Uzbekistan’s neighbour, Turkmenistan, is riding high on oil and gas money these days, a considerable portion of which appears to have been lavished on its capital, Ashgabat. Vast, extravagantly gilded marble palaces and statues of the former dictator, Saparmyrat Niyazov (aka ‘Turkmenbashi’) line the great squares and boulevards, whose gleaming grandeur form a striking counterpoint to the little visited ancient sites scattered around the Karakum Desert here. Foremost among these are Merv – once one of the great cities on the Silk Road – and Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench) – both UNESCO listed World Heritage Sites. The other intriguing sight – surely one of the most captivating and surreal in all of Asia – is the Darvaza Gas Crater, a 69-metre-across (226-ft) depression in the desert spewing methane gas flames. It is thought to have been the result of abortive oil exploration attempts in the Soviet era.

 

 

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