Remember those old cowboy movies? They always traveled in convoys when crossing the desert. That’s what you need to do!
The Door to Hell was waiting for us in Turkmenistan and joining forces with some of the other teams in the rally was more important than ever before tackling the tricky road leading to it. Internet access is not abundant in this part of the world… how on Earth are we going to find them??
The white city of Ashgabat
After a couple of long days of driving, the border between Iran and Turkmenistan appeared before us. Up in the mountains, away from pretty much anything, the Iranian side was easy peasy. A very nice official took care of all the paperwork for us and he even got someone to exchange our Rials into Manats. On the Turkmenistan side though, things were a little bit different: we had to visit as many as 9 offices, including passport control, a doctor, animal control and customs. In the latter, we dealt with our second bribe attempt of the rally when the official asked us whether we were carrying any “souvenirs from Spain for custom control”. After joking around with them for a bit, they finally let us through, without even checking the ambulance!. Total time spent at both borders was 2 and half hours. Not bad at all. Our good luck continues. Let it stay that way!
Once on the other side, it was downhill for about 20 km until we finally met her: there she was, hidden in the valley behind the mountains, Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan. Strangely beautiful, outrageous and over the top. White marble buildings everywhere, police officers on nearly every corner, quite a lot of traffic but no houses to be found. It does feel like driving through a fake city, much like in the Truman Show: the cars seem to be driving on rails and the few people you see on the street could well be just actors. One of the weirdest places we have ever been to.
A nice surprise
Driving around Ashgabat is fascinating and so we took Lola for a ride whilst trying to find a place to stock up on water. After a couple of failed attempts, we ended up at a supermarket just opposite our hotel. And there they were, Teams The Next Big Adventure and Honeymoon Hullabaloo, together with a few others from the Mongol Rally. Yes! After exchanging stories from the road, we joined their convoy, a total of 6 cars, ready to go to the very doors of hell.
One of the most bizarre places on Earth, the gas crater of Darvaza was waiting for us. Also known as the Door To Hell, it started in the 1950’s when the soviets were searching for oil in the Karakum Desert. On one of the extraction points the ground collapsed and a crater 70 metres wide appeared. Soviets scientists decided to light it on fire as they thought it would run out of gas in a few weeks. Some 40 years later, the crater is still burning.
The last few kilometres before the crater are proper off-road driving through a sandy path where cars often get stuck. By the time we got the beginning of this path, it was nearly 20:00h (and 41C!). Lola tackled the first hill with more passion than traction and of course she got stuck. No 4WD meant the convoy would have to camp just a few kilometres from the crater.
But there was still hope. Despite the government intentions to shut down the crater, the locals are well aware of its potential as a tourist attraction and a few of them take advantage of that. And there is nothing wrong with that! For the price of a pint in London they gave us a ride to the crater and back when it was already pitch dark. It was then when we discovered that there was no chance we would have made it all the way with Lola, as even their powerful 4WD cars struggled a bit. On the edge of the crater, after a few minutes staring at the flames, we realised that the extreme heat, the long drives and those $10 were worth every penny.
A slight change of plans
Next day it was time to make another decision. Either follow our original plan and continue north from the gas crater straight into Uzbekistan, or stick with our new convoy and return to Ashgabat before heading east in Turkmenistan. It was not an easy call: changing our exit point could lead to trouble at the border and we would have to miss out on Khiva. However, the roads north of the crater are supposed to be some of the worse in the rally and above all, there was something good about these guys. Good company trumps nice buildings in our book anytime.
And so, a total of 4 teams made their way back to the white city: the Fellowship of the Stans was born.
The dreaded border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and two of the gems of the Silk Road: Bukhara and Samarkand