Trans Eurasia travel

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Turkmenistan was one of the poorest and wildest of the old republics of the USSR, a desert region huger than Germany, peopled by less than four million souls. Over a century ago its inhabitants had been oasis farmers or stockbreeding nomads, whose raids had filled the markets of Bukhara and Khiva with thousands of Persian slaves. Now Turkmenistan had discovered oil, gas and minerals, and — it seemed - the habits of dictatorship. With the collapse of the Soviets, little had changed in its government except the formal abolition of Communism.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Turkmenistan emerged as a newly independent state only in 1991, but the land has been shaped by the legacies of many occupants. The Kugitang Mountains in the east bear traces of the footprints of dinosaurs. At Margush in the heart of the country, archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has toiled for decades in the hot desert to unearth a civilisation of Bronze Age fire-worshippers. Major sites representing different ages and rulers can be visited without fear of encountering jostling crowds of visitors. The Silk Road city of Ancient Merv was long one of the most important capitals of the Islamic world, where the recently restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar stands as a proud tribute to the Seljuk Empire. Yet the camels here outnumber the tourists. The visitor can feel a pioneer too at Konye-Urgench, capital of the once mighty Khorezm Empire, or the Parthian royal residence of Old Nisa, where fabulous carved drinking horns were unearthed.

Stone Age sites have been identified in the Big Balkan Mountains but the first signs of agricultural settlements appeared in Kopet Dag in the 6th millennium BC. More Bronze Age sites have been located in the Margiana Oasis, where archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has identified a sophisticated culture that encompassed several villages and an extensive capital. Rivers that shifted over the centuries caused the abandonment of these settlements, but paved the way for a great civilization around Merv. Alexander the Great established a city here on his way to India.

Around the time of Christ, the Parthians, Rome’s main rivals for power in the West, set up a capital at Nissa, near present-day Ashgabat. In the 11th century the Seljuq Turks appropriated Merv, Alexander’s old city and a Silk Road staging post, as a base from which to expand into Afghanistan.

Two centuries later Chinggis (Genghis) Khan stormed down from the steppes and through Trans-Caspia (the region east of the Caspian Sea) to lay waste to Central Asia. Entire city-states, including Merv and Konye-Urgench, were razed and their populations slaughtered. Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, the cities to the south failed to recover. It’s not known precisely when the first modern Turkmen appeared, but they are believed to have arrived in modern Turkmenistan in the wake of the Seljuk Turks some time in the 11th century. A collection of displaced nomadic horse-breeding tribes, possibly from the foothills of the Altay Mountains, they found alternative pastures in the oases fringing the Karakum desert and in Persia, Syria and Anatolia (in present-day Turkey). Being nomads, they had no concept of, or interest in, statehood and therefore existed in parallel to the constant dynastic shifts that so totally determined Central Asia’s history.

Terrorising the Russians, who had come to ‘civilise’ the region in the early 19th century, Turkmen captured thousands of the tsar’s troops, and sold them into slavery in Khiva and Bukhara. This invited the wrath of the Russian Empire, which finally quelled the wild nomads by massacring thousands of them at Geok-Depe in 1881. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the communists took Ashgabat in 1919. For a while the region existed as the Turkmen oblast (province) of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, before becoming the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR)in 1924.

They had emerged into known history only in the fourteenth century - a Caucasoid race tinged with Mongol blood - and their country, along with all Central Asia, had been almost impenetrable until 150 years ago. Then, for a brief half-century before the Bolshevik turmoil, European travellers had brought back contradictory tales of them. The Turcomans were wild and depraved, they said: a proud, ignorant and inhospitable people, robed outlandishly in scarlet gowns and topped off by monstrous sheepswool hats. They could ride for eighty miles a day and survive on nothing but bruised wheat and sour milk. They were at once gluttonous, austere, affable, thieving, immodest, anarchic and frank. For a pittance they would slip a knife into you.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron