(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.

(20) Garmeh, Iran: Desert storm

Tom and I had a late start in Yazd, but eventually made it to the bus station (curious: Iran’s bus stations are always way outside of town – why?) and onto a bus to Na’in on our way to Garmeh. I had bought a watermelon the day before with the intention to eat it all for lunch, but was still lugging it around and ate a quarter of it before we left. The extra weight now seems like a bit of a mistake…carrying around 3/4 of a watermelon is a pain.

The ride to Na’in was uneventful, passing through fairly desolate landscape, until we didn’t seem to stop in Na’in. Tom and I gave each other questioning looks before he brought our ticket up to the driver’s assistant. Some frantic and annoyed Farsi ensued (a la “oh shit we forgot about the tourists”) between him and the driver before the bus pulled over, backed up about 100m, pulled a u-ey, drove two roundabouts back and dropped us at the side of the road. (Aside: how do you spell u-ey? I’ve only said it, never had to write it before.)

We were expecting a bus to come through to where we were going at about 4pm. It was just after 3pm. For all we knew the schedule had changed, or no buses were coming through – it was Friday afterall (the equivalent of Canadian Sunday). But, as luck would have it, we were only there for about 10 minutes before a car pulled over, asked if we were tourists, where we were going, and offered a ride. Well, the car itself didn’t ask, the two men inside did. And we accepted.

The two men were professors at a university in Tabas, the next city after our destination. The passenger was a professor of geology, and he was keen to share the geological history of the area with us (which I actually quite enjoyed). Overall a very enthusiastic talkative guy.

He translated one of his favourite Arabic songs for us, and then played it again. He asks us for our opinion. I leave this one to Tom. “It’s quite catchy,” he shares noncommittally.

At one point they decided to pull over to allow us to take a photo, of what I can’t remember now. Because when we stopped, I pointed out a huge billowing sand cloud in the distance, maybe 5km away. A sand storm. Definitely a new experience for me. We took tonnes of photos, the geology professor took some video,  and I gained appreciation for storm chasers. I watched the sand cloud pass down the side of a mountain, and could tell it was moving at quite a speed, in our direction.

“Is it dangerous?” I ask.

“No, no, not dangerous,” says the geology professor.

So we continued to take pictures – with the professors, of the sand storm, of the camel signs on the highway, of a combination of the above. And then, when the cloud seemed to be about 1km away, the geology professor seems to chang his mind.

“OK, we go. Maybe dangerous.”

So we hopped back in the car and within a few minutes we reached our destination, but were overcome by the sandstorm. At first it was just very windy with a bit of dust. The geology professor was concerned for us and tried to convince us to continue on to Tabas, their destination. Tom and I tried to explain that we had a reservation, someone picking us up, someone waiting for us, a friend was meeting us, anything for them to stop the car.

But soon enough, luck would have it that the sand storm became so bad the sky was dark, headlights were useless, and driving any further was even more dangerous than staying. We found refuge in a mosque and waited out the storm.

The worst of it was short, only 10 minutes or so before it was safe to drive again, but was it ever fun.

Our final destination, a traditional house in the oasis village of Garmeh, was a short taxi ride away. The driver had a husky, cackly voice and unknowingly entertained us by his enthusiastic mobile phone conversations. Tom and I both had never seen landscapes like this before, and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery both on this final leg and all the way from Na’in in general. It turns out that desert oases really do look like they do in the movies and cartoons. A blob of palm trees in the middle of nowhere.

Our home for the next two nights was a restored old mud brick home called Ishetoni. Its village, Garmeh, is home to a few hundred people, is backed by some high rocky outcrops, is full of palm trees, sunflowers, pomegranate bushes, birds and butterflies, and is surrounded otherwise by flat, dry nothingness.

While the scenery is unique, the food is lovely and the home is welcoming, the temperature is a bit of an issue at this time of year. Our full day here it got to about 46 degrees, and at night it only went down to 32, which apparently I have trouble sleeping in. The first morning I felt I had already been awake for a few hours when I gave up all hope for sleep at 5 am and took a walk in behind the village and sat up on the rocks for a while as the sun rose. Not my usual daytime routine, but probably the best option considering the temperature as the sun gets higher; I was back for breakfast at 8am and was able to nap on and off until 11am. Watermelon was offered as a late morning snack, and lunch shortly followed. Other than short walks, we (including a young couple from Portugal staying here) each spent the rest of the morning just reading and generally laying around the living area in the path of the cooling fan. I compare it to a modern day version of being fed grapes and being fanned by servant boys.

In the afternoon, the four of us shared a taxi tour to a “salt lake” which turned out to be more of a salt trench. While still beautiful, it was a bit disappointing considering the images the word “lake” conjures up. We should have been more realistic considering the temperature and the season, but seeing as we were sightseeing in the heat of the late afternoon, we were really hoping for something good.

When we got back to the village, Tom and I got some nonalcoholic beers and went for a walk around the village and surrounding palm-treed plots, taking advantage of the (moderately) non-hot wind that had picked up. It was so quiet. I do well with silence.

The next morning, ideas of an early walk were replaced by welcome sleep. We had planned to leave before noon, but ended up staying for lunch, and leaving in the early afternoon with hopes of catching a random ride back to Na’in and then a bus to our separate destinations (Tom to Kashan, I back to Tehran).

As luck would have it, Tom only had time to buy a drink while I successfully flagged down a transport truck to Na’in. Our host in Garmeh had said that trucks travel fast on the road, but we calculated (both by timing the road signs and the markers on the road) that we were only travelling about 80 km/h. For 3 hours. Cramped. In the front of a hot, old, Mercedes transport truck. If nothing else it was an experience. I kept track of the beats playing on the iPod and found that the driver was looking at me at least half of the time. I was glad to be travelling with a male partner. Definitely would not have attempted this alone.

