Turkmenbashi, Ashgabat, Darvaz Gas Crater and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan
4th – 7th August 2014
We finally made landfall around 14:00 on the 4th, now 14 hours into our visas which expire on the 8th. Stan wasn’t really loving the heat, and it was only going to get worse as we had to traverse Asia’s hottest desert, the mighty Karakum desert on our trip northwards into Uzbekistan. The nature of our visa meant that we had to get a guide, Rastam, who met us at customs at the ferry terminal. We would like to say that stepping off the ferry was like stepping into a blast furnace, but we already knew this from sitting topsides in the scarce shade!
After waiting for about an hour on the ferry until we were allowed to disembark, it took a further two hours at least to get through customs and immigration. Susanne, being the registered owner of Stan, literally visited at least 10 (and we are seriously not exaggerating here) different windows. After finally registering with the police, a thorough customs search was next. All three teams were made to bare their various pharmaceuticals and each and every packet was examined for the presence of codeine and any tramadol – there were so many beautiful photo opportunities but alas, no cameras out at the terminal! This was living up to its name of being the North Korea of Central Asia.
Finally with all of our documents, travel passes and passports in hand, we squealed out of the ferry terminal parking lot (Stan had now developed a serious squeal on his fan belt which could not be tensioned further – watch this space!) with the Swedes following behind and headed off to our hotel.
On the way to the hotel we stopped at a budget shop to pick up some supplies for the various trips across the desert – the following day we would be making the 630 km trip down to Ashgabat, the capital, and then from there north to the gas crater at Darvaza and then onwards to Uzebekistan. It was going to be hot. Very hot. In fact, very, very, very hot!
In almost complete contrast to the ferry, the hotel accommodation was awesome! It had semi functioning air conditioning and a swimming pool. But certainly not WiFi, any ATMs or internet.
Rastum met us in time for a 9 am departure, and it was already cooking! We squeaked and squealed out of Turkmenbashi, and wound our way away from the cooling effect of the Caspian Sea and into the desert, heading towards Ashgabad. We were blown away by the impressive landscape – think camels, scorched black rocks outcropping from sparsely vegetated sand and sand dunes, and then on top of it all, add in major roadworks and bad roads.
Stan was not loving the heat at all and was suffering from a serious lack of power, and when we stopped at the ancient Murch Ruins.
Rich changed one of the spark plugs he thought may be faulty, based on what the mechanic in Turkey had muttered. Bare in mind that just examining the engine requires the entire car to be unpacked; not just the trunk, but also the back seat so it can be folded forward…
Stan now sounded like an old VW Beetle, but was still moving forward at least. Rich’s spark plug change had done little to help. We still had several hundred km’s to go to Ashgabat; and with the words of the Rally organisers ringing in our heads; “Do not, and we repeat, do not, under any circumstances, leave your car in Iran or Turkmenistan! Get it towed, carted or carry it across the border, but if you leave your car in Turkmenistan or Iran, you will unleash an unholy storm of poo upon yourself!”, we grimly plodded on towards Ashgabat. Dusk finally arrived and provided a welcome respite from the heat, and we squealed and putted our way into Ashgabat on two cylinders. At least we had the Swedes who would have given us a tow should we have required it.
Now would be a good time to pause and discuss the insanity that is the former Turkmenistan leader (and perhaps the current one as well!).
After independence from the USSR in 1991, this nice fellow called Saparmurat Niyazo declared himself, in true good dictator style, pretty much President for Life.
He went on to write a book, insisted that his preachings be inscribed next to the Prophet Mohammed in every Mosque, even going so far to sentence the head Mullah to 22 years of jail time for refusing to accept his teachings as a “Message from God”.
Niyazov ordered the construction of a 250-foot tall “Neutrality Arch”, a towering marble structure topped by a $12 million gold statue of himself mounted on a mechanical axis that rotates 360-degress every day so he’s always facing the sun, What a guy! He renamed the months and the days of the week after himself, his book, members of his family. He changed the word for bread to the name of his mother. He named several schools, two airports, a city, some theaters, a brand of vodka, two kinds of cologne, a kind of tea, and a meteorite after himself. So we were bound to see some crazy stuff!
We finally spluttered into Ashgabat, at around 22:00. For Rastum, who regularly makes the drive between Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi, this was the longest trip ever. We had somehow managed to turn what is normally a 6 hour drive into a 12 hour epic! And poor Rastum had to spend it upfront catching the sun in our non-air conditioned car with the heater on.
