Central Asia Travel Diary

Today was a very relaxing day despite undertaking a 350 kilometre drive from Ashgabat to Mary (pronounced Marie).   We left Ashgabat with our new driver, Dima, in a Nissan Pathfinder as Oleg had to look after a group of 21 Slovenians who were arriving in Ashgabat that day.

Apart from the many routine police check points, and one stop to pay a fine for speeding ($2 plus a bottle of cold water), we made just two stops.

The first stop was at the shrine of Jamal Ad-Din, a mosque dating from the 15th century that is now in ruins.  The fascinating thing about the mosque was the way in which traditional beliefs continued to be seem alongside Islam.  For example, one of the first religions in the area was Zoroastrianism, and its followers built small triangular-shaped towers from stones.  This practice has re-emerged and there were hundreds of such small structures in the grounds around the mosque, some of which had morphed into more stable rectangles.  Another example could be seen right beside the main façade of the ruined mosque, where women who wanted babies had erected small replicas of cribs, while nearby, those who wanted boys specifically had placed stones and a toy car on a smooth rock that was suspected of having magical powers.  In other places, old millstones had been turned into small shrines, and the area gave the impression of local people reverting to a mix of syncretism and pagan practices.

Our second stop was at one of the ancient fortresses (known as caravanserai) used by travellers on the Silk Road as safe places to stay on their journey.  The caravanserai we visited was called Abiwerd, and it was one of many in this part of Turkmenistan where the ancient Silk Road followed the well-watered foot of the northern side of the Kopet Dag mountains separating Iran and Turkmenistan.  It comprised the crumbling remains of a large, square fortress surrounded by what looked like the ditch of a moat, but lack of water meant it was just an excavation ditch.  There were no remains inside the fortress walls to suggest what structures may have once been there.

Across the highway was a large mound where many ancient travellers stayed if they preferred to enjoy the protection of the fortress (from tribal raiders) without having to be inside the fortress itself.  The mound is now adorned by a large slogan in white rocks proclaiming the glories and greatness of the Turkmen nation.  Beside the fortress lay the ruins of a town, but this was a much newer settlement, dating from the 15th century.

We arrived in Mary at about 5:45 pm and proceeded to our hotel, the Motel Rahat, which was essentially a smoky stopover place for Turkish and Iranian truck drivers.  Apart from us, every other guest appeared to be an unshaven, heavily smoking but friendly male truck driver.  We were going to have dinner in the hotel café, but the opaque smoky atmosphere drove us outside to look for a small café, which we stumbled across almost across the road from the hotel.  We enjoyed a simple meal of stewed green capsicums stuffed with rice and fatty mince, with bread, melons for dessert and a large 1.5 litre bottle of Coke – great value at 7000 manat (about $2.80) for the two of us.

The décor surrounding us was a little unusual to say the least – we ate outside in what doubled during the day as a truck mechanic's yard, surrounded by the rusting components of long-dead trucks.  Dinner in a truck's graveyard – what an experience!

Monday 17 July 2006

Ashgabat to Mary

Ceramic fragments, Jamal Ad-Din
One people, one country, one leader
Dinner in the truck mechanic yard