Friday, May 20, 2011

In Turkmenistan: Half-way Around the World from Mono Lake


Half-way around the world from home, the GPS told us we had reached the 61°East longitude in Turkmenistan.  The 38° latitude line intersects in Mono Lake with the 119°West longitude:  61 + 119 = 180° around the globe!  Local clocks are 12 hours different from California (as bad a jet-lag problem as there can be, we would learn;  after Turkmenistan we were homeward bound). 
We landed in Ashgabat, the capital and largest city (37º58'N) and drove straight east toward Merv, the most influential ancient city they never taught us about in World History.  Half-way there we stopped at that half-way around the world longitude point and took a photo beside a reservoir that stores Karakum Canal water.  The canal was begun in 1954 when Turkmenistan was part of the U.S.S.R. and diverts 50% of the water that used to feed the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan.  It moves water almost 600 miles, one of the longest aqueducts in the world, to Ashgabat and to farms along the way.  With the water, Turkmenistan grows lots of cotton, especially, and fruits and vegetables.  The Aral Sea, which used to be the 4th largest lake in the world, meanwhile has lost 75% of its volume because of this and tributary diversions by other nations.  The unlined canal seeps into the region's groundwater and evaporation draws salts to the surface, ironically taking some lands out of production.. 
Our goal that day was the city of Mary, which sits next to (and in some places slops over into) ancient Merv, a State Historic and Cultural Park.  The local history began more than 6,000 years ago, with a series of cities that each built mud-brick walls, houses, fortresses, and mosques.  The Greeks were there in the first few centuries B.C., including Alexander the Great's army.  Some believe that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, under the Seljuk Turks, with a population of 200,000.  The Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam, used an observatory in Merv; he is more famous in our country for his poems published as The Rubaiyat.
   Merv existed here because of water, the Merghab River.  Most of this nation is covered by the Karakum Desert.  Ironically, that dependence on water was used by the sons of Genghis Khan, who arrived with an army of 8,000 soldiers in 1221 A.D., were repulsed by the walls and defenders, but finally forced surrender by destroying the city's dam on the Merghab River.  With no water supply, the city gates were opened to the Mongols who proceeded to kill its inhabitants.  Merv's ancient glory days came to an end.
    In Ashgabat, we toured a stable to learn about the nation's fabulous Akhal Teke horses, a type that may have become the source for the Arabian breed.  Women of Turkmenistan appear on the streets each day in lovely long dresses (green for the school girls) that most Americans would only consider wearing on special occasions.
    We were helped in Turkmenistan by Berkeli Atayev, who came to Great Salt Lake 7 years ago with a group of Turkmenistan Tourism officials.
    It is a relief to be heading home after 5 weeks of travel across Asia.  This completes our around-the-world adventures on the 38th parallel--almost.  Japan is still to come, we hope, in September.  The book that will flesh out these stories about water-related water and cultural intersections along the 38th parallel will be published in autumn 2012 by U.C. Press. 


  1. Beautiful landscapes, terrains and interesting stories. Wish I was there with my trusted GPS.