And It Burns, Burns, Burns

You start to feel like you’re out there when your guide uses Afghanistan as a directional point of reference. “Afghanistan is just that a-way.” “See those mountains over there? That’s Iran.” But then you really feel out there when you drive hours into the Turkmen desert in search of a giant gas crater that has been burning non-stop for more than forty years, and then camp right by it. But I’ll get to that shortly. Any doubt that we were off the usual tourist circuit was obliterated when we realized that the entire time we were in the country we saw only one other person we were certain was a foreign tourist! (And she was a deaf-mute Japanese girl… is your mind blown yet? Again, I’ll get to that in a minute). Lest doubt linger on, know this: the former president of Turkmenistan proposed renaming the months of the year. After things like his mother.

Our entry to Turkmenistan was an “out there” experience in its own right. It was our first overland border crossing in Central Asia, from Uzbekistan. The process of getting from the edge of Uzbekistan (coming from Khiva) to the start of Turkmenistan (at Dashoguz) was an ordeal that took the better part of two hours, and included no less than nine (yes we counted them) passport checks. Mind you there were no lines. The process is just. that. slow.

Let’s break it down, shall we? First, there is a briefing by the guide who drives you to the border that you are under no circumstances to take pictures at the border. (We sneakily took our one photo from the car, but then, unfortunately, we had to halt the documentation of this epic process). After our car dropped us a solider checked our passports before we were able to enter the building. We filled out some forms and passed through customs. Of course, a few more people are checking our passports through this process. Occasionally, they are checking our bags. For what, I don’t exactly know. Then we walk a little bit further to immigration where our passports are stamped. Then, a solider on the other side checks our passports once more. Then you walk across to the Turkmen soil where another couple of soldiers checked our passports and looked for our visas (we only had an invitation letter at this point). Here, we were told to wait, and eventually up came a minivan to shuttle us the maybe half mile or so across no-man’s land to begin the process of entering Turkmenistan. Never mind that we had no choice in the matter of whether to walk, we were charged $1 each for the convenience. Again we wait for a soldier to check our passports and invitation letter while he sits in a little glass cube for several minutes hand writing down information from our documents. Our hearts sank a little when we thought he said “bad news,” but he was really saying something in Turkmen that we can only assume means “wait here while I very slowly cut through some red tape.” Finally, our passports retrieved, we walk to the main building and hand our passports over to the next lemming. Thankfully, our guide met us here, and explained that we should have a seat because it could be a half hour or more before we got anywhere. He also assisted in the customs procedure by asking about three different ways whether we were transporting any drugs or souvenirs as they checked our bags (apparently there are very strict rules governing the export of certain items, and if we had bought things like these items in Uzbekistan and failed to document that then we might face trouble when we tried to leave Turkmenistan. For this same reason, we were advised to buy items like jewelry or carpets only at official stores that can provide official papers).

Talk about a nation (or nations) in their post-communist era independent infancy. There’s a whole lot of bureaucracy and red tape and rules that don’t make a whole lot of sense in these parts. At least to an outsider. And we tried, oh we tried, to understand. We asked ourselves why five people need to look at your passport in the course of 100 yards. Is it because the state is large and needs to find employment for its citizens? Is it because the powers that be do not trust the workers and soldiers to check things correctly? And if so, is this a manifestation of a general lack of trust? Is it because they want to create an atmosphere of authority and ensure you get the message that the state is powerful and knows everything you are doing? All of the above?

As mind boggling as this experience was, quite possibly the most amazing part of it was the one other person we saw crossing: a deaf-mute young woman from Japan. Talk about balls! I can’t even imagine traveling alone in this part of the world, let alone as a woman (not that it can’t be done, and we’ve met women who travel the world independently, I’m just saying they are infinitely braver than I), but a deaf-mute single woman for whom English is her second language?! We observed one of the soldiers trying to communicate with her and she wrote down (in perfect English and very neat handwriting) “can you write, please?” The man clearly couldn’t read English, and I wouldn’t be surprised if very few people in this part of the world can read and write English well enough to communicate effectively. So, kudos to this massively impressive girl. We keep meaning to Google her and see if maybe she’s writing a book or something. Our other theory is that she is a spy and the whole deaf-mute thing is a cover. In this case, she is probably also a ninja.

