Frenzy at the Frontier
With a fresh visa for travel to Turkmenistan in my passport, I made my way to the Nukus border to cross over and see the historic Turkmenistan city of Kunya-Urgench. But first I had to contend with some border chaos. From the outside, the immigration building was possibly one of the cutest I’ve ever seen. It was a lovely white building with a golden, mosque-like domed roof. The red, green and white Turkmenistan flag was flying freely on a pole shooting up from the centre of the dome.
That interesting vision gave way to a picture of an unorganised mob crowding around a luggage scanning machine as soon as I opened the door to the building. I had absolutely no idea where to go and the immigration desk wasn’t marked, or even findable from where I was. I tried to have a peak in the next room, where everyone was gathered, but then heard a man calling me from behind. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it room to the left of the entrance, where the man was seated. I went into the room and he looked at my passport and gave me a customs form to fill out. He then gestured for me to head to towards the crowd.
I still had no idea where the immigration desk was, as I couldn’t see anything with the crowd in the way. Luckily the crowd dispersed as the immigration officers slowly scanned and checked everyone’s luggage. I finally noticed a small window tucked away on the lefthand side of the room and figured it must have been where I needed to go. It was indeed. The officer perused the stamps in my passport for a bit, then said I had to go to the next window to pay the US$14 entrance tax. Paying the fee was quick of course, but I had to wait for the guy to write out 2 receipts.
Back at the first window, the officer asked me for my detailed itinerary, then took issue with one of the cities I had indicated that I would visit. He told me that I was only allowed to continue in one direction towards my exit port in the west and I wasn’t allowed to visit any cities to the east. I told him that I had indicated that I would visit that town in my application, so there shouldn’t be a problem. He repeated himself a few more times and I did the same until he eventually said, “Okay” and stamped me in.
By the time I got to the luggage scanner, there was no line, but the staff were busy checking every small article in the bags of the Belgian guy who had passed through in front of me. They must’ve spent at least 30 minutes going through his luggage, while I stood there thinking that I was going to be subjected to that next. I was pleasantly surprised when the officers on the other side of the machine didn’t really seem too interested in looking too closely at my bag.
Instead, after asking if I had any weapons or medications, one of the officers asked me about what I was going to do and see in Turkmenistan, in a friend chatting kind of way, not an immigration officer kind of way. The other officers half-heartedly looked at my bag while this guy chatted to me for a few minutes. I ended up leaving the building at the same time as people that had arrived 2 hours earlier than me. The guide that was with two of the people that exited at the same time as me organised a car to take us all from the immigration area to the area 500 metres down the road where the people on tourist visas could meet their drivers and I could get a taxi onto Kunya-Urgench.
Historical Kunya-Urgench (Köneürgench)
Before crossing the border, I knew that the taxi to the northern Turkmenistan town of Kunya-Urgench should only be US$1, as it’s only a 10 minute drive. The waiting taxi drivers were intent on charging me $4. They negotiated hard and it seemed like they weren’t going to budge from $2, but finally they relented and said that US$1 was okay. Before we reached Kunya-Urgench, my driver stopped on the side of the road to speak to another driver who wanted to take me on to Darvaza from Kunya-Urgench. That driver initially wanted to charge me US$50 for the 3 hour ride. Of course, my reply was a firm no. The lowest he was willing to go was US$30, so I told him no thanks and got the current driver to continue on to Kunya-Urgench.
The driver dropped me of at a UNESCO site that comprised of the Piryarvali, Nedjmeddin Kubra, Sultan Ali and Matkerim Ishan Mausoleums, as well as the Dash Mosque Museum. It was a fairly interesting site that I spent quite a while walking around and admiring. The Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum had a very interesting front wall that was built on an angle away from the rest of the building.
Near the Sultan Ali Mausoleum, there was a small tree trunk with coloured bits of cloth wrapped around the end of it. It seemed to have some significance because I saw locals walk around it several times while making some gestures, like it was some kind of ritual.
