Mongolian TrailsGet off the beaten path to uncover the special character of Mongolia’s remote regions on this unique special interest tour.
When I was a kid we used to play marbles. I don’t know why it was called marbles because we played with glass spheres. In my whole marble playing career I never played with anything that was actually made of marble. It must also have been the case when President Turkmenbashi was a lad. Glass is clearly no substitute if you can have the real thing and too much of the real thing can lead to a much larger enterprise than fiddling little spheres around a playground.
Mr Turkmenbashi’s enduring enterprise is the new city of Ashgabat. It is such an improbable collection of gardens, boulavads, edifices and monuments set on the edge of the Karakum desert that it has variously been described as Lego Land and Vegas without the fun. The fun is down in the old Russian part of the town amongst the leafy plane trees and soviet era appartment blocks. Uptown there are square kilometres of empty white marble apartment blocks, 6 lane boulevards without a single car navigating the cloverleaf overpasses or waiting at the high tech traffic lights. Public transport circulates to bus stops where no one waits and high tech retail markets lack the one essential ingredient; there are no shoppers. Occassionally citzens do appear on the streets but to all intents and purposes this ‘new’ town is a ghost town conjured up out of the desert by an alchemist who learned how to convert natural gas into marble.
We have arrived in Ashgabat from Mashaad, Iran by way of the Bajgiran border which is only 40Km from Ashgabat. An early AM start from Mashaad ensured that we were out of the city and heading north before the locals busy with their daily routine of clogging up the highways and byways. Last night while out to dinner in a swanky neighbourhood I noticed a fair smattering of Porches and Mercs amongst the swarm of boxy little family cars. In a city of 27 million tourists/pilgrims per annum someone has to be making money. The road to Ashgabat is smooth but the immigration procedures at the Turkmenistan border are long winded. There is more than just a whiff of the old soviet era paranoia in the air. This is something that is likely to cause the Turkmenistan authorities strife if they dont get a simpler, smoother process in place by the time the Asia Games take place in Ashgabat in 2017. The facilities, gleaming white and palatial will be empty while regiments of pen pushers labor to record, register and process the atheletes. Early tomorrow we are off to the north. To ancient Khorozem to persue our silk road objectives. Our goal is historic Konye Urgench, the once upon a time lavish capital of a long vanished empire of builders in mud brick and glazed tile. When the water supply dried up so did Konye Urgench. Funny that. It leaves me wondering how Ashgabat will get on if and when its tenuous water supply fails.
Our travels in Iran are over bar 200kms from Mashhad to the Bajgiran border with Turkmenistan. For the past 12 days and over the course of more than 2,000km we have been poking about off the beaten track exploring Iran’s connections with the Silk Road. Its been an eye popping and humbling experience. We have been welcomed, fêted, fed and congratulated by local people everywhere. “Welcome in Iran” defines and typifies Iran’s attitude to travellers and we have been pretty happy to be on the receiving end of it.
Mashhad is a big town and an important one. It is Islam’s most holy city after Mecca. That was news to me when I heard it last evening. We are here because two of Persia’s most important people are buried here. The one Ḥakīm Abu’l-Qāsim Firdowsī Țusī (Ferdowsi), might be credited with the revival of Persian culture and traditions after the Arab conquest. The other, Imam Reza, heir to the Abbasid Caliphate and eighth Shiite Immam is the reason that 27 million people from all over the world make pilgrimage to Mashhad every year. This week is a holy festival at the 85 hectare complex of Astana-e Qods-e Razavi. The city is choked with 1 million pilgrims and we are in the middle of it and enjoying every minute.
