In part one of her travel diary, Golden Eagle’s Zoe Chittim describes her Silk Road expedition with great detail, from the ever-changing scenery, to the beautiful architecture documented by her fascinating photographs, to the absorbing culture. Follow her day to day journey along one of the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation.
ASHGABAT – FRIDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER
I arrived in Ashgabat at 7am after a long flight from Istanbul. After successfully obtaining my visa, I made it through passport control and security, relieved to see my luggage waiting for me! As I made my way into the Arrivals hall, I spotted my driver holding the familiar Golden Eagle Luxury Trains arrivals sign. The train, on its way from Moscow, was not scheduled to arrive until lunchtime, so it was arranged that I would be taken to a local hotel for breakfast and to freshen up before starting my journey.
Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, situated between the Kara Kum desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range is fondly known as the ‘Las Vegas of the Kara Kum’ given its bright, glistening white and gold appearance. All the buildings are made from white marble with gold embellishments and it is a ‘showcase’ city for the relatively recent independent republic. In 2013, the city entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s highest concentration of white marble buildings – Ashgabat is definitely the strangest, yet most fascinating city I have ever visited! Founded by Russians, it served as a fortress between 1919 and 1927 when it was known as Poltoratsk. However, its positioning on a major fault line meant that it was virtually destroyed by an earthquake in 1948, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people died, around two thirds of the population at the time, hence the enormous regeneration that has taken place since.
At 1pm, with my driver, I met the Golden Eagle train at Ashgabat’s main station and was escorted to my Silver Class cabin by our Tour Manager, Anna, and then to the restaurant car, where the rest of the group were enjoying lunch.
After being introduced to my fellow passengers, we left the train and boarded our waiting coaches for an afternoon of sightseeing. Our first stop on the tour was to be the Kipchak Mosque and Mausoleum. The mosque was built in 2004 by the country’s then-president, Saparmurat Niyazov, in his home village with a mausoleum in preparation for his death. Unfortunately, it was only two years later that he passed away and was buried there, along with all of his immediate family who died in the 1948 earthquake and his father, who died during the Second World War. The mosque and mausoleum were built with the same opulent magnificence as the rest of the city and are in-keeping with the white marble theme. The mosque is surrounded by fountains and is decorated inside with verses from the Koran and also the Ruhnama – Niyazov’s ‘spiritual’ guide to life. For this reason, the mosque is not acknowledged by many Muslims.
Niyazov, also known by his self-given title ‘Türkmenbaşy’ meaning ‘Leader of Turkmen’, is considered to be one of the world’s most suppressive leaders, changing various aspects of Turkmen life to reflect his own life events. The months of the year were renamed to replicate various parts of his autobiography ‘Ruhnama’, which was taught in schools across the country. Shops and offices were made to display ‘Ruhnama’ prominently and there is also a central monument to the ‘holy’ book, which we had the chance to visit. In 2005, the book was even launched into orbit!
After our visit to the mosque, we drove around the city admiring the curious, yet magnificent monuments on display on our way to the Ashgabat National Museum of History, where we spent time pondering its 500,000 plus exhibits of art, sculptures, carpets, musical instruments, jewellery, weapons and rare fossils.
Independence Square was our next stop, featuring imposing monuments of all Turkmenistan’s historical heroes, and the Independence Monument, before continuing on to the Monument of Neutrality – a nod to the country’s official ‘neutral’ position. The monument includes a golden statue of Niyazov, which originally rotated, although now it is fixed and has a viewing platform accessed by lifts in the ‘legs’ of the masterpiece. Whilst we were here, we were lucky enough to experience the official changing of the guards. Our final visit was to the Palace of Happiness – where local people are able to marry. Situated high up above the city, we were able to enjoy a panoramic view as the early evening sun started to set. We dined at the opulent Oguzkent Hotel, situated on the main thoroughfare of the city, before returning to the train, witnessing the bright lights of the ‘Las Vegas of the Kara Kum’ along the way.
MERV – SATURDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER
We arrived in Mari, the closest city to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Merv, early in the morning and enjoyed breakfast on-board the train, before driving out to the historical treasure trove (approximately 40 minutes away) to discover the remains of the once-oasis city on the historic Silk Road.
In Persian legend, Merv was the birthplace of humankind and it is claimed that the city was briefly the largest in the world during the 12th century. However, in 1795, the Emir of Bukhara destroyed the Murgab River dam, which the city depended on and as result the ancient city dried out and was left to ruin.
Our first stop was to visit the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, who was ruler of Khorasan between 1097 and 1118. He then became Sultan of the Seljuq Empire from 1118 – 1157. Sanjar was considered the best Seljuq Sultan and was the longest reigning Muslim ruler until the Mongols arrived. Because of this, a visit to his mausoleum is considered a pilgrimage for many Turkmen Muslims. The day we visited was a national holiday in Turkmenistan and so many families had made the journey to visit the holy site and pay their respects. We spent around three hours discovering the remains of the city and we were able to see the Great Kiz Kala, an isolated former elite villa known as a ‘koshk’ with distinctive corrugated walls that dates back to the 8th or 9th century, as well as climbing the former city walls for the more adventurous amongst us. As we crossed the land, we saw wild dromedary camels roaming as well as an abundance of pomegranate trees, which was a real treat.
As we travelled back towards Mari, it was fascinating to see many local Turkmen people go about their daily business. We stopped to speak to a group of women working in the cotton fields who were excited to meet and talk to us (albeit with hand-gestures only, given the language barrier) and we caught a glimpse of a wedding that was taking place at the local hippodrome.
