Burning craters, gold and marble. (October 2014)


Leaving Uzbekistan, on our way to the Davaza Gas Craters in Turkmenistan, was almost as complicated as when we arrived. Again everything was searched and we had to re-do our exit forms, as there was a discrepancy in regard to the money we brought into the country and what we indicated we were taking out.

The bureaucracy was with us to the end.

Coming into Turkmenistan was a lot easier as Oleg, our guide for our the entire trip, was there to meet us and appeared to have a very good relationship with the border authorities.

Olec, proudly told us that Turkmenistan was so much richer and more developed than Uzbekistan. That certainly wasn’t my first impression as we drove towards our first stop, Konye-Urgench, just south of the border.

Konye-Urgench was a vast city that in the Middle Ages had vied with Khiva as the regional capital.

The old town, Kunya-Urgench, was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221 and again by Timur between 1372 and 1388. It never recovered from the last invasion and the new town of Konye-Urgench was established a few kilometers away.

The old Urgench was declared a UNESCO World heritage Site in 2005.

We then made the 260km drive to Davaza and the Burning Crater or ‘Doors to Hell’  The road was so rough in places that we used the dirt track, next to the main road, instead.

The Davaza area is a rich source of natural gas and in 1971 Soviet geologists inadvertently unearthed a cavern filled with the volatile substance. The cavern collapsed and the gas ignited, leaving a 70m wide crater. It was believed that it would burn out within a few days.

It has been burning ever since.

The local village in Davaza was abandoned in 2004, by order of the then president Saparmurat Niyazov, because he regarded it as an eyesore for tourists.

In Bukhara we met a couple of Australian doctors who had done the Mongol Rally from the UK to Mongolia.  They were on the return journey, travelling through the countries they had missed and had mentioned that they were going to the crater. Sure enough these intrepid travellers were there.

When we arrived at the crater there were a few 4WDs parked at a respectable distance from the fiery hole, we followed suit.

As the sun set, more and more small groups of people started to arrived, some to spend the night and others just there to see the site and go.

After we had a camp dinner we returned to the crater to see it in the darkness. When we got there we were shocked to see that there were now bus loads of tourists milling around. Apparently they were part of a train journey that had come up from Ashgabat, the capital.

Our accommodation at the crater was a very small two person tent and a couple of reasonably warm sleeping bags. We were told we had to hire the sleeping bags, as we hadn’t brought our own. We were caught over a barrel and weren’t about to go without the bags for the sake of US$20.

It was a good thing, as the temperatures had plummeted and when we awoke in the morning it was down to zero and raining.

It was too cold and wet to cook a camp breakfast so we we quickly packed and went to a tea house. There we were served up three fried eggs and sausage all washed down with pots of green tea – good nourishment considering the circumstances.

As we left it started snow.

We then visited a second crater, that was no where near as spectacular as Davaza and it started to snow again.

On the way to Ashgabat we made a petrol stop and had a quick tour of a traditional village. There  were lots of camels, old dilapidated trucks and motor cycles. There was even a woman baking bread in an outside ‘dung’ oven.

This confirmed my idea that Turkmenistan, well at least this rural area, it wasn’t at all well off.

Oleg proudly told us, that in the desert areas they collect rain water from the roof and store it in large tanks.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this wasn’t a new concept.

The road ran parallel to the railway, that runs north and south through the desert. Obviously the one the tourists had been on the night before.

About 90km from Ashgabat we stopped so Oleg could clean the Toyota Forerunner. There is a law that prevents dirty vehicles entering the city.

It’s either a money making scheme for the police or a car wash owner with friends in high places.

Not surprisingly, as soon as we hit the outskirts of Ashgabat the road became a six lane highway that even had lane markings.

The city is a vision of white marble and ostentatious architecture.

In 2013 the city was included in the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s most white marble buildings.

The afternoon we arrived it was cold and grey, making the stark white city look a lot like a ghost town.

In total contrast to the previous night, spent in a tent, we had been booked into the Hotel Oguzkent Sofitel. This was also a vast white edifice with a 13 story atrium. Inside the ghost city theme continued as the place was all but empty.

The foyer had framed pieces of white marble. I wonder if this is designed to pay homage to Saparmurat Niyazov (The President for Life who died in 2006)

Apparently he had a penchant for the stuff.

There is one example of Ashgabat’s opulent architecture, that was particularly garish. The Turkmenistan Bank was just next to our hotel and looked a lot like a giant condom with a halo. 

We had dinner in the Sofitel with an: If you can’t beat them, join them mentality. From where we sat, on the 15th floor, we could seem more Doric columns than you would have found in ancient Greece.

Another overt display of Ashgabat’s wealth is that all the police cars in the city are Mercedes Benz. They certainly don’t drive Mercs in the country area.

Everywhere you go in the old and new areas of Ashgabat there are fountains, a legacy of both the Russian, Soviet and current administration. The main thoroughfare outside our hotel had a bank of them down the centre of the road – this would have been about 1 kilometer of continuous fountains.

