Escape from the Desert. Potentially Trickier than Finding the Crater.
Part 1 – Intro
Part 2 – Brief history
Part 3 – Visas & airport
Part 4 – Sightseeing in Ashgabat
Part 5 – People & police
Part 6 – Getting to the desert
Part 7 – Hiking to the gas crater
Part 8 – Escaping the desert
Part 9 – Crossing the border to Uzbekistan
Not exactly the most comfortable night’s sleep.
When we woke up, we were again alone. The other tourists had left silently in the night.
After admiring the Gates to Hell in all their morning glory, it was time for us to return to the road. We realised that we had actually gone in a circle the night before (easy to do when you don’t have a compass) and that’s how the crater ended up behind us. Based on this realisation, we were able to orient ourselves properly and found the road without a hitch.
Still ferocious, even by day.
It’s worth noting that finding the crater in the dark is actually quite easy as it gives off such a beacon of red light that is easily spotted form a distance. Finding it in the day is more tricky – you won’t see it until you’re quite close. Likewise, finding the road again the next day requires that you walk in the right direction without being able to see your destination. Little to say, if we’d messed up here then we would have been in trouble. Of course, all of this can be solved if you have a compass!
Finally, we arrived back at the shack and collected our stuff (yes, all present and correct).
We then Examined our Options for Getting to Konye-Urgench (Highly Limited).
Nothing like melon to celebrate our escape from the desert.
Unfortunately there’s no taxi-stand at this otherwise unremarkable stretch of road. There was a glimmer of hope though as the man of the shack told us there was a daily bus that stopped here that was heading north. This sounded promising so we hung around for another hour until low and behold a bus appeared mirage-like out of the hot desert haze.
The bus stopped temptingly in front of us, rammed full of passengers. To our dismay, no-one got off. Didn’t they know what wonders awaited them just 5km away? But no, none of them had any intention of leaving the bus – leaving no space for us.
We briefly considered hijacking this minivan.
Our only option was to hitch hike, or gyspy taxi as they say in Russian. This seemed a little hopeless at first considering how few vehicles pass along the road. But as a result of Turkmenistan being a particularly hitch-hiker friendly nation, or otherwise due to my Western feminine wiles, we soon managed to flag down a vehicle. A coal truck, to be precise.
“How much?” I asked.
“We don’t need money,” the driver told me hauling up my bag into the truck cabin.
It’s the Trucker’s Life for me.
We then embarked on a five hour journey in the company of two friendly coal truck drivers. One of whom was a little over friendly with me in the back seat, but thankfully I had my male body guard with me to ensure things remained on the straight and narrow.
Unfortunately, it seems Turkmenistan follows that poor cultural norm where a woman is only respected according to her male relationships i.e. only in the company of either her father or her husband. I’m not sure what would have happened in this case had I been alone, so unfortunately I would not recommend hitch-hiking here as a lone female traveller.
Creepy male misbehaviour aside, another unanticipated inconvenience was a law, unknown to us, that states truck drivers shouldn’t pick up hitch-hikers. This meant every time there was a police check point we had to lie down out of sight.
Eventually, as inexperienced, middle class law-breakers, we were caught. Again the thought “is this the moment we’re supposed to give a bribe?” ran through my head. But the police simply told us to get out of the truck and find another vehicle.
Again we Found Ourselves on the Side of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere.
At least this middle of nowhere is a bit more green.
We spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to get a ride until suddenly a mini-van careened into view, emergency breaking right in front of us.
The door opened, and a lady called out, “need a lift?”
We piled into the back, and the van sped off like a rally car but with zero suspension. We felt every bump in the road, the metal frame of the seats digging in to cause bruises. But finally after another hour or so we made it to Konye-Urgench.
Konye-Urgench is a shanty town in comparison to Ashgabat. We didn’t have time to explore it’s UNESCO heritage due to our visas running out the next day, but we did at least get to sample some exceptional vodka in a local restaurant. The perfect way to toast our escape from the desert.