Last evening we joined the throng making its quiet and respectful way to the Shrine for evening prayers. We were “welcome”. Actually, we were more than just welcome, we were respectfully included. Frankly I don’t know how to describe an experience like this. I’ve been to some holy places in my travels but I have never observed an occassion like this before and probably I never will again. Today aircraft are landing at Mashhad international as if on a conveyor belt. Pilgrims are arriving from all over the Islamic world; from Arab States, Emirates, Kingdoms, Republics and Territories. From South and South East Asia, Europe and Africa. People are progressing to the Shrine with quiet dignity and their Iranian hosts are probably out there greeting all and everyone; Shiia and Sunni alike with “Welcome in Iran”
Out at Ferdowsi’s Tomb at the village of Tuss it is as quiet as a church yard. Families are strolling in the beautiful gardens and parents are reciting stories about the great man and his epic work to their children. My scholarly efforts were positively puny by comparison to this mans achievements. Over the course of 35years he collected and recorded, in the Persian language all of the traditional fables and legends of a culture that had been swamped by the Arab invasion of the 7th century. It was a large and dangerous enterprise and not popular with his Samanid rulers but ultimately appreciated by Persian’s as a foundation stone of Persia’s cultural revival. Seems to me that Ferdowsi got the quite introspective spot for his ‘Mazar’ and while Imam Reza has the centre stage in Mashhad both of these gentlemen are of equal importance to a lay person like me. The one for his contribution to Persia’s secular heritage and the other for his place in its religious culture. Well tomorrow we are off to the Shrine of another of the regions significant figures, in Ashgabat Turkmenistan where the great Turkmenbashi, self crowned king and protector of the post Soviet people of Turkmenistan has erected his own Mazar....read less
Our band of travellers is making its way eastwards along the flank of the Alboraz mountains towards the holy city of Mashhad by way of Damghan, Shahrud and Sabzevar. Tonight we’ll be putting up in the historic cultural city of Nishapur. This is a key destination for us since it was the once upon a time capital of the Khorasan empire back in the day of the Sassanid dynasty in 320BCE. Many important members of Persia’s litterati lived and worked in Nishapur. Omar Khayam, Attar of Nishapur and many other great poets and writers worked here under the patronage of the Royal families of Khorasan. It was an important trading city then and still is today although the 21st century method of moving commodities from East to west now relies on a double track highspeed rail line and a four lane expressway.
There is a serious volume of traffic pouring down this stip of pavement. Containerised freight heading from Istanbul to Ashgabat, Tashkent and Almaty and 20 million Iranian pilgrims making their way to Mashaad. Islam’s most holy city after Mecca. If you travel this road it is impossible not to notice that a different kind of Persian litterati is hard at work distributing plastic trash over the fields along side the highway and particularly around the rest areas. We have seen it before on our travels but here in the desert the flood of plastic containers and bottles has reached biblical proportions. Noah and his Ark may have beached on Mount Ararat but if that senario was to be replayed now all of that plastic trash that lurks mid Pacific would be hard pressed to find space if washed up here in Iran.
This is all a bit disconcerting. How is it possible that this nation of picnicers can leave their trash behind. This is especially so because the cities and towns are immaculate. A ‘fatwah’ against trashing the countryside would certainly do the trick. I’m not going to post any pictures of this. Its not the Iranian way to make a big song and dance about something for which they may feel embarrassment. Instead we are resolved to write to the gentlemen administrators about the matter in the interests of Iran’s road side ecology which is gagging on plastic and cannot speak for itself. I’m sure that Omar Khyam would agree, he was a man of few words and he used them wisely and to good effect. Khyam, like his contemporaries Rumi amd Fedowsi took the persian language to places that it had never been and used it to circumvent the imposed language -arabic- of their conquerors. Arabic script may be written in Iran but it is seldom spoken. Thanks mainly to Fedowsi who laboured for 30 years to write the epic poem that ultimately preserved the Persian language.
Our journey today began in the old silkroad city of Damgham. It is a modern town with an old heart which includes the earliest Mosque built in Persia and two of the countrys oldest and tallest minarets. That they are still standing says a lot about the technology of the day 1000 years ago back in the Seljuk era when they were built. Unfortunately for the Seljuk dynasty the Mongol horde turned up in the 12th Century and put an end to all this intricate building with baked bricks. As far as Genghis Khan was concerned even two bricks standing atop each other was one too many. ‘Leave no brick standing’ they probably shouted as they poured over the city wall and swamped the hapless Seljukians. The remnants of the city wall are still standing in Damghan. Possibly as a reminder to build higher walls in future but we were pleased to find the minarets with their beautiful brick detailing were also standing albeit somewhat off plumb. From Damghan our road to the east is ploughing its way past a sucession of spectacular caravanserai. They pop up every 40km or so, some in total ruin and others partially so. Some date back 2000 years and others just a few hundred. Along with water cisterns and ice houses there are so many that we have become blase about them after the tremendous excitement of our first encounters. I first saw these silk road way points of trade and travel 6 years ago. They impressed me then and I’m impressed today. Iranians just take them for granted but they are without any doubt in my much silkroad travelled view the finest collection of caravanseri in the world. Second thoughts. I retract everything I have just said. Mums the word!...read less
Murray wrote in his blog about Iran – Qazvin in particular – Its probably another of those spots to keep ‘mum’ about in case a horde of 21st century invaders rolls up in a fleet 48 seat coaches. Well no one kept ‘mum’ about Xian, We were one of a huge fleet of buses heading out on the motorway to the Terra Cotta Warriors – Chinese tourists have arrived en masse, bolstering the numbers of Western tourists who have been coming here since the Buried Army was discovered by a farmer in the 1970’s.
Xian – Ancient Chang An (Heavenly Peace), one time centre of Chinese civilisation, capital of the Tang dynasty and the largest city in the world during the peak period of silk road trade. The city has an intact wall and a history that encompasses over 1000 years and twelve Imperial dynasties. It also has the fabulous buried army of terracotta warriors.
The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are the most significant archaeological excavations of the 20th century. In 246BC, when he ascended to the throne at the age of 13, Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all China, commenced work on his mausoleum. It took 11 years to finish. The Warriors are located in three huge vaults. We also visited the Museum where the most spectacular exhibits are the half size models of two bronze chariots with horse and coachman.
We’ve visited many mosques on our journey across Central Asia so it was fitting to conclude our journey with a visit to the Great Mosque of Xian. This is the oldest and one of the most renowned mosques in the country, founded in 742. It is still used by Chinese Muslims (mainly the Hui people) as a place of worship and apart from the Dungan Mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, it is unlike any of the mosques we have visited, as it is Chinese in its architectural style, and except for some Arabic lettering and decorations, the mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets.
Surrounding the Mosque is the Muslim Quarter – a popular food street and a bazaar lined with a huge number of small shops selling every possible souvenir you might want. Quite a few items made it into our bags, filling up the few spare niches for the journey home!
The monk Xuanzang (602-64) carried the Buddhist sutras and texts from India, these are now housed in the Wild Goose Pagoda that was built to house the sutras. The Pagoda design was based on the stupas he had seen on his travels in India.
So like the Buddhist monk Xuanzang who concluded his travels from India in Xian, we too have finished our journey.
I regularly ‘bang on’ about travel advisories. I don’t understand what possible service they provide when any savy traveller can find out all they need to know about the pros and cons of a destination in 5 minutes of research on the web. Sure, there are fools abroad but no travel advisory is going to deflect them from a potential sticky end regardless of which colour flag someone in a consular affairs office is waving. If I understand this flag bit correctly Green means help yourself but look both ways when crossing the road. Orange means look left, look right and left again before crossing. Red means dont cross but if you have to then keep an eye out for IED’s. Frankly its all too confusing to my mind.
Right now I’m in the land of Iran. According to George W Bush this is heartland ‘Axis of Evil’ if any place should be red flagged its Iran. Actually these days diplomats want to remove that particularly spiteful label and give Iran a better school report. Iran’s flag is actually green, white and red. I dont know if I should cross with caution or not cross at all. Come to think of it California has red in its State flag. I dont recall seeing a travel advisory against California despite the fact that more people die of gunshot wounds there than most other places that a sane traveller might want to go. Its a funny old world in travel advisory-istan.
We have been out and about on the highways and byways of Iran for the past week. Peeking into mosques, mazars and madrassas, sampling the excellent cusine and exploring the covered bazzars. Not too many Iranian’s speak our language and we dont speak theirs but few Iranian’s will pass you in the street without the greeting ‘Welcome in Iran’. I am humbled by the generosity, kindness and understanding that we have received from people everywhere. I dont see the need for some consular official to be sorting thro flags to post on a travel advisory web site where Iran is concerned. I say let them put their own house in order first.
We have been holed up in Qasvin, one time Royal Capital and present day custodian of a truely stunning assemblage of Persian cultural heritage. Truth be told I’m a bit reluctant to say too much about Qasvin. It would be a tragedy if – in the post sanction brave new world- that the place was to be overrun by package tourists. Qasvin is just perfect for folk who want to poke about in small groups. Our journey ended today in Semnan, another historic trade route city with roots deep into ancient Persia’s early civilizations. Zorastraianism may have had its early beginnings in Semnan. Alexander the Great definately passed by on his conquests and the place must have quaked in its boots when the Mogol horde rode into town. Semnan has the dubious record of being deconstructed more times in its history by invading hordes than any other Persian city. Yet for all this the city retains many fine examples of its historic fabric. The covered bazzar is unique in Iran and the Jamee Mosque is one of the earliest examples of Seljuk era architecture. Its probably another of those spots to keep ‘mum’ about in case a horde of 21st century invaders rolls up in a fleet 48 seat coaches....read less