We were “treated” to a sterile marble wonderland with bizarre architecture and clear illusions of grandeur. Massive ministry buildings where built in the shape of the function they performed; for example the Ministry of Communications was built in the shape of an old-style telephone receiver at the top; the Ministry of Education was built in the shape of a book, the national Oil and Gas company building looked exactly like a cigarette lighter and so it carried on! Other bizarre creations included the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel (not sure how many others there are); the world’s largest 8 sided star (?!!!), the world’s second largest flag pole, various rocket shaped monuments, and, of course, golden statues of Turkmenbashi adorning most government buildings. Photography of government buildings, is, of course, strictly prohibited. And to top it all off, we had to enter Ashgabat via the back roads because our car was dirty… Yes, dear reader, dirty cars are not allowed in Ashgabat!
Our hotel was the most sterile place in the world, and we somehow managed to convince the friendly chap at the front desk (who appeared to work 24 hour shifts) to order the 8 of us delivery pizza. An hour and a half later (now 01:00), our pizza finally arrived which we guzzled down and then hit the sack. We had a busy day ahead of us – we had a few key tasks which needed to be accomplished before we set off for Darveza, site of the famous Door to Hell.
The next morning was spent replacing spark plugs, topping up oil and water levels, spark plug lead and oil shopping, finding the only working ATM in town (possibly the country) and, of course, washing the cars.
Once these tasks had been completed and the cars packed, we set off at 15:00, only two hours behind schedule, for Darveza, about 300 km, in the heart of the Karakum Desert. Did we mention that this is the hottest desert in Asia?
Despite Rastum having adjusted our schedule to compensate for our slow pace and us leaving late, it appeared that a new set of plugs did the trick and Stan purred (and squealed) along, and we somehow managed to arrive at what remains of Darveza just before sunset. Ok, it did take us 5 hours to drive the 300-odd km! And none too soon for Susanne and Jess. Rich and JP were by now on their 17th rendition of “Alice the Camel” who by now had at least 37 humps and was quite far off from being a horse.
The power of social networking and Facebook meant that, having the latest up-to-date information from teams that already had passed through the Doors to Hell, we could thwart our tours attempt to charge us a hefty $220 per four people for the 4 km off road ride to the crater, and knew that we could get locals to take us there for $10 per person. It took all of two minutes to locate the appropriate SUV and we were off to visit one of the most anticipated stops on the rally.
As far as we can understand, the crater is one of three natural gas craters in area; the other two just bubble up through a mud pit, but the main attraction is the main crater which was set alight by either a Russian scientist or soldier in the 1950’s, and has been burning ever since.
The crater is about 80 m in diameter, maybe 30 m deep and is, well, simply burning! The heat is incredible, as well as the fact how uncontrolled everything is. It is quite simply a massive hole in the middle of the desert that is on fire with no access control, fences or infrastructure whatsoever! We pondered what would happen if you fell in – would it be an agonizing death by heat, or would you simply asphyxiate? JP kindly offered to take part in the experiment, but only as a control; he would stand by outside to test what would happen if one wasn’t thrown into the crater.
That night we camped in the desert and with Carl once again on guitar and Rich on vocals, the duet wowed Rastum and the two teams with our by now perfect renditions of various Tenacious D and Bloodhound Gang songs which we had so thoroughly practiced on the Ferry.
Rastum had an 8 pm flight to catch the following evening from close to the Uzbekistan border, only about 300 km away, so he wisely insisted that we leave at 6 am so we would not be late for his flight. We tried hard not to be offended by his opinion of our ability (or lack thereof) to travel quickly.
The ride progressed quite smoothly, apart from Rich getting the convoy stopped for driving on the wrong side of a highway and incurring a $10 fine for both cars (no receipt), until we hit 70 km of road that we think was exported straight out of immediate post-war Mozambique. It was bad. The road frequently diverted off of the tar, or rather what remained of it, onto the flat hard packed desert next to it, which was fine to drive along, until we slowed down, got overtaken by our own cloud of dust, and nearly chocked to death!
After negotiating the atrocious road, we made it to Kanye-Urgench, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. The ancient city told a tale dating back to the Mongols, Timur and is the ancient religious capital of Central Asia.
Rastum then patiently hurried us along to the Uzbek border and saw us safely through immigration – he may make his flight after all! We left Turkmenistan with a certain amount of relief; the temperature was dropping as we headed further north, and Uzbekistan promised to be slightly cooler, and hopefully with better roads and some ATMs – we had zero cash! And we were off to our classy hotel in Nukus, Uzbekistan. This was going to be good – below was all we could afford, but we were staying with a few other rally teams.
More details to follow in our next post…