Crossing the borders to a different world
Finding our car at the Iranian customs after three weeks of backpacking felt like coming back home. The next day we headed to the other side of the hills – to Turkmenistan. After North Korea Turkmenistan is supposedly the second most guarded country in the world. Some people reported that crossing with their own vehicle cost them a lot of time and money for various non-sense fees.
Also in our case the police and customs officials did their job properly. After a thorough check of the roof box, of the interior of the car and of the medical box, the officials requested our mobile phones. They inspected our smart Lumia phones for a long while. Thanks to automatic back up on OneDrive we did not have to worry that anything would get lost but still it´s a strange feeling if a policeman, with your passport in the hand and strict look in his face, is going through all the pictures and files in your device.
The last step of the inspection was a repeated question “Do you have any weapons or ammunition? If it was discovered later it would be a “narusenie” (infringement) and a big problem”. Hearing this I was wandering whether the sharp eye of the policeman had spotted our souvenir from Kurdistan at the bottom of the box with electronics which he had inspected a while ago. After a bit of hesitating I admitted the souvenir – a handgun cartridge. In a split of a second the smile in the faces of the border guards disappeared and we could hear these “magical” words “infringement” and “big problem” a few times. In the end, the border guards satisfied themselves with the confiscation of the cartridge and an oral warning that the next time such items must be reported immediately.
As a result, after spending some 6 hours and 120 USD we were allowed to enter this a bit mysterious country. Immediately, we headed to its capital which is located just a few kilometres away.
What to expect from the capital of a country whose land predominantly consists of the Karakum Desert, has one of the biggest natural gas reserves and where marble is the most favourite building material? We have heard that the result is a mixture between Las Vegas and Pchjongjang and hence expected worn-down soviet style buildings and a few high-class palaces. The reality exceeded our expectations. In Ashgabat everything seems to be made from marble… wide boulevards, huge houses (lit by neon lights at night) and even pedestrian under-crossings. Of course not to forget numerous fountains, since the former president – long serving and very autocratic – Nijazov loved them. Also his successor let this marble boom continue. The result is impressive. Looking at the semi-empty streets it seems that half of the 5-million inhabitants of Turkmenistan drive around Ashgabat in brand new off-road vehicles and the second half is employed as park keepers, marble polishers or policemen.
We drove to a hill south from the city. Behind us there was the fence of the border zone and in front of us this incredible amount of marble shining into the desert sand. We felt like crossing the borders from Iran was like landing on a different planet.
Door to Hell
You may recall the name Karakom from your high school geography lessons. It is a desert fourth times bigger then the Czech Republic and its name means black sand. We saw only yellow sand –vast amounts of it. We also drove around a few camels and villages. A colourful 500km desert journey!
When in 1971 Soviet geologists dig in the ground in the middle of the Karakum Desert they were surely glad to find a natural gas reservoir. However, the land around the drill than collapsed creating a crater with a diameter of 70 metres from which the valuable gas started to leak. “Let´s put in on fire and the reservoir will be empty in a couple of days” was their plan. But the reservoir was much larger then expected. That’s why this spectacular fire show in the “Door to Hell” is still to be seen today.
We cooked at a nice camping spot above the crater and observed busy traffic of small insects in the desert sand. As it was getting darker we could not stop staring at the crater. We listened to Iranian singer Mohse Namjoo (sounds a bit like Vysockij) strumming his guitar in this complete silence.
One of the nights when is a pity to go to sleep.
On the road through the Karakum Desert
Back on the main road north we passed the signpost “Darwaza village”. However, oHdon’t expect any houses there. When in 2004 president Nijazov was driving through this area during his inspection of the construction of a new road he did not like what he saw and ordered the village to be demolished. All its inhabitants were resettled.
For the majority of the remaining 250 kilometres to the north you won’t meet anything except for a few tea houses. First after reaching the Amu Darya river basin, which creates the borders with Uzbekistan, you can enjoy a bit of civilisation. We stopped in Konye Urgench – in the 12th century the capital of the Islamic world nowadays a sleepy town at the edge of desert.
Exactly according to the line drawn in an official map in our transit papers we continued the borders and hoped not to hear the “magical” words “infringement” and “big problem” again. When entering Turkmenistan we changed our planned route (of course with the consent of the boarder officials) in order to be able to see the Darwaza crater and should now exit through a different border crossing then stated in our visas. Despite repeated affirmations of the Turkmen officials that it won’t be than a problem at the Uzbek border we expected some complications. However, our three day transit visa for Uzbekistan did not provide us any time-buffer.
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Ašchabad – the white city