After a week with Ben and the YPT group, I was alone again, getting only 4 hours of sleep before having to wake up and be picked up by a random driver at the hotel for a 6am flight to Mary.
The check-in and flight went without a fuss, and I arrived in Mary, Turkmenistan’s 4th largest city, at 7am.
I was immediately picked up by Mohammed at Arrivals, where he promptly drove me 30 minutes out towards the ancient city of Merv.
Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Merv was a major oasis-city in Central Asia located on the historical Silk Road. As several cities have existed on this site, it gained significance for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value throughout history.
Our first stop was to check out the Gäwürgala’s (aka “Fortress of the Zoroastrians”) walls or defensive installations.
From there we drove inwards where I paid a 31 manat joint entry and photography fee. Adjacent to the tourist office is a small museum explaining the history of the site.
The most famous iconic site of the Merv oasis is the great Kyz Qala or kepderihana (from Persian, “Kaftar Khana, or “pigeon house”, i.e., the columbarium).
This mysterious building is among the best-preserved in the whole Merv oasis. Theories of its use include that it was a residence of royalty, a library, a treasury, a residence for the women, and finally a giant roost used to raise pigeons.
Huh? Why pigeons? Why to collect their poop so they could grow some melons for which Merv was famous, of course.
Facing the great Kyz Qala is the smaller Kyz Qala:
You can climb ontop of the little Kyz Qala for views of the Merv plains:
Nearby is a restored mosque and mausoleum:
Climb on top of the tallest hill for views over the entirety of the Merv oasis:
We then stopped by another mosque-mausoleum complex, filled with Friday worshippers:
Behind is a free kitchen where you can cook your own meat for free:
We then drove to the best-preserved of all the structures in Merv: the 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar.
The largest of Seljuk mausoleums, this structure is also the first dated known mosque-mausoleum complex and has stood its ground despite multiple invasions given its exceptional double-domed architecture.
Our last stop was the Mausoleum to Mukhammad ibn Zeyd:
Mohammed then fed me some lunch and dropped me off at Mary hotel where I crashed for 2 hours on their couch to recharge.
After also doing some work here without anyone’s care in the world, Mohammed picked me up again in the later afternoon for a quick exploration of Mary, which included its mosque…
…and its Pokrovskaya Church:
Then I had one more meal at the local megamall before being dropped off back at the airport for an 8:10pm flight back to Ashgabat.
I arrived back at the capital city at 8:50pm.
I was then picked up by the same driver who picked me up earlier this morning, taking me to the international terminal 5 minutes away for my 3:30am Lufthansa flight out of Turkmenistan for Azerbaijan.
Given I was at the airport 6 hours early, I crashed on the café couches in the back, getting in another good 2 hours of sleep.
I tried to get another hour of sleep at the gate, but to no avail given the predominance of Jackie Chan movies and Turkmen music videos playing in the background.
My onward flight boarded promptly at 3:15pm, taking off on time at 3:30am where I got in another hour and half of sleep before landing in Baku at 4:30am local time to begin the next monsoon.
Wow Turkmenistan. After 5 days here I feel like I need a drink or have had one too many.
- At time of posting in Merv, it was 28 °C -
Humidity: 23% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: clear
After a morning driving through the splendor of Yangykala Canyon, we arrived at the city of Türkmenbaşy, named after Turkmenistan’s first president.
Satellite dishes are banned in Turkmenistan due to its potential for receiving feeds from outside countries, but some places are doing well fighting back:
We grabbed lunch at the local bazaar and meandered around for an hour.
After that we dropped ourselves off at the parking lot leading to Awaza, a zone “dedicated to tourism” in Turkmenistan.
Located at the east side of the Caspian Sea, 12 km west of Turkmenbashi city, the existence and aspiration to be the next Dubai was soon criticized by the British Daily Telegraph as “ill-conceived.” And you could see why.
To this day since its inception, it remains to be a total ghost town. We found this out the hard way when we waited for nearly half an hour under the sun for a bus that no longer existed (our cars did not have these “special permits” to enter Awaza), moved back and forth by government officials who had no idea how to get inside the resort.
We then took over a random bus at the last minute, only to be dropped off at a few sites to take photos before we camped out at the resort’s only restaurant for 3 hours as the rest of the resort suddenly became on “lockdown” soon after we arrived.
We were initially worried that we wouldn’t make our evening flight back to Ashgabat as being on “lockdown” meant we couldn’t get out and nobody could get in, but then we were informed it would be lifted for another hour as we finished our early 6pm dinner.
We rushed out of Awaza via random taxis to get into Türkmenbaşy, after which we had to get into random locals’ cars to get to the airport as you also need special permits to get inside the airport complex. Hm.
