Konye Urgench – A Lost City
The UNESCO world heritage site of Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan was once the capital of the Khorezm Empire and the centre of the Islamic world until its sacking by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The town’s water supplies came from the Amu Darya (or Oxus in Ancient Greek); the legendary Central Asian river crossed by Alexander the Great and which Genghis Khan used to flood Urgench to end the siege of the city.
Where is Konye Urgench?
The ruins lie a few kilometres south of the modern settlement of Konye Urgench and 7 hours north of Ashgabat across a bumpy and pot-holed desert road. As you turn off the main road (in the loosest sense of the term) into the car park you re met by the view of the stunning Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum with its blue-tiled dome and impressive brickwork that is unfortunately in a state of disrepair.
Considered a jewel of Silk Road architecture, its geometric patterns represent a giant calendar signifying humanity’s insignificance (a sentiment that is not lost on me).
To the east side of the site and across the road the giant Gutlug Timur Minaret rises up out of the desert. This 59m tower built in the 1320’s is the only surviving part of Konye Urgench’s mosque. Like the famous tower in Piza, the minaret leans over precariously to one side.
Surrounding the Minaret are a handful of small mausoleums including the beautiful Sultan Takesh Mausoleum with its bright turquoise dome. Tekesh was the 12th century Khorezemshah who put the city on the map with his conquests in present day Iran and Afghanistan. Tekesh was buried here after his death in 1200.
I visited Konye Urgench after leaving Darvaza and the Door to Hell on our way to the Uzbek border 50km away. It was a rainy and overcast day as reflected in the photographs. The quality is not great as my Nikon stopped working in the desert due to sand and ash from the gas crater so I had to rely on my phone to document the rest of the trip.
Entry to Turkmenistan:
VISAs: Citizens of almost every country require a valid VISA to enter Turkmenistan. Apply in your home country as applying on the road is not recommended. If you apply for a tourist VISA you must first obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which can only be applied for by state aligned tourist agencies.
Entry Tax: An entry tax of $14 per person is payable upon entering Turkmenistan.
Air: Flights to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport depart from a limited number of European airports including Frankfurt, Istanbul, London and Moscow and the airport has links to other central Asian cities such as Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumqi in China.
Land: There are border crossings with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. You will need to take a taxi, bus or Marshrutka to the border, walk across and do the same the other side. We left Turkmenistan at the Dagosuz border crossing close to Urgench (train links to Bukhara , Samarkand and Tashkent) and the ancient Silk Road city of Khiva in Uzbekistan.
Sea: There is a crossing from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in the west of Turkmenistan. There are no passenger ferries but it is possible to buy a ticket on one of the cargo vessels plying this route.
Think carefully before opting for this as delays are frequent and it could mean your VISA runs out before you even get to Turkmenistan.
Our ticket for a seat in the passenger lounge cost $50 (cabin $90). There are no services on board so make sure you stock up with enough food and water to last the duration and possible delays. Aside from the uncertainties, this is by far the most rewarding way to arrive in (or leave) Turkmenistan.