Standing in the center of downtown Ashgabat, the 230-foot Arch of Neutrality had been built in the shape of a gigantic three-pronged Turkmen cooking trivet, from which a pot might be hung. At the peak of the arch was a gigantic gold-plated statue of the dead dictator Turkmenbashi, which rotated throughout the day so that it always faced the sun. Mark peered at it from the backseat of Thompson’s black government-issued Ford sedan...

The Arch of Neutrality at night.

On their way to the shrine complex. 

Traffic Jam in the Grand Bazaar. 

Bruce Holtz was a square-jawed thirty-two-year-old former football player for Texas A&M who towered over Mark as they faced each other at the entrance to Manas Air Base, the main transit station for NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan...It was early evening. The air was cold, the sky an angry gray that promised rain. In the distance, a few US Air Force C-130 planes were lined up near the main runway, ready to fly arms and rations to Bagram. The flight from Baku to Manas International Airport—Kyrgyzstan’s biggest airport, located just outside the leafy capital city of Bishkek—had taken four hours. After landing, Mark had caught a cab to the section of the airport leased by the US military, the part known as Manas Air Base...

​Located on the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque was, he knew, the largest mosque in Central Asia. But it was also a bit of a joke—few Muslims actually worshipped there because the Soviet bureaucrat-turned-dictator who’d ordered it built had inscribed his personal words of wisdom all over it, right next to verses from the Qur’an. Attendance at prayers was more likely to consist of ten worshippers than the ten thousand the mosque could hold. Mark doubted that Decker had even heard of the place...

“The wild parrots came back two weeks ago.” Mahmoud pointed to a bird feeder in his garden; two green parrots were indeed eating from it...

Many of the streets in north Tehran are lined with plane trees that form a deep green canopy in late spring and summer.

Crossing into Iran

In March of 2009 I visited Iran.

The political climate when I was there was fairly open, as the regime was hoping to showcase the June presidential election as an example of how well an Islamic Republic can function. Not so great, it turns out. Although I was treated with nothing but kindness while I was there, shortly after I left massive protests erupted. The regime responded by sending out gangs of black-clad men on motorcycles to club old women on the head, shoot protestors, sodomize political prisoners, etc. I was lucky to have gone to Iran when I did. 

Below is a postcard image of the dome above the shrine. The tiles that cover the shrine are made of solid gold: 

A fancy monument. I had the place to myself. 

Brightly-colored exercise parks are a common sight in northern Tehran.

Virtually-empty apartment buildings. 

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

If you're looking for crazy, have I got a country for you! 

A bit of history: up until 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by a former Soviet functionary who liked to call himself Turkmenbashi (translates as 'father of the Turkmen'). Fancying himself a genius when it came to city planning, Turkmenbashi decreed that all major buildings in the capital city of Ashgabat needed to be clad in white marble tiles. Then he went on a building spree that would have made Stalin blush. The fact that Ashgabat didn't (and doesn't) have the population to fill the buildings wasn't a consideration. I guess the idea was build it and they will come. Well, so far, they haven't.

Fun Fact: Turkmenistan is now ruled by the late Turkmenbashi's dentist.

The Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque. It's reportedly big enough to hold 10,000 visitors. While I was there, not counting a few lonely guards and cleaning ladies, there were four.

Women lugging grass sod. I doubt any of these women live in the white apartment buildings in center city. More likely, they live in an old Soviet housing complex on the outskirts.

Mark and Heydar were seated next to each other in a reading room, in the national library of Azerbaijan. The room’s soothing cream-colored walls had been decorated with tasteful handwoven carpets. Natural light spilled in through a tall row of soundproof windows, each of which was framed by thick beige drapes...

Reading room in the National Library.

Mark’s apartment building was a gleaming modern construction, completed just two years ago as part of the oil-fueled gentrification that was sweeping the city, but he’d always loved the literal window into history his balcony had afforded him—the end of the Cold War, the ruins of an empire he’d helped, in a very small way, to bring down…Past the sliding glass doors leading onto his balcony, he could see the top of the old Dom Soviet, a government building that had built during the Stalin era. Next to the Dom Soviet sat the Absheron, an enormous, bulky Soviet-era hotel that had recently been turned into a high-priced Marriott...

Unfortunately cameras are not allowed, and guards check for compliance. Which is too bad, because the place is amazing, especially the tile work. The two photos below are from the official website associated with the shrine:

Beyond the gate, a couple of kids were kicking a soccer ball in the road, taking advantage of the bright border-terminal lights that had just come on. On the shoulder of the road, truckers stood next to their parked rigs, smoking as they waited for what could be days to cross into Turkmenistan. Even in normal times, the Turkmen were paranoid about how many trucks they let in...


Tehran, Iran. The view from my hotel room.

