I left Khiva just after 8 a.m. for the short drive to the border of Turkmenistan. The driver did not speak any English so it was a very quiet 50 minute drive.
Once at the border, the driver unloaded my luggage pointed at the gate and off I set towards the guard. I showed him my passport he smiled and pointed at a building and off I set dragging my luggage up the stairs to the Uzbekistan border control. I put my luggage through the scanner, smiled at the female guard who wished me a good trip and then had my passport stamped by yet another guard. I then took my luggage, left the building, presented my passport one more time to the Uzbek guard and then crossed through a gate covered in barbed wired into Turkmenistan. Two Turkmen guards greeted me, looked at my passport and Letter of Invitation from the Turkmen government, then nodded and motioned me to a waiting shuttle bus.
Now the border between the Uzbek departure and the Turkmen entrance is about 2 km. Until recently, tourists had to drag their luggage 2 km to the border control building. Fortunately for me, they have started using little shuttle buses between the border for the princely sum of $1 USD. I loaded my luggage on the bus, paid the fee and off we set. After seeing the distance, I could not have been more happy with the change.
Once at the Turkmen border house, I filled out a.customs form declaring the amount of money I was bringing into the country, had my temperature taken and then presented my passport and Letter of Invitation to border control. The guard reviewed my paperwork and sent me next door to pay the $77 fee for the VISA. The comical part came when the woman taking my money completed not one, not two, not three, but six forms each of which I had to sign. No idea what I signed or what the forms were for, but she handed me back three of them and sent me back to the guard who had my passport. He then disappeared to prepare my VISA. In the mean time, Tachmurad my Turkmen guide found me and helped with some of the paperwork. A few minutes later, I had my passport, VISA and a “welcome to Turkmenistan” greeting from the guard. I then put my luggage through the scanner and of course they wanted to know about all the pills I was carrying. Interestingly enough, all they cared about was whether I had ibuprofen, which I did not since I am not allowed to take ibuprofen.
The whole process from Uzbekistan through the Turkmen customs took about an hour. Not bad apparently since it can sometimes take hours. Anyway, we loaded my luggage into the already overloaded car and our driver, Ilia, drove us to the border town of Dashgouz where we past school children on the way to the store to pick up meat for our dinner. (The car was overloaded because we were going to be camping out in the desert for the night. Yes. You read that right. The woman who loathes camping was going to camp in the desert. More about that later.)
After picking up the supplies (including the purchase of baklava that rivaled the baklava I had in Turkey), we made the short drive north to the town of Konya-Urgench, which was at one time a great ancient city on the Silk Road. The city was destroyed by Ghengis Khan and then made irrelevant by Timur, who did not want a city to rival Samarkand. So poor old Kong-Ugench lost is glory and most of it monuments and great buildings. When we reached the site, you could visualize the vast greatness of the city amongst the few ruins.
However, the ruins that were there, were still pretty awesome. First up was the Turabeg Khanym mausoleum, although no one is buried there. Apparently some people think this is not even a mausoleum, but a throne room built in the 12th century. Whatever it was, it was pretty darn spectacular with a beautiful interior dome fully intact.
What was rather amazing was the construction was essentially a giant calendar. There were 365 sections making up the interior dome, representing the calendar days in a year, 24 arches under the dome representing the hours of the day, 12 arches below the first set of arches representing the months of the year, and four windows in the rotunda below representing the weeks of the month.
We next crossed the street and walked along a lovely path past a cemetery and a mosque to the Gutlug Timur Minaret, which was built in the 1320s. It was once a part of an ancient mosque, which has long since vanished. The minaret was decorated with brick and turquoise tiles and stands 59 meters high. As I took pictures, I noticed a pretty significant lean, which Tachmurad confirmed was not my imagination.
The next two sites were truly unique. Both were mausoleums, but both had conical domes. In all my travels, I had never seen conical domes. The first mausoleum was the 13th century Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum. Unfortunately, restoration work was underway (and has been for some time apparently), so it was impossible to really appreciate the unique dome and gorgeous carvings in the dome.
The second mausoleum, the 12th century Il-Arslan Mausoleum, was easier to see since there was no construction. This was also the oldest standing building at the site. I actually thought this was the most impressive building from the exterior, but we were unable could not go inside to check out whether the interior could match the Turabeg Khanym mausoleum we saw first.
At this point, we stopped and took a number of panorama pictures of the site before visiting the last monument: the Mamun II Minaret, which was built in 1011, destroyed by the Mongols, rebuilt and then reduced to a stump following an 1895 earthquake. After passing “stumpy”, we wandered past unexcavated desert mounds to a portal. It is apparently unclear whether the portal was an entrance to a caravanserai or something more important like a palace.
We met Ilia and stopped for a quick lunch before beginning the drive through the Karakoum desert to our final stop (and camping site for the night), the Darvaza Gas Crater. (Weird fact … they are not allowed to advertise in Turkmenistan, except in rare circumstances, so you have to know where the restaurants, stores etc. are located. No idea how businesses can make a go of it without a sign out front to announce your business.)
