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5th – 9th May 2011 : Turkmenistan – Marble cities, fire craters and sand

July 11, 2011

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We were excited to be starting our 5 days Turkmen blitz, but we had a job to do. Get to Ashgabat, dump the bikes, get to Derweze, spend the night, get back to Ashgabat, find a train to Merv, and cycle the rest of the road before the visa expires. It was a tall order, and we were unexpectedly tired from all the climbing exiting Iran, but it had to be done.

The 30km of no mans land on entry to Ashgabat was populated only by short Asian looking Turkmen soldiers, who were less than willing for us to stop. The country really didn’t want us there, so we had to hurry. Luckily the road was mostly a lush and epic descent, and Ashgabat appeared out of the clouds in the distance far below us.

We were totally mesmerized by this bizarre city when we arrived – it was like a toy town, all the new buildings were clad in marble, bright white, and topped with bright blue domes and golden trim. The statues of the former president were cast in solid gold – one even rotating to follow the sun. The boulevards were huge 8 lane monstrosities and were completely empty. Every car was a spotless mercedes or BMW, the traffic lights were silver, and there were no people in the street. We struggled to find our way around, with every building contesting to be a landmark, in a city of landmarks – they became obsolete. There were no road signs and no one knew where anything was upon asking, so it took a really long time to find a homestay we had been tipped off about by a Japanese guy in Mashhad. Eventually we found it in the slum quarter of the city, and they agreed to stash our bikes while we went to Darweze.

This proved another challenge, as we were in the centre for quite some time trying to find someone willing to drive us into the middle of the desert for less than $50. Eventually someone grudgingly took up the challenge, and four hours later we were in the middle of nowhere trying to find a tiny sand track that led to a glowing enigma in the distance. He flat out refused, claiming his car would get stuck in the sand. Fair enough, it definitely would have, but that wasn’t the deal,so we argued for a while over price before a 4×4 toting local offered to take us up to the crater for $10. Off we went, and we arrived in the black of night at a giant blazing inferno in the middle of the desert. He left us there and drove off, promising to pick us up the next morning for another £10. There we were, all alone, at the gates of hell.

There was no fence; you could jump right in if you wanted. It must have been 80m wide and had been burning for some 70 years after a drilling accident caused the collapse of the gas rig that tore the huge crater. The government left it to burn itself out but it never did, and has been going strong ever since. It is by far the most surreal and awesome thing I have ever seen – particularly in this setting with absolutely no infrastructure to exploit it and no other people – we sat right on the edge and drank celebration beers while listening to the countless number of flying beetles and curious insects being pulverised by the heat as they flew over it. We had a great night camping tentless under the stars.

Before we knew it the next day we were back in Ashgabat, after being dropped at the main road by the 4×4 driver and waiting like Kerouac for someone to stop and give us a lift back to the city. Time was against us once we were back, and had to negotiate signless streets on the way to the train station to catch the last train to Merv. We lost Mathias again, and waited for him at the station thinking he was circling around somewhere in a daze. We missed our train, and were negotiating a pick up truck to catch up with the train we were booked to be on when we received a tip off from a taxi driver that he saw a cyclist board the train that just left. We had no choice but to believe him, and managed to bribe our way onto the next and final train departing for Merv that night. Once we paid the bribe, we were best friends with the conducters, inviting us to eat, drink vodka and smoke in their staff toilets, while trying to avoid the dissapproving eyes of the law. It was a great train ride, despite no seats, and a fitting way to arrive back on the road after a successful excursion to the crater.

We arrived in Merv at 3 in the morning, and with no hope of finding Mathias this late, decided to head out of town and camp somewhere. The next morning there was still no sign of him, and I left notes for him fixed to signposts in the hope he was behind us. It was a slow day as you can imagine, after getting next to no sleep from the night before. Eventually we found him up ahead, his bike in pieces after trying to remedy a problem he had for the last 50km. It turns out he arrived after us, despite setting off before us, but somehow overtook us on the road, missing us entirely.

The next three days were long boring slogs, with some very sandy camping, and lots of mosquitos. It was hot, but not as hot as Iran, and the road conditions were quite dire, with tarmac that looked like it hadn’t been relaid for 25 years. There were no road signs, and despite this being a main road we had to rely on compass bearings to ensure we were heading in the right direction.

We reached Turkmenabad on the last day, and got split up somewhere on the road. I did the last 25 km completely lost, thinking the border post would be clearly signposted – it wasn’t. I was led down a small dirt road being ensured the frontier was 5km away – I was less than convinced. Safe to say it appeared, and i crossed the border 2 hours before it closed. I was worried about the others though, as they were behind me, and showed no sign of appearing any time soon. I waited for 2 hours on the Uzbek side of the border, becoming increasingly concerned that if they didnt make it, they were fucked. If they overstay their Turkmen Visas, they get fined $200 and deported, meaning a train back to Ashgabat and a flight to Uzbekistan, at their expense. Just as the border was about to shut its gates, they turned up, seemingly releived to have made it through the Turkmen side – they arrived to the locked gate just as the Turkmen officials were leaving in their car. Phew.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Vinod Shrestha permalink
    September 12, 2011 5:55 pm

    awesome pictures. weldone guys.

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