The guard motioned for him to pass through the gates and Mark entered the first of a series of interlocking courtyards that surrounded the shrine. In front of him, a woman in a black chador was praying, her eyes cast toward the sky, her hands held up in front of her as though holding an imaginary box. A nearby signpost pointed the way to ancient mosques, museums, religious schools, libraries, tourist centers, guest houses…

At a ski lodge halfway up the mountain, they sell cheeseburgers and pizza and Coke and Red Bull. Women wear designer sunglasses and all the men are clean-shaven—all the men except, that is, for a couple young bearded guys in army uniforms who stand around like unwelcome party crashers. ​


​​of places featured in

The Leveling

Aside from sitting atop ungodly amounts of natural gas and having been ruled by an insane man, Turkmenistan is famous for its Akhal-Teke Horses. I took an afternoon to go riding in the Kopet Dag Mountains, the range that straddles Iran and Turkmenistan.

A monument celebrating the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's book on Turkmen values. Every Turkmen was required to read it. If you read it 100 times you were assured of getting into heaven. Not a bad deal! 

The photo below was taken in Laleh Park, a short distance from the University of Tehran and the old US Embassy...or, as the current regime calls it, the "Den of Spies." Most days the sky is a sickly gray and the mountains barely visible. You feel like you're getting cancer just by breathing the air. But every so often a strong wind will blow away the pollution leaving views like the one below.

Example of old Soviet apartment complex where people actually live.

A statue of Turkmenbashi atop the Arch of Neutrality (see below). It revolves during the day so that he's always facing the sun.

Beyond the arch, a vast empty parade ground sprawled before a blindingly white, gold-domed government palace. Scores of other buildings surrounded the palace, all of them white-marble confections that had sprung up in the years after the Soviet Union had collapsed, built with money from natural gas sales. Most were largely empty inside...The whole place had an apocalyptic, neutron-bomb feeling to it...

Downtown Ashgabat. ​

All photos by Dan Mayland
Excerpts from the novel appear in italics

Because of rampant inflation, this is what four $100 bills got me. 

The mountains on this side of the border loomed up as dark brown shadows, drier even than the Turkmen side, without a hint of green. The landscape reminded Mark of the spaghetti western movies he used to watch as a kid, in which someone always wound up dying of thirst...

Kopet Dag Mountains, Iran.

A man serves tea inside the Grand Bazaar.

Light shafts. (It was light shafts like these that provided inspiration for the cover of The Leveling.)

The Albor​z Mountains, Iran

At the top of the ravine, a long patch of melting snow lay in a hollow hidden from the road but exposed to the surrounding hills. Decker placed his hands on top of the snow and let them numb up while the sun warmed his face. For there to be snow in April, he reasoned, he had to be at a relatively high altitude. 

The Alborz Mountains at the end of March.

Tolkuchka Bazaar, Turkmenistan

The Tolkuchka Bazaar was only a few miles from the sterile white buildings of downtown Ashgabat, but it might as well have been a different country; it was as if all the messiness of human life had been swept up from the streets of the capital and deposited in a stinking heap on the edge of the Kara-Kum Desert...There were carpets, giant crates of fruit, boxes of hard candy, clothes, spices, stacks of Barf laundry detergent, electronics from China, dromedary camels…It smelled of lamb roasting on ancient iron grills and human sweat and mud. Squat old women with gold teeth and bright, tightly tied headscarves sat on little crates and called out for people to inspect their wares.

High up in the mountains is the ski resort of Dizin. It was built in 1969 when the Shah, an avid skier, still ruled Iran. Now it’s run by a giant Islamic charitable foundation that has ties to the Revolutionary Guard. So the lifts are ancient and break down all the time. On the upside, the terrain is rugged and starkly beautiful, largely unspoiled by the kind of massive development you find at a lot of western resorts. ​

If you climb for a while after getting off the highest ski lift, eventually you come to an abandoned summit lodge. (It's barely visible at the top of the photo to the left.) Before the revolution it was serviced by a lift, but no longer. It was awesome skiing down that sky, sunny day, making fresh tracks. Doesn't get any better. 

The current ruler of Turkmenistan has continued to build useless buildings.

The Azadi (translates as 'freedom') Tower. This square was the site of massive post-election protests just a few months after I left. 

Young Iranians hang out at Dizin to get a break from the morals police breathing down their necks in the cities. 

A room with a view. At a real cheap price. 

The mountains here were huge. Desolate and bare, but huge. All he needed was someplace safe to hole up in for a day, so that his pursuers would be forced to further widen their search and spread themselves thin. The terrain would be as unforgiving for them as it was for him...

The President Hotel was like a lot of things in Ashgabat: superficially fancy, but pretty crappy when you actually got to know it. Its main draw was that it was located right next to the Oil and Gas Ministry...