Now I know where the Aral Sea has gone.

Ashgabat has been completely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1948 where over one third of the population perished. One of the lucky survivors was the very same Saparmurat Niyazov, who became the first president.

I don’t know if Turkmenistan was as lucky as Niyazov.

We were booked for a full day tour of the city but due to the Independence Day celebrations, the road outside our hotel was closed – this gave us the morning off.

We watched the parade from just outside the hotel. There was a lot of military hardware, people in and out of uniform and a variety of floats.

Many of the floats displayed large pictures of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

The next day we were back into the site seeing mode with our first stop being the Kipchak Mosque. This mosque was build specifically for Saparmurat Niyazov and designed to be his resting place. It was constructed two years before his death and contains the family Mausoleum, with Niyazov’s mother and two brothers, killed in the 1948 earthquake, also buried there. It is located in Gypjak, the village in which he was born.

Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan for 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The only thing that stopped him from ruling longer, was his death.

During his reign of power this megalomaniac did many strange and eccentric things. Apart from insisting that there were no dirty cars in the streets of Ashgabat, he renamed some months of the year after members of his family, banned dogs from the capital and closed all the libraries. This last act was due to his belief that there were only two books that the Turkmenstanies should read: The Koran and the Ruhnama, a book he wrote himself.

He even had a gold statue of himself built that rotated to follow the sun.

In the afternoon we visited the Parthian Ruins at Nisa just outside of Ashgabat. This was part of an ancient kingdom that lay southeast of the Caspian Sea. From 250BC to 230AD the Parthians ruled an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus.

The next day we had a whirlwind tour of the city, stopping off at all the monuments and marble palaces built by the the two presidents.

First was Memorial Park, which had just opened. This was a series of monuments that were originally in the downtown area of Ashgabat but for some bizarre reason have been moved to a hill outside the city. The only way to get to the park, which is on the top of the hill, is by climbing hundreds of steps.

The park is dedicated to the victims of the Second World War and the main visitors are older citizens, who have come to pay their respects. As Oleg pointed out, this memorial might now become a white elephant, as most of the people who want to visit are incapable of climbing the steps to it.

The Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque, inaugurated in 1998, is in a Turkish style and based on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Built again in white marble, this huge mosque can hold 5,000 but is rarely used as there were a series of accidental deaths during its construction.

Next was the ironically named ‘Palace of Happiness’, which is a wedding registry office, and function centre. And yet another strange piece of architecture, looking a bit like a wedding cake and adorned with the Turkmenistan eight pointed star.

This symbol pops up all over Ashgabat and can be seen on buildings, in street furniture and monuments.

Another similarly strange public building was the Alem Cultural Centre, topped with a large enclosed ferris wheel. It has the dubious honour, according the Guinness Book of Records, as being the world’s tallest enclosed ferris wheel.

The Monument to Neutrality, like the other monuments in the city, have a permanent posting of two guards, in dress uniform and housed in glass boxes. They are in turn guarded by another soldier in full battle fatigues. The second guard is there to stop you taking photos of the other two. The result is that tourists can’t take photos of the tourist attractions.

I am still trying to find the logic in that.

Then there was the Monument to Turkmen Manufacturing, the Monument to the Constitution, the Independence Monument and the Arch of Neutrality.

All built with plenty of white marble.

We also drove up to the new Yyldyz Hotel, which is located on a hill outside, and overlooking the city. Completed in 2013 it has a water droplet shape with a rather pleasant looking design.

Moving away from the modern part of Ashgabat we then explored the old Russian and Soviet era section. There we visited the Lenin statue, Russian Market and the Yimpas Shopping Centre. The last being the only part of the city to show signs of life. Opposite the statue of Lenin, on the Turkmen State Archive, is a rather striking relief sculpture by the Russian artist Ernst Niezvestny.

In the same area was the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church. Built 1905 it was a storehouse for potatoes during Soviet times.

Apartments in Ashgabat have been classified into three categories and named after the Soviet leaders at the time they were built. Stalin Apartments (1922 -1952) these are regarded as the best. Then comes Khrushchev Apartments (1953 -1964) these are considered the worst with small pokey areas, often the bathroom and kitchen were housed in the same area. Finally the Brezhnev Apartments (1964 – 1982) these fall somewhere in between the first two.

We then went out of the city to visit the ruins of the 14th century Anau Mosque, which was  destroyed in the 1948 earthquake. Sheikh Djemalledin, a revered Muslim, is believed to be buried here.

Pilgrims come to pray for things like children, good health or a house. They then leave items such as house keys, or even build model houses from the ruins, to reinforce their prayers.

Muslims can’t directly ask God to grant their prayers, like Christians do, but they can ask a deceased spiritual person like Sheikh Djemalledin, because they are close to God.

It was cold and grey for the entire time we were in Ashgabat, which was fitting for a city that has no soul.

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