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On the Road "The purpose of life lies at the intersection of the heart's deepest desires, the mind's keenest talents, and the world's greatest needs."

To Hell and back

TURKMENISTAN | Saturday, 25 April 2009 | Views [5142]

March 27-28: Darvaza Gas Crater

Conveniently enough, a relative of the friend-of-friend was a taxi driver and agreed to take me to the Darvaza Gas Crater that night, one of the most random and isolated destinations on my itinerary and a definite must-see. It didn’t work out exactly as planned (as can be expected most of the time in Central Asia, ironically enough), but I wound up with more or less the intended result…!

The driver and I left Dashogus at 7:30 pm and arrived at a makeshift roadside trucker homestay at 11:30 pm. After an hour or two of terse negotiations with 3 men, none of whom spoke English, I managed to hire another guy to take me to the gas crater on his motorcycle. I had to keep my frustrations in check, however: the driver had insisted in Dashogus that he’d be able to take me all the way to the crater, but upon arrival told me that his car would never make it through the dunes. This obviously left me in a bit of a bind, sitting in the middle of nowhere and determined as anything to get to the crater with a rather limited set of options. There were understandably not many (read: any) other drivers waiting around to barter with, as is usually the case in the more typical tourist destinations. I was, after all, in the middle of the Karakum Desert at 1 am!

Regardless, we eventually found the motorcycle driver, who inhabited a sort of shack off the side of the road a few kms from the trucker homestay. Once he was sufficiently awake and I sufficiently bundled up (I had learned in the Kalahari last year that deserts in the night are surprisingly cold), we sped off into the desert. Thankfully I have some experience riding motorcycles and dirt bikes because no one took the time to ask if I knew how to hold on; my horseback riding experience also came in handy, as some of the dunes had substantial drop-offs and we weren’t exactly going slowly!

The ride to the crater was an adventure in itself, as there was nothing resembling a road or track and the bike stalled more than a few times, sending a brief wave of fear through me at the thought of being stranded in the desert with a strange man. Then I realized that I was in the middle of the desert with a strange man anyways and immediately sharpened my mental focus, but still managed to marvel at the millions of stars dotting the jet-black sky and the alien-like plant life ekeing out an existence in the sand. I soon noticed a certain glow in the distance and realized that it must be the gas crater…

You may be wondering why I wanted so badly to see this crater, and particularly in the middle of the night (which some would argue was not the wisest decision, but sometimes the best experiences call for extra risk-taking!). Well, this is not your everyday crater, but one with a little extra pizzazz, shall we say, thanks to the Soviet era of rampant gas exploration. Geologists accidentally came across an underground cavern in the 1970s filled with natural gas which subsequently collapsed and formed a 100-m wide crater. The gases were lit on fire and have been burning ever since. So it’s not just a dinky little crater, but a flaming mammoth that looks not unlike the gates of Hell (and thus, much better viewed at night)!

As the distant glow became ever brighter, we suddenly overcame one dune and the crater lay exposed before me in all its glory. I laughed out loud at how jaw-droppingly unreal it looked… I had known more or less what to expect, but it quite literally was a massive flaming crater in the middle of the desert!! It was a bit difficult to get good photos – I had a particularly wicked one in mind with the motorcycle silhouetted against the flames that regrettably just wouldn’t turn out – but I’m pretty sure the sight will be etched in my mind forever.

Back at the roadside trucker homestay, I caught a couple trepid hours of sleep on the floor and hit the road with the Dashogus driver at 4:30 am for Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.


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