Central Asia Travel Diary

After a surprisingly good sleep at the Hotel Nukus, we woke at about 7:15 am and went downstairs for breakfast, as arranged, at 8 am.  In the old Soviet way, breakfast was served to the table, and rather slowly at that.  We had arranged to leave the hotel at 9 am to go to the border with Turkmenistan, supposedly about half an hour's drive away.  Then, for some inexplicable (or poorly translated) reason, the hotel clerk rushed into the dining room at at 8:25 am and told us we had to leave immediately, saying something about customs at the border closing at 9 am.

This certainly seemed strange to us, but debate was impossible, so we were escorted up to our room and told to pack immediately and leave.  Unfortunately, in the rush, Andy left behind his inflatable pillow, which he had chosen to use instead of the very heavy hotel pillow – an unfortunate oversight as we were camping in tents that evening.

After the lengthy check-out procedure, we were finally on our way at 8:40 am, which would certainly present a problem if the customs really closed at 9 am!

The driver was not too sure of the way to the border, so having stopped to ask directions several times, we finally got there at 9:20 am.  Everything seemed to be working normally.  Our guidebook suggested that the whole border crossing would take 1 to 2 hours; in our case it took 2 hours and 10 minutes despite there being very few other travellers passing through.

Following the long Uzbek customs procedures to which we were now becoming accustomed (two detailed forms, double-sided, filled in identically), we passed through immigration – one hour so far.  We walked across the lonely frontier into Turkmenistan where we were welcomed by a very friendly and affable young Turkmen immigration official, who was extremely helpful, and even noted that he had a younger brother born the day after Andrew.  After paying US$12 each for the official entry cards, our passports were returned to us and we moved on to Customs.

This was an even more detailed and lengthy process than the one on the Uzbek side, with the forms available this time only in Russian language.  Travel in Turkmenistan is tightly controlled, and visas are issued on the condition that a guide (minder) accompanies you throughout the country.  Fortunately, our guide, a Russian on Turkmen nationality named Oleg, was waiting for us and helped translate the customs form for us.  After the routine detailed search of all our bags, we were allowed through and we entered Turkmenistan.  The time was 11:30 am.

Our program in Turkmenistan was shared with a young Scottish university student named david.  We all loaded our cargo into the back of Oleg's black Toyota 4-Runner (the only non-Russian vehicle visible).  David got into the front while Andy and I shared the back seat with the motorised drinks cooler, the dozen bottles of water and a few items of luggage.

Before starting the long drive south, we visited several sights in Konye-Urgench (which means "Old Urgench"), situated just a few kilometres south of the border we had just crossed.  Konye-Urgench was a major city until the early 1200s, but successive invasions led to complete destruction, first by Genghis Khan from Mongolia and subsequently by Tamerlane from Samarkand.  Very little of the city then remained and today it is just a small-to-medium sized town.  Nonetheless, there are some remains of earlier times, and we visited several minarets, mosques and mausoleums – to be told at each one how inaccurate the information about them is in the Lonely Planet Guide.  Apparently, the Turkmenistan chapter in their Central Asia book is extremely poorly researched.

For me, the most interesting place in Konye-Urgench was Kirkmolla (Forty Mullahs Hill), the only 'monument' in the town where the inhabitants took their last stand against the Mongolian invasion in about 1220.  Today, the hill is a sacred place where women wanting children build miniature cribs.  The practice of women rolling down the hill for the same purpose was outlawed by local authorities a few years ago on the grounds that it was based on paganism and gave a bad impression to visitors.

We left Konye-Urgench at about 2:30 pm and drove south, first through irrigated cotton fields and soon into flat non-descript semi-arid lands.  We stopped for a quick 'lunch' of lamb pie in flat pastry at about 3:30 pm, and then drove a couple of hundred kilometres south into the Karakum Desert (Asia's hottest and driest desert) on probably the worst road I have ever experienced.  It must be decades since this section of Turkmenistan's main north-south road has seen any maintenance, and the road has simply disintegrated into deep ruts and potholes, with the edges of the road usually much smoother than the road itself.

Finally, at about 6:50 pm, we reached our destination, the flaming gas crater at Darvaza.  About 60 metres in diameter, the crater formed in 1971 or 1972 when gas explorers triggered a major collapse of the land down into the cavern below, releasing gas into the atmosphere.  In order to protect roaming animals, a flaming tyre was rolled into the crater which set the gas alight, and it has been burning with intense heat in a spectacular fashion ever since.  Apparently, Turkmenistan has so much gas that it is intended simply to let the gas burn itself out.  It is now about 35 years since the crater began, and there is still a lot of strength in the flames – when the wind was blowing towards us, we were singed and the heat was impossible to tolerate.

The crater was impressive in the late afternoon sunlight, and even more so as the sun set and the inside of the crater glowed with the flames of hundreds of small flames in addition to the huge flames at the base of the crater and others just below the rim.  It was like a vision of hell in Dante's Inferno as we watched the rocks themselves appear to flame upwards without being consumed.

At 9 pm, the desert sands were almost devoid of remaining light, so we left the glowing crater and walked to our campsite where Oleg had erected the tents and prepared a great outdoor meal of potatoes with beef, accompanied by bread, lamb's cheese, tomatoes, olives and green tea.  It was a magic experience to enjoy dinner in the desert, beside an open fire as the full moon rose above the mesas and sand dunes.

After a great meal, we returned to the crater at 11 pm for a night-time look.  This was a brilliant experience, with the crater and its flames in brilliant contrast to the surrounding night.  Birds flew over the crater in search of insects attracted by the light, pushed upwards by the rapidly rising air current.  After a little over an hour at the crater, we retired to our tents for a surprisingly comfortable night's sleep.

Tuesday 11 July 2006

Nukus to Darvaza

Looking through a caravanserai window, Konye-Urgench
Kirkmolla, Konye-Urgench
Approaching the Darvaza gas crater
The Darvaza gas crater at night