After exiting the airport in Mary our driver was waiting for us. Loaded the bags in his car, and headed off to the hotel. Mary definitely didn’t have as many monuments and white marble as Ashgabat, but there were still some monuments:
On our way to the hotel, our driver/guide seemed unusually quiet. After a while, I asked him something, and he became much chattier. It turned out he just didn’t speak more than a few words of English, and was quiet assuming we didn’t speak Russian. Things got a bit better from there, but the next couple of days were going to be a bit of a challenge!
Got to our hotel, the Hotel Mary, which wasn’t nearly as grand as the Yyldz Hotel in Ashgabat, but it did have it’s moments…like this sitting room off to the side of the lobby:
First room I was given when I went in the window was open…and wouldn’t shut. I went down to tell the guy at the front desk that the room was really warm because the window wouldn’t shut, and he insisted that I just didn’t know how to close it. Uh, ok. Sent someone up to the room to check it out for me and he confirmed, surprisingly, that the window indeed wouldn’t close. I was given another room just two down from that one, and everything was fine from there. The hotel was comfortable enough and the AC worked well enough, so it would definitely do for a couple of nights. Plus, Ian’s room had a great view of the empty pool. I mean, if you can’t fill the pool in the middle of summer, when can you!
Next step up was to grab something to eat and drink, so we headed down to the hotel restaurant. It was rather short on ambiance and looked more like a cafeteria, and so we asked for a menu. “No menu.” Uh, ok, could we get a couple of beers. The guy went in the back room and came out a minute later “no beers.” Apparently the hotel restaurant wasn’t really much of a restaurant, so we retreated to the WiFi to scope out the options.
The only restaurant on TripAdvisor with more than one review (and there were only five restaurants to begin with) was the Cafe Gyzylgum, about a 20 minute walk away. It was still around 105 degrees fahrenheit, but there was a bit of breeze so we decided to brave it. The walk wasn’t too bad, it was sidewalk the whole way, except for one point where we had to dash across a rather major street. When we arrived, the place was absolutely packed with locals, but they did find us a table upstairs right by the air conditioner!
Overall this place was perfect! A few ice cold beers, fantastic pelmeni in broth as a rather heavy starter, and some pizza to finish it off. The place was a great find and the only slight downside were the “no smoking” signs that were posted everywhere – but completely ignored. In fairness, the group of rather wasted guys at the table next to us did ask nicely when we started at them after they lit up if we minded which then lead to an interesting conversation about their favourite American sports teams. Headed back to the hotel, and crashed. I should mention, this bizzarre park that had all these animal statues along the walk:
Up somewhat early to get some breakfast before heading out to see the Merv historical site. The driver had originally proposed leaving at 8am because “it is very hot” but we convinced him to wait until 9am. Fortunately, it was very cloudy out, and even an on and off sprinkle, which apparently never happens during the summer in Mary. I guess we were just lucky, because it kept the temperatures very reasonable and without the direct sun it wasn’t bad at all.
Breakfast, however, was another story. The restaurant was actually open, but not doing much better than the night before. They did have a very small buffet set out, and it was just enough to make breakfast. Toast, some hard boiled eggs, and some pre-packaged little chocolate cakes. There was coffee and tea, but it was quite an ordeal to get it. The instant coffee seemed to be rationed by the teaspoon (one per guest) and getting a tea bag was also seemingly a difficult request. It was just enough to fuel up for the day, however.
We drove for about an hour, and our first stop was the Mosque of Talkhatan Baba from the 11th century. It’s supposedly a relatively major pilgrimage site, though it’s unclear exactly why:
There were a couple of pilgrims doing laps of the sarcophaguses while we were there:
Though many archeologists agree it was built in 1095, for whatever reason the official story is that it was built in the 12th century:
Our next stop was the visit the ruins of a 20th century madrassah which was being restored, seemingly by one very old man. A few student dwellings:
More ruins of the madrassah:
Ruins of the old minaret….Ian had to climb it:
Next stop was to head off to our main site for the day, the Merv historical site, which is designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. The area dates back to at least the 8th century BC and one of the major contributors to its growth as a city was that it was the first place in central Asia where irrigation appeared and thus it became a major stopping/trading point on the old silk road. It’s also thought that at some point in the 12th century Merv was the largest city in the world. Over the centuries it traded hands from the Turks to the Mongols and eventually to the Uzbeks who completely destroyed it. The current ruins comprise at least five ancient cities, and honestly I was really let down by the state of repair of them:
There is some attempt at restoration, but very little of the original remains:
One rather cool ruin that was still largely in tact was the great icehouse from the 12th century. These were cooled to store meats during the summer. They would be packed with snow and ice during the winter, and it would remain frozen through the summer – rather impressive given the 110+ fahrenheit temperatures:
Inside the icehouse:
Next we drove to a vantage point where if you wanted to climb the big hill, you could supposedly get a good view. I would guess it was a nearly 20-25 degree incline at a minimum, but we managed to scramble up:
From the top, you could see our driver waiting down below with the car:
Walking along the ridge at the top, you can see Ian about 200 metres further down:
…and his view of me:
Next stop in Merv was the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. It was built in the 12th century, and legend has it the size was determined in order to allow approaching caravans on the silk road to spot it from a day’s journey away. Inside the mausoleum:
The crypt of Sultan Sanjar, who reigned over the area when it was likely the largest city in the world:
Pilgrims walking around the crypt:
Next up, yet another mausoleum. This time of Mohammad ibn Zayed…or Mohammad, the son of Zayed. The crypt:
Arabic script on the walls of the mausoleu
Outside the mausoleum:
After we finished seeing Merv, it was time to drive back to Mary. Being time for a late lunch (it was around 2pm at this point) our driver took us to what he said was the best restaurant in town. You guessed it, it was the place we had dinner the night before! Had another tasty meal, and then set out to do a bit more sightseeing.
First stop was the local Orthodox Church:
Second stop in the city was the Mary Museum, which was completely empty except for us, but was really rather large, with several good exhibits spread over two levels. The biggest shock was that we got a guide in the museum who spoke English rather well. He guided us through the exhibits, which were everything from local current artwork to stuffed taxidermy of local animals and birds, and tons of items excavated from the area around Merv. There were also exhibitions on local costumes, local rugs, and tons and tons of pottery, coins, etc. It was definitely interesting, and despite being the only ones in the museum we managed to spend almost two hours there.
The funniest part came when we were getting ready to leave the museum. Another of the workers came up to us, having noticed the hockey tattoo on my leg. He only spoke Russian and asked where we were from. I told him Washington, and he asked “and do you play hockey?” I said yes, and he gave me a big thumbs up and said Ovechkin! Then he pretty much demanded to pose for a picture with us. I think he probably assumed that hockey + washington = playing with ovechkin, so he had to have a picture with me. It was absolutely priceless. I was seriously fading by this point, so we went back to the hotel where I ended up taking a short nap.
When I checked my email after the nap, I got some news that meant it was very unlikely I would be able to join Ian in Crimea for the next leg of our trip. This is probably a good place to talk about internet. There was no phone roaming available, which meant no checking email, data, etc except for at the hotel where there was wifi. Even when there was wifi, lots of services were blocked including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. This was solved by downloading a VPN for my phone, which allowed me to get to those sites…when it was working. It was a minor frustration for our four nights in Turkmenistan, but one which was well worth it for the cool sites!
After the nap we ended up heading out for a walk to the same place for dinner again, followed by getting to bed early. We had a super early flight back to Ashgabat in the morning for our last full day in Turkmenistan.