The President Hotel.

Old photo of the Dom Soviet (the big government building below on the right), taken from what at the time was the Absheron Hotel. Recently, the Dom Soviet was cleaned up and the big building in the center left of the photo has been replaced by a new Hilton hotel. ​

Clean your clothes with Barf! (Means snow in Farsi.) 

Bonus Photos: Qom

South of Tehran is the holy city of Qom where many of the most powerful religious figures in the county live. I didn't visit center city, but on the outskirts lies Jamkaran Mosque, pictured below, which I did visit. Jamkaran is the Shiite version of Lourdes--a place where the faithful come to pray for miracles because the Mahdi (kind of the Shiite version of Jesus Christ), allegedly made an appearance there centuries ago. It's also an important mosque politically because President Ahmadinejad is convinced the Mahdi's second coming is imminent and has dumped tons of money into the place.

Soldiers marching around downtown. Finally some people! 

The air grew cooler as they drove up toward the mountain pass that led into Iran. Soon they cleared a gated army checkpoint that marked the beginning of the restricted border zone. The Kopet Dag Mountains here were gently sloping, covered with occasional patches of green spring grass, and broken up by shallow canyons. It was six thirty in the evening. The sun hung low in the sky and the shadows were long...

The entrance to the shrine stood under a gold-tiled vaulted Persian arch; a giant chandelier hung from its apex. To either side of the entrance were areas where pilgrims could remove their shoes before going inside...

Baku, Azerbaijan

The National Library.


Mashad is a holy city in the northeast corner of Iran, near the border with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. 

Mashhad at dawn was frantic with honking cars, tour buses and construction trucks, and crowds of people streaming along with great purpose. The pollution was so thick in the streets that Mark’s eyes began to water as he walked. It was a city that had grown too fast, he thought, with no central planning...In the city center, towering high above the maze of clogged streets and surrounding buildings, loomed an enormous dome tiled in solid gold and topped by a green flag. It was the shrine of Imam Reza, Daria said, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures. Tall golden minarets rose on either side of it, and strings of lights suspended from the top of the minarets flared outward like bell-bottoms. A massive Vatican-like city-within-a-city had grown up around the shrine. 

Entrance to the Shrine of Imam Reza complex, Mashad, Iran.

Another monument, affectionately referred to as 'the plunger' for reasons that should be obvious. Still no people. 

A men's undergarment shop in the Grand Bazaar. Notice Shrek selling ball-huggers.

Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan

You can just see the Tian Shan mountains, looming up in the distance on the right side of the photo

This guy told me to stop photographing the government building you see behind him. He was a good sport, though, and let me take his picture instead.

A more recent photo of the Dom Soviet (on the left) and the the former old Soviet Absheron Hotel, currently a Marriott.​

Mark turned his attention to the crush of shoppers trying to plunge into one of the main bottleneck entrances to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.
A few feet ahead of him, a man was muscling a cart, stacked six feet high with sacks of rice, through a wall of bodies. Daria fell in behind him. Mark fell in behind her...Unlike the open-air bazaar outside of Ashgabat, this one in south Tehran was a chaotic, twisting maze composed of miles and miles of centuries-old covered alleys...In one section were electronics, in another fine china, in another racy women’s lingerie…Porters replenished the stores with goods they carried in on backpacks padded with old carpet remnants. Motorbikes occasionally wove their way through the dense crowds. In many alleys, the only light came from neon signs and strings of fluorescent bulbs hanging from low ceilings, which gave the place a cave-like feel. In others, thick shafts of bright sunlight, filled with dust motes, filtered down from open skylights that had been cut into high vaulted ceilings.

The Grand Bazaar in south Tehran.

Turkmenbashi had a few ideas about health care. For example, in 2003 he decided that costs were too darn high so he replaced around 15,000 doctors and nurses with soldiers and shut down all the hospitals outside of the capital city of Ashgabat, resulting in a reemergence of the bubonic plague. Before that, he ordered a 37 kilometer concrete path known as the Walk of Health be built through the barren hills outside of Ashgabat. Once a year, all government workers had to walk the thing start to finish. Turkmenbashi had a bit of a heart problem though, so he'd just follow along in a helicopter to give people encouragement. This is one of the entrances to the walk of health. I climbed it for a bit. Alone, of course. Virtually no actual Turkmen go near the thing. 

The Walk of Health.

Below is a photo of Qom taken from the road. I include it because you can see a mountain range in the background, the same range where the underground nuclear site of Fordo is located.

“I talked to the Israeli defense minister an hour ago. At minimum they’re talking about targeting the reactor at Bushehr, the uranium enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordo, and the nuclear-related sites in Arak, Tehran, Ardakan, Darkovin, and Esfahan,” said the secretary of defense... ​