The Silk Road of Turkmenistan, Samarkand and Bukhara. I’d been longing to travel it forever. In the 90s, while living in Beijing, my friend Ann and I had made a strong attempt to go to Uzbekistan, but visas for backpackers were not issued. Over the years, I visited bits and pieces of it in China, but the lure of glorious sounding cities like Samarkand and Bukhara remained strong.
So when I “retired”, this was one of those bucket list trips that had to be tackled. Together with Ann, as our friendship had endured the passage of time, just like the Silk Road had.
When I started researching, I happened upon what turned out to be the best possible travel agency we could do this trip with (Advantour). Amongst the possible routes proposed, there was one that included Turkmenistan. I’d never even heard of the place. All it took was pictures of the Darwaza gas crater, and we were ready to include it in our adventure, some 25 years in the making.
Starting Out in Tashkent
That first night in Tashkent is something I will never forget. I guess the travel agent had expected us to just eat in the hotel that night, but Ann and I have always been adventurous spirits and hotel food reminded me too much of business trips. So we explored, following the music emanating from a park. There was a restaurant in the park, so we sat down.
The waiters ignored us. We finally got our hands on a menu, and were baffled. Both coming from Belgium and having studied Chinese, we had been able to make our way to the far corners of the earth without ever really having communication issues. But here we were, facing a menu in Cyrillic script, and not a single soul in the restaurant who spoke any of the ten languages we did.
The waiters continued to ignore us, we understood they did not want to lose face, and so we left and found food stalls in the park. Much easier. Just point to what you want.
Tashkent is OK, but the big appeal are places like Khiva, which show up in ancient Chinese texts as being important stops on the Silk Road. Khiva is known for its elaborately carved pillars. A small dusty desert town, it just felt like we had gotten to an undiscovered place.
Looking back at our pictures now, I also realize we were just about the only tourists around during most of this trip. A real luxury. Khiva did not disappoint, it maintains this feeling of a time and spirit long lost in today’s hurried world. We celebrated my birthday here.
Exploring Time Travel in Turkmenistan
The next day we crossed into no man’s land, dragging our suitcase the mile or so between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where we were greeted by Yelena, and she simply made the trip. Yelena had actually been featured on a travel show in Belgium featuring “The ten least visited countries in the world”. Turkmenistan is high on that list. They issue just 7000 visas a year, most of those to oil workers. In our 9 days there, we only saw 6 other tourists.
The interesting thing about Turkmenistan is that because they have no tourists, the old cities are left just like they were left after Genghis Khan and his golden horde ransacked them in the 1200s. Our guides were female and the best guides around, the ones that would be assigned to presidents when they visited. Several collected old photographs, and showed us how the complex looked like in the 50s, 60s, 90s. One half tower standing, half of the front wall, and the rest gone.
In Turkmenistan you can experience the ravages of the golden horde, some 800 years after they came through. I found this contrast fascinating, as it enabled us to travel through time in our minds. In Uzbekistan, where there are tourists, they rebuild most of the old complexes. So you can see what it was like before the golden horde.
The ‘Gate of Hell’
Some other highlights of Turkmenistan certainly include the Darwaza gas crater. A gas exploration accident that happened in 1971 caused toxic gases to spew from a collapsed cavern. The Russians lit the gas thinking it would burn off in a few days. Decades later, the crater still burns bright.
We camped nearby this “Gate of Hell”, had a BBQ under the stars and saw a super moon rise over the dunes, so large and bright it felt like I could grab a hold of it. I was mesmerized. And I simply loved the Gate of Hell. It is one of the most unique experiences I have ever had.
On to Ashgabat, the Capital
The next day brought us into Ashgabat, the surreal capital of Turkmenistan, paved with gold and white marble, it is the fantasy of a dictator who has held tight reigns for decades and comes up with the most bizarre rules. Ashgabat feels super rich, and a lot of it is paid for by the country’s oil wealth. The bus stops are white marble and air-conditioned. The streets all have water and fountains running down the middle to cool things down. Never mind we are in the middle of a desert or that the rest of the country lives in mud houses…
Heading Deeper into Turkmenistan
The next days we bumped around in a land rover, visiting old ruined cities that told countless tales, and over a high mountainous plateau, completely deserted except for the giant birds of prey that crossed our path. We would stop in the villages and pick up melons and vegetables.
The food in the hotels was atrocious and had already made all of us sick, and Yelena had taken to bringing in our own ingredients and telling the cook what to do with it. For the rest of the trip, we ate vegetarian stews made with the most delicious vegetables I’d ever had in my life. And I still drool thinking of the taste of the melons!
We finally made our way to the border with Afghanistan, where you could hike up on a mountain and where a landslide revealed over 700 dinosaur prints. Prints so large one could sit in them. We also visited an old man in a sacred cave, picnicked in the orchard and had a goat massage. It was the most gorgeous fall day, but apart from these 3 activities, there is not much to do. I told Yelena that I was sure there were fossils around, and given we had time, we went and explored amongst one of the many rock slides. It took me less than 5 minutes to find them.
On to Uzbekistan
Next we had to say goodbye to Yelena and our driver, crossed into Uzbekistan again, and arrived in an old charming karavanserai in Bukhara. Bukhara is a wonderful town, with loads of restored old buildings resplendent in mosaics, from mosques and minarets to fortresses. A great place to get the feeling you traveled in time again.
The same is true for Samarkand, another one of the famous Silk Road towns. We wandered the bazaars, explored all the ancient architecture and ate under the stars. I could have lingered forever. But eventually a fast speed train took us back to Tashkent (yes, they have better trains here than in the West, maybe only one, but it goes fast!), where we said goodbye to our short foray into history.
About the Author
Kristien Van Hecke is Belgian, but knew at age 15 that she wanted to live in the world, and not just visit. She left Belgium at age 19 on a scholarship, has lived in 11 countries to date and has visited close to 100 countries and territories.