If a baby died, its bones would be kept in a ceramic jar in the house.
— Our guide Oleg providing another fascinating background tidbit on the ruins at Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan.
Fifteen minutes later, one of us literally kicked up the fragmented top of an ancient ceramic urn encrusted with earth and filled with small bones. The bit about the bones may sound morbid, but when you realize that what you just overturned with your hiking boots probably dates back 1000s of years, it becomes a really cool find.
If you hit the whole of the Silk Road (through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China), you’ll find yourself continually surrounded by physically impressive sites, including mosques, medressas (Islamic schools), tombs, walls, fortifications, and tile-adorned minarets. After some time, you’ll realize that many of these sites are sanitized and beautifully restored often to the point of over-restoration. There are other sites, however, which harken back to a period long before the Silk Road existed and are in the early stages of their discovery and classification. You’ll find them in Turkmenistan.
Acting as Would-Be Archaeologists in Turkmenistan
Although Gonur Depe doesn’t look like much from afar – just a series of mud walls two feet off the ground – its archaeological implications are significant. Bones, ceramics and the remains of ancient kilns are scattered everywhere as archaeologists race against the advancing desert and the threat of winds and rain that might wash away another layer of history. During our visit, we felt like amateur archaeologists with the possibility of kicking up the Turkmen version of Tutenkamen’s tomb. With each step, we scanned the ground for what might be the next significant find.
The site is still being excavated, so you can see what the professional archaeologists have literally just dug up. The area is an archaeological mélange of Sufi, shamanistic, Zoroastrian, and animistic influences; much remains to be sorted out. Oleg, our guide, shared competing theories from archaeologists regarding what a specific ditch, oven, or bowl might have been used for thousands of years ago. A prominent theory is that Zoroastrianism got its start at Gonur Depe. No one knows for sure, but the remains do seem to offer some convincing proof.
When we were there, we were treated to a peek at the latest discovery, a wealthy man’s grave and his horse’s skeleton, looking as though it had just curled up for a nap.
While Merv and Konye-Urgench serve as Turkmenistan’s main historical attractions and offer more typically iconic Silk Road architecture, we particularly enjoyed Gonur Depe because it made us feel like explorers.
We visited several other sites with pre-and post-Mongol ceramics scattered on the ground. In the middle of the desert, Zengi Baba mausoleum featured ancient petrified seashells fossilized in the form of small cannonballs. Our minds twisted around the concept that today’s desolate desert was once a vibrant part of the eastern reaches of the Caspian Sea.
Turkmenistan's Living History
While we appreciated Turkmenistan’s long history and enjoyed its archaeological sites, some of our favorite moments are attached to Turkmenistan’s living sites.
Take Paraw Bibi, en route from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat, a pilgrimage site that has played host to devotees for centuries. The story of Paraw Bibi (meaning grandmother of Parthians) is one of a strong-minded woman who kept her honor and fought invaders from a mountain cave. Today, the cave and the surrounding area are considered holy, particularly for women who visit it for the supposed fecundity that it confers.
Upon our arrival at the site, we were engulfed by friendly and outgoing women, many of whom literally took Audrey by the arm and helped to lead her up the hill to the site’s apex. Most women wore typically long, colorful Turkmen dresses outfitted with intricate embroidery. Even up the steep hill, they seemed to float with impressive posture.
After visiting the cave and witnessing the performance of religious rites, we walked outside where some girls were playing games of “sin detection,” whereby a stone is balanced on the thumbs of two participants in hopes that the stone rotates, indicating that no sin has been committed.
From there, we descended into the outdoor living and eating quarters. We were told that pilgrims believe that if they eat and sleep near the holy site, the benefits of their pilgrimage will be multiplied. Some women gave us a large platter of plov (a dish composed of rice, carrots and meat) and “head and legs” meat stew. We ate heartily and had to turn down further offers. We were overwhelmed by the genuine hospitality and the feeling of inclusiveness.
Natural and Not-so-Natural History
Perhaps no visit to Turkmenistan would be complete without a visit to the Darvaza gas crater. Our approach to the crater was dramatic enough. Lonely, soft sand dunes played host to beautiful sunsets and “nomadic” desert villages filled with scruffy camels and aging yurts (nomadic homes). Old motorcycles and Soviet vehicles dotted the horizon and as darkness descended, they formed silhouettes in the full moonlight.
The Darvaza gas crater can be seen for miles on an approach through Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert. Like Hell on Earth, its flames rose up from its gut and licked every possible surface with impunity. We walked to the edge to peer in, shielding ourselves from the intense heat and later climbed to a nearby hill for some relief. From there, we sat staring at the gaping, fiery crater for half the night, mesmerized by its flames and its odd beauty.
The Darvaza gas crater appears a natural phenomenon, but owes its origins to human intervention. When the Soviets were exploring the Karakum Desert for gas in the late 1950s, the ground collapsed in several areas and formed several large craters. 30 years later, some genius thought it would be good to burn off the remaining natural gas and lit one of the craters on fire. Today the crater still burns, drawing fuel from the remaining natural gas.
Although arguably unnatural, it’s still pretty cool.
It couldn’t have been a more fitting end to our visit to this relatively unknown, remarkably friendly and truly fascinating country known as Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan Tourist Sights
Our visit to Turkmenistan required a tour. We took in a vast number of planned and unplanned sites including Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk), Avaza Beach, Murche, Zengi Baba mausoleum, Balkanabat, Paraw Bibi, Geok Depe (Geok Tepe) and Saparamat Haji Mosque, Kip Chak Mosque and Turkmenbashi’s Mausoleum and the Mil Ruhi Medjidi (Mosque of Turkmenbashi's Soul) near Ashgabat, Annau Mosque, Seid Gemel ad Din, Abiverd, Howuz Han, the Kazakh and Turkmen cemetery at Sehitli Sem, Mary, Merv, Darvaza, Jerbent, and Konye-Urgench. We used Stantours and can highly recommend them for the quality of their guides. They are also accustomed to accommodating independent travelers and their approach to guiding allows for flexibility and wandering.