- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — It was February when I visited Dashoguz, at the far end of the Earth. I had been assigned to visit the northern town and its outlying regions to check on prospects for agricultural development.

I started out early morning at the Ashgabat airport terminal. After about half an hour, a Russian ticket agent was sent out to attend to the crowd. Under a shock of white-blond hair, she had the physique of a body builder turned Hell’s Angel. A mob of fur hats and scarved heads pushed forward in a melee, thrusting tickets toward the agent.

After about eight or nine customers had been served, there was a sharp, huffy exchange between a Turkmen woman and the ticket agent. The ticket agent stormed away, behind a door not to return. When it was clear the agent was not coming back I went to the gate to show my ticket but was told that the flight was not boarding and that I should go home. Instead, I went to the empty lounge reserved for international flights. They helped me board after I paid a “customer service fee.”

I was the last to board the Soviet Yak-40, workhorse of the Turkmen air fleet. The plane ride lasted an hour. During the flight, I had time to look down on the Kara Kum Desert. Translated as “black sand” it looked more like a pair of wrinkled khaki pants.

When I arrived, the end of the Earth was occupied by a provincial city of dusty concrete-block buildings. Bordering Uzbekistan, Dashoguz was a forbidden zone, part of a sensitive border region that required me to have a special travel permit from the Turkmen government.

That evening, I decided to call home.

You just don’t decide to pick up the phone in Dashoguz and call the outside world. I had to “order” a phone call. The process started a confusing 10-minute exchange with a man who came to my door.

I gave him 40,000 manat — about two dollars — to walk to the state telephone exchange and phone my wife, who was then supposed to call me. Twenty minutes later, the plastic phone in my room emitted a series of distressed buzzing sounds. It was Eileen.

We talked long enough for me to shout to her: “I’m alive” before the line went dead.

The next morning, I hired a driver and interpreter for my two-hour drive to Turkmenbashi Etrap (etraps are the equivalent of a U.S. county). The morning was cold and gray. The driver, Atamurat, was a stoic, serenely confident man wearing the Turkmen trademark headgear, the tall woolly hat and a heavy overcoat.

Like many of the Turkmen, it was hard to gauge his age. He could have been in his 20s or 40s. The interpreter, Maral, was an English teacher in a Turkmen elementary school who spoke with a slight British accent she said she picked up from her English language teacher. Her English was outstanding.

Atamurat drove northeast out of Dashoguz. The cement block apartment buildings quickly disappeared and gave way to barren countryside. It was not so much a void as a half-finished landscape with rudimentary human settlements made of sandstone-colored blocks that blended in with the dusty-brown color of the land.

There were occasional reminders of active human habitation, a lone figure walking through a muddy field on the way to some unknown errand or a bare light bulb shinning in a one-room house. Much of the landscape was scarred with trenches for gas pipelines or irrigation. Mud was everywhere. The roads in the small villages were unpaved.

• Scene 1: Old men with white, iridescent beards, wearing oversize galoshes as they shuffled along the muddy thoroughfares.

• Scene 2: The driver of an old, squat, Soviet-era bus stood in front of it trying to start it with an iron hand-crank.

• Scene 3: A woman in heavy robes and kerchief rode sidesaddle on a motor scooter behind her husband.

• Scene 4: A donkey, led by a 6-year-old boy, pulled a cart overloaded with mulberry branches.

• Scene 5: Goats ate the thatched roof of a barn.

We arrived in the main village of Turkmenbashi Etrap, where I was taken to a guesthouse that is also the home of our local contact, Agajan. He has just opened a guesthouse and I was his first customer. I was fed a filling lunch of hot mutton, rice and fruit.

Afterward we traveled in Agajan’s Yaz, the Soviet army’s answer to the Jeep. We visited an elementary school in the outlying settlement of Altekke where clearly the village elders, schoolteachers and students had been waiting for “the American.”

At the elementary school, children performed a skit about water and sanitation. The high point of the drama unfolded with the “demise” of one child who clutched his stomach and rolled to the ground — all because he didn’t wash his hands before eating.