We then arrived at the airport 3 hours early as our 9pm flight would be delayed by another 1-2 hours.
But the drama soon ended as we boarded our 10:30pm flight and returned to Ashgabat by 11:30pm. By midnight I said my goodbyes to the rest of the group and turned in for a 4:30am wakeup call for a 6am flight the next morning to Mary.
- At time of posting in Awaza, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 24% | Wind Speed: 27km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After camping out overnight at Darvaza, we returned to Ashgabat in the afternoon for a few hours at ultra-hipster and swanky Berkarar Shopping Center.
Presenting itself as such a stark contrast to the rest of the country, Berkara holds itself up to international standards with world class food courts, high-end fashion, and grocery supermarkets. This is where we recharged after a night out in the desert.
We then headed out at 6pm to the Ashgabat Train Station.
Everyone on the platform was curious to our presence:
Boarding an overnight 7pm train to Balkanabat, we hung out for a few hours chatting before settling in by 9pm.
We arrived the next morning at Balkanabat train station by 5am:
We were picked up by 4 cars, after which we made a long, bumpy 3 hour drive to Yangykala Canyon. Here layers of pink, red and yellow rock splash across the sides of steep canyon walls; Yangykala is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Turkmenistan.
Given its solitary isolation in the desert, few Turkmen are even aware of its existence.
Get a shot of yourself doing your best balancing act at “The Crocodile” – if you dare!
Climb down to the 2nd level for an extra layer of danger:
After about an hour driving around and taking photos, we headed onwards to Türkmenbaşy.
Don’t forget to stop by to admire some random desolate bus stops from the days of the USSR along the way:
- At time of posting in Yangykala, it was 29 °C -
Humidity: 22% | Wind Speed: 26km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After taking a naked dip and lunch at Kow Ata, we headed into the desert to visit the infamous gas crater of Darvaza/Derweze, arguably the country’s most famous tourist attraction.
Approaching the gas craters, we first stopped by a desolate village to grab some supplies and drinks for the overnight stay:
The gas crater was accidentally formed in 1971 during the Soviet construction of a gas pipeline. After Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas, the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, creating this 70m wide gas crater.
After odorless gas fumes from the crater led to the asphyxiation and deaths of 2 shepherds who camped out nearby, the Soviets decided to set the entire thing on fire, thus giving its look as “The Gates Of Hell.”
Geologists had hoped the fire would burn up all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning more than 40 years later today.
Given that there are billions of gallons of natural gas in the area, it is believed that the crater will burn for at least another couple of centuries before any thought of this natural phenomenon will go away.
Although the president of Turkmenistan had once made 2 efforts to close the gas crater, it seems that the country has made an about-face; the gas crater has now been prominently featured it as the front page of an international tourism marketing push.
Linger here as the sun begins to set and just take it all in.
It gets better later at night when you see the glow from afar.
And if you’re feeling a little cold, move a little closer so the heat from the craters can keep you warm throughout the night:
We had a DIY dinner where we prepared and cooked some shashliks by open fire.
And if you can camp out here overnight like we did, you can say that you survived a night at the gates of hell. Har har.
After a few hours of sleep we woke up at 7am for a quick and perfunctory breakfast:
Then we took one last look at the craters in the morning light:
…before heading back to Ashgabat.
If you’re keen on geological oddities, there are 2 other but less impressive gas craters in the vicinity:
- At time of posting in Darvaza, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a morning in Kipchak by the capital Ashgabat, we drove out of the city for the Kow Ata Thermal Springs:
Known for its mineral spring waters and healing effects, it’s a 160m journey into the darkness where you can take a quick dip in its dark and yet comfortably warm waters.
Watch your step! It’s a long way down. About 2/3 of the way, there’s a few minimalist stalls where you can get some privacy to change into or out of your swimsuits. No lockers though, but there’s hardly anyone here to steal anything.
We spent about half an hour wading around in the warm waters before heading back up.
Right next door to the springs is an outdoor restaurant where you can have a fantastic BBQ lunch:
We then headed on north towards the Gates of Hell in Darvaza.
- At time of posting in Kow Ata, it was 28 °C -
Humidity: 31% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
Oude Kerk, the oldest building in Amsterdam, just got served
I’m not gonna lie, I really liked Amsterdam. Despite finding a love for off-the-beaten-path locales like Venezuela & The Guyanas, North Korea, Iran, and Antarctica, every now and then travel can surprise you.
One of those surprises is how much I actually found myself enjoying the last 24 hours in one of the most travelled, on-the-beaten-path, family-friendly, safest places in Western Europe. Uhm, just 5 days ago I was crossing the border on foot into Kazakhstan. What the hell happened?
