“Got no reason but I’m king of the castle”- Wamdue Project.
While on a tour of the Mary province in Turkmenistan, we spent a day exploring the spaced out sights of Merv. It was another highlight from my time in Central Asia and helped complete my journey through every former Soviet Union FIFA country. I visited Merv in 2018 and loved it, so here’s the first post about it.
What is Merv?
Merv is the name of a ruined city in Turkmenistan which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. In fact, scratch that – Merv is an area that consists of what was once five cities, so not just one city at all. I loved this synchronisation to my own life where I spent 5 months living in the Tri-City (Three cities / Trojmiasto) city of Poland. Here in dreamlike Merv, nobody lives here anymore. All five cities lie in ruins, but that didn’t stop me backpacking them to cover it for Don’t Stop Living.
Oh and finally, and coming somewhat as a surprise, Merv is the largest archaeological reserve in Central Asia. Having now toured Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan, Gorno Badakhshan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, I didn’t expect Merv to hit the top spot. The settlements at Merv date back to the 6th century BC (Erk Kala) and some of them were constructed by Alexander the Great. Again my backpacking memories came reeling back with this, as I had previously visited Bactria and the city of Balkh in Afghanistan, famous for the same lad who created walled cities there.
Organising a tour of Merv
I was on a tour organised by Silk Road Explore, in conjunction with local Turkmen tour company Owadan Tours so organise it through them. Merv is not backpackable alone – the scattered ruins span for miles and it’s a hot hot country so you’d need a few days if you really wanted to backpack Merv alone. So book a tour and your driver will take you to all the important stops or places in Merv that you want to see, in less than a day.
The name Merv
I was intrigued by the name Merv, as it sounded like the runaway lover of nearby city Mary. Yes, Mary and Merv could have made a good couple. Merv has had a load of names in its history and even today, is recognised on the local map I had as Margush. It has also been known as Marv, Marv-i-Shahjahan and Margiana. But let’s go with Merv. It sounds like a burglar from Home Alone.
Sleeping in Merv
Unless you want to just put up a tent, there are not really any options for sleeping in Merv. It’s a conurbation of ruined cities that are no longer there. This means there are no hotels or hostels in Merv. So base yourself in Mary, and stay at the Mary City Hotel – it’s pretty swanky. It has its own gift shop and restaurant and is around a 40 minute drive to Merv. Turkmenistan isn’t really a hostel or backpacker style country, so do enjoy the luxury hotels here, especially the Bagt Koshgi Hotel in Ashgabat. The Mary City Hotel also has a gym, swimming pool and balcony.
The Five Cities in Merv
So the five cities all have names and all of them lie in ruins. Each city is different in its own way. We visited four out of the five cities, and saw the fifth one from the road. Like I said, nobody lives here anymore. Nearby Mary is a big city, Merv is empty and peopleless.
2.Bairam Ali Khan Kala
Here is a brief overview of each before I write about the top sights in Merv (in a separate article):
This is the first former settlement we visited in Merv. There’s a UNESCO sign in front of the old city walls and it is very close to the road side. It contains remains of a citadel in the corner and was founded in the 15th Century AD. Of the four cities we visited, this is the one we spent the least amount of time in.
2.Bairam Ali Khan Kala
We didn’t actually visit Bairam Ali Khan Kala properly but we passed by it and went to a camel market here. It is literally on the other side of the road from Abdullah-Khan Kala. Again, mud walls lie in ruins and it’s a small settlement that made up one of the five cities in what is normally referred to as Merv.
For sure Sultan Kala is (and was) the largest of the five Merv cities. It is also the most central. It lies a few miles north of Abdullah-Khan Kala, and is the place where you pay your entrance fee and ticket for Merv. To be honest, the entrance fee and ticket could be avoided and is only checked at the entrance to Sultan Kala. There are ways round that, but we were on a tour and willing to pay everything legitimately this time. Yes, in days gone by (and especially in Iran) we normally skipped entrance fees. The highlights of Merv are mostly in Sultan Kala so dedicate a few hours here as we did.
Dating back to the 3rd Century BC is Giaur Kala. Due to its age, obviously not much remains here. Even the Mosque is barely visible and a Buddhist Stupa and Monastic Complex is basically just a lump of mud and brick. But the walls are stunning and we scaled them for scintillating views and a sign of what was once here, 2300 centuries ago. That in itself is staggering.
Even older than Giaur Kala, is Erk Kala. This place was founded in the 6th Century BC and what was most fascinating was that this was a city within a city. It sits with its thick walls inside Giaur Kala. Even now, you can still notice this. Imagine the Vatican State to Rome, Italy or Austenasia to Carshalton, England.
Overall that is an introduction to these fantastic five cities. I will write about the top sights in Merv separately.
Here are the details for booking a tour of Merv in Turkmenistan:
International Agent – Silk Road Explore
28 Minbulakskiy Lane, 720042,
Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
+996 550 914 408
Local Agent – Owadan Tourism
207 Oguzkhan Street Office 335
Telephone – +993 12957673, +993 12957681
firstname.lastname@example.org (for agents and operators)
email@example.com (for backpackers and independent travellers)
Here are some videos I made while touring Merv in Turkmenistan: