My Final Days In My Final Country — Turkmenistan Part 4

Welcome back to our Turkmen adventure, where we last left off knocking on the Door to Hell. You survived the hellfire, sandstorm, and shit-eaters that plagued us in our most recent installment. Now we’re in for a smoother ride as we enjoy my final few days in my final UN 193 country, Turkmenistan.

We had just spent a truly hellish night at the Darvaza gas crater, also known as the “Gates of Hell.” As I explained last time, while this site is called a crater, it’s actually a burning sinkhole. After packing up and leaving this molten pit, we went to see another sinkhole nearby that was filled with water instead of fire. While it felt much safer to observe at close range than the famous gas crater, we were warned not to get too close, lest the earth cave out from underneath and swallow us whole. 😨

Back to Ashgabat

My tour group left the water sinkhole, piled back into the car, and headed back to Ashgabat once again. Although we had been there several times already, there were still a few things that we wanted to see and do in the capital city.

Welcome back to Ashgabat!

I had noted when I first arrived that Ashgabat is a remarkable city in more ways than one. The country is ruled by an eccentric dictator who takes pride in collecting Guinness World Records for the capital city. One world record that Ashgabat holds is that it possesses more white marble buildings than any other city worldwide. The effect is impressive, although most of the buildings are uninhabited because the country is extremely sparsely populated, hardly any tourism is permitted, and the country’s tremendous wealth from gas and oil production is very poorly distributed among the population.

You can clearly see the country’s wealth on display in the capital city.

On my previous visits to Ashgabat on this trip, I had already seen several world record winners (a giant indoor Ferris wheel, the world’s largest building in the shape of a horse, the list goes on), which were some combination of strange, impressive, and just plain comical. 😆 I had also visited a handful of mosques and monuments, and before heading to Darvaza, I’d enjoyed shopping at the country’s largest market, which was surprisingly modern.

“Surprisingly modern” is a good descriptor for Ashgabat in general.

Now that we were back in Ashgabat for the third time this trip, we planned to go up to the big radio tower to take a hike. Unfortunately, the cable car was closed, so we couldn’t get to the top to go hiking as we had intended, but we still got to see the big tower at a distance. 🧐

A distant view of the radio tower

We went to see the National Museum of Turkmenistan but decided not to go inside because it was expensive to buy a ticket. Plus, they only wanted payment in U.S. dollars because the local currency is so highly inflated. 💰 The outside of the museum was still nice to view and walk around for a while.

We also visited a few other places in Ashgabat, including some memorials and monuments I hadn’t seen before.

There were still a few things I hadn’t seen around town.

Then we returned to the hotel, where I got some good sleep to make up for the previous sleepless nights and prepare for the next day. 😴

Silk Road Ruins

The next morning, I went with just two other people from our tour group to catch a flight to the city of Mary, formerly known as Merv. You might recall that I’d arrived in the country a little later than the rest of the group, so I was happy to extend my trip by a couple of days on the back end.

Welcome to the ruins of ancient Merv.

Mary is located in the Karakum desert on an oasis on the Murgab River, not far from Afghanistan. This region is famous for its ancient ruins from the Silk Road. We saw two UNESCO World Heritage Sites there, one far away from the present-day city and one closer. The one farther away is called Gonur Depe, which is much more ancient.

The ruins of Gonur Depe, a settlement from the Bronze Age

Sixty kilometers away from there, the ruins of the ancient city of Merv are newer and have many interesting historical sites to visit.

Some of the more modern ruins were restored to varying degrees.

Merv was originally a major Persian city on the Silk Road where people lived way back from the third century BC. While the city originally had mainly Buddhist residents, it quickly became one of the first Persian cities with a primarily Muslim population.

A beautiful ancient mosque

At some point in history, it became such a popular place for pilgrimage that it was known as the “capital of the Eastern Islamic World.” It was an important center of Muslim culture and science, where the people were generally well-educated, and the city was packed full of giant libraries. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities on earth.

You can imagine this place packed full of people back in the old days.

This once-bustling city was torn down by invading Mongols in the 13th century, and it’s said that the entire population of the city was killed. Merv was then slowly rebuilt over a period of time, although it never again regained its former glory.