Having finally succeeded in crossing the border (which in its own right felt like an accomplishment of sorts), we were greeted by our animated guide Rustam, and two SUV’s packed and ready for camping. Our driver, Aman, was the coolest grandpa I’ve ever met. He rocked Ray-Bans and had a look you might expect of a guy driving you across the Sahara from North Africa. Already we began to notice differences from Uzbekistan. First, while the landscape hadn’t much changed, it already looked and felt more wealthy. I suppose this is not terribly surprising given Turkmenistan’s comparative wealth (they have a robust gas supply, in addition to a healthy textile industry and agricultural crops. In fact, the state provides 120L of petrol free per month, and thereafter it costs about $0.25 per liter! Our guide said you could run the utilities in your home non-stop for a year and pay something like $50.) We passed some fairly basic looking villages but then began driving through a small city lined with big, modern buildings, and we started seeing the roads dotted with Beemers and Lexuses.

It perhaps goes without saying that when you have a guided tour in a country your experience is somewhat colored by the opinions and personality of that guide. Our guide in Turkmenistan was young, spirited and lively, and we felt that extended somewhat to the country as well. Despite that Turkmenistan bans Facebook and Uzbekistan does not, we felt a noticeable increase in cheeriness (albeit alongside an increase in aggressiveness). First of all, crossing the border we immediately began to see more variation in the color of the cars, in stark contrast with Uzbekistan’s white vehicles (our guide had told us this is because of the oppressive summer heat). Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is primarily Muslim, but it is not an Islamic state, and again our guide felt inclined to point out that they are not fundamentalist Muslims (his words: they pray outside the mosque, like beer and pork and do not kill people). A rather blunt statement, but I guess they are sensitive to the fact that many ignorant people have a difficult time grasping the concept that there are Muslim-majority nations that are neither Islamic states nor infected by fundamentalism. The guides believe that many Americans fear this region and/or that we are told not to come here, which is at least partly true. But to make a long story short, we had only one very unpleasant and uncomfortable experience while in Central Asia (which we’ll mention when we cover Kyrgyzstan), and it did have to do with our being American but had nothing to do with religion.

On the way to the desert we stopped briefly to visit a produce market and picked up some local cognac and wine. Our guide raved about the cheap and delicious Turkmen cognac (20 Manat for a decent sized bottle), but I think we were mostly excited to pay for something without counting through a thick wad of cash (unlike Uzbekistan, here the exchange rate is closer to 3:1 and large bills are in circulation). We tried desperately to photograph some of these women with the epic teeth bling, but to no avail. They smile and flash these golden chompers, but the minute you hold the camera up the smiles turn tight lipped. We also tried to snap a shot of the adorable school girls in their green uniforms and long pigtail braids (which we learned were a required part of the uniform. If you haven’t got the hair you must get the extensions). The boys, somewhat less cute, wore little suits and taqiyahs (traditional Turkmen caps). This is the best shot we got:

Our final stop pre-crater awesomeness was our brief intro to Turkmenistan’s ancient Silk Road history (having gotten more than our fair share of old buildings and history in Uzbekistan we opted to skip most of the more prominent Silk Road attractions in Turkmenistan). Nonetheless we made the not-so-quick excursion to Konye-Urgench for a very quick tour. These sites were not as restored or excavated as the ones we viewed in Uzbekistan, but they were very much in the middle of nowhere, so you got to feel somewhat the experience of what it might have been like to pull up at one of these desert oases in your caravan (way) back in the day. We snapped the obligatory mausoleum photos and got accosted by a group of locals eager to photograph us. I was intrigued to learn that there is a hill (called Kyrk Molla) women roll down in the hopes it will make them more fertile (lots of Turkmen folks come here on pilgrimage). I just hope none of them are doing this while already pregnant.

And alas, onto the crater, which is essentially the reason we made this entire foray into the fascinating nation of Turkmenistan. After leaving Konye-Urgench and passing back through Dashoguz, we still had another four hours or so driving through the middle of nowhere. Literally. There was nothing for miles in any direction for large chunks of this drive. I would be lying if I told you the thought never crossed my mind that these guys could be taking us to some secret cult headquarters. The roads were in quite the state of disrepair, and this resulted in some serious swerving. It didn’t help that keeping right was more of a suggestion than a rule, and cars would occasionally just begin driving on the wrong side of the “highway” because there were fewer potholes. We were also intrigued by the sporadic arrangements of straw boxes placed roadside; these apparently help keep the sand from blowing across and clogging the roads.

