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Saturday, April 30, 2005


Sleeping on the Ground

Of 10 days in Turkmenistan, we only stayed three nights in a hotel. The rest of the time we stayed in nomad's yurts, private homes or in tents we brought with us. The reason for this is fairly practical: since Turkmen don't move around a lot and not many people visit, there aren't many hotels.

This is a chaykhana (teahouse)/truckstop/yurt that we stayed the first night while traveling on the main North/South road. There are only two main highways in the country. Calling this road a highway gives it far more credit than it deserves, since it is nothing more than craters connected by occasional chunks of asphalt. If it seems to be in "the middle of the desert" it's because it is.


This is in the yurt of a Yomut nomad family we stayed with, uh, in a different part of the middle of the desert. The "grey beard" was a village elder and treated us like royalty. His yurt was incredibly luxurious, by local standards, and reflected his high standing in the village. The rugs and fittings on the floors and walls were astonishing. In fact, the camel bag behind the couple is the same as one I have at home! I had always known it to be a Yamut bag. Now I know exactly where it came from and the kind of people who made it! So cool!


I had breakfast with his wife and some of the other women. They cooked up some preserved meat (sort of like jerky stored in oil) seasoned with the shredded stalk of a garlicky-tasting desert plant that was in bloom and gave me some fermented camel's milk. We "talked" about the carpets and koches (felt pads) she makes and she offered me one as a gift. That wasn't really OK with me so we negotiated a price that included breakfast: $2. Her husband was deeply offended when he walked in and saw the transfer of funds because I was the guest. But then someone explained to him that we had negotiated it, and he was satisfied that his honor was still intact. Unfortunately the photos of her with the Koche are too blurry to post.

This is the roof opening of the yurt. It provides ventilation and lets the smoke out. The nomads build an open fire in the middle of the yurt which seems ill-advised considering it's made of felt and full of carpets, but it seems to work out fine.


We spent a night in a village in the Kopet Dag mountains, which trace the Iranian border (the only time we were not "in the middle of the desert"). The insulated tribe that lives in this village has some fascinating, unique traditions. We stayed in the mountainside home of a lovely family and spent the evening eating plov and drinking vodka on this Koche-lined terrace. These are the various daughters and daughters-in-law who live there.


Distances between towns are vast and it's not smart to drive at night, so one evening we just pulled off the highway and drove off into the desert to camp for the night.

This place --Yangykala Canyon -- was stupendous. It's like Bryce Canyon, if Bryce Canyon was on the moon. The canyons were candy-cane striped from iron and completely, totally devoid of any sort of human influence.


Of course people have been there before but there was no evidence of it and it felt like we were the only ones who had ever been there. This area, which is in the middle of the steppe (NOT the desert. There's a difference, but it's not apparent to the naked eye) was an ancient seabed and sea fossils were everywhere.

I don't know if there are degrees of remoteness, but every time I think we've really gone off the map, it seems like we end up in a place like this that makes all the other places seem like Grand Central. We camped right on the edge of the canyon. The full moon was spectacular.


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