Monday, July 30, 2018


Warning. Long post, but LOTS of pictures, not so much text.


. . . is in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Who knew??
This well hit oil at only 21 meters deep. By 1901, Baku was producing 11 million tons (212,000 barrels) of oil per day, more than 50% of what was being produced worldwide. During the first year of the World War, Azerbaijan produced a record 25.4 million tons of oil. Hitler aimed to capture Baku so as to control this vast resource, but the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 forced a retreat from the area, and Hitler never realized his goal. 

Production declined after the war, but oil production is back up now, and crude oil is pumped to Europe in the second-longest oil pipeline in the world, which has the capacity to transport 1 million barrels/day.  These days they are producing about 875,000 barrels of oil/day. That doesn't touch the 10 million barrels/day produced by the US in 2107, but remember, it's a country the size of South Carolina. 

Considering all the natural gas leaking out of cracks in the rocks in the area, it shouldn't be a surprise that there is plenty of petroleum down there as well.

Marco Polo wrote: "Near the Georgian border [somewhere in Azerbaijan] there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil . . . ."

Friday, July 27, 2018


Azerbaijan is almost completely Muslim (99.2%, according to the Pew Research Center), with two-thirds belonging to the Shia branch and one-third belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam. However, while there is a Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, few locals are "religious" because of the Soviet prohibition of religious practice during the seventy-one years Azerbaijan was part of the USSR. In other words, most of them have lived their entire lives without religion and appear to be fine to have it continue that way.

Still, Islam is a significant part of their ethnic/national identity, and slowly, slowly, young people are being drawn back.

We visited two important mosques built since Azerbaijan became an independent nation in 1991: the Bibi-Heybat Mosque in Baku and the Juma (or Friday) Mosque of Shamakhi. We also visited a third mosque that was remodeled at the end of the 19th century, the Juma Mosque of Baku.

1. Bibi-Heybat Mosque

Although this mosque was built in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is a recreation of a 13th-century mosque by the same name that was blown up in 1934 by the Bolsheviks as part of their anti-religion campaign. It is the first Stalin-destroyed mosque to have been rebuilt in the post Soviet era.

It sits on one of the major highways of Baku alongside the Caspian Sea:
View from across the highway

View from the courtyard on the Caspian Sea side

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


We visited two national parks back-to-back in Azerbaijan: Shirvan and Gobustan.

1. Shirvan National Park is a small (about 200 square miles) park 60 miles southwest of Baku that was formed primarily to protect the goitered gazelle, seen atop the tower below:

There are other animals there, of course, but none so important--or visible--as the gazelle that gets is name from the way its neck puffs out during mating season. The park has had a very successful breeding program--they started with 131 gazelles in 1961 and now have over 8,000. We saw quite a few:

Saturday, July 21, 2018


If you ever think about taking a 3:30 AM flight, I have three words for you (take your pick):
       • You are crazy.
       • Don't do it.

I know what I'm talking about. That's what we did at the end of twenty-two days of arduous travel along the Silk Road. We were crazy enough to book a flight from Ashgabat to Baku that left at 3:30 AM, and since it's an international flight, we had to be at the airport by at least 1:30 AM. The flight is only 1 hr. 35 min. long, so there's really no time to sleep, and of course, it's our policy to hit the ground running.

It was grueling.

But before I get to that part about hitting the ground running, here are a few facts about Azerbaijan, a country I knew ZERO about before this trip:

• In 1918 it became the first democratic state in the Muslim-oriented world, but it was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920 as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

• It declared its independence in August 1991, about four months before the official dissolution of the USSR, and was admitted into the United Nations a few months later.

• The capital city, Baku (population 2.4 million), has the best harbor on the Caspian Sea

• Around 97% of the population is Muslim, with a Shia majority, but most Azerbaijanis are non-practicing. The government is secular and religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution.

