Deserts, deserts, deserts of Turkmenistan

Trip Start May 25, 2008
Trip End Jul 27, 2008

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sunday 22nd June                          Ashgabat - Darvaza Gas Crater.
            Had to pay Dragoman the kitty for the second part of the trip - US$430 each.  Also for the Uzbekistan letters of Invitation - US$18 each.
  In the truck by 10, half hour travel out to the North Western edge of town to the Sunday Market, a large collection of temporary and permanent stalls, generally defined by row of shipping containers, With an Islamic arch main entrance, and an animal market 500 metres away across a wasteland. It was MP's new group's turn to purchase breakfast, lunch and dinner supplies. Decided to leave it till the last half hour, and look at the market first. The guide set a cracking pace, lost him pretty early, but he did get us as far as the interesting craft, souvenir, carpet and hat section. Hats were particularly interesting - black or white tightly curled sheep's wool ones, fur ones etc etc. Would have loved to have bought one, but couldn't think of a use for it.
   We did the rounds finding the limits of the market, then walking outside it back to the entrance road, then across to the animals section, for some good shots of camels resting, standing around, resisting loading, just being camels, plus a large variety of sheep and goats.
            A good indication of the state of development of the country is the fact that everyone arrived by car, bus or truck, and sheep were bought, and driven away in four-wheel drives.  No sign of donkey carts, pushcarts etc.
   On the way back got photos of a man and woman man-handling a group of goats over the bridge over a deep drain. Back at the market we set off to get pasta and tomato paste which we had seen up the back of the market then, the boys' cook team go to work get onions, tomatoes, garlic, sausage, honeydew melons, aubergines, and last, but not least, two watermelons, one for the camp, one for the Pryors, for less than a dollar each. All sorts of people commented adversely on buying watermelon, but there were a lot of starters for a piece of our melon at lunch. Everyone is feeling the heat by the time we leave at 1pm.  Paul has a thermometer, and we take frequent readings.  It was 36-38C in the bus when we were driving, and 50C in the open sun, which is where we were walking a lot of the time!
   Get both tanks filled with diesel for 2900 Manat a litre at a very buy servo, then head north, through the Karakum desert. There was a section of sandy desert right at the edge of town, which turned to irrigated fields further out.
   Stopped along the road at a place where a family was washing a local car at a water standpipe supplying an irrigation channel. Used jerry cans to collect the water, with Dan, in particular getting soaked in the process. Seemed a good idea, so most of the group cooled down here. The water looked pretty clear,  so put purifying powder in it to mix a couple of hours before filling water bottles. We have miscalculated on water, and for the first time this trip have no drinks, and nowhere to buy them, so will have to use this water in our water bottle.
    The terrain varies from green irrigated land to claypans to major wind-driven dunes, sparsely covered with desert shrubs and vegetation. The road is under construction, and the best parts are the recently constructed and graded sections ready for sealing, the worst parts are the remnants of the old tarred road. The railway runs parallel to the road with the odd god-forsaken railway settlement, and isolated roadworks depots, some of which have yurts.
See high ground ahead, with some sort of a mining tower on it, then a large blue and yellow hangar-like building, and a railway settlement. About 6pm turn off the main road onto a minor road to the gas crater. By this time all are exhausted from the heat, dehydration, the rough road and the uninteresting desert scenery.
   The side road passes a rock outcrop and abandoned works depot, then climbs at an angle up a high dune. Jim, Dan and the guide take a long walk up to check out the road, while we climb the outcrop, and check out the dugout and old machinery. There is a skid mounted water tank which has been made out of bits and pieces, welded and repaired a thousand times. Looks like something out of Mad Max. The road is too rough for Daphne, so we unload the gear, set up the cook gear, and Dan and the guide go looking for our ride to the gas crater, having made earlier phone calls and talked to some locals who called in on motorbikes. Darvaza Gas Crater is the result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950's. There are three artificial craters, and the gas in one has been set alight.
   Cooking can't get properly underway, as Jim has pulled the gas cooker apart, and it takes a while to get it back together, then there is a problem with the oil being on the truck, which is late getting back, as they have bogged it in sand on the way to the railway settlement. They have at least contacted the driver, who wants $15 US, or the Manat equivalent, per head.
   The cook group was Fulvio, Natalya and Jerri, and things are not proceeding well. Finally comes to a head when Jerri asks Fulvio how long the rice will be, as she needs to juggle pots and burners to get it all together.  Fulvio exploded, and stormed off, saying he'd come back when she'd finished.
            She then proceeded to yell at Fulvio along the lines of...... someone fucking needs to fucking tell you that you need to learn to  co-operate................. this diatribe continued for quite a few minutes.  Fulvio's was much shorter, and his preferred word was "frigging".