While wandering around, I bumped into the Belgian guy that I’d met at the border, we chatted for a bit about the history of the area and then our presence started generating some interest among the locals at the site. That’s when the standard, “Where are you from?” and “Where will you go in Turkmenistan?” questions started. Then came the requests for photos with us. So much for blending in.
I then continued onto the town mosque, which I could easily see from the mausoleum area, while Martin, the Belgian guy, headed off to check out some more historical sites as he was a bit of a history buff. That wasn’t the last time on my trip that I would bump into him though.
I managed to sneak in one more monument before I made my way back to the mausoleum area, because I’d noticed that some taxi drivers had gathered near there. These drivers started at more reasonable prices than previous drivers and seemed to be having fun interacting with me. At one stage there were even 2 drivers fighting over who was going to take me. Then someone put me on the phone to a man who spoke English. He said he would be there soon to help me out.
That man was Murad, a tour guide based in Kunya-Urgench. He said that he was heading to Ashgabat to pick up a tourist. He suggested that I could join him in a taxi and he would ask the driver to drop me off at the Darvaza Gas Crater, then I could hitchhike to Ashgabat the next day.
Darvaza Gas Crater – The Gate to Hell
When we arrived at Darvaza, which is towards the center of the desert of Turkmenistan, I didn’t realise that the taxi had pulled up right next to the crater, because it’s not all that impressive during the day. I did, however, notice that it was hot as hell when I got out of the car. I guess that’s why they call it the Gate to Hell.
Murad introduced me to his friend who works near the crater and said he would look after me. Murad then left me his number to call if I needed any help while I was in Turkmenistan. I was then whisked away on a motorbike to an area near a yurt and some tents that didn’t feel anywhere near as hot as it was near the crater.
To be honest, I was pretty excited about being there. This crater was the main reason I wanted to visit Turkmenistan. Ever since I heard about it many moons ago, it had been very high on my to-do list. It’s a perfect example of how the human lack of foresight can showcase the power of nature.
If you don’t know how the crater came to be, it happened around the mid 70’s in what was then part of the USSR. Soviet scientists accidently collapsed an underground cavern full of natural gas. The natural gas started flowing freely into the surrounding desert. The scientists decided that the best way to deal with the escaping gas was by adding fire. They had expected the natural supply would be exhausted in a few days, but 45 years later, it’s still going strong.
Just after sunset, I bumped into some young guys close to the edge of the crater, trying to get the perfect ‘look, I’m breathing fire’ shot, for Instagram, I presume. While I was chatting to them, Martin, the Belgian guy from earlier, joined us. There were many pictures and videos taken, as just after sunset is the best time to capture the essence of the crater.
The people working near the crater offered for me to sleep in a yurt, but it was quite stuffy inside. There was a nice breeze outside, so I decided to sleep under the stars. It was lovely. The next morning, they wanted to charge me US$25 for eating some food and sleeping outside. I got them down to $10, but this was only the first example I encountered of how Turkmenistan is geared towards putting travellers in situations where they are forced to part with more money than they should. It wasn’t the last.
I decided to walk out to the main road, but barely 5 minutes into my walk, a car leaving the crater stopped for me. It was Martin and his guide and they were heading for the other 2 craters in the area. The first one was much smaller than the main crater, with only one little fire burning in a more shallow, rounded crater. There were a few muddy patches not far from the little fire where bubbling gas could be seen and heard.
The second one was probably about the same size as the first, but had a bit of a lake happening at the bottom. It looked quite lovely, until you walked around the crater a bit and saw a ridiculous amount of plastic bottles floating in it. Just like the first crater, there was a section where you could see and hear gas bubbling through, but obviously there was no fire there.
As the rules regarding tour guiding are very strict in Turkmenistan, guides are only allowed to have the tourists whose names are on their paperwork in their vehicles. Martin’s guide said he would take me all the way to the capital, Ashgabat if that wasn’t the case. Instead, he would take me to a service station just before the next police checkpoint, about 100km down the road. Once we got to the service station, he found someone to drive me the rest of the way to Ashgabat.
Stay tuned for more Turkmenistan adventures in my next post.