Iskandar Lake & Tunnel of Death, Tajikistan – 7/2014

October 20, 2017

Tajikistan! Certainly, this was one of the most magical and beautiful countries along our Silk Road path, literally following in the steps of Marco Polo. We had gotten our visas and our special permit to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO) region and the city of Khorog, the entry point for the Wakhan Corridor. This mountainous region surrounded by the Hindukush Range, the Karakoram Range and the Wakhan Range is sometimes called “The Roof of the World”. Bordering China and Afghanistan, most people who visit this part of Central Asia don’t drive their own vehicle. We didn’t have that choice.

With auxiliary driving lights and fog lights aimed low we could anticipate holes and other obstacles like protruding rebar from the sides.

With auxiliary driving lights and fog lights aimed low we could anticipate holes and other obstacles like protruding rebar from the sides.

Not that we were worried about “The Tunnel of Death, otherwise called the Anzob Tunnel, (well, maybe a little bit), but its reputation did give us pause. According to reports, it was a 3-mile, (5,040 m), unvented tube with big deep holes, one-lane in places, (no traffic control), exposed rebar and no lights. Carbon monoxide accumulation had claimed the lives of people delayed in the tunnel. In any case, we needed an excuse to visit the beautiful Iskandar Lake. At 7,201 ft., (2,195 m), its turquoise color comes from its glacial origin in the Gasser Range in the Fann Mountains.

(click on our YouTube video link below!)

The border crossing at Patar was easy and the highway was good, with normal third-world traffic and long lines of overloaded Chinese trucks crawling up the steep grades. Villagers were drying apricots and we even scored a little fresh yak meat from a roadside vender, most likely not USDA inspected. Local kids were fascinated by our truck and the large map on the side of the camper was an easy way to tell them where we came from in the world in relation to where they lived.

The beautiful Iskandar Lake gets its turquoise color from the glacial origin in the Gasser Range in the Fann Mountains.

The beautiful Iskandar Lake gets its turquoise color from the glacial origin in the Gasser Range in the Fann Mountains.

After spending our first night in Tajikistan in the village of Ayni, we soon found the junction leading up to Iskandar Kul (Alexander Lake named after Alexander the Great). Not really knowing what to expect of the quality of Tajikistan’s diesel or the weather at over 7,000 feet, we stopped to add Amsoil Diesel Injection Clean and Diesel Cold Flow. Now leaving the payment, we also aired the tires down to 35psi, which aside from preventing most flats, also smoothes the ride. Winding our way up the canyon walls above the Iskandar Darya (river), the dirt road had some great views and some interesting hairpin corners.

Signing in at the guard station, there were cabins and what looked like campsites, but we continued around the lake and found a perfect place to stop next to a bubbling creek flowing out right of the rocks. The caretaker told us the complex across the road was the president’s retreat but he seldom used it. It was so peaceful we stayed a second night.

This boy spoke English quite well. He told us he was visiting from Dushanbe, the capital.

This boy spoke English quite well. He told us he was visiting from Dushanbe, the capital.

The next morning the “Tunnel of Death” waited for us. We had a plan. We aimed our PIAA auxiliary driving lights really low at a spot about 30 feet in front of the truck. PIAA Extreme White fog lights were aimed to the sides and low. Regular headlights were mostly off to avoid the glare in the dense smoke. Windows closed and AC on recycle. In 4X4-Hi we nosed into the black hole. Diesel smoke billowed out in our faces. We had planned to cross in the morning in the hopes of avoiding some of the truck traffic. It was weird. The tunnel was very dark. The road was pretty bumpy at times. There were a few deep water-filled holes and in places, rebar was sticking out like shards ready to puncture a tire. At one point it was a one-lane road. There were no safety turnouts. There was no ventilation except for one fan in the middle that sounded like an engine off a DC3 warming up for takeoff. All in all, not as bad as we had heard but we both had to be on guard at all times. It was an intense 36 minutes. As we popped out the far side we were met with blinding light and spectacular views of the snowcapped mountains Tajikistan is famous for. We took a deep breath of mountain air and headed for Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

Click on The Tunnel of Death video (6 min.) we posted on YouTube!

According to Wikipedia, in 2014 the Iranian government signed an agreement to finish the tunnel they had started in 2006 and it was reopened in late 2015. Guess, we were lucky to get through before it was closed for repairs.

 

Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan – 7/2014

September 15, 2017

If you had been herding a string of stinky smelly ornery camels over the desolate nearly impossible high passes of the Pamir Mountains through Tajikistan, or the Qurama Mountains out of Kyrgyzstan, the fertile Ferghana Valley would have been a welcome sight. Silk Road caravans would find ample grazing for their animals across the flood plain of the Syr Darya River that twists its way for nearly 200 miles. This had been the breeding ground for the legendary Dragon Horses, the blood-sweating steeds renowned for their great size and speed. Well, they didn’t actually sweat blood, but the warriors of Genghis Khan are reported to have ridden day and night while making small slits in their horses’ necks to drink their blood.

We had just parked when this young girl, her brother and his friend arrived to welcome us with a bowl of fruit.

Leaving the relatively comfortable air-conditioned environment of the last hotel room we would stay in for months, we left Samarqand and headed northeast towards Jizzakh on M39. Traffic was varied from typical third world style to absurd. Not being too concerned about our camels, finding a place to camp for the night was simply a matter of turning off on a side road, driving over the hill to find a grassy spot. On this particular evening, we were joined by a small herd of fat tail sheep that have always fascinated us.

