Day 67 - Darvaza Oasis Print E-mail
Wednesday, 24 May 2006

We got up bright and early and for once it wasn’t a holiday! The few people we had managed to talk to so far had all said that with around 30 holidays they had to work most of them or no business would get done. It sounds great in principle but they felt that horse, bread, good neighbourliness day and student youth day were simply ridiculous. As too was the fact that Turkmenbashi had renamed a month (April) after his mother, Gurbansoltan. The days of the week are also named after various friends and family and 90% of the people have no idea what corresponds to what!

We had a new guide, Dimitri, who was a very laid-back guy who turned up with a smart BMW (which actually broke down halfway there) to take us to the Tolkuchka Bazaar (literally “elbow” bazaar because of the limited space due to the crowds). It wasn’t too corwded given that it was a Saturday and made for a pleasant stroll looking at the various sections’ displays – household items, food, carpets, clothes, electronics and spare car parts all featured prominently. Nearby there was also an animal market with any animal you might possibly want including the usual camels, goats, sheep, cows and chickens all cooped up into fairly tight spaces.

When we’d had enough, we headed back to Ashgabat. It’s amazing to see that when Turkmenbashi’s eyes aren’t peering down at you from some wall, then the evidence of his constructions are all around. The most noticeable are the water fountains that adorn most parks and public places. With the wastage of water in such a dry climate, the “drop of water is a grain of gold” slogan and indeed holiday is again hard to understand.

In order to comply as good temporary citizens of Turkmenistan, we bought ourseleves a copy of the hilarious Turkmenbashi book about the history and origins of the Turkmen people – Apparently they were the first people in the whole region, a claim disputed by most historians. But still, with such useful advice in our hands, surely nothing could stop us on our trip.

Dimitri picked us up in his beaten up 4WD and we were off along the “new” $1 billion road to the Darvaza oasis and spectacular gas crater. Most of the road, however, hadn’t been finished and was extremely bumpy. Occasionally large sand dunes had formed on the road surface, covering most of it and thereby forcing us offroad.

We stopped off at a tiny village right in the middle of the Karakum desert called Erbent. There was no local water and no vegetation and it made it hard to imagine how or why life existed here. But it did and immediately several children ran out from the village yurts to greet us and show us around. They seemed more concerned ultimately about having their picture taken and wherever the camera pointed you could bet a child was jumping around to be included. It was fun for 5 minutes but became rather a bore afterwards. Still, we were probably a highlight in what would otherwise have been an ordinary, perhaps rather dull, day.

By this stage it was hot and nearing 40 degrees. It apparently gets even hotter as the summer progresses, but the temperature was enough to make you sweat even in the shade. Here I was traveling along the modern silk road and suffereing. How the large trade caravans managed to cross the desert, centuries ago, shows just what a feat those brave men accomplished in the name of trade.

Around sunset we arrived at Darvaza. Due to a lack of water in recent times, the wells have dried up and the village has become desertified, with most people moving away. We had decided to camp and with Dimitri set up our tents and lit a fire, all the while trying to avoid the scorpions present. Dmitri assured us though that if we were to get bitten the he had the cure – a bottle of vodka taken in two shots, 40 minutes apart. Hmmm, now where is that scorpion again?

The reason for setting up camp here was to visit the burning gas crater nearby. It probably originates from an accidental explosion during the Soviet search for gas rather than being a natural phenomenon. Either way the seeping gas has been set alight and blazes furiously day and night. Meanwhile a flock of birds circle the crater enjoying its warm air whose wings light up at night making them look like the burning pieces of an exploded firework.

Once we’d seen the crater and had a barbeque supper, we tucked into the vodka while toasting various international causes. Having run out, we wondered if it was possible (bearing in mind we were in the middle of nowhere) to get any more alcohol. Dimitri claimed he could get anything out here. We suggested a couple more bottles and some nice Turkmen ladies as a suitable challenge. He said no problem but then went off to tend the fire instead. Shortly after this, a small group, equipped with torches, made its way towards us. Had our prayers magically been answered?

Well in some ways yes and in many ways no. It was 5 Italians (3 of whom were rather mature women), armed with a bottle of Whiskey and being led by their hapless guide who seemed not to have much of a clue as to what they were doing. Still we set about making our new companionsn feel at home and the party carried on into the night. Dimitri seemed pleased at what he had rustled up but told us we should have been more specific with our requests next time.

Burning gas crater!

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