On June 29th, after sleeping in a bit, washing cloths and visiting Yimpash shopping mall again to pick up groceries, having lunch and using the internet (although many things including our blog are blocked), we meet our guide Maksat at our hotel. Maksat is a nice guy, 27 years old, speaks good English and has been working as a guide for a few years since completing his military service. It’s great that he doesn’t have too much stuff, but he does have these huge BBQ skewers and talks about buying a bunch of meat to grill in the desert. This worries us a bit for our nice clean car and we are a little suspect about what kind of meat he plans for all of us to eat. So we tell him we really don’t eat much meat and don’t have anywhere to put it in the car.
We buy gas for our car, which only costs $0.22/liter (but foreigners need to pay a $0.06/ km road tax when entering the country so the total cost comes to something like $2.50/gallon), then head north into the Karakum desert towards the Darvaza gas crater. The crater is 260 km north of Ashgabat on a reasonably good road, then 7 km on a compacted sand road over some dunes. The temperature reaches 108F in mid-afternoon and then gradually cools. About half way there we stop at a small village called Jerbent for tea (photo below) and a smoke for Maksat. Here Maksat also buys some mutton for himself and picks up a greasy pan and an old water kettle that he likes to boil water in over a fire for a better tea taste. We carefully double wrap his meat, pan and kettle in plastic bags and get back on the road.
We see our first camels along the way (photo below) and are fascinated by them. They are really interesting creatures, and it is really cool to see them walk. Later on our trip we will see many more in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, some with one hump, some with two. When we reach the sand road I drop the tire pressure from 35 psi to 20 in the front tires and 15 in the rear tires for better float over the sand.
We are amazed by the Darvaza gas crater. It’s a huge crater with flames coming out of all the crack and crevices. You can smell the gas, you can feel the radiation, and you can see the plumes of hot gas convect out of it (photo below).
So what is this crater in the middle of the desert and why is it on fire? The gas crater is the result of Soviet natural gas exploration in the 1950’s (some sources say the 1970’s). A natural gas rig was installed here but after drilling commenced the earth gave way, causing the rig to fall into the crater that was formed. Natural gas was rushing out of the crater and couldn’t be easily stopped so the workers set the escaping gases ablaze to burn up most of the gas, thinking the well would burn itself out in a few days. Well, it is still burning.
We walk around the crater, taking a bunch of pictures, then move the car to our camping spot about 100m from the crater. We set up camp and have dinner. The temperature is pleasant now with a light breeze. Maksat asks us for a table, a spoon to mix his mutton, a knife to cut an onion and tomato with, and a cup for his vodka. We don’t have a table but give him a piece of cardboard to sit on, Kirstin gives him her spoon for him to mix his mutton, and I offer him my plastic Marlboro cup but he wants something smaller so he uses Kirstin’s cup. I don’t want to give him my knife (maybe I’m a bit strange but I like to keep my pocket knife clean and sharp) but I cut his onion and tomato for him. He is nice enough about it all, we just thought that as our guide he would have brought his own equipment. Kirstin and I enjoy our bread, cheese, apples, Iranian fruit roll-up and soda, while Maksat enjoys his mutton parts, vodka, and a few cigarettes. Different strokes for different folks. I try some of Maksat’s Turkmen vodka, which tastes really good – it isn’t overly strong and tastes a bit like a martini with a hint of olive taste.
After dinner it is dark and I go back to the crater for more amazement and pictures. Soon Kirstin and Maksat join me and we all admire the crater together. The moon rises and the scenery is truly spectacular. Kirstin comments that this would be the ultimate fire temple for Zoroastrians.
The night is chilly but as soon as the sun rises the temperature rises rapidly in the desert and by 7:15 the sun drives me out of our tent. The photo below shows our camp from the hill next to us. We walk to the crater again and inspect it in full sunlight, taking a few more pictures. Now it’s time to pack up camp and head back to Ashgabat, restock and head west to the mountain village of Nokhur. The Darvaza Gas Crater was a pretty cool sight!