Across the Karakum Desert

After lunch in Ashgabat, we joined up with our 4*4s to make the 4-hour drive to Darvaza, one of the more bizarre "100 places to visit before you die". Set in an unforgiving and bleak desert environment, the Darvaza gas crater is, they say, like looking down into the bowels of hell. The crater is 260 km north of Ashgabat on a reasonably good road, after which one turns off for 7 km on a compacted sand road over some dunes. The temperature reaches over 40C in mid-afternoon and then gradually cools, We traveled 3 punters to a jeep, plus driver. Our driver was a particularly dour Russian, who sparked not one grain of humanity. Never spoke a word to us over 3 days.

The Karakum Desert covers much of present day Turkmenistan. In recent years, with the shrinking of the Aral Sea, the extended "Aral Karakum" has appeared on the former seabed, with an estimated area of 40,000 km². Although the level of the Aral Sea has fluctuated over its existence, the most recent level drop was caused by the former Soviet Union building massive irrigation projects in the region. Although the North Aral Sea is currently rising, the South Aral Sea is still dropping, thus expanding the size of the desert. The sands of the Aral Karakum are made up of a salt-marsh consisting of finely-dispersed evaporates and remnants of alkaline mineral deposits, washed into the basin from irrigated fields. The dusts blown on a powerful east-west airstream carry pesticide residues that have been found in the blood of penguins in Antarctica. Aral dust has also been found in the glaciers of Greenland, the forests of Norway, and the fields of Russia.

The desert is crossed by the second largest irrigation canal in the world, the Kara Kum Canal. The canal was started in 1954, is 1,375 km in length, and carries 13-20 km³ of water annually. Leakages from the canal have created lakes and ponds along the canal and the rise in groundwater has caused widespread soil salination.

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On the way to the gas crater, we also visited the ( best forgotten) two other craters billed as "tourisi", one filled with hot black water and the other with mud geysers. The water one looked particularly sad, with the surface nearly all covered with empty floating plastic bottles. Towards dusk, we camped in the shelter of the sand dunes close to the gas crater and enjoyed the experience of seeing it at both sunset and sunrise The Gas Crater was truly worth the journey. It did look like the gates of hell - 70 metres across, and all of it alight, an overpowering heat on the downwind side, a slightly sulphurous tang to the air, and incredible flames through the whole crater. They must be burning off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gas every day.

Derweze (Persian:The Gate, also known as Darvaza) was a village of about 350 inhabitants, located in the middle of the Karakum Desert, 260 km north of Ashgabat. Darvaza inhabitants were mostly Turkmen of the Teke tribe, preserving a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In 2004 the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, drove by, did not like what he saw, and ordered the complete destruction of the village because "it was an unpleasant sight for tourists."

The Derweze area is rich in natural gas. While drilling in 1971, Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of 70 metres. To avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided the best solution was to burn the escaping gas off. Geologists had hoped the fire would use all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning today.

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The next morning, a somewhat delayed start after breakfast. It all seemed to be down to the drivers and their responsibilities. There were 4 Turkmen staff employed directly by the ground handling agent, and 3 Russians who were self employed and owned their own jeeps. The Russians were, or believed they were, employed only to drive, and so were not employed to help with breakfast or dismantling the camp.

We continued our drive through the desert today, entering the Central Karakum Desert, and visited the remote settlement of Damla at about lunchtime. The track across the dunes and salt marshes was a challenge for the drivers and meant a bumpy ride in places. Put on top of that the Russian drivers wanting to conserve fuel, hence no air-con in the cars. Result was a bit like being thrown round in a hot tumble drier. Further result was that Chris was physically car sick - which was enough to frighten our Russian to put on the air-con.

