Burning Craters and Giant Spiders
19.05.2007 - 20.05.2007
From Ashgabat we drove north on the lonely road that goes through the Karakum Desert, which actually had a fairly decent surface, but only for half the road. The drove in Dima's Soviet UAZ Jeep (apparently it was better as his Nissan was 'stupid'), which was big, loud, and had no seat belts. On the way we stopped at possibly the most depressing place ever. A village in the middle of nowhere in some bushy dunes, which was empty save some trash, a few kids and two immobile camels, crying loudly, who were tied very firmly to wooden posts. Apparently all the water in the village is driven here from the nearest source. What are people doing there?
Halfway across Turkmenistan, we turned off the road, into the desert, and after about 10 minuites, we reached our destination.
In the desert, on a flat sandy plain ringed by hills, there was a large crater, which was on fire. It has a diameter of about 50 meters, and a depth of about 20, and looking inside, it seems that the rocks are on fire...
Apparently, when the Soviets were exploring for gas here in the 50s, "something happened", which left a massive burning hole in the ground, and it's been burning ever since. No-one really cares about it now, since the transportation of the gas would be too costly (it is in the middle of nowhere). But the crater is definitely man made, as there are twisted pipes on one side of the crater, which is also why it's not a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site.
The crater is most impressive at night (but you can still see the flames in the day), you can see the smoke and bright orange-red light from miles around. When you're just on the edge, and the wind blows in your direction, the heat unbearable. You can also hear the flames and the wind it causes from a considerable distance.
(We have some good pictures).
After a good, fresh shashlyk (barbeque), we camped out next to the crater. Not too close though, I didn't want to be barbequed myself. The Karakum is crawling with all sorts of nasty things. Snakes, scorpions, and giant spiders (se saw one running around devouring moths, it was about 10cm across...), Dima slept in the car, whilst we had to brave it outside. Ok, we're not really such heroes, our tent was pretty secure.
Next morning (after 2 hours sleep...) we head off north to the border with Uzbekistan along a 'stupid' (Dima loved that word) road. The road was stupid. It was the bumpiest ride I have ever had in my life.
After 5 hours of bone-jarring ride, we got to Konye-Urgench, another aincient city. Again, it was trashed by the Mongols and Timurids, so there's not much left. There are a few restored mausoleums, and a huge conical minaret (largest in Central Asia), but they look pretty new.
One interesting thing we spotted was a large tattered overcoat for rent. The locals kept on taking it, then rolling down the hill in it. Apparently it wards off evil, but it looked really fun (but the overcoat was so dirty we didn't participate).
After that, we drove the remaining distance and emotionally (not really) parted ways with Dima at the border.
The Turkmen border was very friendly (Dima knew the guards well), and they waved us through (not without some beurocracy, of course). The Uzbek border was a completely empty, not even ay flags (we found out the guards had to go and fetch water), save for a few people watiching TV inside the main building. There we had a good chat about life in the west, and they let us fo free.
There some soldiers made camera signals at us, could they have wanted to check our cameras, as we had been warned might happen in Turkmenistan? No, they wanted to take a photo with us. Awesome, and strange since it is illegal to take photos near borders, but it didn't seem they cared about much here.
After another successful crossing, we drove into the post-industrial wasteland of Karakalpakstan...