A further complication was that the stove burners that had not been working properly, and took forever to heat a large pot, now had plenty of heat, but to turn them down was pretty complicated, and needed a pair of pliers to do so.
While all this was going on, our driver, and his young son have turned up in the company vehicle, a massive six wheel drive Russian truck which makes Daphne look delicate, to take us to the Gas Crater, but we all had to wait for ever while the gourmet meal was being cooked.  Unfortunately, due to the extenuating circumstances, a fair bit of it was burnt. We mightn't  have had much tea, but we certainly had some entertainment.
   About 9.30pm all pile into the truck, using, with difficulty, the swinging tailgate as a step. Find a place forward, braced against the side and front of the tray. There is a metal loop over the top, but it is pretty flimsy, and not well attached. There is also a wire across the middle of the tray, at crutch height.
   The truck gearbox sounds awful and the engine is not real flash, but the 6 wheel drive, with tandem back axles rides surprisingly smoothly, on monster tyres, and we manage to hang on ok, even when taking sand drifts at the rush.
It is now quite dark, and the lights are only medium, so there are mystery dark voids beyond sand ridges. After a while, the road widens out to about 4 lanes then back to a track. We can see a pyramid hill outlined against the loom of the gas flame. Arrive on the side of a hill, with the bright orange oval of the crater below. It looks much more like a lava pit than the towering, roaring pillar of flame MP was expecting, but still impressive.
We walk toward the crater, using head torches, which are pretty ineffective against the orange glow, but reach the edge OK. We have been warned to stay 3 metre back from the edge, which allows us to see the sheer 10 metre walls on the far side, and the cone of rubble sloping towards the main flame source, which remains tantalisingly just out of sight.
   There is gas seeping up through the rubble and burning right across the cone, but it is leaking out quite gently, without any hiss of high pressure gas. The crater is about 50 mertres across, so is quite a barbecue pit. There is no sign of melting on any of the rock, although right in the centre, it could be pretty hot.
   The light from the crater is attracting insects from miles around, you can see them lit up against the sky, flying horizontally until they reach the edge, and then diving right in, real "moths to a flame". Some of them are really large grasshoppers, and it is a wonder you can't smell the barbecue.
   Climb on a bit of metal debris for a better look, walk past the remains of the gas extraction piping and structure, then right around, without getting a look at the centre, then back to the truck, and the camp.
   Jim is still battling burnt pots when we get back. Off to bed about 11.30pm, on hard ground, without the fly on, and only one of the light sleeping bags, as can't find the other one. Spend first part of night fighting for more of the one sleeping bag, then MP spends rest of night either too hot under the warm bag, or too cold on top of it.  Although we are a long way from the highway, we are overlooking it, and there is a continuous procession of trucks all night, as they find it too hot to travel during the day.  Dianne gets about 4 hours sleep at the most.
   Monday 23rd June                 Darvaza Gas Crater - Bush camp at canal
   Supposed to leave at 9am, but early risers (who have obviously had some sleep during the night) start packing early, so end up leaving at 8am.              
Drive through desert sandhill country, similar to yesterday, actually cross the railway at an amazingly well-kept level crossing, then continue towards slightly better country. Lunch is taken on a large claypan, on which Dan does a series of wheelies in Daphne, for the hell of it. Lunch in the baking sun on a dusty claypan, with a strong, dusty wind blowing, is pretty ordinary, but the Pryor watermelon goes down well.
 Most of the bread we have has gone mouldy, so MP frizbees it into the bush, but is stopped by the guide, who says that bread is holy in Turkmenistan. End up stacking the flat discs in a tree.
   DP is having a certain amount of tummy trouble, possibly due to dehydration yesterday, and rehydration with the truck water, so have a few stops by the road.
    Toward evening, we pass canals with water in them, and get back into irrigated farmland. Stop at a checkpoint at a new town being constructed. We see what could be a shop (the first in nearly two days). The guide says he doesn't think it's open yet, but we think it's worth a few minutes to find out for sure. He asks if it is open, and told yes, so we go back to see what we can buy. The building looks pretty flash, double storey, white painted, with a large staircase inside the entrance, more like a wedding reception place, but no sign of a shop. The expectant faces look downcast, but then a man opens one of the doors to reveal an Aladdin's Cave of goodies, including refrigerated drinks. We buy cold local P(?)ola-Cola, orange coloured drink, cherry juice and hot Coke.
   Back on the road, see a large watercourse with a big bridge, and a large tract of bulldozed land on the east side of it, with a bluff and a bend in the river. Go off the left side of the road, down and under the bridge, and proceed cautiously along the edge of the bulldozed area, which is slipping into the water. Stop at the bluff, on a flat patch of freshly bulldozed fine dust. 
