The Quest for Parau Bibi

Arriving in the morning of June 18, I had 13 hours to kill before my visa started at midnight on June 19. Most people would find this a bore and annoying, but it was actually really nice for me to have some downtime alone. Traveling turns out to be a much busier life than most people expect–between running around to embassies, planning onward travels, and keeping your hosts company, you hardly have time to get enough sleep! To pass the time at the ferry, I caught up with my journal writing, got a lot of sewing done (making extra pockets for my panniers to carry extra water), and did some bike maintenance. With so many projects, time passed quickly. The officers were nice despite my constant request for the bathroom key. They would check up on me from time to time asking if I was ok, but largely they left me alone to my projects.

Turkmen immigration let me in at midnight, and by the time I got through customs, it was already 1.30am. Not wanting to find a campsite in the dark, I slept in the waiting room of the ferry terminal at Turkmenbashi. There were other passengers also sleeping there, waiting for the ferry in the opposite direction to Azerbaijan. At 7am, the sun was already shining bright and warming up the room, so I packed my things and got out to greet this little known country.

Turkmenistan! It felt like a whole new world. The women wore beautiful bright colored traditional dresses; the streets were impeccably manicured; and government buildings and monuments were a whole lot of white marble and gold–like modern palaces. Apparently white marble and gold was a bit of an obsession of the First President (as everyone refers to him as), and continues to characterize any new construction in Turkmenistan. But regardless of goverment, the Turkmen people  seem to have continued with their traditional lives more or less, with still the spirit of nomads. I came to discover this as I traveled for 5 days through the country.

The Turkmen transit visa only gave me 5 days to travel through the country, and word has it that if you overstay your visa, you will be sent back to Ashgabat, and deported on the next flight back to your home country at your own expense. So, I had to plan my travels carefully. The plan was to go from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat (capital) to Konye-Urgench (the westernmost border post). Since I would be traveling moslty by train and bus, I hoped to visit some places that I dont normally get to see when Im traveling on my bike. As I flipped through my Lonely Planet guidebook on places I could go, I set my eyes on one particular place that was sort of on my way–Parau Bibi.

Being a fan of girl power, the mausoleum of Parau Bibi caught my eye because it is a holy shrine for young women. According to legend, Parau Bibi was a beautiful woman from the local village. When the village was attacked by invaders, Parau Bibi prayed that the mountain would swallow her to protect her from the invaders. Her prayers were answered, and the locals paid tribute by building a fertility shrine in a small cave on the cliffs. Women from all over Turkmenistan come here on pilgrimage (especially those trying to conceive children).

But there was one problem–I had no idea how to get to there! Parau Bibi was set in the hills of a remote village. Not knowing what transport options there were and speaking almost no Russian, it would be very difficult to get there. And if I got there, would it allow enough time for me to get to the border in 5 days time? I didnt know. The simpler option would just be to take the train from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench. For several hours, I debated what to do, when finally I decided, we’re here for an adventure…lets try for Parau Bibi!

First I talked to some taxi/ martshruka drivers about driving me there. Nope, too expensive (and maybe Im bad at negotating). Then I went to the train ticket office and had an extended conversation with the lady about my plans. After a lot of miming and some really poor Russian on my part, I was able to derive a plan. I would take the train from Turkmenbashi and arrive in Serdar (the closest town to Parau Bibi) at midnight, somehow get to Parau Bibi in the middle of the night, then the next morning make my way to some other village where there is a different train that goes to Ashgabat. Because the train is only once a day, and I had limited time on my visa, I had to make that train. How to get to/from the train station from Parau Bibi? I didnt know. But I figured, if women from all over Turkmenistan go on pilgrimage here, there’s gotta be a way for me.

I had some time to kill befor the train left Turkmenbashi at 3pm, so I biked around Turkmenbashi trying to figure out life on this side of the Caspian Sea. Being in such a new landscape was mesmerizing, and all the hassles of getting the visa were forgotten.

