Central Asia Travel Diary

After a great sleep in excellent beds, we rose at 7 am and after a cold shower (there being no hot water – Andy decided to remain dirty of course) we had breakfast and headed off at about 8:45 am to Gonur, about 90 kilometres north-east of Mary.

Gonur was a bit like Mary's grandfather city.  Today, the River Murgab flows through Mary, but about 4500 years ago it flowed past Gonur.  Sometime after the birth of Christ, the course of the river changed and Gonur was abandoned as people followed the water and established another great city on its banks, Merv, about 60 kilometres to the south-east.  Merv reached its peak as a Silk Road city in the 11th and 12 centuries, but after it was destroyed by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in 1221, the river changed course again, and Mary was established about 30 kilometres south of Merv.  It was interesting to see how the settlement pattern had changed over time with the changing location of the water – understandable in a hot desert environment!

We made just one scheduled stop on the way to Gonur, this being at one of the hill fortresses (caravanserai) that provided accommodation for travellers in ancient times.  It was great to wander through what was essentially the remains of a hotel that was several thousand years old.  We did make three other brief stops at my request, to take photos of the huge Karakum Canal, some tractors ploughing and causing wind-blown soil erosion, and finally some irrigated cotton fields.  The canal was especially interesting – 1000 kilometres long and build by the Soviets between 1951 and 1961, it now forms the basis for the region's irrigated farmlands, and thus the local economy – and some would add, its environmental problems!

We arrived at Gonur at about midday, and we immediately began exploring.  The area is a relatively recent excavation, having only begun by the Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi in 1972.  Sarianidi claims that Gonur was the centre of the fifth great ancient civilisation (with Egypt, Mesopotamia [Iraq], China and India), and he calls the area Margush.  Gonur was also the place where Zoroaster first began Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion (based on the worship of fire).

The site of Margush, and even of Gonur in particular, was huge – it is said to be the largest excavation in the Near East, and it was easy to believe that as we wandered around in 47 degree heat!  The site had a central palace, surrounded by a square wall, outside which senior officials lived within a second square wall, beyond which the population lived within a third outer circular wall.  There may be more walls but these have not been excavated.

The walk around Gonur was hot but fascinating as we tried to guess (or work out) what various rooms may have been used for, based upon the evidence of their shape, size and situation.  The area was so rich in remains that we spent most of our time walking over ancient ceramic fragments as though they were common pebbles; they were just as numerous!

Following the walk, we entered a small mud-brick hut used by Sarianidi when he works on site each spring and autumn.  In the hut, we sat on the floor and enjoyed a meal of bread with gazelle meat and onions, followed by green tea and melon.  Although hot outside, the hut was tolerably cool, and every so often the suggestion of a refreshing breeze brought welcome relief for a second or two.

The return drive to Mary took just two hours, and we arrived at the hotel at 4:10 pm.  This gave us some time to relax before dinner, which we had at a little after 6 pm in the hotel's café, mercifully quiet and smoke-free compared with the previous night.  We enjoyed a great meal of chicken and chips with bread and Coke before returning to our room to relax by reading, talking and watching a hopelessly over-acted Turkish soap opera on television.

We got an early night because of the need to rise early the next day at 6 am, ready for a long day of travelling.

Tuesday 18 July 2006

To Gonur and back

Irrigated cotton farming
City wall excavations, Gonur
Remains of bricks, Gonur