That night, I was offered an opportunity to sleep in a yurt, an authentic round tent used by the nomads of the steppe. Agajan has it set up in the backyard of his house. Because of the subzero temperature, I opted for a room inside the guesthouse.

I had asked to see the local historic sites, and the challenging road conditions required us to get started by six in the morning if we were to reach the ancient ruins and return before dark. Agajan had no map. I had no map.

We skated through the mud outside the front door to Agajan’s Yaz. He pointed it in the direction of the empty horizon. Over the muddy ruts of road we averaged about 25 miles per hour. When there appeared to be no road, I saw the outlines of what look like dirt mounds on the horizon.

That was Shamakhi. The name is the only piece of information that Agajan could offer. Sadly, the Turkmen have no knowledge of their history.

As we approached, the ruins showed themselves to be a series of 40-foot-high walls of crenellated battlements. Once, they were part of a grand fortress. A pale wall of sunlight illuminated one side of the walls. I pressed my hands into the rock-hard mud walls as if to further assure my senses that this was not a mirage.

The view to the horizon was sheer desolation, but I kept reminding myself that several centuries ago, this point in the desert was a vital center of trading activity to the Turkmen. The last inhabitants either abandoned it or were massacred by the Mongols sometime in the 15th century. Now it is nothing but an outpost of melting clay.

About half-an-hour’s drive from Shamakhi was Devkesken. This was an impressive fortress at the corner of a steep plateau surrounded by a moat. Its perimeter was still very much intact, and the site would have been large enough to hold a small town.

Agajan had no history about it, either, except a partial legend that was hard to follow.

He said a prince from a neighboring kingdom promised the king of the fortress unlimited water in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The prince provided the water, but later fell into a misunderstanding about whether the daughter was still alive or married to someone else.

The prince killed himself. The daughter, who loved the prince, reappeared to find the prince dead. Distraught, she killed herself, too. Then, the water dried up and the people of the fortress died off.

There was a kernel of truth to this legend. No one knows when this area was founded, but at one time it thrived, fed by the waters of the Amu Darya River. Then, sometime in the 15th or 16th century, the river shifted course, flowing away from Devkesken and north to the Aral Sea.

At one corner of the fortress was a tower. We climbed to the top and saw below us an immense desert plain.

This was it — as far as one could travel, the edge of the world. If I went in any direction, I’d be traveling toward civilization, back from the end of the Earth.

Most remarkable was that everything was untouched. No archeological excavation had been done. During the Soviet period, this had been a closed country and a neglected corner of the U.S.S.R.

Now, it presents itself as an archeologist’s dream. Centuries of unknown history lay under these ruins, none of it known.

At both sites, small domed Muslim shrines had been built in the last hundred years or so. Local people make pilgrimages to the ancient sites, leaving small pieces of fabric as offerings in hopes of curing sickness or infertility.

My Turkmen companions knelt and said a short prayer. Contemporary Turkmen bury their dead near the ancient sites, feeling some sacred power emanating from the ruins.

On the drive back to Dashoguz, we raced the setting sun to make a brief stop at the ancient city of Konaurgench. Turkmen prefer not to drive at night for fear of hitting camels or other wandering livestock.

Like much of Central Asia, Konaurgench’s date of origin is unknown, its history murky.

Ceramics from the 5th century have been unearthed here. It is said to have been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. After the Mongol Golden Horde laid waste to it in the 14th century, it never got fully back on its feet.

Later that century, the conqueror Tamerlane enhanced his reputation by destroying the irrigation system that supplied water to the city, slaughtering most of its inhabitants and building small pyramids with their skulls.

The site contains the ruins of a palace and the tallest existing ziggurat in the world. Our guide told us that the top of the ziggurat was formerly capped by a golden tower that was pulled off by Genghis Khan’s men.

At the edge of the ancient ruins are modern graves — most no older than the 19th century.

As the sun set, we raced to the Dashoguz airport in time to catch the last flight to Ashgabat.

John Kropf is a lawyer with the State Department. He is writing a book on his two years of adventures in Turkmenistan. The views contained in this story are his, and not those of the State Department or the U.S. government.

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