After my Turkmen visa was denied the first time around 3 weeks ago, I tried my hand at a second attempt after finding out I would soon be scheduled for another 4-5 days off from work. Mind you, we’re looking at a trip to begin less than 5 days since returning from our recent trip to Central Asia, so you know I would waste no time in trying to exact my vengeance upon the hermit kingdom.
After submitting my second visa application to Turkmenistan on January 3rd, I waited…and waited…and waited until literally the date of departure, January 17th. And with less than 6 hours before my supposed flight to Turkmenistan, there was still no answer (not even a formal rejection like last time). So I scrambled and miraculously found last minute $400 roundtrip flights to Norway, The Netherlands, and Belgium….I haven’t been the to latter 2 countries yet, so why not? I booked the flights and within 3 hours I was on a flight from JFK to Oslo. I’ll get you one day, Turkmenistan!
Since I had already blitzkireged Oslo 5 months prior, there was nothing really I hadn’t seen yet; I walked around a familiar city being all emo and nostalgic, reminiscing old times with the gang that went to Scandinavia and The Baltic States with me.
Us at the bus terminal lockers in August 2015; the group was doing the nae nae and singing "A Whole New World" here.
Returning to the scene of the crime, January 2016
After returning to Oslo Airport via their fancy direct airport train (took only 20 minutes and costs 1/5 of a cab!), I boarded my 7:30pm flight to Amsterdam.
After arriving at around 9:15pm, I took the 20 minute train into the city and getting off at Amsterdam Centraal, an architectural masterpiece in its own right.
I stayed the night at Ecomama Hostel, one of the best hostels I ever booked. Already impressed, I befriended everyone in my room within a minute of unpacking my stuff; I even took a few of them out into the Red Light District for drinks and hookah 10 minutes later (you can tell Amsterdam was already beginning to grow on me).
The next morning I began my day at 9am with the Verzetsmuseum, aka the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s an impressive, compact exhibit that detailed the Dutch efforts to fight back against their Nazi occupiers during World War II.
Nearby is Wertheim park and their simple yet elegant memorial to the victims of Auschwitz.
Then walking past the Hortus Botanicus, I stopped by for a photo at the Hermitage Amsterdam:
A bit more walking led me to the FOAM Photography Museum, where the admission fee was was 50% off (2 of their exhibits were still being set up at the time).
I headed up north from the FOAM Museum to stroll along the Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam’s last (and the world’s only) floating flower market featuring the famous Dutch tulips in a dizzying array of colors.
A bit northwest is Begijnhof, a sheltered residence for the elderly. Its gate is hidden off Spui somewhere; ask around and you’ll be directed to the best preservation of old Amsterdam.
From Spui I headed up more northwest towards Westerkerk Church and The Anne Frank House.
Unless you bought online tickets at least a month ahead (which I definitely didn’t), prepare to wait at least 30min outside in the cold (or up to hours in warmer seasons) to get into Anne Frank’s House.
Once inside, you can visit the 500 square meters of space where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for nearly 2 years, before they were betrayed, captured, and sent to the Nazi concentration camps.
The bookcase that hid the secret entranceway to Anne Frank's quarters
Anne Frank's room, with its blackout curtains still intact
The stairs leading up to the attic
After about an hour at museum, I proceeded east towards Koninklijk Paleis, the official residence of the Dutch royal family (even though they currently prefer to reside in The Hague).
By the Palace, is the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), where they feature impressive rotating museum exhibits in its grand hall. This is where King William I took the oath of office in 1814, and where His Majesty King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander married Argentinian Princess Máxima in 2002.
A few paces more east is Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam’s oldest building and impressive for its use of natural light for its massive interior.
East of the New Church is De Waag, Amsterdam’s only surviving medieval fortified gate, its oldest secular building, and the site of many public executions.
By now you’ll notice you’re already in Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. It’s now more of a commercialized family-friendly (at least relatively to what it used to be) tourist trap than the controversial safe haven for sex workers for which it once stood.
With its many many empty booths/window displays, or at least booths in the process of being shut down and converted into gentrified fast food chains, you can tell that the RLD’s days are slowly numbered.
At nightfall my buddy Rik Brinks, who co-led our April trip to Venezuela and the Guianas, had found out I was in his motherland (I had just hosted him in NYC only a month prior and didn’t think I would see him again so soon!).
He was generous enough to have changed his plans last minute to head over from his home in Utrecht and take me to the famous brewery Wynand Fockink for their secret-recipe liquors made on-site.
Then we reunited with Maureen Vlaar, whom we met 8 months ago in Paramaribo, Suriname, nearby at her bar/restaurant Maapa. From there I drank with them and their other Dutch buddies until the wee hours of the morning.
At around 2/3am (I forgot at this point), I stumbled back to Ecomama to catch my morning train to Brugge.
- At time of posting in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, it was 3 °C -
Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy