tried to arrange for a taxi driver to take us to historical site of Merv, located about thirty kilometres from the town of Mary, finally agreeing 50 manat for a four hour round trip. On our way to Merv, we drove though Mary, observing its numerous Soviet style government buildings.

Merv is a UNESCO heritage site and while much of the site is in ruins, it was a great way to observe the local Turkmen culture as well as to learn a bit about Turkmenistan’s past.  The ancient site was quite the place during the Silk Road days of the 11th and 12th century.  It is said that Merv may have inspired the famous story of Thousand and One Nights.  At the site we had quite a few people approach us for photos, particularly the younger children and teenagers.  I loved the way the women dress in their colourful ankle length dresses embroidered with traditional Turkmen designs and paired with an equally colourful headscarf.

We visited the following in the complex:

Kyz Kala (Great Kyz Kala and Little Kyz Kala) – two mudbrick wall structures built during the 7th century by the Sassanians. The place was surrounded by funny looking camels.

Mausoleums of Two Askhab – a significant pilgrimage site for two companions of the prophet lies in front of Timurid iwans.

Mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zeid – another pilgrimage site, we noticed a number of Turkmens circulating this 12th century mausoleum.

Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar – with a very attractive interior and an interesting history (Sanjar, for whom the mausoleum is built, died of a broken heart when after escaping from Khiva (now in Uzbekistan), returned to find Merv  in ruins after fearless Mongol Chinggis Khan’s soldiers had attacked.

Erk Kala and surrounding fortress of Giaur Kala – we climbed the circular walls of Erk Kala, thought to be the oldest of the five Merv cities (6th century BC) which allowed us to view the wider Giaur Kala (3rd century BC). Remnants of a Buddha’s statue were found in the area making it the most Western point which Buddism reached.

After Merv, we took a shared taxi with a Russian woman and her daughter to Asgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan. After being unable to find the homestay which we had planned to stay at, we ended up at Hotel Asgabat which was alright, albeit slightly more expensive than the other places we’d stayed.  We had dinner (pizza) at a nearby Russian cafe which had American tunes blasting from the huge flatscreen.

Camels surrounding the Great and Small Kyz kalasCamels surrounding the Great and Small Kyz kalasHundreds of camels
One of many camels at MervOne of many camels at MervOne of many camels at Merv
Sonya wandering the Great Kyz kalasThe Small Kyz kalasView of the Great Kyz kalas
Closeup view of a wall of the Great Kyz kalasOne of the two Mausoleum of Two AskhabChildren viewing the tomb of al-Hakam ibn Amr
Mosque of Yusuf HamadaniMinaret of mosque of Yusuf HamadaniMinaret of mosque of Yusuf Hamadani
Sonya and some Turkmen girlsTurkmen women talking with poppies in the foregroundLooking towards the mosque of Yusuf Hamadani from the minaret
Mausoleum of Yusuf HamadaniA Turkmen boy and girlMausoleum of Sultan Sanjar
Turkmen women on the Erk Kala wallsTurkmen women in traditional dressTurkmen children pose for a photo
Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn ZeidThree ice-houses in MervThree ice-houses in Merv