The Silk Road, China

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Mongols, The Karakum Desert and Gas Craters

Getting into Turkmenistan is not easy; the bureaucracy is quite astonishing. In order to obtain a letter of invitation ($40) which is in turn required to obtain a visa ($40), we had to hire a guide from our supporting travel agency ($$$). Of course, this in no way precluded a 2.5 hour border crossing involving painful attempts at communication with no less than five sets of officials. The frustrating thing was that all of them sat next to each other in a room no more than 30 feet long, but - despite the fact they could communicate rather more easily than we could with them - they did not speak to one another, meaning that each time we had to restate our country (and then spend five minutes exchanging names of Premiership footballers), our business ("Tourist!"), our route through Turkmenistan.

Wary of the corruption of Turkmen officials, we were also interested to find out the 'receipt' for our entry tax would cost $1. Our polite suggestion that perhaps we could live without yet another piece of paper was not well received, and after a minor stand off we thought that if it would make the pain go away, then two dollars was worth paying. We were in - and this is what we needed to navigate the bureaucracy:

The Silk Road caravans from Iran would have headed to Merv and straight to Bokhara (in Uzbekistan today). But having got into Turkmenistan, there was no way we were going to leave so quickly: from Merv we headed west to the capital, Ashgbat (see separate post) and then north to Konye Urgench through more than 800km of the Karakum desert where temperatures reach 50 degrees in summer. By then we would ready to leave the country.

Luckily our guide, Oleg, was not only a nice guy but was also extremely enthusiastic about the history of the Silk Road in Turkmenistan. Merv and Konye Urgench both provide examples of how the path to prosperity for Silk Road towns was not without danger. Both were enormously important trade hubs in the day and major beacons of Islam (although Merv predates Islam) but both fell foul of the Mongols. In return for not paying their taxes, the Mongols rerouted a river through Konye Urgench and slaughtered perhaps as many as one million people in Merv.

One of the few buildings still standing in Konye Urgench

Looking out of the window of our car, as the outskirts of Ashgabat thinned the Karakum desert quickly greeted us. The road was dead straight as far as the eye could see, with only mirages and windblown sand dancing across it in the distance. We drove for five hours stopping only once to refuel.

The petrol station

We had arranged to camp overnight at the Gas Craters in the middle of desert. As its name suggests, a Gas Crater is a large hole in the ground out of which seeps natural gas. And that is where the story dries up: a description rather than an explanation. Almost certainly man made, these holes originate in Soviet times (nuclear testing was also carried out in Central Asia) and no-one knows how or why they were formed.

We saw three. One was just a hole, the other bubbled with gas and the third - where we camped - was alight. Interesting by day, it was truly mesmerising by night, emitting an orange glow that lit up the sky and - although burning quite peacefully - managing to create a passable impression of the entrance to hell.

Several chicken kebabs and two bottles of vodka (with Oleg leading the drinking, Russian style) later in the evening we found ourselves almost hypnotised by the fire and by several flocks of birds who were lit up in the night sky as brightly as fireflies. Transfixed, we watched them circle the crater and swoop down towards the fire.

It isn't every day you sit round the gas crater drinking vodka and watching the birds....!


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