6/19 Turkmenbashi –> Serdar

P1010338P1010339P1010361white marble and gold monuments in Turkmenbashi

P1010359P1010353P1010341ornate and manicured streets

P1010347cutest girls in traditional Turkmen dress — I think there was a festival that day

P1010344P1010345government buildings in Turkmenbashi look like palaces; this is a stealth picture–it’s often forbidden to photograph government buildings in Turkmenistan. Caspian Sea sparkling in the background

P1010354

P1010358me=kid at heart=hanging out at the playground

P1010362P1010363while waiting for the train, buying food at the cafe. the round pastry is called fitchi, filled with meat and onions. yummy.

P1010366P1010367Turkmenbashi train station

P1010373P1010374train ride

P1010372P1010375P1010376Turkmenistan is 70% desert, which also means CAMELS

P1010378loving all the colorful dresses that Turkmen women wear!

P1010381P1010384sharing a cabin with this Turkmen family. Mom gives me food (a delicious meat pie) and drink (fermented camels milk, called chal)

When I arrived in Serdar at minight, I still wasnt sure how I would get to Parau Bibi. But the Turkmen family that I shared the train bunk with also got off at Serdar, and Mom gestured for me to come to her home to sleep for the night. I was too tired to make any decisions at this point, so I accepted her offer. At her home, there were several other young women from her family, along with the most adorable sleeping kids.

 

P1010390P1010392P1010393Train Mom’s family at her home. Mom feeds me the most juicy delicious watermelon after walking home from the train station (1am!) and gives me place to sleep on floor.

6/20 Serdar –> Parau Bibi –> Ashgabat

P1010395In the morning (6am), Mom walks me through the streets of Serdar (city/town) to get me on the bus to Parau Bibi. Luckily, also on the bus to Parau Bibi was a really nice old man who spoke some English. I explained my plans that I must catch the train to Ashgabat from Janahir-Aje village at 11am. He made sure the bus driver was clear of my plans, and I was on my way to Parau Bibi! (When I asked the English-speaking man how he learned English, he replied: “secret question”. Turkmenistan is full of mystique! He also said “But if you need anything, you can ask, and I can help!” Turkmen are so friendly)

P1010398P1010399On the bus from Serdar to Parau Bibi (remote shrine in the middle of nowhere), with other women pilgrims.

P1010400Pilgrim tents at Parau Bibi. Families who travel across the country to visit Parau Bibi stay here overnight.

P1010404P1010406P1010407Women performing rituals on the way up to Parau Bibi shrine (praying to conceive children)

P1010409P1010410P1010412More rituals–woman inspecting stones, model crib offerings, women combing hair in front of mirror

P1010416P1010414Amazing view from Parau Bibi of the 70% desert that is Turkmenistan.

P1010421P1010424P1010429Pilgrim camps and resting areas

I arrived at Parau Bibi at 9am and had an hour and a half to climb the 300 stairs to the shrine and back. I could not believe I managed to get myself here in the middle of the desert. Afterwards, the bus driver took me to the train station with a bunch of other women who were taking the same train.

P1010431Waiting at the train tracks in Janahir-Aje village

P1010434P1010435train to Ashgabat–Soviet style.

P1010441this train worker took care of me on the train ride to Ashgabat. Everytime he passed my seat, he made sure I was comfortable. He spoke very little English, but was able to explain he learned his English from an American guy who came to Turkmenistan working with the Red Cross. The American guy was a Sean from Boston. (Hey, I know a Sean from Boston! I think he’s following me :D)

P1010442Arriving in Ashgabat, capital city of Turkmenistan

 

 

One Thought on “The Quest for Parau Bibi

  1. Yuki on July 5, 2013 at 3:24 pm said:

    Hooray! I’m so impressed that you were able to make it to the shrine in the middle of the desert and back on such a tight schedule. Did you meet any extra cool camels? :) I am learning a lot about all the “-stan” countries through your blog, too. I hope things keep rolling smoothly through Turkmenistan!

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