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Midway on the main road between Ashgabat and Bakharden is the village of Geok-Depe (Green Hill), site of the Turkmen’s last stand against the Russians, the scene of a battle in 1881 which resulted in the subjugation of the Ahal Tekke Turkmens by the forces of the tsar. The thousands of Turkmen troops and civilians killed in that battle and the massacre which followed it are remembered every year on the anniversary of the battle.

During the Soviet era the uncommemorated site of the breached earthen fortress, where 15,000 Turkmen died, was part of a collective farm. Today the large, futuristic Saparmurat Hajji Mosque, and its sky-blue domes, stands beside the telltale ridges and burrows. The mosque’s name refers to Niyazov’s pilgrimage to Mecca, from which he returned with US$10 billion in aid from the Saudi government.

The train station is a single-storey building in the centre of town. Buses and minibuses to/from Ashgabat stop in front of it. A footbridge takes you over the railway to the site of the Geok Depe fortress and the mosque. If you are coming from Ashgabat by private vehicle, to visit the mosque and fortress you should leave the main road before you reach the town, taking the right turn signposted for the mosque 20km beyond Abadan. Cross the railway line and then bear left for the mosque.

Geok Depe is very close to Ashgabat, so its possible to make a one day tour and return back to capital for a nightover.

Highlights Across the footbridge from the railway station, the walls at the southeast corner of the Geok Depe fortress have been reconstructed, and offer a good sense of what an imposing defensive structure this must have been. The walls are built to a thickness of 11 m at the base, tapering to 8m. You can climb a flight of steps to walk along the top. A museum, dedicated to the events of 1881, is scheduled to be built at the bottom of the walls here. Elsewhere, the unreconstructed fortress walls are discernible as degraded ridges. The hill of Dengil Depe is still prominent against the skyline, though is surrounded by vineyards and difficult to reach.

Dominating the complex, and indeed the town of Geok Depe, is the Saparmurat Haji Mosque. The mosque, named in honour of the hajj pilgrimage performed by President Niyazov in 1992, was the first major project in Turkmenistan of the French construction company Bouguyes, completed in 1995. The mosque can reportedly accommodate 8,000 worshippers. It has a central dome of deep green colour, surrounded by four green half-domes. The four minarets are each 63m in height, representing the age attained by the Prophet Mohammed. On the eastern side of the mosque is a square courtyard, centred around a star-shaped pool. Small white domes protrude from the roof around this courtyard like a row of eggs. This part of the complex includes both an area for ablutions on the ground floor and rooms originally intended to be a madrasa above. In a change of heart, the authorities have never allowed the latter to open.

The interior of the mosque features four pillars outlining a large central space into which hangs a huge French chandelier. It apparently weighs two tonnes and contains 260 lamps. The interior of the dome and half-domes are decorated with soothing pastel blue designs, and the interior walls feature pleasant tiled representations of the traditional patterns of Turkmen carpets. The mosque is the focus of the government's annual commemoration, on January 12, of those killed at Geok Depe.

In the graveyard at the northern side of the fortress complex is the simple Mausoleum of Kurbanmurad Ishan, a Naqshbandi sheikh who helped inspire the Turkmens to stand firm against the Russians. His tomb is a revered place of pilgrimage.

Orientation With the increased difficulties for foreigners and Turkmen citizens alike in getting to Archabil, the village of Geokdepe, formerly Chuli, has become the preferred summer hill resort for Ashgabat. Some 45km from the Turkmen capital, it is reached by taking the right-hand fork from Vanovskiy settlement, rather than the left-hand route to Archabil. Alternatively, it can be reached from the main Ashgabat to Turkmenbashy road, via a marked turning 31km west of Ashgabat, beyond Abadan. The road reaches the line of the hills after 8km, and you reach the first of the children's summer camps 7km further on.

The tree-shaded streams of Geokdepe offer popular picnic sites, which on pleasant weekends in late spring can get decidedly crowded. The cumulative litter effect of large numbers of picnickers can also somewhat diminish the natural beauty of the place. But there is some excellent walking in the hills and ravines to the south of the settlement. In spring, when the hills are covered in a carpet of poppies, tulips and other wild flowers, the scenery becomes spectacular.