Turkmenistan Part 1

09/08
As we woke, Ollie innocently enquired as to the whereabouts of his bag. Dominic had helpfully removed the article from the car and had surreptitiously left it in a dark corner of the customs office at the port. Like a wide-eyed sleepwalker hell-bent on minor inconvenience, he then completely forgot about the entire episode. Luckily, the bag only contained things that Ollie needed in order to see and all of our remaining sun cream. Driving through Central Asia’s hottest desert, we assured Ollie that protection from the sun and clear vision were extraneous luxuries.

Nevertheless, (to humour Ollie), we went back to the port to investigate. The bag had been taken by the only team that was taking a different route from us. Lucky for us, Turkmenistan is not just a geographical desert. It is a desert in terms of communication technology infrastructure too. No mobile signal or WiFi. Getting the bag back was going to be simpler than bartering for an above average-sized melon when you only have a single unit of the local currency.

That day, we entered the (geographical) desert. Basil the Basil plant and Terry the Bonsai steeled themselves for a true test of their mettle.

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In much the same way that Georgia has cows, Turkmenistan has camels. It has real sand forming real sand dunes like in those movies you have seen and those postcards we did not send you. There are dust devils and cobras and scorpions, black widows and cunning entrepreneurial youths. The Ford Escort team informed us that the Caspian cobra is the most poisonous cobra in the world. It is 2m long, can swim, climb trees and drill like a corkscrew directly into the earth. It can mate asexually by splitting in two. By biting the back of your head, the Caspian Cobra is able to hijack your brain stem and animate your body, walking you back to its lair so that it can utilise your handy opposable thumb to craft charming snake furniture before it devours you as you lie in a fully conscious state of total paralysis. Moreover, the Caspian cobra is rife in Turkmenistan. Rife!

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Also, the roads in Turkmenistan are not very good. They have several key characteristics. The first is craters. There are also ridges parallel to the road direction, ridges perpendicular to the road direction, ruts, volcano-like points, sand, surfaces that alternate violently in quality, sudden bouts of rough gravel, roads that end suddenly, wormholes and flaming collapsed gas mines. More detail on this in the next instalment of the MRLS blog. The Rover 827 funeral limousine, designed to crawl at a constant speed of 15mph along England’s fine tarmac roads behind a hearse in the days of the Spice Girls and baggy jeans, was probably out of its comfort zone in the Khartoum Desert in the age of Gangnam Style and twerking.

Top fact: a little-known fact is that there are actually no Rover dealerships in Turkmenistan. People think you are saying “Volvo” when you say “Rover”. They are fully, 100% convinced that you are saying “Volvo”. Just think about that for a second. They think you are saying Volvo when you say Rover. Volvo. Rover. We come to their country and they can’t even learn our language.

That day, we had our first scare with the car. Hitting a pothole the size of a meteor crater, the size of an adult African elephant, the size of the average Erdogan poster in Turkey (see earlier post for details) the Rover suddenly lost power. A red light glowed on the dash. The engine refused to even turn over. It seemed to have died suddenly; mid-step. The crash had triggered the inertia switch on the car, meaning that the car had suffered a shock it thought capable of flipping it over and had cut the engine to prevent damage. Clever Rover. Pressing a button returned to us the purr we were so used to.

That drive was the first time that closing the windows was actually cooler than having them open. This was what we came to term “the hairdryer effect”. Having the windows open was literally like having hairdryers positioned inside the car pointing directly at your face.

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We saw a lot of police on the drive. They drove unmarked vehicles. We were flagged down twice, but were saved by the limo’s poor stopping power, pulling over more than a short walk from baton-wielding, whistle-blowing, floppy-hat-toting totalitarian officers, who consequently just waved us on again. The law was an ever-present, comically impotent force. Like an unhappy clown trapped in a mimed glass box of their own creation. There are such laws as: you may not drive after 11pm, you may only smoke indoors and you may not lip sync (#MongolRallyRumour).