• It is a small country, with only 33,400 square miles and a population just under 10 million. Here is a good visual of the size from a site call MapFight, with Azerbaijan in red and South Carolina (32,020 square miles) in blue: However, South Carolina has only half the population that Azerbaijan has:

• Some of the oldest civilizations in the world have ruins in this country.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Our tour group of 90 people (divided into three groups of 30) had been together for three weeks. We had traveled through six countries together, ridden buses, trains, camels, and planes together, consumed thousands of cans of Coke Zero together--and the time had come to bid each other farewell. Most of the group was heading home, but we and another couple still had one more three-day stop in Azerbaijan to go.

The tour leaders said their good-byes, including the two representatives from the German train company and the four members of the Tyndall family, owners of Fun for Less Tours, who had been on the tour with us:

We shared our last dinner while enjoying entertainment provided by local musicians and dancers.

Gotta love the dramatic gestures:

The "This Bread's for You" and "London Bridges" dance:

Turkmeni guitar music:

The Turkmeni Lady Gaga:

We really grew to love the Central Asian drum, a skin stretched over a frame and played mostly with the finger tips:

I wish I had taken more pictures of our traditional Turkmenistan dinner, but all I have is this cup of squash soup, a couple of meat-filled pastries, and a glass of Coke Zero (the Honorable Beverage of the Trip):

There were so many wonderful things about this journey--I learned so much and many of my perceptions and attitudes were re-shaped by our experiences. However, one of the absolute highlights of the trip did not really have anything to do with the Silk Road. Rather, it was a pair of unexpected and miraculous encounters with fellow travelers.

The first day I got on the bus, someone called out my name.  Pearl Anderson introduced herself to me, and then told me a story about having met my oldest sister at church in Utah a few months previous (both of them live in other states), and figuring out that her family and ours were connected. Her father, an American GI, befriended my mother, a German girl in her early 20s, during the occupation of Germany by allied forces after World War II. His family ended up sponsoring my mother's immigration to the US in 1952, and my mother lived with Pearl's grandparents for nine months when she first arrived in the US. Truly, without their help, Mom never would have been able to get out of Germany. She wouldn't have met my dad a few months after she arrived. She wouldn't have married him and had five children with him, with me being the last. My family's existence hinged on the friendship offered to my mother by this woman's father.

Pearl had told my sister she was taking this trip, and my sister told her she thought we were going on the same trip. The 90 tourists on this trip were divided into three sub-groups, and miraculously, the Cannons and Andersons were in the same sub-group. Pearl had seen my name on the sub-group roster and had been watching for me.
During our long journey west, we spent hours together on the bus talking about the stories our parents, all of whom are now dead, had told us about those war years, the immigration process, and my mom's first year in the States. We shared stories of what we knew about our parents' marriages and what our family lives had been like. I think I learned as much about my mother during this trip as I learned about the Silk Road! 

The other little miracle relates to one of the other passengers--a man named Hans Bobsin who is one of the chief travel managers of the German company that owns the Silk Road Express train. He accompanied our group during all of the train travel. Hans is an intelligent, lively, friendly fellow with a great sense of humor who got along well with everyone. As I listened to the soft German accent behind his impeccable English (he speaks something like six languages), it sounded so familiar. The train company is based in Berlin, but Hans did not seem like a typical northern German to me. He was way too much fun. I finally got up the courage to ask him what part of Germany he was from. I told him he did not seem like a typical Berliner to me, a group of people I have stereotyped as a little dour and not particularly friendly. 

"I'm not from Berlin," he said. "I'm from southern Germany."  

"Where in southern Germany?" I asked. 


That single word took my breath away. No wonder his accent sounded familiar! My mother was from Pforzheim, and lived there most of her life before she immigrated!
What are the chances that a member of the family who sponsored my mother's immigration and a man from her hometown would both be on this trip with me? (Mom, did you orchestrate this?)

I shared my mother's stories of the war in Pforzheim with Hans, who teared up when I told him the story of Oma and my uncle fleeing to the river during the lethal bombing raid on February 23, 1945, which killed almost 18,000 people, and of my mother stuck on a farm in the country, not knowing for two weeks if her mother and brother had survived. Hans is my age, and as he told me about growing up in Pforzheim, I could almost imagine what it would have been like to move there had Mom made the decision to return to Germany after my father died in 1964 , something she seriously considered. Hans and I could have been classmates! It gave me new perspective into her difficult decision to stay in the United States for the sake of her American-born children.

