Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Darvaza, Turkmenistan
04.06.2010 - 07.06.2010 35 °C
We thought that Azerbaijan was dry and lifeless but not compared to Turkmenistan. As soon as we got off the ferry, there was nothing but barren landscape. We drove a short while and pulled up on the side of a highway that was being built to put the tents up for 4 hours, for a little sleep. As we had lost 2 days, we had to make up time and get to Ashgabat by the evening so we were able to visit the market in the morning.
Our drive of 8 hours had nothing to look at but desert, dust and camels and with the heat reaching around 35c; the truck was an uncomfortable place to be. We drove through numerous small dust storms, ghost towns as no one was around and made way for the camels walking on the roads.
80% of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert so it was hard to believe that a city could exist like Ashgabat in the middle of it all but our 5 star hotel was a beautiful sight. Ashgabat as it is today is relatively new as the town was wiped out in less than 1 minute by an earthquake in 1948, killing more than 100,000 people (two-thirds of the population). It took 5 years to re-build and funds came predominately from their oil and gas sales. Ashgabat buildings are now lavish marble fronted, with numerous gold statues in the front courtyard and prestigious gardens throughout the city. It feels like you are walking around a movie set or a university on weekends as everything is kept clean and tidy. The streets are swept by hand, shops don’t exist apart from a few dotted here and there and people are nowhere to be seen.
Our 5 star hotel was a welcoming sight after spending the last 2 days on the ferry and the swimming pool was definitely on the cards before dinner. As Neill dived in we were told that they were filling it and we were not allowed to swim so we moaned slowly back up to our room.
The people of Ashgabat have set a rule that you are not allowed to take photos of the gold statues so below everyone are army men telling people not to take photos. We found this quite funny considering the streets are empty; the country doesn’t see the need for tourists and why would the locals take photos. We explored some of the deserted streets before enjoying dinner at the hotel in our own private dining room – some comfort food.
Our long drive the day before was required so that we could be here for the Tolkuchka Market which is one of the biggest in Central Asia and stretches for a few km’s selling everything from old cars, traditional carpets and live stock to food, clothing and electrical appliances. We pulled up next to the live stock yards where camels, goats, sheep and cows were being sold off and shoved into the back’s of old soviet style trucks and live chickens, ducks and geese were being sold alive or freshly killed and plucked if you preferred.
We spent the next 2 hours exploring the small alleys of the market where you could buy just about anything but when buying you needed to do some tricky maths to work out what the price is. Everything is quoted in old manat prices which basically means you need to divide the cost by 5 and remove the 0’s. This may sound easy but when they are shouting 53,560 it’s not so simple. We were on the hunt for soft drink and fruit juice to stock the bar and came across a small shop selling both – something very rare in the market as it took us an hour to find – and after changing some money, confirming the deal with our local guide and arranging a trolley to take the drinks to the truck we had accomplished our goal.
We stayed out of the afternoon heat until 4pm when we ventured down to a cake shop and boy what a shop. The cakes were 5” high and varied in flavours. It was so hard to choose which one to have that we just ended up going for a double chocolate cake.
We continued our journey through Turkmenistan, driving through the Karakum Desert which is Central Asia’s hottest desert and made our way to the Darvaza Gas Crater. Around the crater are 2 small ones which contain bubbling mud and water but the main one was found 1971 during a drilling by geologists. To avoid the poisonous gas, they set light to the hole to burn the gas off but it’s still burning today.
It is best to view the crater in the dark so we set up camp a short drive away and explored the desert life until our monster truck arrived from the local town.
The crater was an amazing sight and the heat that was coming off it was extremely hot, especially when the wind changed. The hole must be about 100m in diameter and after venturing around the outside it was time for some silhouette photos against the light of the flames. Star jumps, crazy jumps and throwing Ned were amongst the shots. Tomorrow we are off to Uzbekistan.