Solange’s nine-year-old daughter Sisi was working on a project for school: Turkmenistan is different from other countries because… Her initial list of reasons, translated from French, looked something like this:
- They have a giant crater of flames in the desert and some people think it is the door to hell (but I don’t)
- The author of the books Lord of the Rings (but not the movies) wrote stories about things called the fortresses of fire, which are really coloured cliffs in a canyon. His name was JRR Tolkein and he was quite famous in the olden days
- They have racehorses that are brave and can run as fast as falcons can fly, which is super fast
- They have the most dinosaurs footprints in the world, even T-Rex ones!
- Their capital city got destroyed in an earthquake and thousands of people died, which is very sad
- They have lots of gas and gold, and the gas is free for the people to use but they are quite poor
- They grow 430 kinds of melons and I didn’t even know there were this many melons in the whole world before
- They make very pretty carpets with all kinds of patterns called geli
- ? (ask manman)
- ? (ask Uncle Leroy)
Leroy asked why she chose Turkmenistan and his niece replied that she simply closed her eyes and pointed at a spot on the map with a pencil. As good a reason as any, I suppose. I have to admit, I was instantly intrigued. This sounded like the kind of place we needed to visit and Sisi could obviously use some help with her last two answers.
On the recommendation of people in the know, we had arranged our virtual tourist visas well in advance. Real life travel to Turkmenistan involves registration with the State Service for Registration of Foreign Citizens (OVIR) and registration itself first involves a letter of invitation from a tour company. Our conundrum as virtual travellers, of course, is that we didn’t have a tour company. Once again, Leroy’s international network came to our rescue.
Friends who’d visited the country more than once gave us plenty of useful advice. They told us to take cash only as it would be foolish to rely on being able to exchange currency at the few banks available to travellers. US dollars for hotels and for our (compulsory) government-approved guide, and the local manat for shops and restaurants, although it is officially forbidden to use any other currencies than the manat. Confusing, no? The manat is pegged at 3.5 to the dollar and, like in Cuba, impossible to exchange outside the country so we’d need to be careful to exchange only what we might need.
The same friends warned us about photographing public buildings and even some of the bazaars in the capital of Ashgabat, and explained that, as foreign visitors, we could be watched at all times to make sure we weren’t getting up to mischief. The internet is limited and apps like Facebook, Twitter and so on are banned. Just as our determination started to waver, they told us about all the good things. Camping in the desert, the hospitable people and, of course, the dinosaur footprints featured on Sisi’s list.
Mountains and dinosaurs
The remote Köýtendag (‘Impassible’) Mountains lie just inside the eastern border with Uzbekistan and, with their deep canyons and forests of maple, juniper and walnut, are home to the endangered Bukharan markhor (a kind of goat-antelope with unusual horns), rare mountain sheep and other animals — and the 2500 dinosaur footprints left 155 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It was these we decided to track down first. And what better place than the aptly named Dinosaur Plateau?
Leroy, Solange, Sisi and I met our guide Meret in the small village of Khodjapil and he confirmed that we had been granted permits to visit the border region. Meret cut an impressive figure in his telpek (sheepskin hat) and Sisi was overcome with shyness, half-hiding behind Solange. He saw her interest and explained to us that Turkmen traditionally wear these hats; black for everyday and white for special occasions.
After filling us in on what we could expect for the morning, we then gave Meret his first taste of virtual travel, avoiding the muddy, rutted drive to the plateau. You should have seen his face as we arrived moments later at the base of the walking track. Priceless.
For a remote part of an under-visited country there were surprising numbers of people around, including workers from Türkmenabat on holiday and tourists from Russia and the other ‘stans. We had an amazing morning climbing and attempting to find as many of the 400 of the dinosaur prints visible on the steep limestone slope. We also zipped across to see the Umbar Dere waterfall and explore the fascinating Kyrk Kyz pilgrim cave, with its legends of warrior girls and bandits.
The ruined city of Merv
During its heyday in the 12th century as the world’s biggest city, the Silk Road metropolis of Merv was filled with palaces, libraries, irrigation channels and lush gardens. First established 2500 years ago, the city was encircled with eight kilometres of walls and watchtowers. Then in the early 13th century, Mongol armies arrived and razed the whole thing to the ground. An estimated 700,000 people died as a result of the campaign (although others dispute this number) and Merv limped on through the next few centuries, falling into complete disuse in the 18th century.
I can’t say Sisi was riveted by this part of our trip, but the rest of us found it quite interesting. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s effectively a massive archeological site in the middle of the the bleak Karakum desert, one of the largest black sand deserts in the world. Ruins of structures are still visible, but only a few — like the Great Kyz-Kala and the restored Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum — give a good sense of what it may have looked like once.
After a couple of hours of walking in the hot and dusty terrain, I started to see the appeal of growing 430 varieties of melon. I started to fantasise about juicy slices of cold watermelon. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite melon season and we had to make do with thermos tea and buttery naan eaten in the shade of a collapsed wall. And I don’t even drink tea usually. Sisi surreptitiously showed me the bag of marshmallows she’d brought especially, but we resisted opening it just yet.
Deserts and craters
At around 4pm, we left the ruins of Merv behind and headed further into the desert. What would have been a 7.5 hour trip by road in real life took us microseconds in the virtual world. Meret, slowly becoming accustomed to this new form of travel, merely grinned at us as we all materialised next to a silvery grey 4WD parked at the edge of the road. Another man, reclining in the back seat, sat up in fright at the sight of us. He quickly replaced his sheepskin hat over his takhya (the traditional skullcap worn by Turkmen) and got out to greet us. Meret introduced us to our new driver Rahym and, squeezing into the back of the vehicle, we all set off down the potholed highway at speed.
Turning off the highway at a seemingly random point, we bumped and slid the final sandy seven kilometres to our destination: the Darvaza gas crater, known as ‘the doors to hell’ or the ‘gates to hell’. The Darvaza region as a whole is rich in natural gas. Apparently Soviet geologists were drilling the area for oil in 1971 and accidentally tapped into a cavern of methane. The ground collapsed under the weight of the rig, creating a huge crater around 70 metres wide and 30 metres deep. The story then goes that the geologists lit the gas to try and burn it off overnight. Over 40 years later it’s still burning. Even in the late afternoon light it was an astounding and utterly surreal sight and guaranteed to become even more impressive as night fell.
As our shadows grew longer, Rahym began setting up our overnight campsite while Meret took us on an exploratory walk. He warned us to stay away from the edges and told us about the birds that fly over, attracted to the light. Sisi was bursting with questions. Did people live near the crater? Was it really the gate to hell? Is methane poisonous? And most importantly, did Meret like marshmallows?