The original Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar was destroyed by the Mongols, and this restoration was built shortly thereafter by Sanjar’s successor.

After being rebuilt to some degree, the city was destroyed again in the 18th century, and its population was deported, leaving the place completely abandoned.

Picturing this place abandoned in the 18th century takes no stretch of the imagination. 👻

Later, during the Russian occupation of Turkmenistan, this site was used by the Russian military, and it served as a battleground in the Crimean War.

Some sections still looked more like a battleground than ancient ruins.

First, we visited the older city, which is about 100 kilometers from the center of Mary. It was a two or three-hour drive over gravel roads, but it was an interesting drive with lots to see along the way.

Exploring the old city

After that, we went back to the newer part of the city to do lots of sightseeing there. I saw many mosques and mausoleums similar to what I had seen in Uzbekistan, along with many museums and other beautiful buildings.

This large modern complex was built for people making pilgrimages to Merv.

Forbidden Internet

After visiting Mary, it was already time to go back to the airport for our evening flight back to (you guessed it!) Ashgabat, again. That evening, we started our COVID testing back at the hotel, but of course, I wanted to put that off for as long as possible, so first I made a detour to visit a building known as “the Gherkin.”

“The Gherkin” is a nice euphemism for what I’d call this shape. 😳

This big futuristic-looking freestanding tower is one of just two hotels in the country that has access to the internet since it’s extremely restricted in Turkmenistan. More than 80% of IP addresses are blocked in this country, which has some of the most restricted internet worldwide, and VPNs don’t work at all. With this extremely limited internet access at the Gherkin, I could finally begin to share with you, my readers, this detailed account of my experience traveling around Turkmenistan, which is as restricted in tourism as it is in internet access.

Is the erect Gherkin in the background beautiful or an eyesore?

I went for a nice dinner at the rooftop restaurant, which was expensive but had a great Western-style menu. I dined with the two other guys from the tour group who had gone along on the trip to Mary, and we had some fun there on our last night together. After saying goodbye to them, I still had two more days to explore Ashgabat on my own.

The Outskirts of Ashgabat

I spent my last few days doing the things on my own that my tour group had done on the first few days of the tour that I missed. On my first full day back in Ashgabat, I went to see some of the sights on the outskirts of the city.

There were still some interesting things to see just outside of the capital city.

We visited the largest single-domed mosque in the world about an hour away from the city, which is another world record under the president’s belt.

Ruhy Mosque was so big that I could barely fit it in a picture! 😅

We saw more of the outside of the mosque than the inside, but it was still awe-inspiring and interesting to see.

A peek inside the mosque 👀

We also visited an old Persian fortress in the mountains near Ashgabat. It’s in ruins, but there were some beautiful viewpoints to see from there. I enjoyed walking around and taking in the views of Ashgabat and its surroundings.

Ancient ruins near modern Ashgabat

That night, I went to another hotel that was intended for diplomats. It was also a big, fancy, futuristic building, but unfortunately, this one did not have any internet or even a place to grab dinner. I felt like the only guest in a desolate country, which wasn’t a fantastic feeling. Little did I know when I went to sleep that night that the next day would be the unexpected highlight of my whole trip.

A Legendary Little Town

On my last day in Turkmenistan, I visited a mountain town called Nokhur because I wanted to see a bit of the more traditional side of Turkmenistan. The mountains of Nokhur are very close to Iran and create a natural border between the two countries. This village was just the taste of Turkmenistan that I was looking for, as it was quite traditional, and it was named one of the top 100 most romantic places in the world. ❤️ Because it’s so remote, Nokhur was hardly affected by Soviet modernization. The drive to this isolated village in the mountains was long and difficult, but I was already getting used to that in Turkmenistan. At least this time, we didn’t crash our car along the way.

Towering mountains protect this tiny town.

This town has been able to preserve many of its traditions because of its remote location, and it has a rich history, or at least, legends of a rich history. The local tribe, called Nokhurli, believe themselves to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great and speak a dialect unrecognizable to their fellow countrymen. There’s also a stone there that the Nokhurli claim preserves a hoofprint from the horse of Alexander himself.

