The sun rose quickly over the Karakoram desert. There was a rapid lightening of the sky starting around five in the morning, An hour later the sun was in the sky and the temperatures were rising. With the growing light came a better understanding of the environment surrounding me. Bare rocky cliffs rose up in the distance on both sides of me. Sand and thorny bushes were the only other features. As we passed through towns, we spotted more people getting ready to start their day...and then we saw the camels!
There were camels! Right there! By the road! Just hanging out! CAMELS!!!!!!!
I have mentioned to several people that living in Oregon has spoiled me for a lot of things. We have tall trees. We have an ocean. We have a mountain. We have the high desert. We have the Gorge. You know what we do not have? Camels by the side ofthe road!!!! There were signs warning us to watch out for camels crossing the road! This definitely felt like a Mongol Rally experience!!!
Our little caravan or cars swelled to five as we passed through a medium sized town. A few teams had stopped off for gas and we caught them. We continued on, making a bee-line for Ashgabat. I was in a rush to get there. Due to the delays with the ferry and the breakdown in Turkey, my Uzbekistan visa was set to expire that day and I was still three days away! There is an Uzbek embassy in Ashgabat, and I hoped they would help me.
As we sped along through the desert, the lack of sleep started to catch up with me. I was nodding off behind the wheel. So, I slid off the back of the caravan and pulled off to the side of the road for a nap. What a difference an hour makes! Not only did I wake up feeling refreshed, but I was also hot! The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was rapidly rising. I got back on the highway and headed east.
I arrived at the Turkmenistan embassy shortly before noon. I changed out of the clothes I had been living in for three days and put on a pair of long pants. Since i was going to an embassy to beg for a visa extension, I wanted to at least look presentable, 90 degree temperatures be damned!
The gate to the embassy was locked. I had a minor panic atttack. This was not good. I walked around to the side of the building and found a guard building. I rang the bell and a woman opened a small, one-way window and spoke to me in a language I could not understand. Uzbek? Turkmen? Russian? I showed her my visa and the expiration date. Then said, “Change?”. She took my passport, looked at it, held up five fingers, and then shut the window. Five? Five what? Five minutes? Five dollars? Five days???
I stood around for about five minutes, when the window opened again. There was a thin man at the window this time. He spoke good English and I was able to explain my situation better. He did not seem too interested in changing my visa until I explained to him that I had come by ferry, at which time a look of understanding crossed his face. Everyone knows about the ferry!
He took put a ballpoint pen and crossed out the expiration date. He then wrote in a new expiration date, wrote something on the bottom of the visa, and handed it back to me. That was it. No issuing a new visa. No official stamp. Just a new date written in pen. Was this really going to get me across the border?? I headed back to the Rascal and set out in search of a hotel. I needed a shower and some sleep.
I was awoken from my nap by the sound of the phone ringing. I sleepily answered. A cheery voice on the other end told me they were going to the “Door to Hell” in about an hour and invited me to come along. It took me a minute or two to figure out what was going on. It turns out that another rally team was staying at the hotel, had seen my vehicle, and asked for my room number. Instead of driving out there on their own, they had hired a guide in a 4x4! I jumped at the chance to go!
Chandni and Anitha are two women participating in the Mongol Rally. I met them at the port in Baku and immediately liked them. They both were smiling, happy, and totally at ease. This was a marked contrast to the rest of us (to be fair, they had not been trapped in the port for as long as we had…). I was amazed that they were as calm and collected as they were. They had been swindled when purchasing their car, and had to buy a new car just one week before the start of the Rally. They only received their ownership papers the day of the start! They were unable to do any real vehicle prep and had basically just tossed their belongings in the back and took off. But, here they were, having a great time!
We chatted about the Rally, our lives, and the beautiful scenery of the two hour drive to the crater. We stopped along the way to see two other craters. The first was a massive one that was filled with water. You could see the gas bubbling up from below like a giant glass of soda. The second crater had a few fires burning in its muddy base. You could hear the occasional glurp of gas escaping through the mud. Both craters were impressive, but not what I had come to see. I was a bt worried that the “Door to Hell” was going to be nothing more than a “cat door to heck.”