The day turned into night and eventually we reached a turnoff, leaving the “highway” for what was essentially off-roading (which didn’t feel that different from highway driving), in the dark of night, in the middle of the Karakum Desert. All alone. Aside from our two vehicles, there was no source of light. Until, that is, we began to see this gigantic red glow ahead in the darkness. And then suddenly, there it was. A gigantic (70 meters across) hole in the middle of the desert, burning.

Both the crater and the fire were caused by man, which cheapens it in a way. I thought it was all natural. But nonetheless one of the most surreal things I’ve experienced. While the exact history of this phenomenon is uncertain, Wikipedia says the Soviets were drilling for natural gas here in 1971 and the ground collapsed beneath the drilling rig. To avoid poisonous gas discharge, geologists decided to light it on fire and thought it would burn a few days. It’s been burning ever since: more than 40 years! The whole thing is not one giant flame, however, but various areas (I assume pockets of gas) are alight while others just look like rock. For this reason, some spots are 200º Celsius while others are only 30º.

We stared in awe at this oversized campfire (I remarked at the time that I felt like I was in Honey I Shrunk The Kids: The Camping Edition). We were the only people there except for bumping into the deaf-mute girl and her guide. That guide saw us ogling the crater and noted there are three things capable of making people stand and stare: waterfalls, fire, and other people working.

I know it seems strange that we’re wearing winter jackets and hats beside Paul Bunyan’s camp fire, but it was actually quite cold and windy out here in the desert. When the wind blew one way, it was cold. When it blew the other you got blasted in the face with a serious heat wave. To escape this wind we camped behind a little hill.

Check out this little video clip to get a better sense of this thing:

Alan, Ron, Linda, Rustam and the drivers enjoyed a nice barbecued chicken dinner by our normal-person sized fire. Meanwhile, I ran in circles trying to escape the insane number of desert spiders creepy-crawling about. The cool grandpa taught us the trick of chilling a bottle of wine by wrapping it in a wet cloth.

In the morning we checked out the crater by daylight, which made us appreciate having arrived so late at night, so that we saw it for the first time in all its glowing glory. It’s still pretty incredible by day, but the night is the time to see it!

On the drive out we stopped to see two other craters of note: one with a bubbling mud base and another filled with a beautiful green water.

We also stopped for the obligatory desert sand jumping. Remind anyone of our visit to White Sand National Monument in New Mexico?

And then we had our first camel jam of our trip. (On the highway.) Too funny.

On our way to Ashgabat we stopped in the small village of Bokurdak for lunch and a little glimpse into Turkmen village life. I was of course enticed by the dogs (Turkmen dogs are typically shepherd dogs called Alabai, and large hounds called Tazy, which are often used in conjunction with a falcon for a Turkmen hunting tri-fecta). Their Alabai was only five months old and already quite large (and insanely energetic!). Apparently these things get enormous. I’m going to have to see about importing one of these guys. Our border crossing experiences tell me this is not going to be easy.

Lunch was preceded by a lovely introduction, including the reciting of a Turkmen poem by the homeowner’s youngest daughter, after which we sat down to a feast of lamb soup, lamb plov, these little “crackers” that are essentially small packets of dough fried in cottonseed oil, and our first taste of camel milk. (Yes, really.) Think soupy, salty yogurt. Though they put out a whole pitcher, we did not make a big dent (but propers to Ron for finishing his serving). We found it amusing too that the baby camel (which, by the way, how cute is he?!) is kept tethered away from it’s momma so he doesn’t hog all the camel milk. On our brief tour we learned that these villagers live on subsistence farming, felt-making and cattle breeding. They had an SUV and some kind of washing machine, but the toilet was still a wooden shed with a hole in the ground. After seeing the camel pen and being schooled on the useful properties of saxaul, we got a little demonstration of how she makes yarn from the camel’s wool and then we were on our way to the capital city.