Reaching Ashgabat, we lost the Ford Escort. We proceeded to drive until we found a heavily air-conditioned café (with more AC machines than customers), which became our base of operations for the evening. From there we struck out to an internet café to email the team with Ollie’s bag (using the internet required handing in our passports and lead to the discovery that Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are banned in Turkmenistan), to supermarkets and to relieve ourselves illicitly in alleyways and restaurants we had not eaten in (#FuckIt #MongolRally). After the meal, Steve went for a stroll in the park. Bending over to spew vomit into a gutter in front of a group of horrified adolescent Turkmen girls, Steve unwisely rested his hand on an electrified cage containing municipal water equipment. He was on his way shortly after having been electrocuted.

It is worth noting that Steve had been pretty much only eating fruit for the entire duration of the trip so far. He would alternate between “Stop” and “Go” pills. At this time, Steve did not have the shits.

I would also like to take this time to make two observations about Turkmenistan, and indeed, many of the places we passed through beyond Istanbul. No bins and no public toilets. That’s a recipe for a shitty rubbishy town full of piss and coke cans. What’s up with that?

Dom took a stroll to see a little bit more of the capital of Turkmenistan. He passed floodlit astroturfs, a bar with a very active dance-floor, a free rollercoaster and merry-go-round and generally felt that the city had a very positive, communal atmosphere. We also received this impression from the owner of the café in which we had barracked, who plied us with free tea and popcorn well after it was clear we would spend no more money with him. It was like a thriving suburb of a European city. On the other hand, almost everyone we met who had strayed into the centre had the opposite impression. It was a ghost town of gargantuan public works; a ramshackle assembly of glory projects; the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz; North Korea.

Once we were reunited with Harry, Beth, Elsie and Sam of the ford Escort team, we left Ashgabat. We drove beyond the city limits and set up our mosquito nets in a hollow we found in a vineyard. Jack, for some reason, was one of the two people who slept in the limousine.

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The only remaining story of note is the curious incident of the frog in the night-time. The mosquito net structure we set up has been called “hermetically sealed”. I think we mentioned that we were in the desert. This makes it all the more surprising that Dom should have been woken with a frog on his face. Fixating it with a torch beam, he roused Steve. Steve had done this before. Wrapping his hand in a t shirt, he grabbed the frog and threw it from the tent. It was a close escape – one of the desert’s many tests of human will.

First crabs, miles from the sea. Then frogs in the wilderness. Biblical.

10/08
We rose early, breakfasted and moved out. Today we headed to the Door to Hell. The roads from Ashgabat to Darwasa were better than expected and we made very good time. We stopped off in a desert oasis town that we thought we had ‘discovered’ but that we later learnt that Lonely Planet had described as “being slowly swallowed by the sand”. It was there that we took selfies with camels.

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It was also there that Sam, our accompanying motorcyclist, lent his machine to locals to spin off across the dirt tracks, who revved the bike hard, skidded and slid across the sand for effect. We also stood in the village’s only shop for a very long time, just to take advantage of their air conditioning. It was a little bit awkward.

Driving on, we quickly came across the track that lead to the Door to Hell. In the blinding mid-afternoon sun, we attempted to drive the Rover up the track. Long after it was obvious that neither the limo nor the Ford Escort would make it up the track, we persisted in climbing the first hill from various angles. The track became deep, soft sand at one fairly steep section, beyond which we could not advance. In the meantime, Sam biked ahead to see if the track improved further on. We tried in reverse, pushing the car, getting a run up, getting a run up in reverse and so on. Inevitably, we got the car stuck. And then we got it stuck even further by spinning the wheels. The end result was that the Rover was beached, its undercarriage resting on the sand, front wheels sunk ¾ of the way in.

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The angle was such that it was very tricky to position the Escort to push or pull without risking getting the Escort stuck too. Then we got the Escort stuck too.

There were a few moments of dismay while we considered the absurdity and mild hopelessness of the situation. We were all covered in dust, the sand was too hot to touch and any physical exertion was hugely draining in the intense heat. Every second we passed standing in the sun sapped our energy. Ollie took control of the situation and devised a plan. We dug the two tonne limousine out of the sand dune using a pizza tray and a porcelain plate. We pushed the Escort back out of the sand and decided as a group to take a risk – to nudge the limo down a fairly steep hill of questionable sand density. After a few seconds of tense uncertainty, the limousine rolled down the hill and roamed free across the desert once again. There was something incredibly bizarre about watching the limousine go down that hill, each wheel moving up and down as if it was the leg of slick black sand-dwelling mammal.

It was around that time that we realised that Sam had been gone for a very long time. Harry (of team Ford Escort) set off walking to find him. They returned 20 minutes later in a truck. Sam had got stuck and over-exerted himself attempting to free the motorcycle. Close to passing out, he had been rescued by a passing truck driver. Pretty lucky really.

With both cars unstuck, it was early in the day still and we wanted to see the door to hell by night. We planned to rest in Darwasa, which was marked on the map as a small village nearby. With Sam still a bit out of it Ollie had the chance to ride the BMW R80. After a few hundred meters he found that wearing flip flops was not the best idea with the twin exhausts passing closely to the foot brake and gears. An upgrade to shoes sorted the problem and we went on our way.

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Darwasa actually does not exist. We searched dirt tracks and side roads in the area and found nothing. We discovered later that the town had been completely razed, its inhabitants relocated, at the whim of Turkmenistan’s whimsical dictator, Turkmenbashi. He had found Darwasa to be unfavourably dilapidated.
We spent the rest of the evening lounging in a truck stop a few kilometres down the road. It was the first time we had eaten in a place with low tables and no chairs. As we negotiated the etiquette there was a bit of shoes-on, shoes-off confusion. For the record: shoes off in the restaurant, shoes on in the kitchen. The meal was a delicious mix of stuffed peppers, potato-based stew and dumplings, served with the solid rounds of bread, each stamped with ornate patterns, which had become characteristic of recent weeks. We were entertained by a precocious teen who spoke no English, though he could count to two. And did so incessantly. We sat enjoying the Russian music channel that their 6ft satellite dish was funneling into the building before the first of 3 additional Mongol Rally teams arrived unexpectedly. We were joined by Ulan Bantor in their white VW Polo, Just Add Water in their boat-loaded Skoda and The Irish in their trusty Clio. We were to see a further 3 Mongol Rally teams that night, bringing the collective to a total of 8 teams.

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We bartered steadily through the day and negotiated a fee of $10 each to be transported by 4×4 to the Door to Hell. Ollie had been talking about throwing a bottle of petrol into the hole for some time. It was easy to imagine a small explosion taking place, but unexpected things happen at the boundary between the realm of mere mortals and the underworld. On the drive (that felt for every single party as though the driver were working it out for the first time) the anticipation grew. We could see the glow brightening on the horizon as we approached. First, the petrol bottle would heat. Its contents would expand and pressurise the container until some facet melted. The petrol would piss out through that narrow, jagged crack and ignite instantaneously: the half litre would be consumed in a small ball of flame. We imagined the fallout would be no bigger than a metre in diameter. But what happened next shocked all who witnessed it.

The Door to Hell is a collapsed gas mine set ablaze. It is a pleasantly symmetrical, truly stereotypical crater, a semi-sphere blasted into rock. It is filled with small clusters of orange-yellow flames and looks, at its centre, like an over-sized Bunsen burner. Around its edges you can see small caves filled with fire. The heat is incredible – it is a soft punch of heat like a long, hot exhalation that picks at the follicles of your eyebrows. There are no guard rails around the Door to Hell, no ticket booths, no staff, few visitors. You may, if you so wish, tee up a golf ball and hit it into the incandescent maw (as many ralliers did). You may stand on its edge and piss into the tongues that lick up around its edges. You may drop your trousers and expose your pale arse cheeks to the scorn of Lucifer. And so we did. The joy of the Door to Hell is the freedom to abuse a first class safety hazard; it has the power to incinerate a man and yet no one will stop you from dangling your legs into whilst you enjoy a chilled beverage.

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We may have misunderstood something about the Door to Hell, however, when we opted to throw an explosive object into it. We lined around the edge to watch Ollie take aim and hurl his cherished bottle of petrol across the central burning effusion. As the bottle hit the ground, we watched in horror as it super-inflated. At its biggest, the bottle was a 4m bubble of plastic that rose, shimmering and shivering, above the flames. We never anticipated the plastic itself catching fire, but just as the bottle floated to ground level, it became a skin of blue liquid light that sucked back inwards in a moment, collapsing to a point, condensing the petrol vapour into an impossibly small space and bellowing outwards with a subterranean, mythic scream of rage. The implosion was a colourless expression of energy and noise. Awed, we spoke little on the journey home and slept without comment.

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