Marvellous, mysterious Merv the highlight of Turkmenistan – in pics

We were the only tourists crossing the Iranian border into Turkmenistan in the early afternoon, and there weren’t many locals there either. But a short bus and taxi ride later we were through the desert mountains and into the nation’s bizarre capital: Ashgabat.

The thing you read about Turkmenistan is that if you take pictures of the wrong government building, you are liable to have your camera memory stick confiscated or emptied. Travellers’ myths these may be, but we weren’t about to risk losing all our 6 weeks of pics. So our only shot of the surreally lit up centre was from our hotel at night.

Ashgabat at night

Ashgabat was destroyed by an earthquake in 1948 and rebuilt in a style that matches Vegas,without the neon lights (though actually someone has since told us that the current leader pulled down a few thousand houses to make space for his space age city…). It’s not unattractive (as some say), but it is bizarre in its appearance of wealth and cleanliness. And there was nobody around; nobody on foot; no cars on many roads. We didn’t venture out much in the small amount of time we had,  but we are still mystified by who lives there and what they do.

Ashgabat in the distance

Given that the few tourists who come here travel mainly in groups, there was no information to be found on how to get out of Ashgabat. Even our hotel (used by foreign workers mainly) had no idea whether there was a long distance bus station. So we felt mighty smug to find ourselves on a bus to Mary the next day, paying normal Turkmen prices (£5 for a 5 hour journey) rather than the tourist rates we’d paid so far (our most expensive hotel yet).

Bus from Ashgabat to Mary and Turkmenabat

Mary is a city in the middle of the Karakoram Desert, the driest in Central Asia.

The bazaar in Mary, Turkmenistan

It was a relief to be in a fairly normal town at last, and it had the most relaxed feel of any town since we left Azerbaijan.

A quick note on women’s clothes in Turkmenistan: the beautiful headwear and long colourful dresses make a wonderful contrast to Iran, but since every single woman seemed to wear the same style of (shapely and fitted) dress, we couldn’t help wondering whether it was fashion or a diktat from the Turkmen leader and therefore not so different from the Hijab over the border.

Mural in Mary, Turkmenistan

But our main motive for coming to Mary was as base for getting to Merv.

Entrance to ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan

Merv is an extraordinary city built right in the middle of the desert

Merv in the Turkmenistan desert

Merv was once one of the great cities of Islam along with Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, but was laid to waste by Gengis Khan, who killed two thirds of the population as he destroyed virtually the whole town. The Bukharans then wrecked what was rebuilt afterwards and they just gave up after that. So the small town of Bayram Ali now gets on with its daily business with the old Merv town walls still on its edge.

Old city walls of Merv

Some of Merv’s buildings survived better than most

Merv in Turkmenistan

But the site – covering an enormous area the size of a mediaeval city – lies bare now except for a few key monuments. Apparently Gengis Khan spared the tomb of the local Sultan

The Sultan's tomb in Merv

With its beautiful ceilings even today.


But we happened upon a group of archaeologists doing a dig a few hundred metres away who are looking for the real tomb of the Sultan this autumn. Yes, apparently in a bid to evade the grave robbers of the period – not knowing that Gengis Khan would also be fooled – the people of Merv saved not only the Sultan’s tomb but the building it was supposed to be housed in.

The walls on Merv near Bayram Ali

We loved this place, just for its vastness and its emptiness. A fantastic spot to imagine Istanbul-style narrow streets bustling with people 800 years ago. I’m glad they haven’t rebuilt it, but I guess my only tourist tip would be to have some sort of model at the edge of the site to help you imagine what it must have looked like.

We’re so glad we got to Merv. And glad, therefore, that we went to Turkmenistan. But just as we were glad to have been there, we were kind of glad to get out too. The most expensive country on our trip so far – yes, more than France or Austria – with its prices for ‘tourists’ being about 10 times the locals’ rates. I don’t think they really want independent back-packer types.

Oh, and for the coffee or tea followers, there was not a lot to be had.

The coffee in Mary was an instant brew, so instant that the little sachet contained not only coffee but dried milk, copious amounts of sugar and a hazelnut flavouring.

It actually wasn’t bad if you need a caffeine kick. But it’s not worth a review for Fancy a Cuppa.

Coffee in Mary at Altyn Asyr Cafe

The tea was OK and well-presented on the whole, but Liptons seem to have a stranglehold on the desert How do those guys manage that??

Tea in Mary, Turkmenistan

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