There is no other place in the world like the Darvaza Gas Crater. It’s like the gates to hell. Not only is there one gas crater, but there are actually three different Darvaza Gas Craters in Turkmenistan. Each one has it’s own unique characteristics.
Last Morning in Uzbekistan
I woke up early again to have a stroll at sunrise in Khiva. This time I went to the northern gate of the old city where one can access the top of a portion of the wall. The views of the sunrise were nice there. Then I returned to the hotel restaurant that’s in a huge old building with porcelain decor and chandeliers for our last breakfast in Uzbekistan. After some tuning of the engine after the diesel fiasco of the last driving day, we departed at 10 am, arriving at the border before noon. The Uzbeks were much warmer on our departure – just making sure we had filled out our customs forms correctly and stamping us out.
The Turkmenistan Border
There was a small bridge that separated Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the Turkmen officials made us all get out of the truck and walk across. We arrived on the steps of the Turkmen Immigration at 12:55 but their lunch break goes from 1 to 2 pm. So, we decided to have lunch too, dragging out our tables, bread, salami, spreadable cheese, tomatoes, and cucumber. At 2:00 they started processing our paperwork. I had submitted information for a letter of invitation a couple months before the trip. Turkmenistan then eventually gave us a group tourist visa for 20 of the 22 members of our group. For some reason, two people were denied entry and they found out about this about a month ago so they could make alternative arrangements to fly over Turkmenistan. It was two men from our trip and we couldn’t find any commonality that might have caused the denial – they are different countries, ages, professions, etc. Both are married so their wives are with the group as they take a train and flight to Azerbaijan. We will meet them again in 6-8 days (depending on the date and length of our Caspian Sea crossing. I also met 3 individual travelers the prior day. One of them was denied a visa and the other two were only able to get Transit visas, allowing them only 5 days in the country.
At the border, we waited about an hour until our names started to be called because our visas were ready in our passports. The visas for Turkmenistan are a sticker that takes a whole page and are beautiful – including a hologram with the national symbol of TM that includes a horse, the traditional patterns from their rugs, cotton, wheat, and the Islam crescent moon and stars. We had our bags x-rayed and the woman official said “laptop and camera” and I said “yes” and was on my way. It took over an hour for the truck to be inspected so we didn’t leave until well after 4:00.
Turkmenistan has good quality diesel and the cheapest of the trip – about 20 cents per liter or 80 cents per gallon. We took this advantage and filled up the tank on our way to our bush camp.
Turkmenistan Bush Camping
We pulled off the road on a dirt track just outside a large city near the border and camped in the desert.
I had seen some salt ponds on the way to our campsite so after I had unpacked the bags and set up my tent, I set off for a short walk. The sun had already set, but the bright red, orange, and yellow sky looked amazing reflected in the salt ponds. I was even able to capture Venus and the thin crescent moon in the pond. The moon was really amazing – I could see the silhouette of the whole moon in the clear night sky. We had veggie curry for dinner and I went to bed early because I could tell it was going to be a cold night.
Wed, Nov 6
I woke up early to meet Mindy and Sam to go for a short walk to the salt ponds for sunrise. We had the highest amount of frost of the whole trip on the tent this morning. Although there was no wind, it was freezing cold outside and inside the tent. We have gotten too spoiled from 10 nights in a row of hotels.
The Karakum Desert
We spent a good part of the day driving thru the Karakum (or Garagum) desert. We stopped in a small desert town to buy some fresh food for meals. The town was made up of Soviet bloc buildings – several large square cement buildings. The shops were sparse but we got potatoes, carrots, and some bottled yogurt. Some of the passengers stocked up on Snickers bars and vodka. We spied lots of ground squirrels in the desert at our lunch stop. These squirrels look more like rats and have only slightly bushy tails. We also saw the first bunch of one humped camels of the trip. We have seen lots of two humped camels that are common in the far east but one hump is the type that is found in the Middle East.
Darvaza Gas Crater – the Bubbling Mud One
By mid-afternoon, we had arrived to Darvaza. Darvaza is famous for a few sites. Several of them were caused by Russian exploration for gas in the 1950’s which created three man made craters. Our first stop was the bubbling mud crater. At the bottom of this deep crater was mud that was bubbling due to gas escaping from the earth. Sometime recently, someone threw a flame into the crater and it started to burn. So here you can see flames jumping randomly from a puddle of mud. Really crazy site.
Darvasa City Ruins
Near this site I noticed some ruins. This was the site of the ruined town of Darvasa. In 2004, a new highway was being built and the megalomaniac president at the time didn’t like the look of the town so he forced it to be destroyed. All that can be seen now is some mud brick foundations, some rusted metal parts, a few dusty personal effects, and the mud brick ovens. In this culture, bread and ovens are sacred so the ovens were spared the demolition. There was also a curious graveyard in this ghost town with 3 graves with the orthodox cross.
Camping at Darvaza
Next, we set up camp just off the highway. We are in a small depression between a couple hills so it’s likely to be a cold night. The plan was to get 4×4 transportation out to the Darvaza gas crater site. This gas crater has constantly been emitting gas and burning since the 1950’s. Our transportation was coming at 6:30 to take us to the crater after dark but the guide half-jokingly said we could walk the 8 Kms through the desert if we wanted. Although the 3-year-old Lonely Planet advised against walking thru the dunes, the guide said it was now easy. His last instructions were “Follow the truck tracks straight and then to the left until you see two hills that look like women’s breasts. The crater is between the two hills.” I set off at 4:40 hiking and it took me 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to the site. There were some great sand dunes to see and a site with an Orthodox cross made with old oil pipeline parts.
Richard started jogging a little later and arrived at the crater exactly as I was arriving. Here are the hills that the guide thinks look like breasts:
Darvaza Gas Crater – the Fire One – And a big Surprise!
Approaching the crater, we noticed some large camera equipment and soon a guy ran over to tell us what was going on. National Geographic was shooting a documentary on the three craters. We were told where to stand so we didn’t end up in the shots of the cameraman. There was a cable strung above the large crater. A guy in a fireproof suit that looked like an astronaut’s suit then crossed the crater on the cable. We later found out that this was a world first – no one had ever crossed the crater. Tomorrow will be another first – a man will drop down to the floor of the burning crater. It would be cool to see that but I’ll have to watch it on the National Geo channel next March when it airs in the USA. The view of the crater was most amazing just before dark – the glowing red crater against the dark blue sky with the mountain in the horizon and the moon and Venus dotting the sky. The rest of the Odyssey Overland group joined us after dark and we took lots of photos as we were in awe of this otherworldly site. This has been one of my favorite sites of the trip. We took the 4×4 back to our campsite – all 22 of us plus 7 more people would have fit on the monster truck. It’s amazing how fast this truck could drive on the dusty, sandy road. Our overland truck would have certainly been bogged in the sand.
Thurs, Nov 7
It was a very balmy 43 degrees this morning. It’s funny how a few nights of freezing camping give me appreciation for 43 degrees! After breakfast, I did a quick walk up the hill towering over our camp, then went to see the camel bones. Our local guide called this the “Dead Camel Camp.”
There were also views of a train station in the middle of nowhere.
Darvaza Gas Crater – the Water One
Shortly after leaving camp, we stopped at the 3rd of the Darvasa Craters. This one was the water crater – a crater filled with water that had a section of it bubbling from the escaping gases.
Traveled November 2013