Written and photographed by Áine Byrne and Fabio Tardim
So far on this journey along the Silk Road, we have traveled through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. As we exited Uzbekistan into Turkmen territory, it was with exhilaration for what lay ahead, and melancholy as our journey was nearing its end. In this month’s article, we explain more about hermit Turkmenistan and modern Azerbaijan, and why we ended our Silk Road journey in Baku rather than Iran or Turkey.
Turkmenistan’s border crossing was equally as detailed as Uzbekistan’s, but as far as a border passing can go in this region, it was actually not too bad. We moved away from the settled traders of Uzbekistan into the Karakum Desert, Darvaza Craters, Ashgabat, the Caspian Sea, a desert dash back up to Kazakhstan, and enjoyed a taster of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan, though not part of the Silk Road, was the perfect way to end our trip, with its modernity and thriving cultural scene. If all went as planned it would have been a miracle, but that said, traveling the Silk Road is a wonderful, mind-altering experience that will only open your mind. If you decide to go, you will find out for yourself.
Let’s discover more about Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
Traveling the hermit kingdom was never meant to be an easy task. Even in the context of bureaucratic former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan is on another level. Strict visa rules and tight border controls are second only to North Korea, and often a visa application can be refused without further explanation. That said, for those who make it there, Turkmen hospitality is the source of legend, and some of its sights are truly remarkable and startlingly unique.
History in Brief
Turkmenistan is today’s most isolated Central Asian republic, but it wasn’t always like this. It used to be known as Turkmenia, and it was the crossroads of many civilizations for hundreds of years; the city of Merv was one of the biggest of its time and an important stop for caravans.
The history of the Turkmen people is closely related to Iran and Turkey, since they were also under the rule of the Seljuk Empire. Though there hadn’t been a Turkmen nation until the Soviet Union, nomadic Turkmen tribes were always staunchly independent, feared, and respected. Despite significant resistance, Russian forces eventually occupied and annexed Turkmenistan in the late 1800s. Turkmenistan became a province under Tsarist rule, then a Soviet Republic, and finally an independent state in 1991. Turkmenistan is the richest of the “-stans,” as it has the world’s fourth largest reserve of natural gas.
Despite the country’s lack of interest in promoting tourism, there are a number of interesting places to keep visitors busy. The main problem is the lack of infrastructure that ends up making the country one of the most expensive in the region. Trains are old and painfully slow, but incredibly cheap. Otherwise, you have to hire a (shared) taxi.
• Konye-Urgench: In the northwest of the country, this city used to be the ancient capital of Khorezm (now a province of Uzbekistan). The city was renowned for its beautiful mosques and madrassas. Great scholars lived here and the city had many resourceful libraries; it was also known as “the capital of a thousand wise men” and “the heart of Islam.” Most of its current sights date back to the 14th century.
• Darvaza Gas Craters (aka “The Gates of Hell”): This unusual site is one of the most popular among visitors. It’s a man-made crater as a result of a natural gas field exploration that collapsed. Apparently, geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. It was meant to burn for a few days, but it has been on fire for more than 40 years. It’s in the middle of the Karakum Desert, quite hard to get to but a “hell” of a sight at nighttime.
• Ashgabat: The old city was completely levelled by the tragic earthquake of 1948 (magnitude 7.3). Under Soviet rule, it was rebuilt as a typical boring Soviet city. But after independence, the eccentric President Niyazov left a curious imprint on the city. Nowadays, the city is more like a bizarre cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang.
• Merv: This city used to be the lynchpin for caravan traders. Its foundation dates back to the third century B.C., and its name has changed several times since. In its heyday back in the 11th century, it was known as “Queen of the World.” Merv was the place to be for scholars, artisans, and traders. As with any other city in the region, it all came to an end when the Mongols decided it was a good idea to check it out. Little remains today as a faint reminder of ancient glories.
The more you know about Turkmenistan, the stranger it gets. It is an odd entity, but it has improved a little bit since egocentric President Niyazov (aka Turkmenbashi) died in 2006. It represents a challenge even for experienced travelers, and perhaps it is a better idea to visit it on an organized tour or with a licensed guide.
Republic of Azerbaijan
Our passage to Azerbaijan was due to Turkmenistan’s “transit visa” rules, so our journey could only end in Baku. Nevertheless, it was a great end to our Silk Road journey. Some consider Azerbaijan as European, others Asian, but we will describe it as Eurasian with a dash of Turkic-Persian culture. Combining two esteemed empires, it was the ancient Persians and the Seljuk Turks of the 11th century who established the country. In an ode to its Zoroastrian faith and vast petroleum provisions, the name Azerbaijan means “Land of Fire.”
History in Brief
Understanding Azerbaijan’s unique and complex history requires a deep knowledge of Persian, Arab, Turkish, and Soviet empires. Prior to 642 A.D., Azerbaijan’s history is vague; however, it was known as a wealthy province of the Arab empire. When that empire fell, the country was ravaged by the Mongol invasions. After that it prospered under the Shirvan Shahs, the Mongol Il-Khans, and the Safavid Dynasty of Persia.
As Azerbaijan is located near Central Asian and European trading routes, it was fought over by the Ottomans, Persians, and the Russians for centuries. In the end, in 1828, it was the Russians who divided the land. The last dynasties of native Azeri khans were quenched and controversial borderlines were developed – which are still debatable today. From the 1870s, the establishment of the oil field industry led to Azerbaijan prospering prior to WWI.
Soviet rule took over in 1919, and there were continuous battles for freedom. The nation was captured again and officially became a union republic of the U.S.S.R. in 1936, much to the dismay of nationalists. Continuous turbulence occurred until Azerbaijan was finally declared independent on August 30, 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The “Land of Fire” will simply captivate you with its mesmerizing countryside and ancient blend of historical empires. Azerbaijan is a rapidly transforming landscape super-charged by its oil-rich fields and petroleum wealth. While Shaki in the north mesmerizes, the multicultural and cosmopolitan capital city of Baku in the south simply amazes with its neo-modern architecture and ancient dwellings perched next to the shining sapphire of the Caspian Sea.
• Fazıl Labarynth – Shaki: Dating from the second to seventh centuries B.C., an archeological site of graves and dwellings has been unearthed. Remains of animal sacrifices, pottery, jewelry, and lots more can be found at the labyrinth.
• Gobustan National Park – Baku: A UNESCO-protected site, Gobustan will stun you with its magnificent mountain views. Wandering through Gobustan, one will find thousands of primordial petroglyphs (stone carvings) depicting ancient warriors and animals.
• Old Walled City – Baku: Explore the alleys of the Old Walled City, which dates back to the Paleolithic era. Visit the Maiden Tower and join a medieval workshop. One can also visit the beautiful Palace of the Shirvanshas, the museum, gardens, and courtyards, or try out the old bathhouse.
• Maidan’s Tower – Baku: Go wander through a 12th-century historical monument located on the beautiful Caspian Sea. Besides a view of a nice castle and panoramic vistas, you can learn a bit about the history and architecture of Baku, and learn about the legends of the monument.
• Gizil Agach State National Reserve – Lankaran: Take a trip to Gizil Agach Bay, located in Lankaran, in the southeast of the country. Gizil Agach is overrun with natural flora and fauna. The wildlife features spectacular bird species, not to mention marine life.
• Mud Volcanoes – Qobustan: Located on Daşgil Hill south of Baku, Qobustan is a peculiar accumulation of miniature mud volcanoes. The mud volcanoes are pointed embankments that burble, dribble, and sometimes explode!
Old Azerbaijani Proverb
“Speak not of what you have read, but about what you have understood.”
A visit to Baku in the Land of Fire will not leave one feeling transported to Doha or Dubai; there is quite a big difference. The city is very cosmopolitan and driven by oil wealth, but it has a distinct European atmosphere. And as soon as you leave the confines of the capital, you will see another exquisite world. The surrounding countryside will astound you with its remarkable scenery and wildlife, helped along by the kindness of the Azeri folks.
Áine Byrne and Fabio Tardim are an intrepid traveling couple currently journeying across Central Asia while writing a series about each country for the Gwangju News. They will also publish articles for multiple media outlets about their trip in spring 2017. To find out more about Central Asia and how to get there, follow their travels via www.followoursilkroad.com.