With a Visit to the Gate to Hell
04.28.2019 - 05.27.2019
It's four Stans down, one to go, as today we were leaving for Stan No. 5, Turkmenistan, on what is day 19 of our 22-day tour. Once again, I dutifully set my alarm and then woke up with a coughing spell long before it was set to go off. I wonder what will happen tonight when we are all camping next to each other in our little tents. Maybe everyone will get to wake up early.
I also swear that my thoughts are coming out in a Russian accent, thanks to listening to Sasha for six days. He has tried hard to teach us the history of Uzbekistan, gathering us together and always beginning with, “Yes, my friends.” I am not sure how much I have learned, but I think that I will remember his voice for a long time.
I finished my packing and headed down for an early breakfast. I had taken Sasha’s advice and put my prescription meds into one bag so that they will be easy to find if the Turkmenistan customs officials want to see them. He keeps telling us how wonderful Turkmenistan is, all the while warning us about the authorities.
We boarded a big bus for the relatively quick one hour ride to the border. Sasha rode with us to the edge of town to say farewell. He then left us to catch his flight to Tashkent where he will meet his next tour group. I thought we were old, but the youngest members of the new group are the same ages as Michael and me, the elders on this tour.
We went fast on the bumpy road. We were in a race to be the first tour group to get there and present ourselves to immigration and customs. If it was going to take us an hour to get through, we did not want to be waiting an extra hour for our turn. And we won! We barely beat a Korean tour group. No prizes were awarded, but we will save that time.
We passed quickly through the Uzbekistan side and looked for the taxi that would take us the kilometre or so to the Turkmenistan side. It took a couple of minutes before one pulled up and discharged a group going the other way. It was an old Russian vehicle, not too comfortable, but faster than walking. And we needed to get in so that the Koreans could not. It was only big enough for us. The Koreans had to wait.
Now we were at the dreaded Turkmenistan border. We hustled inside the first room and tried to fill in the immigration forms. They were all in Russian and like others we have seen in Central Asia, in small print. While we were standing there a man came out and checked our temperatures with one of those thermometers that shine a light on your forehead. It was a good thing that I did not have a fever with my cold. It reminded me of the SARS scare in Toronto back in 2003 when everyone was checked as they walked off the international flights. That was a horrible time in Toronto. We were not worried about getting sick, but we were international pariahs. We did get a Rolling Stones concert out of it. You can Google it if you want to know how SARS turned into a Stones concert.
Begaim was helped with the forms by a friendly official. Those forms along with our passports were handed over to another official in the next room. We lined up and were joined by two local men. One of our group waved them to the front, but the official promptly sent them back. We were then told to go on the customs area. Apparently Begaim was going to handle the many forms and the payment of fees. We would settle up afterwards.
Michael was ahead of me in the line for customs. He was asked to show his prescription medication. It was soon my turn. There were two nice young female officials. One asked me, “Any alcohol?” “No.” Any cigarettes?” “No.” Any medicines?” “Oh, yeah. I am an old guy.” They smiled. “What do you take them for?” I listed them off (no need to write them here, let me have a little privacy). They smiled again and waved me through.
That was it. No searches of me or my bag, no looking at my meds, just smiles. So much for all my worries. We then waited outside for Begaim.
A Turkman standing in the line coming from the other direction looked over and said hello. He asked us where we were from. He was chased away by a guard before we could answer.
Begaim came out after about 15 or 20 minutes. She had paid about three different fees for each of us. She asked us to guess which country’s visa was the most expensive. We said the US, but that was wrong. We all paid the same $40 US fee. With her Kyrgyzstan passport, one of the fellow Stans, she was charged $100 US.
We found our latest guide, Slava, waiting for us on the outside of the fence. Slava is also an ethic Russian or as we had learned, his official documents would show that his nationality was Russian.
We had been told that we would be riding in jeeps. I had visualized three old Russian jeeps, but instead we will be riding in three late model Japanese SUV’s.
I got into the same vehicle as Slava. We were all nervous about taking photographs here. He told us that we did not have to worry, that the only rule was to not take photos of government buildings in Ashgabat and even then, we could take them from the vehicles. This was another relief. Maybe this dreaded Turkmenistan place was not going to be all that bad?
It was a short drive to the city of Dasoguz, the provincial capital. We knew that the capital Ashgabat was full of marble buildings but now saw that several buildings in Dasoguz were also covered in marble.
On our way to lunch we saw some young women wearing beautiful long dresses, the first ones in red and a few minutes later some in green. Slava told us that they were wearing their school uniforms which were based on traditional dresses.
We stopped at a simple restaurant for our lunch and were served dumplings which were quite good. Ice cream was mentioned as an option for dessert. When everyone opted in, they brought out a variety of packaged ice cream bars. Coffees were offered and I had the very best latte of the tour. This Turkmenistan was looking better every minute.
The Korean group arrived as we were eating. The guide told Slava that he had never before lost the dash to the border. Hurray for us.
We were going to be camping in the evening and stopped at a shopping mall for personal supplies. There was some discussion about exchanging money. There is a huge difference between the official and the black-market rates, which has not been an issue in any of the other Stans. Slava mentioned that he might be able to help so he paid for our purchases at the store. We would settle up later. I bought one thing, a large box of tissues. There would be no hotel tissues available tonight. I will not go into any unpleasant details, but even though I was feeling quite a bit better, I still needed many tissues.
We drove for about 90 minutes to Kunya Urgench, which is a World Heritage Site. The town was once the capital of the Khorezm region and was a major cultural centre during the Middle Ages. It was destroyed by Genghis Khan (where have we heard that before?), then rebuilt and by 1366 it was perhaps the most important city of the Turks. Then Timur came along, had some disagreements with the rulers of the area, and had it destroyed again. The area seems to have avoided an earthquake, the other plague that devasted the cities of Central Asia. That kind of sums up our history lessons for all our stops.