Damla is home to semi nomadic tribal people and most survive by herding sheep, camels and goats. Amazing to see large herds of animals surviving and eeking out an existence in what looked to me like just sand. However there was an oasis of sorts here, and water was gathered and conserved by the people if and when it did rain. We had a walk round the village, followed by lunch in a yurt. We attracted more curiosity from the village children than from the adults. It was difficult to know how many groups of tourists they get through in a year. A previous tourist's blog gives their perspective on the village

The village of Damla is located in Kara Kum. Sixty houses in sand, no kolkhoz and no joint peasantries – each family survives independently. The local residents travel to Takhta, central villages, to pick up the gasoline coupons or to visit doctors. In October of last year, when we were in Damla, there was water crisis – two previous winters were snowless and there was almost no rain in the summer. People were saving rain water…or brought water to the village by the car. There are also "takyrs", small loam soil areas with rain water, in sand dune. People use this rain water. When there is no rain water residents travel to other regions. Rich residents of Damla, owning vehicles with pump barrel – pump up the water and bring it to the village. First, they inundate sardob, dug in the ground and concreted big water reservoirs. Such sardob is available in every house of the village. One filling up own sardob people inundate the sardob of neighbors. It is free of charge, whatsoever: water is sacred in this region.

No car – no travel. The scariest thing is to run out of gasoline: you can die in the desert from thirst and hunger. There are no phones while the distance between the villages is several thousand kilometers… Major occupation of "sand Turkmen" is cattle-breeding. We stopped by the house at Khadzhi’s, the richest man in the village. He has house and yurt. The lord lives in the yurt although there is also "female" part with dishes and cooker. Women live in the house, consisting of one room and kitchen. In the room you can find polished Soviet-type furniture and sideboard with decorated teapot and souvenirs from Russia – Khadzhi served in Soviet army.

He is surrounded by kids and grandchildren. Khadzhi knows few words in Russian and, therefore, it is hard to identify who is who here. Obviously, kids speak no Russian. It has to be mentioned that kids in Damla are quite "wild". The major entertainment for them is to ride at sand dunes, screaming "Oy-la-oy-la…" They put nothing behind, producing chunk of dust and sand. Boys under two years of age have no pants and this is explainable: there is no water or pampers…Kids are not washed and parents do not wipe sniffles so that evil angels would pay no attention…They have various clothes. In October it was a bit chilly, about 7 degrees of Celsius. Kids were in quilted jackets, fur coat and in short-sleeve dress. Nearly everyone was barefooted.

Women do not share the table with men and guests. If they get invited – woman takes a seat behind husband. Although Khadzhi has eight children he lives with three youngest daughters. His son built a house nearby. The son’s wife helps out the mother-in-law. When Khadzhi comes in the room the daughter-in-law puts the headscarf. If it was not "work" conditions she would probably also hide her face from mother-in-law. When we tried to take a picture of Khadzhi’s wife with her daughter-in-law, she denied and took a seat a little behind, hiding her face. Overall, daughters implicitly obey father. When we were in the yurt with Khadzhi there was nobody inside. However, when he called "Hey, Altyn!" or "Hey, Yaze!" they immediately showed up. Khadzhi and his married son jointly run farm – they have about 1.5 thousand sheep, 300 camels and 500 goats. Last year Khadzhi had to sell the half of sheep: no rain – no grass.

In the evening time the flock of those, who did not send sheep further away, start consuming water from sardob. The richer people have pumps, poorer do not. During our stay it was also the time to prepare the yurt for the winter. Usually they do it twice a year (autumn and spring). This job is done by women only. In the morning they put off thick felt, felt mat, doors and ropes. Then they adjusted tackles and tied up the bundles. There are also chicken and dogs – taza – in Damla. Dogs are used in the hunting for rabbits. Hunters dazzle rabbits and let the dog chase them.

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On we went across the desert, all without a soul or an animal, until we reached another desert village, Ak-Molla, and set up camp a few kms from the village. Here watched the sun go down and the moon go up, before being driven into the village for dinner. Our convoy obviously brought their own food with them - only way to get food here! That night we had spaghetti, cooked by the ground company owner - long tale I never got to the bottom of, but the expedition cook disappeared halfway across the desert, in order to go back home.

Next morning, the striking of camp was as chaotic as the previous day. It was interesting to observe the ground company owner doing nothing at all and standing Napoleonesque on a sand dune above the camp neither giving instructions, nor helping physically.

