Trans Eurasia travel

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Northern Turkmenistan


Map of northern TurkmenistanThe Khorezm Oasis, fed by the waters of the Amu Darya, sits astride the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, a frontier defined in the 20th century serving to divide the lands of what was for many centuries a single civilisation, based around the geographical territory of the oasis. The area of agricultural land under cultivation expanded and contracted as the powers of the ruling regimes here rose and fell: building new irrigation channels or letting existing ones fall into disuse. Even today, the complex pattern of irrigation canals bringing water to the fields from the Amu Darya, and of deep 'collectors' drawing run-off waters away, is testimony to the crucial role of water in the economy of the region. The evidence presented by the many abandoned fields, their soils encrusted with salt, hints at the major environmental problems wrought by a focus on short-term yields of cotton.

Stalin’s modus operandi in Central Asia sought the division of its people, thus resulting in the split of the Khorezm (an ancient kingdom centred around the Amu-Darya delta) oasis – the northern section around Khiva going to Uzbekistan and the southern portion going to Turkmenistan. It remains this way today, with the Amu-Darya river wriggling its way in and out of the Uzbek and Turkmen borders.

As part of historic Khorezm, the Turkmen portion still contains a sizable Uzbek minority and retains a culture apart from the rest of the country. Sadly, the region has not escaped the Aral Sea disaster and suffers from air, soil and water pollution. It’s also the poorest part of the country, with little commerce apart from the smuggling of subsidised petrol to Uzbekistan. Still, it’s worth visiting the area to explore some unique historical sights, especially if you are travelling to or from Uzbekistan.

All of these factors have helped prompt Niyazov's government to try to integrate Dashoguz Region more closely with the rest of Turkmenistan. A railway is under construction, running audaciously straight across the desert from Ashgabat, to remove reliance on the current roundabout route via Turkmenabat, which both takes an eternity and crosses a stretch of Uzbek territory. The direct road from Ashgabat is also being upgraded. Controversially, Niyazov has announced plans to resettle families from certain border areas deemed 'overpopulated' to new sites in the interior of the country, on the margins of the Kara Kum.

For the tourist, Dashoguz is not the most straightforward region to visit. Travellers on tourist visas need the appropriate border permit to get almost anywhere of interest here. You cannot fly to Dashoguz Airport without such a permit. The amount of time currently eaten up by road or rail options in getting here also means that demand for the domestic flights between Ashgabat and Dashoguz is high, and seats correspondingly difficult to get. But this is nonetheless a rewarding region. The most important site is the former Khorezm capital of Konye-Urgench, whose attractions mix archaeology with shrine pilgrimage. There are also many other, less well-known historical sites around the Khorezm Oasis. The region is also the natural point of departure for onward visits to the Uzbekistan side of the oasis, including Khiva. The regional capital, Dashoguz, provides a good accommodation base for exploring the region. Temperatures are often a few degrees cooler than other parts of Turkmenistan, and Dashoguz has a deserved reputation for bleak winters.