As few kilometers up the road we saw a bunch of Rally vehicles stopped. Our guide just laughed. He explained that they could not make it up the sandy hill to get to the crater. There were several locals there who would drive your vehicle there for you (they knew the secret paths up the hill and had experience driving non-four-wheel-drive vehicles in difficult conditions)...for a fee. Currently the fee was $40 per vehicle. $60 if you wanted them to come back and get you out in the morning.
We rolled by in our air-conditioned comfort, our guide smoothly shifting the Land Cruiser into four-wheel drive. It was a bumpy difficult 6km. We would have done some serious damage to our vehicles had we tried the same thing. I was glad that the girls had found this guide!
The Door to Hell was a massive put of flaming glory. I heard the roar of the flames before I saw any of them. The heat coming off the pit was enough to turn you away from time to time. Hundreds of small fires burned throughout the crater, while a massive dragon’s tongue of flame blasted up from the center. It was staggering. It was difficult to believe that something like this could exist in real life! It looked like something out of a movie!
We sat in awe for quite some time, staying at the ever-changing flames. As the night sky darkened, the crater began to glow with a red intensity. I was a bit envious of the teams who had paid their money and were now camping around the crater. I could have sat there for hours, mesmerized by the power and intensity of it all. There was nothing around for miles, just this glowing crater in the middle of the desert. It was otherworldly.
Eventually we climbed back in the Land cruiser and made our way back to Ashgabat. I tried to stay awake, but the lack of sleep was catching up with me. I nodded off.
The best way to describe the capital city of Ashgabat is like a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas,but replace Mickey Mouse with the president of Turkmenistan, and skip the showgirls. The buildings of Ashgabat are gleaming white marble. They are build in a Vegas style, with massive buildings of all shapes lining the roads. Ashgabat is hosting the 5th Annual World Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September, so Olympic style sports venues have been constructed throughout the city. The smiling face of the President looks down on the people from billboards, posters, and framed photos in every building.
While it is technically a democracy, there is only one real party and in the last election, the president was re-elected with 97 percent of the vote. Turkmenistan ranks only behind North Korea and Eritrea for restrictions against free press.
Only 8000 - 10000 people visit Turkmenistan each year and the vast majority of those people come from Iran and Russia. State estimates claim that 600000 people will come to visit for the Indoor Games. While that number is clearly over inflated, even if they receive 10 percent of that, just 60000 visitors will still be six times what they receive in an entire year visiting in a single month! Turkmenistan clearly is not prepared for an influx of tourists.
I attempted to buy postcards to send home. After a long discussion, the desk attendant at the hotel told me I could buy them at a post office. Luckily there was a post office just a short walk away. I found the post office relatively easily. After browsing the nearly empty shelves, I asked the woman behind the counter for postcards. She thought for a moment and then reached behind her. She had one pack of postcards. That was it. And it had been so long since anyone had bought postcards that she had to ask her manager how much they were! I hope they restock before the Games!
Chandani, Anitha, and I decided to form a small caravan for the rest of Turkmenistan. We explored a little bit of Ashgabat before heading east to the city of Mary. Mary is an ancient city that has its roots all the way back to the 2nd century. It has been the seat of both political and religious power for multiple empires and religions. It was a full day’s drive, and we got started a little later than we wanted. By the time we got to the city, it was very dark and late. We pulled into a restaurant parking lot and contemplated our next move.
A man came up to us and started chatting in great English. His name was Roshan, and he was a guide. He had worked in Turkey and Dubai, and was now back home in Turkmenistan. Both Chandani and Anitha are vegetarians (Anita is actually vegan) so they hacked him for help ordering food. After a few minute’s discussion with the waitress, he informed us that they had nothing vegetarian there. He then led us out of the restaurant and said, “Follow me.” He jumped in the passenger seat of the Rascal and we headed off into the night.
We wove through the streets of the city. Roshan was on his phone the entire time, pointing out left and right turns for me. Everything felt a little fishy. Soon enough we pulled over in front of a small restaurant. We were led in the back and presented with menus in Turkmen. Roshan ordered for us and then announced that we had to leave. The restaurant was closing. The food would be delivered to his house…
Back in the cars we went. This really was feeling fishy. I was trusting to figure out the best way to back out of the situation when we arrived at his house. It turns out his house is across the street from where we met him. He invited us into the courtyard of his house and invited us to sit. The phone calls he had been making were to his mother and wife letting them know he would be late and was bringing home visitors. Cold water, hot tea, and a selection of dried fruits were waiting for us.