Anyway, after our lunch the drive to the Darvaza Gas Crater took about 4 hours through the hot desert. Now although it was hot, it was nothing compared to the summers here. Tachmurad told me that in the summer it can approach 60 Celsius (that’s about 140 fahrenheit ). And the winter time it can approach minus 40 Celsius (that’s about -40 fahrenheit). Good God man. How does anyone live here? And although the villages were sparse, there were definitely people living in the desert. We even saw a few camels on our journey.
At one point, we stopped to purchase some melons from the side of the road (as if we didn’t have enough food already). After some debate, examination, selection and bartering, we purchased the melons and loaded them into what little space was left in the car.
We continued on past the splotchy vegetation and the endless sand along a very bumpy (and sometimes gravel road) before finally reaching the turnoff to the Darvaza Gas Crater. The road into the crater was pretty beaten up and mostly made of hard packed sand. We bopped along for about 6 km before reaching the crater. Ilia dropped Tachmurad and me off at the crater and he drove the vehicle behind a sandy hill to set up camp. And the reason for camping is that there are no hotels or guest houses anywhere in the area. So if you want to see the crater (including the spectacular night views, you only option is to camp. So … camping it would be.
Now I can honestly say that the crater was everything I expected. A massive pit with large fires everywhere fueled by an endless supply of gas. The crater came into being as a result of a gas exploration accident during the Soviet era. The gas was intentionally lit (don’t ask me why) and the crater has burned ever since. The Turk government has threatened to extinguish the fire, but there are fears that would cause an explosion elsewhere. In the mean time, the site has become a bit of a tourist destination.
As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and if you stood in the wrong spot around the crater you were blasted with hot (and I do mean HOT) air. We kept moving in order to stay upwind, but the winds kept shifting. Eventually, we decided to head off to find Ilia and help with camp. The best viewing is in the dark so we would come back after dinner.
By the time we found Ilia, he had the fire going, a pot in the fire to boil water for tea and was preparing the meat and veggies on long skewers. In the mean time, Tachmurad and I were tasked with setting up the tents. I have never set up a tent before, and I am very happy to report there is no video of me making a complete ass of myself as I fumbled with hooks, and poles and nylon. However, the tents were eventually set up and I prayed that I would be able to get at least a couple hours of sleep.
Shortly after the sun set, Ilia let us know dinner was ready. We sat on a blanket in the incredibly warm night air and Ilia presented the most fabulous dinner for us with chicken and lamb kababs, roasted veggies and bread. It was absolutely delicious. We also had a couple pieces of the baklava for desert.
And as we ate, I could see the red glow over the little hill from the crater. I was itching to see this thing at night so after dinner Tachmurad and I hiked back down the little hill to the crater to see it for myself in all its nighttime glory. The crater really was a thing of beauty as the flames lit up the night time sky.
As we walked closer, I was amazed how different the crater looked from the day time. While I could obviously see the flames in the daylight, the view was nothing compared to the night view. The dark enhanced the colours and for some reason the flames seemed to leap higher in the dark. It was an enormous glowing ember and fire pit.
After checking out the crater up close, Tachmurad and I hiked to the top of the hill to watch the flames from above. Although it was incredibly windy up at the top of the hill, the view was entirely worth it. Simply gorgeous.
By now, it was after 10 and I was pretty tired so it was time for bed (I hoped). Unfortunately, I apparently left one of the flaps on my tent open and the entire tent was filled with sand. I felt like a complete idiot as Tachmurad helped me get most of the sand out of my tent. Although we did out best, I still ended up with sand in everywhere (including around the zoom of my camera, which is causing all sorts of problems with the zoom right now).
Anyway, once we did the best we could with the tent, I climbed into the sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep. Uh … .where’s my pillow? I hadn’t noticed that the sleeping bag did not come with a pillow and there was no way I could sleep without a pillow. Fortunately, I had brought one of my clothing cubes (a rectangular cube in which I have some of my clothes packed) into the tent so I used that as a pillow and it turned out just fine. Once the pillow issue was solved, I proceeded to try and get comfortable and as hard as I tried, I could not. I actually thought the sand would be soft, but there were hard lumps everywhere. Ugh. THIS IS WHY I DO NOT CAMP!!!!!
After repeatedly pushing and punching the the sand, I finally managed to move the lumps around and find a modicum of comfort, and I am being generous when I say modicum. Hell, I wasn’t comfortable at all, but I somehow managed to get to sleep some time after 11 (at least it was just after 11 the last time I checked my clock). Next thing I knew, it was 4:30 a.m. I managed to sleep for a couple more hours, but damn this camping is uncomfortable. NEVER AGAIN. The good news … I made it through the night in one piece and my next bed would be a massive comfortable bed in a 5 start hotel in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. Yay!