Burgun, Karakum desert, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

We zigzagged for hours among dunes and bushy flatlands, backtracking a couple of times, to reach Burgun, spelled with metal letters and adorned with two doves on a post in the middle of a sandy expanse by ancient Uzboy river. We walked a bit around the village, a few stone houses with corrugated metal roofs, all equipped with a satellite dish, some yurts, camels sitting, stacks of dry branches, smiling boys circling on bicycles, more reserved girls coming out slowly. Among them a pretty blondish one in a long red dress with white dots, and obviously her little brunette sister wearing the same outfit, it reminded us of equally blond-tressed schoolgirls we had seen in Berlin, a town in central El Salvador, descendants of 19th century German colonists. I’d be curious to go back in time to see the ancestors of these fair kids, earliest human migrations? trade caravans? invaders? Russian settlers?


Merv, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

This very gentle mullah takes care of the 12th century mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zeid, who was nevertheless buried four centuries before and elsewhere… It is set in one of the planet’s famous sites, Merv, the “Queen of the world” in the 11th century, second city after Baghdad only, settled as early as 6,000 BCE, built by the Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE, renamed by Alexander the Great, aggrandized by the Persian Sassanians, then the Seljuq Turks, hosting Christians, Buddhist, Zoroastrians, and Muslims, completely destroyed by Genghiz Khan who killed a million people around 1221 CE to avenge the axing of his envoys, rebuilt by Persians, re-destroyed by the Emir of Bukhara, used as an oasis for Turkmen tribes, taken over by the Russian tsar before being totally abandoned during Soviet time. No wonder there were various layers of cities, a bit like Troy, and that, near some walls, Oleg found an ancient coin, bronze, eroded, but recognizable, add that to a piece of glazed ceramic with ancient inscription and that was a nice day catch. You must have an eye for it, in the 60s, when my father and I were visiting some Athina sanctuary in Attica, Greece with a German archaeologist, he also found an ancient coin, right at a place where hundreds of people have walked.Ah, you can see all over the country hundreds of amulets hanging from every branch of the trees and bushes whenever there is a holy shrine, dedicated to some Bibi (grandmother). Most of them represent a crib whereby women ask the deity for many and healthy kids. The best way to have one’s wishes granted is to cook and eat in a little house built nearby for that purpose, and the very surest, to sleep overnight under one of those holy trees.


Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

Our goal was not to follow the so touted Silk Road, nor retrace Alexander the Great steps like Greeks dream to do. And it’s only later, reading the map, that I discovered that our route espoused pretty well the 40 North parallel, even our Northern Greece village is right on it (N40°18), as are our friends at destination (Sapporo, N42°59). Well, it’s a bit more complicated. This trip was to experience Central Asia, so we zigzagged a lot around it as these borders are incredibly capricious, roads have to negotiate high mountains, and open passes into China are few and apart, I mean the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, one of the mythical spots, with the large oasis of Kashgar (N39°23) and the Thousand Buddha caves (N41°42 for Kucha, N40°10 for Dunhuang). Anyway we badly wanted to see China again, and the road to the Far East passed through history-rich Manchuria, then Vladivostok on the Pacific, and the ferry across the Sea of Japan… We are still far from all that in this joint in the desert capital, but these three cooks, so excited to see foreigners, are the main reason for our traveling: reaching out to people.


Darvaza, Karakum desert, Turkmenistan, September 2008. Gas in a large hole, burning day and night, the country’s underground is a giant energy reservoir.

At first, I was struck that bulbs were permanently on all over the country, from the village huts to the all-marble apartment towers under construction to the building cranes, all illuminated, day and night. Then Oleg told us that in Turkmenistan electricity, gas, and water are totally free. Here we had a good example of waste, we don’t pay, so we leave it on day and night – at the guesthouse, the water for tea was constantly boiling on the open gas, with the kettle whistling all night. What a difference from Baku, Azerbaijan where the owner of the art gallery turned off the light as soon as we left a room. This is maybe to compensate for the fact that you cannot own the land, so, you have free utilities… and your own house, except the government can throw you out without compensation beyond the obligation to offer you a replacement apartment. Now we could also understand the razing of entire neighborhoods in the main cities to make spaces for these ostentatious towers.


Melekoch, Karakum desert, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

A hamlet is a big word to describe a few adobe houses in the middle of the great desert. Yet enough families lived there to have 20 schoolchildren for whom the government had sent five teachers. Gül (Flower), above, taught Russian and her husband music, and between them accounted for six of the children. Actually the daughters were older, we saw four of them in a separate building weave, kneeling, the famous Turkmen carpets. “Turkoman girls spent much of their time in embroidery and weaving. A girl thought first of her dowry, but having woven a few fine rugs and embroidered a suitable number of garments for this purpose, she and her sisters wove additional rugs and saddlebags for sale to merchants – the fine rugs known in Europe and America as ‘Bukhara’ or ‘Merv’” [Elizabeth Bacon, Central Asians Under Russian Rule – A Study in Culture Change, p.50]. This was history, but time has not passed here.


Nokhur, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

Mullah coming back from a funeral. Cemeteries are at a certain distance outside the villages and towns, for sanitary reasons they say. Sometimes they are as far as 50 km, like in Tashkent where Robert Kaplan reports that Uzbeks are resentful for having to bury their relatives so far, with all the fuel it requires, while Jews and Christians (Greek and Russian Orthodox) fill the big Dombrabad cemetery in town, with the result of many of these graves being smashed [The Ends of the Earth, p.253].

In this particular one, many graves’ headstones were adorned with a pair of antlers… and a tulip. These flowers which make us think about Holland have their origin in this Kopet Dag mountain range which separates Turkmenistan from Iran, and 90% are red, so the Dutch must have worked on the colors! Maybe in a few centuries orchids will also be associated with Holland even though they originate in Thailand. We visited a Dutch friend whose family-in-law has the world’s third production of orchids near The Hague, an impressive greenhouse, with rows and rows of well-tended and aligned, yellow and mauve orchids, the ones you see in Western supermarkets. The mullah was coming last, he had been preceded by all the elders, only men, and we saw the whole gamut of hats, the plain, the flurry and oversize brown, same in white, the black Astrakhan, like this man below.


Nokhur, Turkmenistan, September 2008.