We sat and talked for a while. Roshan apologized for his poor English. He had been working in Turkey for the past three years and had spoken no English. I think he was just excited for the opportunity to practice! He was born and raised in this house. His mother hacked in on us all regularly. He was married and had a four month old son. They all lived in the house (along with his sister, her husband, and their daughter).
We sat out on the patio and ate dinner in the cool of the evening. He invited us to stay the night. We looked at each other and decided it was much asker to stay there than to try to find a hotel at this late hour. Despite Roshan’s protests, we laid out our sleeping bags on a deck in the patio area and drifted off to sleep. The next day he was taking us to see the ruins of ancient Mary.
Th next morning dawned clear and bright. Roshan’s mother brought us tea and dried fruits for breakfast. This was much better than an energy drink and gas station pastry!
Promptly at 8am we set out for the ruins. There are four sites in ancient Mary. Each one was occupied at a different time and were not re-built or re-used by any of the following conquerors. We started at the most recent, a fortress with high walls that dates back to the 12th century. It is currently being repaired and restored. We saw that all around Turkmenistan, an effort to restore the ancient sites so that people could see that they looked like in their glory. I am torn about this. On the one hand, it is nice to be able to see it for real, instead of having to imagine it all with your mind’s eye. On the other hand, one loses the sense of time and history when everything is bright and new.
About 100 meters from the large castle was a smaller fort that was not restored. Legend has it that if a boy tossed an apple from the small fortress into the large fortress, and a girl caught the apple, the two of them could be wed. Talk about incentive to work on your pitching arm!
The other sites were mounds of earth, the ancient walls re-claimed by the desert. In the 1980’s a Soviet archaeological team cut a path through one of the mounds to expose the interior walls. Mud brick walls and guard towers were still there, almost perfectly preserved! No further digs have been performed since. There are centuries of history waiting to be uncovered!
The largest and oldest of the sites dates back to the 2nd century. A massive mounded ring some twenty meters high is all that remains. A lone sentry post peeks out of the very top of one of these mounds. Who knows what secrets lay hidden within! The history teacher in me was going crazy! I wanted more!!!
We also visited the tombs of two men who brought Islam to the region. These were contemporaries of Muhammad and were sent by him to spread Islam. While most Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage or Haj to Mecca and Medina at least once in their lives, poor people who cannot afford such a trip visit this site instead. Their tombs are surrounded by the craves of hundreds of faithful Muslims. Each gravesite pointing towards the tombs of the “standard bearers of Islam.”
The day was getting on, and we had many miles to go. We wanted to get across the border into Uzbekistan and the border closed at 6. The roads deteriorated quickly the further north and east we went. We slowed first to 45 mph, and then 40. And eventually we were only doing 30. Were we going to make it in time? And, even more important, was my hand-written visa going to work???
We arrived at the border at 5:30. They were not too thrilled to have us arrive so close to closing. But it worked out in our favor. They rushed us through (rushed being a relative term. It was more efficient than our entry process, but it still took a while). Traveling with Chandani and Anitha had another benefit. They are having people sign their car as they travel. So, all the guards and inspectors wanted a chance to sign the vehicle. With the border closing, they had to choose whether to sign the vehicle or do a close inspection. They chose the former and we were on our way with barely a second glance!
Turkmenistan was challenging for me (not just because I broke a tooth and a bottle of Hungarian beer I had been saving for the Pamir highway). On the one hand, the people were wonderful and the natural features of the country were beautiful. Ashgabat was a spectacularly crazy and artificial place. Everyone in Turkmenistan receives free electricity, water, and natural gas. Gasoline prices are kept artificially low, and everyone seems happy. But under it all is an authoritarian regime that silences its critics and actively works to preserve to power structure that is in place. I feel more than a little guilty for enjoying the country as much as I did.
I would like to return to Turkmenistan, This time in a 4x4 so I can visit the crater again. Maybe arrive via a land border so I can skip the ferry.
(P.S. Camel milk is sold in the stores. It is like a very thin, fizzy yogurt.)