  Have to set our tent up so we can get at our bags and find our swimmers, then down the sharp rocks at the water's edge, through the mixture of sharp rocks and soft mud, and into the brown, muddy water, which is slightly cool but pleasant, with a sandy bottom in a metre of water, sloping to deep, with a strong current and an eddy from the abrupt step in the bank line caused by the bulldozing.
   Swim in the eddy, then across to the other side, which has a better bottom, until we get cold. We now feel human again, after another hot day of uninteresting desert.  The water is carrying a lot of mud in it, so although we feel much fresher, our hair has exchanged one lot of dust for another. Those that tasted it on their lips said it was quite salty.
Out and hunt for firewood in the thorny thickets, and get ready for the boys' cooking session.
We (Murray's group) have been short-changed for good ingredients by last night' cooks, as they had to take what they could find before the truck left, but manage to make the best of tired onions and tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste and 2 kilos of pasta. Couldn't limit it to a one pot meal, which Murray, the potwasher was keen to try, but plenty for all, and well received. Even managed to give Natalya a bland no-tomato special meal.
  Earlier in the evening we put up only the inner tent, but were getting so much dust through the mosquito net we had to fit the fly.   Better night's sleep with two sleeping bags, not much traffic, and white noise coming from the waterfall where the new multiple post and beam, hopefully temporary, bridge was constructed on the ruins of the previous bridge.
    Tuesday 24 th June   -              Bush camp at canal - Uzbekistan Border
   Cover a lot of dry ground before coming to intensively irrigated farming land. Stop at the Unesco listed ancient city of Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench) (population 15,000). Centuries ago this was the centre of the Islamic World, not the rural backwater it is today. The ancient state of Khorezm, located on a northerly Silk Road branch that leads to the Caspian Sea and Russia, was an important oasis of civilisation in the Central Asian deserts for thousands of years.
            Timur "the lame"(Tamerlane) destroyed it for the final time in 1388, considering Khorezm to be a rival to Samarkand.  It was partly rebuilt in the 16th century, but was abandoned when the Oxus River (Amu-Darya) changed its course.  Modern Konye-Urgench dates from the construction of a new canal in the 19th century.
   We can see a seriously tall minaret, and a few other monuments in the fields.  This is all that is left. Stop at Turabeg Khanym, an impressive mausoleum with a partial green tiled outer dome, with a complete inner dome  of white stone.
   Kitty is covering the admission, but have to pay for the camera. Have a good look inside the mausoleum, which is particularly elegant, built in the 12th century.  Its geometric patterns are in effect a giant calendar - there are 365 sections on the mosaic underside of the dome, 24 pointed arches, 12 bigger arches, and four big windows.
After take a long walk around the large site, taking a lot of photos, trying to avoid graves with ladders for ascent to heaven.  Looked at a fairly ordinary, rebuilt 19th century mausoleum, Sayid Ahmed. The tall Gutlug Timur minaret, at 59 metres one of the highest in Central Asia, has a pronounced lean and was particularly interesting, decorated with bands of brick and a few turquoise tiles. Sultan Tekesh mausoleum was pretty plain, with some blue tiles.  Also saw Il-Arslan mausoleum, the oldest monument here. The conical dome, with 12 faces and a curious zigzag brick pattern, was the first of its kind and was exported to Samarkand.
    All hop into the bus, but the local kids reckon we have a flat tyre, which proves to be correct.  Provide entertainment for the locals while the enormous tyres are changed.
From here we head into the town proper, pick up some somosas at the market, and get to the border about 2pm. Get through by about 3.30, with the help of of our guide on the Turkmenistan side. Give him a $10 tip. No searches, but entering the details longhand in a ledger takes a long time. Do a wheel wash at each border. Paul gets involved with soccer discussions with the Russian-speaking border guards, and correctly supports Russia against Spain in the Euro Cup Ends up swapping phone numbers.
Summary of Thoughts on Turkmenistan
            Although we've been in Turkmenistan for nearly a week, we don't feel that we've really found out what the country is about.  This has a lot to do with the fact that we had bush camps, where we are completely isolated from the locals, except for Ashgabat, which was a show-place capital rather than where people live.
The buildings, parks, fountains and statues etc in Ashgabat were definitely over the top - even though it had only 650,000 people, it had more fountains etc than any city we've ever seen, which is even more extraordinary when you consider it is surrounded by desert.  No wonder water is no longer making it to the Aral Sea.
Bad roads, temperatures in the high 30's, and up to 50C in the sun, and never-ending desert scenery, didn't help us enjoy the country.
However, despite all this, we don't have negative thoughts about Turkmenistan.  The people were friendly, and we always felt safe. 
One surprise was that it had a  low-key Islamic presence.  We certainly saw some fancy mosques, but didn't hear any muezzin calls to prayer, and lots of women's didn't wear headscarves.  Turkey was much more obviously Moslem. 

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