The blazing crater of Turkmenistan

BukharaOur journey through Uzbekistan takes us to Bukhara and Khiva. Both were major stops on the Silk Road, built around oases. These UNESCO world heritage sites are packed with beautiful buildings. Bukhara is the larger, with many madresses built next to ponds. They must have been a welcome sight to incoming caravans.

Khiva is smaller and still has its city wall and gates. Tall minarets tower over the little town, their tiled sides reflecting the winter sun. It is cool here, only getting to 14c at midday, but they tell us this is fine. Later in the winter it may drop to minus 30c or so!

Entering Turkmenistan is slow but friendly. Getting the visa was a protracted process involving letters of invitation and passports flying from the UK to Turkmenistan and back. We do end up playing yet another fee, for registration, and we are searched, in case we are bringing in anything that is banned. The banned list includes drugs like Nuerophen and energy drinks like Red Bull.

Our journey then heads south to cross the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan. At the edge of the desert is the ruined city of Konge Urgench. Both Genghis Khan Doors of helland Tamerlane ensured that it was ruined. Few buildings survive but one tall minaret still stands, 750 years old and 60 metres high.

We camp in the desert, up a dusty track. The minaret is still visible in the distance. It is a clear, cold night and we eat around the camp fire again. Feral camels walk past. These are a cross between bactrians from the Silk Road and Arabic dromedaries – big and hairy but with just one hump! Bleached camel bones lay around us too, showing how hostile this environment is.

Then onward across the desert to camp near the infamous Darvaza gas crater – nicknamed “the doors to hell”. This 74 metre across, 24 metre deep, crater is alight, with hundreds of flames lighting up the night sky. Various explanation exist but it is clear that Russian scientists set it alight in 1971 after some sort of accident that created the crater and released gas. They thought it would burn out in a couple of days. It is an amazing and weird sight.

During the journey, our Turkmen guide explained about his sister’s recent wedding. Parents gave traditional presents, such as bread wrapped in Ashgabat Ministry of Weddingsa camel carpet, showing they were pleased with the match. The bride went to the wedding hidden under a cover on a female camel. About 300 guests attended the reception. The men played music, cooked and smoked hashish. The women indulged in the traditional sport of belt wrestling until one was victorious. The guide’s granny was a champion wrestler and, from her photograph, this was easy to believe!

Finally we are across the desert and into the new city of Ashgabat, new because it was levelled by a huge (Richter 9+) earthquake in 1948.

We were unable to post this blog in Turkmenistan. Travelblog.org, along with Facebook, Twitter and many other internet sites, is blocked there.

We have reached the end of our Silk Road, from Almaty to Ashgabat, through four young countries that came into independent existence just 25 years ago. Kazakhstan was probably the richest and most westernised part of the trip; Kyrgyzstan, our favourite, was the most beautiful, most relaxed and probably the poorest. Uzbekistan was a little paranoid, flat as Norfolk, split between endless desert and endless cotton but dotted with beautiful old cities; Turkmenistan was mostly empty desert, except for the bizarreness Fat tailed sheep in the marketof its white marble capital, and it took paranoia to new levels.

All along the road there have been echoes of the past – oasis towns, caravanserai and markets selling spices, carpets, silk and camels; And everywhere we met lovely people, young and old, rich and poor, helping us, laughing with us and smiling.

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