The border crossing from Uzbekistan was painless largely because we were able to drive across No Man's Land to the actual Turkmen boundary at the Amu Darya river, which here is little more than a runnel. Other people not so fortunate - and not traveling with Geoex - had to traverse it on foot lugging their suitcases behind them.
On arrival at Turkmenabad we had time before catching the flight to Ashgabad, so went for dinner to a restaurant where evidently the management have had trouble with people unsure of what to do when confronted by a 'western' loo....
Turkmenistan is a wealthy country due to large reserves of natural gas. All utilities - water, gas and electricity - are free to all households, and everyone is entitled to 120 liters of gasoline (about 32 gallons) per month. Despite this Ashgabad is the only city I have ever been where there are never any traffic jams and half the time the roads are empty.
In antiquity Turkmenistan was part of the Parthian empire, and Nissa, one of their capitals, lies just outside Ashgabad. The Parthians, a nomadic tribe from the Caspian, ended up ruling a great swathe of territory east of Mesopotamia to India, after conquering the land from the Greeks under Seleucus Nicator in the 3rd century BC. The site is rarely visited and almost never by locals who are superstitious about it, because on Oct 5, 1948, some treasures from the site were removed to Tashkent and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg for 'safekeeping' (where they still are), and the next day an earthquake leveled the city.
Nissa boasts an early Zoroastrian fire temple, a religion that was once practised throughout most of Central Asia. Its origins are much disputed but Zoroaster was probably born in Balkh, in what is today Afghanistan, sometime around the 5th century BC. By the time of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty in Iran around 500BC, Zoroastrianism was the unofficial religion. The essential tenet of the religion is the struggle of good versus evil personified by the supreme god, Ahura Mazda, versus Ahriman, the evil being, elements of which are incorporated in both Christianity and Islam. It was long thought that Zoroastrians worshipped fire and they were dismissed as fire worshippers, but this is incorrect - fire is considered pure and as such is a critical element of ritual in their temples which always have a burning flame. Although the religion largely died out in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism is still practiced in Iran and indeed many Muslim parents send their children to Zoroastrian schools as they have a high standard of education.
Ashgabad was entirely re-built after the earthquake but since then the center of town has been re-built again, this time in white marble as decreed by the former president. Boulevards are wide, the city is liberally endowed with fountains, trees and green parks, and at night lights changing color illuminate said fountains in hues of blue, red, pink and green. It is a singularly unusual place.
The Iranian border is less than a 45 minute drive from Ashgabad, and for us was another land crossing. This time there weren't miles of trucks, but there was a goodly number of Turkmen women seeking entry into Iran to buy things to take home and sell. Turkmen women are serious traders who do their Silk Road credentials proud. All flights from Istanbul to Ashgabad have legions of them weighed down with merchandise, and all border crossings into Iran and Uzbekistan are thronged with Turkmen women heaving great packages of goods through turnstiles, security gates and conveyor belts from one end of the border to the next. The men are nowhere to be found.
In Iran we were fingerprinted with great apology from officials who told us they had to do it for reciprocity reasons. Our first stop after a splendid lunch of kebabs, rice and yogurt, was Tus, once a major center of learning on the Silk Road and now an inconspicuous town but for its famous denizen, Ferdowsi, who is revered in Iran for having rescued the Persian language from oblivion. In 1010 when Arabic was the lingua franca in Persia, he wrote an epic, the Shahnameh or 'Book of Kings', for which he had to translate a book from the Sassanid period written in Old Persian cuneiform, a language very different to 'modern' Persian.
His magnum opus, which took him thirty-five years to write, recounts Iran's factual and legendary history in 60,000 verses. When it was completed Ferdowsi offered it to the ruler of Khorasan, the Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmoud, who had previously offered him a fee in gold dinars. But when he was paid in silver instead, in a rage at the insult Ferdowsi divided the paltry sum between his tavern keeper and the local bath attendant and took himself off to write a savage satire to the Sultan. Overcome with remorse at his miserable treatment of the poet, Mahmoud later sent the sum in gold that had been promised but he was too late, as the caravan rolled into Tus it passed a funeral cortege on the way out. It was Ferdowsi.
Nowhere else in the world I think do people lionize their poets as in Iran. It is not at all unusual for ordinary people to break into song or recitation at the tombs of their esteemed wordsmiths, and so it was here. As we trotted around the tomb listening to a commentary of the Shahnameh as it is portayed by a sculptured frieze, a short, and otherwise inconspicuous, man with a well-used, brown briefcase spontaneously broke into a great baritoned rendering of several verses from the tome. Everyone there stopped to listen and applauded heartily when he had finished. This would never happen at Shakespeare's burial place at Stratford for example, and if it did, onlookers would hurriedly dial 999 and men in white coats would soon appear with soothing words and a large syringe of sedatives.
Most people are surprised that Americans can even travel to Iran, but Iran is not only perfectly safe, Iranians are exceptionally welcoming and friendly to tourists, especially Americans. I have traveled there many times and the effusive welcome by locals is always what American tourists are most astonished by - not the stunning architecture, not the varied scenery, not even the carpets - what amazes people is how kind Iranians are to them. On one of my last visits we met a gaggle of Revolutionary Guards who were as nice as could be and offered to share their tea and cookies with us, even after they knew we were American......
Everyone we talked to is pleased about the (slight) thaw in relations between the US and Iran, but Iranians are under no illusion that anything terribly much is going to happen overnight. When we asked what they thought about it the answer was usually a variant of, "it is welcome but we do not expect much in the short term because Iran will require an easing of sanctions before any promises are made and we don't think Congress will pass such legislation at this time." They are probably right because Congress is barely able to pass legislation to keep the country afloat, let alone have the nous to pass any sort of strategic geopolitical legislation.
What was more curious is that I have been visiting Iran regularly since 2001 and although the currency has devalued considerably since then, I cannot say that on the face of it - and admittedly my observations are limited to a few days in two cities - I saw a huge difference this time around regarding visible signs of increased poverty due to the sanctions. Our guide said he had no idea how Iranians were doing it but they are still making enough to drive around in their cars - in stark contrast to Ashgabad, traffic in Iranian cities is gridlocked at rush hour - they are still shopping - the bazaar in Mashad was a madhouse of shoppers - and they are still eating out and picnicking at night and on the weekends as they always do. There are no homeless people or beggars on the streets.