After three weeks of travel, in the end it was hard to say good-bye to these and the other wonderful people we had journeyed with.

It didn't help that we were facing a 3:30 AM flight. The airport opened in 1994 and used to be called the Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Airport. (What else would you expect from Turkmenistan?) However, it had many design flaws, and so the second president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, redesigned and rebuilt the airport at a cost of $2.3 billion, and this version, the Ashgabat International Airport, opened in 2016. It is bizarre (the word I have used again and again in my posts about this country) so spend this much money TWICE on an airport as Turkmenistan has almost no tourism and tightly controls the movements of its own citizens.

The terminal's very distinctive design (in white marble and blue glass, duh) looks like a bird in flight:
Photo from Wikipedia

The interior is also quite distinctive:

It had all the regular Duty Free shops, which were either empty or locked up. Of course, it was the wee hours of the morning.

Good-bye, Turkmenistan. I wonder what you'll be like in twenty years?

For that matter, I wonder what ALL of the five Stans will be like in twenty years. This seems like a region of the world that is ripe for change--be it revolution, annexation by China or Russia, collapse, or (by some miracle) a belated entry into world politics and trade.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Many countries have a Monument to Independence, but Turkmenistan's, which commemorates their independence from Russia on October 27, 1991, is just as unique as you would expect it to be in a country full of unusual, mind-blowing monuments. Like many other monuments in Ashgabat, the tower is 91 meters (299 feet) tall in honor of the year of independence. Inside there are exhibition halls depicting the history of the region--which we did not have time to see.

Supposedly the architectural style was inspired by traditional Turkmen yurts and traditional female headgear. The spire also looks like the minaret of a mosque. On the other hand, I've read that the monument is sometimes referred to by visitors as "The Plunger," and I think it looks like an alien's helmet:
We were very fortunate when we were there to see a large gathering of real live people!!!! This was by far the largest group of locals we saw during our time in Ashgabat. They were celebrating the wedding of the couple in the center of the photo:

It was fun to see the guests wearing their beautiful traditional clothing, which is similar in style to what we saw them wearing in the street (when we saw anyone), but perhaps a little more ornate:

The car (white, of course, like everything else in the city) was all gussied up for the special occasion as well:

Friday, July 13, 2018


On a cold, blustery day we visited Old Nisa, an ancient fortress built in about 250 BC and, as of 2007, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located about 10 miles southwest of Ashgabat, it is just over the border from Iran.

This area was a major world power between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD and formed a barrier to Roman expansion while at the same time serving as a major crossroads and trading center.

A barren, desolate place, it is hard to imagine a thriving trade-based community here. Heck, we weren't even seeing tourists other than those in our own group. (Of course, that's how it was no matter where we went in Turkmenistan.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque (aka Gypjak Mosque) is the largest mosque in Central Asia and the main mosque of Turkmenistan. "Turkmenbashi" means "head of the Turkmen" and was the title the first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, gave to himself. In fact, it was he who ordered this mosque to be built and who chose the village of Gypjak for its location, about 5 miles outside of Ashgabat and "coincidentally" his birthplace.

The gold-covered dome is 164 feet wide. By way of comparison, the dome on the U.S. Capitol is 135 feet wide.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


The grandiosity of the "tourist sites" in Ashgabat is hard to describe. Everything is SO over the top. 

Take, for example, the Halk Hakydasy ("People's Memory) Memorial Complex, a vast park that covers almost 7,000,000 square feet or 160 acres. It is 3,000 feet long and 2,000 feet wide. By comparison, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is just 146 acres, and Tienanmen Square in Beijing is a puny 4,700,000 square feet. 

It took only two years to build this memorial park, which was opened in 2014. So far it features three monuments to the dead: one to honor the victims of the 1948 earthquake, one to honor soldiers killed in World War II, and one to honor those killed in a 19th century battle. There is also a museum, which we did not have time to visit.

