Silk Road Part 16 of 17.
My driver Urinboy, a fifty-something clad in leather and faded denim, picked me up and we bounced our way along potholed roads to the classics of Uzbek rock and Russian hiphop. The border crossing was fairly straightforward and friendly. “Irlandia”, the border guard whispered, wide-eyed, slowly shaking his head. Jenia, my guide for Turkmenistan, watched on as I was questioned about my baggage.
“No drugs, no weapons, how boring”, she smiled as we started the drive towards Kunya Urgench. Guides are obligatory for all travellers in Turkmenistan, and the country has a reputation as one of the most closed and least transparent places in the world. The earth was visibly salty and Jenia told me it was a huge problem for farmers. She told me the story behind the five tribes and the five regions and the five carpet designs and five stars on the flag. Five is a special number for Turkmen it seems.
Turkmen believe the country was founded by the legendary Oguz Khan, who is depicted on their national logo, along with their famous Ahalteke horse, wheat and cotton, the main crops and an 8-pointed star. The prime minister was re-elected in February of this year with 97% of the vote. “That seems high”, I suggested to Jenia. She gave me a knowing look. “This is how things are in Central Asia”. Rules are quite strict in Turkmenistan. Smoking is prohibited on the street, other than limited designated places. Bars, cafes, restaurants and the like must close by 10.30pm and it is an offence to be drunk on the street after 11pm, giving you a half hour to stagger home presumably. A sort of nationwide bedtime.
We had lunch in Kunya Urgench (“Old Urgench”) and proceeded to the site of the old city. The oldest reference to the city is from a Chinese text in the 1st century AD. It became the capital of the Khorezm empire in the 9th century, and was destroyed by Genghis in the 13th century. He broke a dam on the Amu Darya river and caused the city to be flooded. The city rose again in the 15th century and what remains does so thanks to Timur’s admiration of the site. The Turabeg Khanom complex is a giant calendar with 365 flowers (days), 4 windows (seasons), 24 pointed arches (the hours of day and night), 12 lower arches for the months. The cupola is a double dome and facade (“peshtak”) and is believed to have been copied by Timur when he started to build his magnificent capital at Samarkand. Local women come here to pray for a husband, a child and the like. The other hugely impressive site here is the Gutlug Timur minaret. Built in the 1320s, it stands tall at 59m though is believed to have once been over 75m high. It is visibly leaning now but nonetheless is a beautiful and dramatic site. We stopped at the nearby Mausoluem of Nejmeddin Kuba, a sufi leader in the 15th century, for a short visit.
We drove South through the Karakum (“Black sand”) desert past wandering camels and medieval desert fortresses along bone-jarring roads. The Kara Kum desert covers almost 80% of Turkmenistan’s territory with the inhabited areas just pockets of oases in an otherwise giant desert. After what seemed an eternity of bouncing (a little less than 4 hours in reality) we arrived at the Darvaza gas crater. In the 1960s Soviet scientists detected that there was probably gas in this area and dug three massive craters. None have ever yielded extractable gas, but they were not wrong that there was gas.
The flaming crater has been burning for more than 50 years now and when the sun goes down is at its most dramatic. It is not hard to picture Frodo perched on the precipice, clutching a ring, battling his demons and staring into the roaring fires below. The heat and the raw power of the fires are very impressive, the air shimmering with the heat above the crater and gusts blowing hot air and gas. We set up camp and I felt it appropriate, having been in Central Asia for three weeks, to do three turns of the crater, almost losing my bearings with the mesmerising fires inside and the darkness all around. We set up camp for the night and had an early night like the rest of the nation.