We drove on towards Gonur Depe, which is about 60 km north of Mary. Roads at first were entirely sand, some of it loose, with the occasional vehicle getting bogged down in the sand - later there was the old Russian road, which was un-maintained, and progress was slower than on sand, as the jeeps had to weave to avoid the large and frequent potholes. There was a lunch stop at what looked like an abandoned building, but may well have been inhabited. The nearby electricity sub-station was another of the things that we were not allowed to photograph. Turkmenistan is full of prohibitions that I could never understand - it seemed safer to ask before one took a photo of anything or anyone. We motored on and reached Gonur Depe in mid afternoon.

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The city of Gonur Depe is a complex of temples and palaces that has unearthed some remarkable finds, including a mosaic panel depicting winged lions that is said to predate the gates of the Goddess Ishtar in Babylon by a thousand years. The site was discovered 40 years ago by the Russian-Greek archaeologist, Dr Viktor Sarianidi who believes that Gonur Depe – sometimes known as Margush – could represent the capital of the fifth great civilisation of the ancient world. Sarianidi’s theory has yet to be agreed by western academics - and my feeling is that after 40 years, if he has not proved his theory to the world, then he is unlikely to do so now. 4,000 years ago it was a thriving agricultural community that traded with Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and Egypt. Then the Murghab River changed its course, leaving this city – complete with palaces, temples and necropolis – surrounded today by a sea of sand.

From the aerial shot (we never saw it from this angle, but it gives a much better feel for the place than the scrubby conditions on the ground) one can see that it was a rectangular fortress with powerful defensive walls, semicircular bastions and adobe buildings. Sarianidi discovered a palace and temples with fire altars. According to Sarianidi, Gonur Depe belongs to one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world (side by side with Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China) and was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, a religion based on the opposition of good and evil. Sarianidi also found evidence of a cult based on a drug potion made from poppy, hemp and ephedra. According to the Avesta , the holy book of Zoroastrianism, the drink called Haoma representes a deity that can cure all sufferings. In 2009 a royal tomb was excavated in which the remains of dogs, a cart with wheels having bronze rims and a large bronze cauldron with a diameter of 130 cm and a height of 1 m were found. This cauldron consists of 7 spherical tanks inserted one into the other.

The evidence from the excavations points to the city of Gonur functioning for the relatively short time of a few hundred years after which it was abandoned by its residents.

There appears to have been a natural or artificial reservoir beside the city and within its outer walls. The surrounding fields and orchards were watered using lengthy canals that the residents had dug from the glacier-fed arms of the Murgab River delta. Since the rivers were fed by glaciers and since the farmers did not have to rely on rain for irrigation, their crops were not threatened by drought. In addition to the water canals, the city also had a sophisticated water supply and sewage system.

We found that Viktor Sarianidi had recently arrived on site - he is in his 80s now - and we were granted an audience, somewhat stilted because of linguistic difficulties on both sides. But it was interesting to see the great man. There is actually very little to see here on the ground - the best bits have been removed to museums in Mary or Ashgabat

We then continued on to Mary, the third largest city in Turkmenistan, arriving after dark. A bit of bad news was that, as appears the norm in Turkmenistan, our hotel had been arbitrarily changed, and we were now to stay at a hotel 40 minutes drive the wrong side of Mary.

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The hotel was described by Jake as "charmless", I think this was a more flattering description than I would have given. I never quite cracked where the hotel actually was, apart from being a long way from Mary. This odd notice was the only thing in English that I saw, and appears to be indicative of some rough guests from foreign parts staying here. Our room was actually very spacious, but as is the way in Turkmenistan, there is no maintenance and very few things work. The curtains were too small for the windows, the carpets were moth eaten and torn, a water fountain was installed in the room, but did not work, there was no hot water in the bathroom over the 2 days we were there, the room was not serviced even once, most of the lights did not work, and so on. We also enjoyed a forgettable dinner and 2 breakfasts in this hotel. For the second breakfast, they actually ran out of food: we suspected a large Korean group had earlier eaten the hotel out of house and home.

The result was we had an extra 90 minutes to get into and out of Mary each time we had to be there, and one could not walk anywhere from the hotel, which appeared to be in the middle of a vast industrial estate.

On to Merv and Mary

Silk Route Holiday 2013