The earthquake memorial is the most outlandish of the three monuments. A 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck 15 miles southwest of Ashgabat in October 1948 at 2:17 AM, causing extensive damage and many deaths in the city. As Turkmenistan was under strict Soviet control at the time, the actual death toll was never disclosed, but estimates are as high as 110,000, which would be over 20% of the population at the time. One website lists it as the 6th most deadly earthquake in the history of the world. Casualties included the mother and siblings of the future president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, leaving him an orphan (his father had died in World War II). 

How did eight-year-old Saparmurat survive when the rest of his family did not? One source I looked at said he was out taking a walk. What an eight year old is doing taking a walk at 2:17 AM is a mystery to me. There is also a rumor that the earthquake was caused by the first testing of an atomic bomb by the Soviets. Who knows?

The 110-foot-tall earthquake memorial, a marble podium topped by a bronze and gold sculpture, was created in 1998 during Niyazov's presidency to be part of an earthquake memorial located elsewhere in the city. It was moved to its current spot in 2014. It shows a large bull shaking the world between its horns and a dying mother lifting her golden child above the rubble-covered globe. The child is said to be none other than (guess who!) the future president, Sapamurat Niyazov. Though unlikely, this divine rescue is more believable that the early morning walk theory.

Friday, July 6, 2018


So . . . you don't know where Turkmenistan is? In fact, you didn't even know there was a country called Turkmenistan? Don't be embarrassed--until a year ago I didn't either. On the map below, you can see the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in the pink country of Uzbekistan, the city of Mary in the southeast side of Turkmenistan, and the capital city of Ashgabat in south-central Turkmenistan, just 25 or 30 miles from the border of Iran. Does that help?


• With 5.5 million people, Turkmenistan has the lowest population of the Central Asian countries. 

• Turkmenistan was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881, became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1925, and gained its independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

• Jim, the tour company owner who was accompanying us on the trip, said Turkmenistan is a very controlled country. He called it "The North Korea of Central Asia" and gave these two examples: no one is allowed to be out at night, and visiting Russians, including our trip doctor, are kept under guard at the train station and not allowed to leave. (Apparently they hold a grudge against Russia for its former occupation.)

• It has the sixth largest deposit of natural gas in the world and extensive oil reserves. Citizens have been getting free water and natural gas since 1993.

• Since its independence in 1991, there have been only two presidents. The first, President Saparmurat Niyazov, ran unopposed in 1992 and declared himself "President for Life" in 1999. He served until his death in 2006. During his reign he did things like ban dogs from Ashgabat because of their "unappealing odor"; make his birthday a national holiday; outlaw opera, ballet and circuses for being "un-Turkmen like"; rename all the days of the week and months of the year after his family members and friends; close all hospitals outside the capital so that everyone had to come to Ashgabat for medical care; and close all libraries outside the capital to force people to read the Qu'ran and a book he had written himself and made part of the national education curriculum. Niyazov had a Russian wife and one son. Guess where they lived? Russia! They rarely came to Turkmenistan.

Monday, July 2, 2018


Our first of two stops in Turkmenistan, the fifth and final "Stan" on our itinerary, was the city of Mary. "Mary" is quite an unusual name for a city deep in Islamic territory, and as it turns out, Mary has an unusual history.

In the 11th century, one of the local tribes converted to the Eastern Christian Church. According to their tradition, Mary the Mother of Jesus is buried here. (There are several other groups that dispute this.)

Clearly, however, Islam has a strong presence here now. I wish we could have stopped to visit this beautiful building, the Gurbanguly Hajji Mosque:

Construction began in 2001 but was halted due to lack of funds. Eventually the president of Turkmenistan (more about him in a future post) donated enough money from "the President's Charity Fund" to complete construction, and in appreciation, the mosque was named for him.

The modern city of Mary is built near the ruins of the ancient city of Merv, one of the oldest oasis cities on the Silk Road and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It shimmers like a mirage on the edge of the horizon: