Central Asia Travel Diary

We woke at about 7:30 am, and began the day with a walk to the gas crater.  Spectacular as it still was, it seemed somewhat lame after the glowing firey night-time experience of the previous evening.

I also took the opportunity to wander up into the nearby sand dunes, which was a totally different experience.  The Karakum Desert has some classic sand dunes, and it was almost a primal experience to wander through dunes without footprints, marked only by the ripples made by the wind and the footprints of birds and small mammals.  My peak experience was finding a lizard sunning itself in the morning light, right on the cusp of a sand dune and totally oblivious to my close approach with the camera.

Breakfast of bread with honey and jam, plus tea and coffee, completed a perfect start to the day before we packed up the tents, loaded the car and headed back to the highway.  We made stops at two more craters, neither of them flaming.  One appeared to have boiling mud in the bottom (which was actually cold mud with bubbles of gas rising through it), while the other had a lake of green water in it with gas bubbles fizzing upwards to the surface.

The highway south had been recently upgraded, in contrast to the road further north that we used yesterday.  Our travelling time was therefore much faster, and after just two stops  - one at the frontier-type town of Erbent Oasis, and the other to photograph some camels on sand dunes – two stops if we ignore all the police check points, we reached Ashgabat (Turkmenistan's capital city) at about 3:15 pm.

Our first stop was to fill the car with petrol.  We had been told yesterday that about Turkmenistan's cheap air fares, where you can fly across the country in a Boeing jet from Dashogus to Ashgabat for just $US1.50.  At the petrol station, we learned about Turkmenistan's cheap petrol which sells for just 300 manat per litre for 92-octane petrol and 400 manat per litre of 97-octane petrol; this is the equivalent of 1.3 cents per litre for 92-octane and 1.7 cents per litre for 97-octane!

After getting the petrol, we went to the bank to change money, where my $US50 became 1,175,000 manat – yes, I was a millionaire that night in Turkmenistan.  We then had to get some photos taken for our OVIR (police) registration before wandering briefly in the markets to buy some water, apple juice, bananas and biscuits.  After collecting our photos, we checked into our hotel, the Hotel Aziya.  The hotel had cavernous rooms and far more staff than guests (I think only 3 of the 20 rooms were occupied).  But most importantly after camping out in the desert last night, it also had hot running water.  The hotel was just one hotel in a street comprising only seemingly empty government-run hotels in a district known as Berzengi.  This was a southern suburb of Ashgabat where a new city is being built of white marble tower blocks, fountains, parks and wide roads, mostly dedicated to honour the President, Separmyrat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi (Father of the  Turkmen People) the Great.  His book, 'Rukhnama' (Spirit of the Nation's Soul) is glorified widely in Turkmenistan, as we noticed on roadside posters during the day's drive, and more spectacularly, in the huge sculpture of the book in a large park where Andy and I went for an evening walk.

We had a major upset when we arrived at the hotel and we found my laptop computer had fried itself during the drive.  It had been dying over the last few weeks with the Ethernet port stopping, the battery failing to hold its power, and randomly starting itself up from sleep.  Because of the problems, I had shut down the computer before leaving Nukus, and arriving in Ashgabat was the first time I had tried to use it.  The computer was blisteringly hot to touch when I took it out of the bag, and there were carbon stains around the unlock button suggesting a small electrical fire on the logic board.  No attempt to make it start up again worked.  So downloading photos ceased for the rest of the trip, and the daily diary had to be written with pen and paper for later re-typing.  Andy and I also had to limit the number of photos we took for the rest of the trip to fit into the number of memory cards available.

Wednesday 12 July 2006

Darvaza to Ashgabat

Lizard on sand dune, Darvaza
President Niyazov statue, Independence Park, Ashgabat
Monument to Rukhnama, Ashgabat