A highlight of the day was visiting a local Mari family in their home, where we learned about everyday life in Turkmenistan and their local customs. We were treated to a selection of handmade pastries and biscuits, as well as fresh dates and local tea. The family showed us around their small farm complete with dromedary camels, donkeys, a Turkmen alabai and a central Asian shepherding dog, whilst the women of the family showed us how they dye and weave the cottons into handmade carpets, hats, clothing and pictures. We had the chance to purchase some of their wares, along with the work of a local artist, it was an incredible experience!
After saying our goodbyes, we returned to the train in time for lunch. We then journeyed towards the Turkmen border in preparation for entering into Uzbekistan. As the train passed through small communities, it was possible to see Turkmen families celebrating the national holiday together – a charitable holiday where families are encouraged to share, especially food, with others who are less fortunate than themselves.
BUKHARA – SUNDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER
The train arrived into Bukhara, considered a ‘city-museum’, during the early hours of the morning while we slept, but after a plentiful breakfast buffet of fresh bread, pastries and continental meats and fruits, we were all eagerly anticipating our exploration of the city.
First on our tour was a visit to the Emir’s Palace of the Moon and Stars, just outside of the city centre. Built in the early 20th century, this was the last Emir of Bukhara’s Summer Palace and combines elements of both Russian and traditional Bukharan architecture. There are various small museums in the grounds, showcasing intricate needlework and handmade costumes of the Emir’s, as well as carpets, furniture, ceramics and paintings. The grounds, complete with wandering peacocks, are a lovely space to sit and relax, away from the hustle of the central city streets.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Mausoleum of Ismail Samanid, a powerful and influential leader in a Persian Samanid dynasty. Tucked away behind a local children’s play area and small theme park, the park is built on the site of an ancient cemetery. Constructed in the 9th century, it is an impressive building with intricate brick detailing.
A highlight of Bukhara was a visit to the Bolo Hauz Mosque – a 17th century mosque that was the place of prayer for the Emirs and their entourage. The mosque includes a terrace with 20 ornately carved pillars, which when reflected in the nearby pool gives the illusion of 40 pillars, hence its nickname of the ‘40 Pillar Mosque’. This mosque is still very much in use and the congregation that meet here on a Friday to pray is often so large that it spills out on to the nearby terrace. Fortunately, we visited on a Sunday so there was ample space for us to wander and explore. A short walk from the mosque, we visited the Ark of Bukhara – a massive fortress built in the 5th century which encompassed a township inhabited by various Royal Courts that controlled Bukhara. The Ark continued to be used as a fortress until the city fell to Russia in 1920. The Ark is now home to two mosques around a large courtyard, with various local craft sellers showcasing their creations. The mausoleum of Bakhautdin Naqushband within the courtyard is also the place where all Uzbek Muslims go to start their pilgrimage to Mecca.
After a short drive, on our way to lunch, we stopped to visit the Zindon, the Emir’s prison, which is home to the infamous ‘Bug Pit’, a pitch-black hole cell over 6 metres deep for the prison’s worst offenders. Prisoners were thrown in the Bug Pit for such crimes as tax avoidance and political misconduct and were left to rot there along with scorpions, snakes and various other poisonous creatures that were thrown in daily. If prisoners were ‘lucky’ enough to survive this living hell, they were taken in front of the Emir in Registan Square and forced to dig their own graves, after which they were beheaded. Two former prisoners of Zindon were the British Colonel, Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Connolly. Stoddart had been sent to Bukhara by Queen Victoria to reassure the Emir about Britain’s intentions in Afghanistan. The Emir was upset that Stoddart had arrived without gifts or a letter from the Queen and so threw him in jail. Captain Connolly was sent to rescue the Colonel, only to be thrown in jail too. In June 1842, both men were marched in front of the Emir and beheaded. The small museum here is definitely worth a visit if you are travelling to Bukhara.
After a morning of adventure, we enjoyed an authentic Uzbek meal in a local restaurant, while we listened to live traditional Uzbek music and saw dancers in traditional costume. Some of our group joined in with the native dances.
After a lovely lunch and a well-deserved rest, we headed to the centre of the old city of Bukhara to the 16th century trading domes and the stunning Poi Kalyan Mosque complex with Mosque, Minaret and Madrasa. The complex is decorated in exquisite mosaic detailing and the surrounding courtyard is adorned with 288 domes resting on 208 pillars. The courtyard was a lovely tranquil area to sit in the afternoon sun, away from the bustle of the trading dome markets that thrive just outside the complex.
The trading domes were built around what was the main thoroughfare of the city for Silk Road traders, and still to this day they are a mixing pot of various craftsmen and artisans selling their creations, along with traditional souvenirs. Here, we were given some free time to explore and haggle with the locals for some bargains amongst the silk scarves, handmade carpets, traditional Suzanis, hats, jewellery, local paintings and traditional knives that were on offer.
That night, as we were able to remain in Bukhara train station, we enjoyed an outdoor barbecue on the deserted station platform to celebrate International Tourism Day. We were treated to a selection of freshly grilled meats and fish, along with tasty salads. For dessert, our on-board pastry chef had created a selection of individual pastries, sweets and fudges. Of course, the wine and vodka was free-flowing as we enjoyed this special meal. Our train left Bukhara at 23.30 after a busy evening and began its overnight journey to Samarkand, where would spend the next day discovering all the city had to offer.
If you enjoyed Zoe’s account of these Silk Road destinations, be sure to keep an eye out for the concluding part. Documenting her journey through Samarkand, Tashkent and Almaty in compelling detail, it is certainly not to be missed.