The least-visited Stan. The richest Stan. The closed-to-tourists Stan. Little is known about Turkmenistan, even among the well-traveled. Few tourists come here, and with good reason—visas are difficult to obtain, and those who manage to get one must be accompanied by an accredited guide at all times. In fact, my three-day visit to Turkmenistan cost a shocking $780 USD—likely the most expensive part of my world trip on a per-day basis.
I am picked up at the Hojayli/Konye-Urgench border by Mr. Dima, my pre-arranged driver, who I find napping in his Land Rover. When I rap on the window he reluctantly climbs out of the vehicle to help me with my bags. He is a tall, surly Russian-speaking man with the appearance of a former KGB agent, and more than a little intimidating.
I climb in the passenger seat and he starts the car. As the radio kicks to life, a powerful Celine Dion ballad fills the Land Rover, followed by a classic Spice Girls song. Mr. Dima smiles and taps along. Never judge a book by its cover.
Our first stop is the Konye-Urgench historic site. My guidebook tells me that the city was once the most important city in the Islamic world, periodically made rich by the Silk Road and then laid waste by the invading armies of Genghis Khan or Timur. But it quickly becomes clear that this UNESCO world heritage site does not command the same attention of the major sites in Uzbekistan. A small rickety building with a punched-out window serves as the ticket office, and only a handful of other tourists wander the dusty paths. Some of the important buildings have been excavated, but I get the impression that much of the ancient city still remains beneath the sand. Brick domes stand alone, eerily untouched and unvisited. A massive minaret built during the Timurid era—still the tallest in Central Asia—stands alone, its attached mosque long-since crumbled to dust. A grand archway leading to nowhere holds a solitary vigil at the far end of the complex, an Ozymandian symbol of the ruin of this once-great city.
The door to Hell
We continue driving south into the heart of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia’s hottest desert. The scrubby grassland gradually gives way to scorched yellow dunes, and signs of human habitation become rare. Recent rainfall has brought life to the Karakum, however, and blades of virgin grass as fine as corn silk poke up out of the sand. Sprays of small purple flowers confirm that spring has come to the desert.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Mr. Dima directs the Land Rover off piste and we plow through the sand towards our camping spot. The driver stops from time to time to collect firewood from dried-up scrub bushes. After about 20 minutes of acrobatic 4-wheel-drive maneuvering, we arrive at a hard-packed plateau surrounded by small rocky hillocks and freshly grown vegetation. As Mr. Dima sets up my tent and gets the fire going (these are his prerogative, and my attempts to help are firmly rebuffed), I climb the tallest of the rocky outcrops to gaze out over the virgin desert. From there I see one of the most awesome sites I have ever seen.
Below me, not 200 meters from my tent, is a huge flaming crater, staring angrily at the darkening sky like the Eye of Sauron. 60 meters across and 20 meters deep, the crater has been burning intensely since the 1971, when a botched Soviet gas exploration program caused the ground to cave in. It and two other nearby craters are collectively known as the Darvaza (Derweze) Gas Craters, but locally this one is called the “Door to Hell.”
That night, Mr. Dima cooks an excellent meal of chicken, eggplant, and tomato over the open fire—a welcome reprieve from the oily Uzbek staples I have been eating for the past two weeks. Two of his colleagues, who are camped nearby with a small group of Italian tourists, drive up with a pot of leftover pasta and a bottle of vodka to keep us company.
“Will you have some vodka with me?” I ask Mr. Dima.
“Only one bottle,” he replies apologetically. “I have to drive tomorrow.” Such a Russian thing to say.
After dinner, I totter back to the top of the outcrop to look again at the crater. It burns brightly, casting a hellish orange glow on the dunes and sending whirling plumes of transparent gas up into the night sky. Birds or bats—I’m not sure which—flicked in and out of its light. I share the experience with Gianluca Bottazzi, one of the Italian tourists. He is a member of the Club International des Grands Voyageurs (you must have visited at least 50 countries to become a member. His website: http://botman.altervista.org). As we trade travel stories, it quickly becomes evident that this man has spent his life wandering the world, and is someone who will never be cured of his insatiable wanderlust. I marvel as he tells me of his trip to North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom. He lowers his face and looks me in the eye. “Just wait until you see Ashgabat,” he says.
The plight of the commoners
The next morning, after a delightful breakfast of bread, jam and tea (made in an iron urn in the revived fire, no less), Mr. Dima and I continue south towards Ashgabat. There are two parallel roads running south through the desert, one in a perpetual state of construction, and the other in various stages of decay. Given their proximity, I surmise that the two roads were intended to be two sides of a divided highway, but it seems that no sooner has one side been resurfaced than the other side has been destroyed by the scorching summer heat, frosty winter nights, and wind-blown sand. Mr. Dima takes to driving on whichever of the two roads seems best, periodically rumbling over the sandy median with reckless abandon.
We stop at Jerbent, a village half way between Darvaza and Ashgabat. Year after year, more of the city is reclaimed by the desert. Women sweep the land in front of their houses to clear away the sand, but the effort seems fruitless. When we come to a halt in the center of the village, I look around at the squalid conditions. The ramshackle wooden outhouse that serves as the toilet is the worst I’ve ever seen (not to mention it’s immediate proximity to the well). An old women squats in the dirt, hammering something, and camel wool dries on a raised stone dome. The driver approaches a weather-beaten man and buys something for me. It comes in a mug, and is white, frothy and warm. Boiled camel milk! Mmm.