By the time we got to Na’in, it was clear that I wasn’t going to make it to Tehran in good time, so I joined Tom in Kashan for one more time as unmarried twin room sharing opposite sex travel partners, and let Somayeh know I would be back in Tehran in the early afternoon.

But the next morning, for real this time, was the end for Tom and me as travel partners. After breakfast I caught a taxi to the bus station, and Tom wandered off to explore Kashan. I’m jealous of the time he still has to spend in Iran, and his potential plans to come back in February.

Thanks for all the comfortable silences.

(19) Yazd, Iran: Water wells and bathhouse dinners

Tom and I travelled during the hottest part of the day to Yazd, enjoying a bit of air conditioning, some naps, and intermittent views of dramatic mountain ranges from the flatness of a dry desert valley. Upon arriving, we met a taxi driver who took out a brochure for the guesthouse we were planning on staying at anyways – it’s a well touristed spot.

When we walked through the doors into the courtyard of the guesthouse, we each saw something we hadn’t yet seen in Iran. Tourists. It was odd to have spent the last five days in a quiet hum, and all of a sudden hear English spoken, people gathered around a table, Euro Cup on TV. We wondered – should we talk to them? How does one go about approaching tourists.

We put our bags in our room, and went out to the tables. We met a young Iranian couple there celebrating the girls birthday. I wasn’t sure if they were staying there, or just there to meet and talk to tourists. We tried to work it out, but I think it was a bit illicit for them to be there alone, so they weren’t too keen on specifics. She was visiting from Tehran, he was from Yazd. They hoped to get married after they were done university. He had brought a cake, which they shared with the other guests, and he also had sparklers which he spread around and we sang Happy Birthday.

And then, a Canadian and a Dutch guy sat across from us. It took about 10 seconds before I regretted the whole talking to tourists thing. The Canadian was of the “I-have-had-so-many-experiences-with-the-locals-I-almost-am-one-of-them-which-is-why-I-am-cool-and-like-to-talk-a-lot-and-not-find-out-anything-about-you” variety. The Dutch guy was of the “I-think-that-I-have-a-sense-of-humour-so-why-aren’t-people-laughing” variety.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Tom and I were both trying to figure out ways to extricate ourselves. I asked, “Do you know anywhere good for dinner around here?” at which point the Canadian exclaimed how hungry he was. I think if Tom had known me better he would have kicked me under the table. As it was I was kicking myself hard enough.

Instead I made some sort of comment about getting sorted in our room before we go to eat, at which point Tom and I get ourselves the hell out of there and fall into laughter behind closed doors. We decided not to mingle with the tourists anymore.

Instead we ventured through town, hoping to eventually find a restaurant that sits in a former bathhouse. It was a maze of streets, no signs, and a bit of luck, but we made it. It was seriously like an underground shallow swimming pool. Blue tiles. Humid. Some water, but lots of tables. Great food. Possibly the best non-homecooked meal in Iran. Mainly because it wasn’t kabab. But it was also just good. I introduced Tom to dizi and the small metal plunger. I had rice with a sauce of pomegranates, walnuts and chicken. Mm!

Yazd is known for having a picturesque old town, in which our guesthouse was located, and for adapting well to the desert. The buildings have towers that are designed to somehow circulate air around them. And the water sources are nothing short of amazing. Outside of town, you will find piles of dirt everywhere. It looks like abandoned construction. Or just a mess really. But these actually hide large networks of underground water tunnels. Within the town you will randomly find stairways that seem to go down darkly to the reaches of hell, but instead take you to the water sources. People go down with buckets to fetch. It’s actually the opposite of hell. Cool air and lots of water.

A lot of places actually have deep down caverns, even if water isn’t drawn from them. Going down one level probably drops the temperature at least 10 degrees. Two levels, 20 degrees. Which takes you to standard North American room temperature. It’s so hot here. I’m really getting tired of my inner elbows sweating.

The next morning we went on a walk of the old city. There were a few things we wanted to find, but other than trying to find a way up to get a view of the city from above, the narrow lanes were the main draw. We found an old school that was referred to as a prison which was actually just a series of shops so basically you were just paying to get into a place to be sold stuff but there was a second level down below which sold drinks and things so we were able to cool down for a little while. <end run on sentence>. We also enjoyed a helpful tourist information centre, some lovely old Islamic buildings, and yes, we even found (with the help of some construction workers) a stairway behind a closed door which took us up to open air views of the old city from above. At one point a lovely young woman stops to talk to us, asking what our “idea of Iran” is. She is hoping to study to be a tour guide, and she asks if she speaks English well enough to be understood. She is great. I’ve noticed this over and over again in Iran. People that speak English, however basic, do it with very little accent at all. Just as Farsi is lovely to listen to, so is Iranians speaking English.

We also found a water museum, which is where we learned all about the construction of the water system (it involves lots of small men moving through lots of small tunnels) and where we once again enjoyed a deep, cool, cavern.

After an afternoon siesta, our search turned to food. We walked a long way, finding nothing, barely even kebabs. For some masochistic reason, Tom always waited until I was too hungry to go any further to turn around, even if he was starving. Something to do with army experience, he said. If he was ever tired, or sore, or hungry in the army, he always found relief in knowing that someone had it worse. Which is why he never gave up looking for a restaurant. And considering I’m pretty stubborn, this often led to two hungry people wandering the streets. This night, however, Tom gave up first. We skulked to the guesthouse for dinner, back where we started our search. The food was another hit like the night before. I’m hungry just thinking about it. We never should have bothered going out, though I suppose we got to see Yazd by night.

And that was Yazd.