All that remains of the old city are several monuments from the 11th to 16th centuries. These monuments are not as restored as the ones that we had seen in Uzbekistan. The area was abandoned for centuries and then used only as a graveyard, so the original character is still present. I really enjoyed seeing these structures that were in a more “natural” state since there was enough remaining to show their original magnificence. The buildings in Uzbekistan were beautiful, but there have been questions about the authenticity of some of the restorations. I was glad to have seen both.
We first went to Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleum. Najmeddin Kubra was a 12th-13th century teacher and poet who founded the Sufic Kubra order. The portal has a definite lean. That is not the distortion that I have had to deal with on my many photographs of buildings.
Right across from it is the Sultan Ali Mausoleum from the 14-16th century.
These monuments are places of pilgrimage. We saw people walking around the mausoleums, touching the walls. At other places they left offerings and wrapped cloth around branches of the few trees in the area.
The Timur Qutlugh Minaret was built in 1011. It is 60 meters high. It seems like a really long way up when you stand at the bottom.
The Mausoleum of Tyurabek-Khanym comes with a sad story. It was built for a Mongolian princess and the favorite daughter of the governor of Uzbek-Khan. She promised to marry the architect if he built the finest building on earth for her. He came pretty close to the finest, but she married someone else. In despair the architect threw himself from the top of the beautiful mausoleum.
Il Arslan is the Mausoleum of Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan, who ruled from 1156 to 1172. The mausoleum, dating to the 12th century, is the oldest standing monument in Gurgench.
We now headed into the Karakum Desert. The road was rough and dusty. The drivers took off like we were in a race, with the three drivers weaving side to side looking for the smoothest patch, although smooth is kind of a relative term. It seemed like they were just having a good time.
I had mentioned before the two great rivers of the area which are used for irrigation and now do not replenish the almost dry Aral Sea. We were near the Amu Darya River. We saw many irrigation canals and pipes. Wheat, cotton, and rice are grown in the area. You could readily see the difference between the irrigated areas and the natural desert.
The road got much better, although there were no lane markings. The drivers seemed to use both sides of the road as they raced each other across the desert. I was having a marvelous time, enjoying the desert landscape and just that feeling of wonder that I was flying (we were going really fast) through the desert in Turkmenistan. It was a magical moment as I was thinking how lucky I was to be there, on the other side of the world, riding along the path of the great caravans.
Almost on cue we stopped to photograph some camels. Slava said that they were domestic, but they were free to graze.
I asked about the square patterns of grass. I was told that they are put there to hold the sand dunes in place.
We turned off the main road raced down a series of dirt tracks.
We had arrived at our destination for the evening, Darvaza Crater. This is one of the more bizarre tourist destinations in the world. Maybe all you need to know is that the locals refer to the place by such inviting names as the “Gate to Hell” or the "Door to Hell".
It all began back in 1971 when Soviet geologists were searching for oil fields. They started an exploratory well. Within a few days the rig began to sink. The site collapsed along with the equipment (no people). There was now a big crater with escaping gas, posing a risk to people and animals in the area. The solution seemed to be to light it on fire, believing that it would burn off in a few days. That was almost 50 years ago. The president of Turkmenistan visited the site in 2010 and ordered that it be filled in. That is easier said than done.
Instead it is a tourist attraction offering a great big fire but no tourist facilities. We would be camping but with zero options for bathing and the bushes for other needs.
We were let out and told that we would be camping behind a hill. We walked down to the crater. It was big; it was very hot. We walked around for several minutes. I saw that some of our group had climbed a small hill, so I walked up to join them. So now we had a great view of the big hole with a giant fire in the middle. I had read that the place was really impressive at night. It was really strange during the afternoon. But I continued to be enthralled with the view of the Karakum Desert. The desert and sky were amazing.
I walked up to our campsite and chose my tent. There was a nice comfortable looking mat. I was not worried about the sleeping bag. Even though we were too far to get heat from the crater, the evening temperature was going to be above 20 at night (about 70 for you Americans). There was no pillow. I thought that sleep would be impossible and wondered if I would start coughing. There was no way to sit up as I had been for the past many nights. I thought I was in for a long night.
I decided to walk up the ridge to get a shot of the sunset. I looked back and saw that there were others from my group with the same idea. Lynley took a photo of me.
The drivers cooked our supper, wonderful lamb cooked over the fire. No, they did not cook it over the crater. The group photo was taken by Silvio.
After finishing our meal, we visited the crater. In the dark it was spectacular. We walked all the way around.
At one point we all did our poses. This is again curtesy of Lynley.
I have posted this video to show the crater but also to remind myself of one of our group who I ultimately concluded that I would really miss, especially his way with the English language. Warning, contains (mildly) graphic language.
I crawled into my tent, wadded up my sweatshirt for a pillow and got ready to spend a sleepless night.
But I was quite happy. My first day in the mysterious country of Turkmenistan had been wonderful. After all my concerns, I was quite pleased that I had taken a tour with this least visited Stan included. I thought back to my phone call with Luca from Kalpak before I booked. After he told me that getting a visa to Turkmenistan could be problematic and that I needed to wait to buy my flights since Ashgabat was the end of the trip, I suggested that I could just skip the place. Luca called me out (in a nice way) and pointed out that I had just said that I liked to visit places that my friends and family had never heard of. That was part of a strange attraction. Now that I had a chance to visit Turkmenistan, I was going to skip it?
I did not skip it, and here I was in a small tent next to the Gate to Hell after having had a fantastic day. What more could you ask for? I could think of one thing - a good night's sleep.