Overlooking the remote mountain town

The town also has a ton of flora and fauna, which some locals attribute to a biblical event. They believe that the name “Nokhur” roughly translates to something like “Noah hit,” referencing the belief that after 40 days of biblical flooding, Noah’s ark moored right there in the mountains of Nokhur, Turkmenistan. Believers purport that Noah released all the animals and birds here and planted all the seeds he had stored on the ship. Today, the locals believe that the plants in Nokhur have healing powers. ✨

We went to a place filled with many tall old trees, including one with a hollow large enough for several people to fit inside.

A forest on the mountain’s edge

We also visited a local herb market, where I bought a lot of inexpensive herbs to bring back to Dubai. There were all kinds of traditional herbs to promote different types of healing and cure various ailments, so I bought a bunch of them to take home with me. They also have a ton of berries there, so I bought some of those too.

We went to check out a bunch of different sites while we were there, including a fascinating cemetery where each grave is topped by the horn of a mountain goat. Mountain goats are sacred animals to the Nokhurli, revered for their endurance and strength. These horns are believed to fight off evil spirits and protect departed souls on their journey to the afterlife.

We also went to see a fertility shrine called Qyz Bibi, which is a pilgrimage site for Muslim women hoping to get pregnant. The guy watching over this site was quite friendly. He made us tea while we took in the views and explored the pilgrimage site. ☕

The Highlight of My Trip

On the way back from Nokhur, we stopped at an underground lake inside a cave with naturally heated water believed to possess healing powers. I knew we were visiting Kow-Ata Lake that day, but it was so much more incredible than I ever anticipated. The lake is in the spacious Bakharden cave, nestled between the mountains and the Karakum desert.

Luckily, we had a lunch option nearby since I was hungry from my morning in Nokhur, so I enjoyed a good lunch there, but first, I entered the cave and descended probably 300 steps to reach the changing area. There, in the dark of the cave, lies the hot spring. There is some natural light when you first descend, but as you go further into the cave, the light disappears entirely. You’re left in the pitch dark, in water so deep that you cannot stand.

I took my time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the cave, and I found that there was quite a lot to discover there. The cave is quite large, with a depth of 250 meters. You can go so far back into the cave that you become completely enveloped in darkness. The water, with its mineral healing properties, was about 35 degrees, so it was neither too hot nor too cold.

I had a great time exploring the cave. The only other souls I encountered there were those of the numerous bats flying around, plus four Turkmen who couldn’t swim and stayed close to the mouth of the cave for that reason. It felt amazing to have some fun exploring the cave all on my own, and I felt rejuvenated by the thermal water. So, this underground thermal lake unexpectedly ended up being the absolute highlight of my trip to Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, it was too dark inside of the cave to capture any decent photos to share with you.

After about 30 or 40 minutes inside the cave, I left and had a tasty kebab nearby to refuel. 😋 Then I went back to Ashgabat (yes, again), where I stayed at the second of two hotels in the country to have internet (the first being the Gherkin we visited earlier). This hotel was fairly new and had a nice Italian restaurant outside by the pool. I enjoyed my last dinner in the country and took advantage of the internet connection to post tons of pictures of my trip. I packed up my stuff and looked forward to returning to Dubai the next day.

Mission Accomplished

Early the next day, I flew from Ashgabat back to my home base in Dubai.

Home, sweet home!

I was welcomed there with a big party on the night of my arrival, arranged by my girlfriend, Karyna. I invited some people too because we all wanted to party to celebrate my achievement.

Ready to party!

I got a beautiful cake congratulating me for achieving my goal of traveling to all 193 member states of the United Nations, plus four. The cake actually said “193+3,” which was a mistake made by the baker, but because Karyna is Jewish, we decided not to count Palestine. My “plus three,” in that case, would be Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo.

Happy 193 to me! 🥳

I enjoyed the celebration with my friends quite a lot. We had a great time partying from the evening straight through the following morning.

I was also celebrating my new alcohol license for the U.A.E. 😂 Cheers!

So, that was my 193rd country, plus 3 or 4, depending on how you count it. Of course, this isn’t the end of my journey, as I’m still planning to travel to many different territories. I didn’t slow down at all after accomplishing my goal. In fact, just a couple of days later, I was already on my way to visit Oman, which is a riveting story for another day.

The party continues