We didn’t have much time in Turkmenistan’s capital city of Ashgabat, so we can’t opine all that much on the place. It is known for an abundance of white marble buildings and garish sights. I’m not sure what remains, but I know the former President Niyazov had erected a gold statue of himself, which revolved to follow the sun throughout the day. Anyway, black to Planet Earth. In the little time we did have, we went out to the Russian Bazaar via what I will call paid hitchhiking. Apparently illegal taxi-cab drivers abound in these parts, and we procured a ride from a non-English speaking older Turkmen guy smoking a cigarette and blasting “Barbie Girl.” Needless to say this brought me great pleasure. The Russian Bazaar/Altyn Asyr was a mix of a mall with cotton wares and an outdoor food market, which is organized and refrigerated. After a guy told Alan he was not allowed to take pictures (this is a market, not a military building?!), we bought provisions for a little picnic and ate dinner back at the hotel. Aside from this brief excursion, what I can tell you about Ashgabat is that there is a lovely, if smoggy, view of the mountains (on the other side of which lies Iran).

Practical Info

We booked most of our Silk Road trip through Jim O. at Tailor-made Adventures (somehow affiliated with Dragoman and Imaginative Traveller). For reasons we won’t get into here, we would not enthusiastically recommend his services. Though the team he organized in Turkmenistan was great. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to visit Turkmenistan independently. I think the government pretty much requires you to travel with a licensed operator. Anyway, English is not widely spoken and there are many nuances and formalities that would be tough to negotiate on your own.

I do not recall whether my dad and Linda could have obtained visas in advance since they were coming from home, but in any event we all arrived with an invitation letter that the travel agency had obtained for us. At the border, we paid $66 each (comprised of something like $55 for the visa, $10 for immigration, and a $1 bank fee), and they were much less fussy about the bills than the class act at immigration in Uzbekistan. Though we may have just gotten a lucky teller that day.

We covered our land-entry in depth above. We departed by land, as well, at the Farab crossing from near Turkmenabat (Turkmenistan) towards Bukhara (Uzbekistan). Our experience was similar in terms of time commitment and absurdity. Except this time we took a short van ride for 1 Manat each, and then we had to walk about a mile through no-man’s land with all our bags. Fortunately it wasn’t the middle of the summer, when the temperature could be 120º+ (nor the freezing cold winter).

By the way, what’s the deal with the no-man’s land in between countries? Is it actually part of one country? What if Jenni just couldn’t take it any more and beat me silly? Would she have committed a crime? According to whose laws?

The exchange rate was 1USD = 2.85 Turkmenistan Manat. It was much easier to exchange money here than Uzbekistan…we did this at the market when we bought liquor, and we didn’t have to show our passport or fill out forms!

Transportation: Ashgabat is the capital city and where your international flight would likely (definitely?) land. We were met by SUVs at the border by Dashoguz and traveled in these the whole time, until we flew from Ashgabat to Turkmenabat. Domestic flights are only on Turkmenistan Airlines. We flew a new Boeing 717 and it was fine. Though we paid for almost everything as part of our tour package, we did see the receipt for our domestic flight: $26/ticket, including all fees etc. From the airport in Turkmenabat, we took two more SUVs for the ~1 hour drive to the border crossing at Farab.

As in Uzbekistan, it seems “illegal” taxis are ubiquitous. We took these both ways between our Ashgabat hotel and the Russian Bazaar, and paid 6 Manat total each way.

Accommodation: In Ashgabat we stayed at Ak Altyn. It was fine, though a bit dated and our room kind of smelled like cigarettes. WiFi was available for $5/hour, but we did not try it. There is a Sofitel that gets good reviews. And someone told us he prefers the location of the Grand Hotel, which is closer to some sights (while Ak Altyn is in a quieter area).

Our only other night in the country was camping at the Darvaza gas crater, which was awesome.

Food: We had lunch after the border crossing at Hotel Uzboy in Dashoguz. The lentil soup was outstanding. Our only other meal aside from our time camping and at the village in Bokurdak was a picnic dinner with supplies purchased at the Russian Bazaar in Ashgabat. There was a lot to choose from, and there is some prepared food there, too. Cognac is very inexpensive.

Activities: It was interesting to see Konye-Urgench, but the drive from Dashoguz was about 1.5 hours each way, and you could skip it if you’re visiting a lot of other Silk Road sites. Because we are not history buffs and we did so much of this in Uzbekistan, we skipped places like Merv, Nissa, Gonur, etc. Our guide was adamant about the party scene on the Caspian Sea, but I’m not sure it would be as fun for a (non-Russian speaking) visitor.

For activities in or closer to Ashgabat, another guide we met mentioned horse farms you can visit, the National Musuem, and Kow Ata Underground Lake.

April 29 – May 1, 2014 (Tuesday-Thursday)

3 thoughts on “And It Burns, Burns, Burns”

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