(25) Darvaza and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan: Into the fiery pits of hell

I sat waiting to meet the local travel agency rep at 2pm in my hotel lobby. I figured she wouldn’t be late, seeing as we were meeting so I could pay her for my tour.

At 3:15pm I get a call from her via the hotel reception – why wasn’t I at the other hotel? Uh, because you told me to meet you here at 2 and I’ve been waiting for over an hour. Apparently some messages weren’t passed on by reception that I was supposed to meet her at Julica’s hotel at 3pm. Even if I got that message, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m not paying hundreds of dollars not get picked up and to have to lug my bags across the city.

So we get it all sorted, and eventually are on the road at about 4pm.

(Aside: Instead of me drawing this out in a bajillion words like I usually do, let me show you my intermittent blog writing process. Sometimes when I don’t have time or desire to write a complete post, I’ll just write notes to remind me later. Below is the rest of this post, in point form.)

pick up supplies. more vodka.

long drive. desolate. passed two towns.

camels. intermittent sand dunes.

flat tire. road is hot. sand is hot, too hot to touch or walk in without boots.

stop one more time for supplies. this time it’s mixers for the vodka. egg to test on the hot ground. camels tied up in the back yards.

water crater. old gas crater filled with water. small bubbles.

sun is going down, shadows are long, light is golden.

destination down sand road. like driving down a waterslide. set up camp near the burning gas crater. can’t see much other than heat waves.

viewpoint reveals inside the crater. not what I expected, but possibly better. like hell. fire and brimstone. what is brimstone? maybe this.

dinner is chicken shishlak (shish kabobs) and salad. we make the salad. guide and driver sit with the meat. before we eat, vodka commences. a bottle costs about $2. i pass every second round, so as to not repeat last time’s after effects.

moon starts to rise. we leave dinner for the crater and photos. darkness. crater is truly like I imagine hell would be. functioning gas well in the 50s but exploded and not possible to close. setting on fire is the safest option.

guide stays behind as we walk down to crater but Maksad, the guide from Mary, is also here. our guide more interested in vodka than guiding. slept with iPod most of day.

dung beetles attracted if you do the ‘big event’ says Maksad. I don’t understand at first. ah, yes, take a crap.

arrange with Maksad to maybe send my lost swiss army knife with other tourists.

btw, Marta and Kuba still have passport held hostage in Ashgabat. sneaky.

more vodka and chatting back at camp. uzbek tips from australian/french couple. guide keeps interrupting convo with fairly irrelevant commentary.

temperature is nice in wind, but tent a bit stuffy. settle into sleep.

up at 6:30

simple bfast. my stomach is off, but i don’t think from alcohol.

drop of polish couple – hitching back to ashgabat.

more desert.

fish got for lunch from fisherman.

roads bad. better to drive on gravel shoulder than actual road.

more old mosques and mausoleums. yawn. funny hill that people roll down for good luck – fertility, prosperity.

stopped in konye-urgench. finally a real town in this make believe country.

market before lunch. colourful. scarfs. photos. smiles. police give us the “no photos” arm cross, but then walk away. we ignore them.

fish takes a long time, but good. lovely yogurt. where did the rest of the fish go?

hurried out. more time at market? driver needs to go back to ashgabat. phone call with antonina. feeling rushed out of county. our itinerary said 6pm.

walk again, but stopped by julica falling in man hole. no ice. ice cream, frozen vegetable stock, half frozen juice in a bag. limited first aid. accidentally sit on egg i meant to test. comedy of errors in our last hour in Turkmenistan.

finally to the border.

This border was possibily the funniest and easiest border crossing I’ve had yet. We start off on the Turkmen side, where our guide has warned us not to take photos. However, Julica asks the first two guards, hanging underneath a tree, if she can take a photo of them. Instead of the usual stern faced, crossed arms we have experienced so far, we get giggles. They point at each other and say things that must translate to something like “Take a picture of him!” “No, take a picture of him!”

We get to the first main checkpoint, and I’m nervous about the painting I have. I don’t want it confiscated. We get to a room where it seems bags may be searched, and I find that I need to use the toilet. Now. We ask the guards. No toilet they say. I plead, and they laugh. They point to a building behind the room we are in. Oops, I stand corrected. They point to behind the building that’s behind the room we are in. I relieve myself in tall grass. When I come back, I expect the luggage search, but I am waived on. At the next stop the Turkmen guard speaks rather good English, and other than checking our passports briefly and telling us the extra paperwork we have been carrying in our passports for the past 6 days is now our souvenir and not important, he waives away our praise of his English. “I’m just a beginner,” he says with a humble smile.

Just before we cross into Uzbekistan, a final, solemn guard checks our passports. Considering how difficult and stern the other police have been, these four checkpoints have been breezy. Julica suggests it’s because we’re on our way out. They’re happy to see us leave.

In Uzbekistan, the first borderguard makes a remark about the Vancouver Olympics. I ask him which sports Uzbek athletes are good at, and he apologizes that he understands English better than he can speak it, so instead he mimes an array of sports. It’s like we’re playing charades. Uh… downhill skiing? No! Rowing? Yes! Next one. Uhhh…. wrestling, no, no… uhhh.. judo! This goes on for a while.

The next stop is the customs stop. We are given forms to fill out twice. In the “do you have art?” column, I move to check yes, but the guard tells me no. I point to the painting. He still says no. I suspect it’s because it will make more work for him, not because it’s the legitimate thing to do.

He asks sternly to look in our bags; specifically, he wants to see our medicine. I pull out my small ziploc bag of first aid supplies. He slowly flips through my bandaids one by one. He takes out my tensor bandage. “What is this?” he asks. I mime a hurt knee and getting bandaged. At this point I really hope he’s not planning to go through the whole bag. I don’t want to have to explain condoms. But he stops. He’s apparently not interested in the unlabeled pill containers I have.

Then the man checks out my passport again, and suddenly he’s all smiles.

“Vancouver?” he questions. “Vancouver Canucks!”

I start laughing in amazement. “Yes, Vancouver Canucks.”

He continues. “Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers!” He starts listing Canadian NHL teams eastward. This is surreal.

And then, it was over. The now friendly border guard helps us confirm a fair price for a taxi, and we head off. The driver drops us off at our hotel and tries to pretend that the price we agreed on was per person. We walk away. Our first impression of Uzbekistan.

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