In places highway construction was obviously underway but we had to wonder about the huge amount of manual labor it took to cover the unfinished roadway with plastic, held down by carefully placed rocks, one rock at a time. This region was famous for its melons and there were plenty of road side stands to tempt us. We had no reason to visit the busy capital of Tashkent, so we stayed to the south on secondary roads.

FERGHANA VALLEY

Hotdog, hamburger, cheeseburger and a coffee, what else do you want?

Keeping an eye on our Auto Meter mechanical gauges we climbed a long series of steep switchbacks out of a deep canyon into the Qurama Mountains and over the Kamchik Pass, 7,441 ft., (2267 m). The pass has long been a strategically important trade route between the Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, bypassing neighboring Tajikistan. Circling back south, we bypassed the city of Qoqand to reach the town of Rishtan, home of the ceramic workshop of the father-and-son team of Rustam and Damir Usmantov. Looking for a quiet place to camp for the night, we saw a large vacant lot behind a small weekend market and store. The gentleman who owned the store assured us there was no problem spending the night. No sooner had we parked that a young girl arrived to welcome us with a bowl of fruit. We ended up taking pictures of her family. It didn’t take long for friends and neighbors to find out. They too showed up with their own welcome gifts so we printed photos for all of them. In the past we had always carried a polaroid camera and but now we carry a small printer in the truck. They were as delighted as we were.

RISHTAN CERAMICS

The beauty of these Rishtan ceramics created by the Usmanov family was striking.

The Usmanov family migrated to Rishtan from Russia to add to the region’s rich tradition of pottery. The beauty of the Rishtan ceramics is the ishkor glaze which gives it its brilliant blue-green sheen, bringing alive the colors of the earth and the sky. Of course, we couldn’t resist bringing home a couple samples.

Continuing on a loop, we headed towards the town of Marghilan, famous for its silk factories. Marghilan is one of the most ancient cities of Uzbekistan. It was well known already in antiquity because it produced  the best silk in Central Asia, able to compete in quality and beauty with that of the Chinese. Caravans with Marghilan silk traveled along the Silk Road to Kashgar, Bagdad, the Khorasan region and all the way to Greece.

MARGHILAN SILK

We were fascinated with the exquisite patterns the weavers at the Yodgorlik” Marghilan Factory produced.

The unique Uzbek Khan-Atlas silk fabric is almost completely handmade. For hundreds of years the Ferghana masters managed to develop their own technique and technology of tie dying thread and weaving it into beautiful cloth, from a cocoon to the finished product, which makes the Marghilan silk one of the best in the world. The “Yodgorlik” Marghilan Factory may be the only one that has preserved a manual method of silk production. During a very educational tour we were able to see the whole silk manufacturing process, ending with tea and a visit to their showroom where visitors can buy various silk fabrics and mixed-silk fabrics.

Spending a little time wandering around the town of Marghilan, we smiled at the long overhanging canopies of grape vines that shaded sidewalks in front of homes. Roadsides were lined with mulberry trees to provided food for the all-important silkworms. More than in any other town we had seen in Uzbekistan, the art of making fresh bread had reached its pinnacle.

This baker was happy to pose with his son.

There were several bakeries in town, each with its own unique design of obi-non, the circular local bread. Right across from the Yodgorlik Marghilan Showroom a friendly baker was just in the process of scooping the wonderfully smelling obi-non out of the hot oven with his long handled pan. He was happy to let us peak into the oven and take photos. With a warm loaf in hand, we walked straight to the truck to enjoy a piece with butter.

Heading back west, we camped near the border crossing into Tajikistan. What we had to fear now was the infamous Tunnel of Death. As one overland traveler had recently posted:

The Tunnel of Death, Tajikistan

Visibility reduced almost to zero thanks to large sections with no lighting. Useless headlights which fail to penetrate the fumes. Carbon monoxide accumulation which has already claimed the lives of people delayed in the tunnel. All vehicles must have windows up and airflow on recycle. Potholes which seriously challenged ex-military trucks in permanent 4WD. Exposed reinforcing bars in the remaining concrete road surface had punctured the tires of 2 trucks whose drivers were changing them in the tunnel. Along the length of a mid-tunnel section there are holes as deep as 1.5 meters which are full of water. No roadworks signs and no traffic controls in this single-lane section or anywhere else.

Sounds like fun huh?

 

 

 

 

Samarqand Bazaar, Uzbekistan – 7/2014

September 9, 2017

While we had been fascinated by the temples, minarets, mausoleums and madrassahs in Samarkand, back in the 8th century the area that is today’s central market was the center of activity. Merchants from China, India and Iran congregated here to buy and exchange goods. There were craft workshops, trading stalls, warehouses and caravanserais, chai-khanas, (pavilions for drinking tea), and traditional bakeries for the characteristic Samarkand bread, called “obi-non”, a round loaf that looks like the sun’s disk. They are famous for their special taste and originality of their decoration.

Monika was having fun trying on traditional Uzbek hats.

We poked our heads into one of the bakeries. The owner was happy to give us a quick tour, showing us how the bread was kneaded, formed and decorated with sesame and poppy seeds and literally slapped to the walls and ceiling of the round brick oven. He insisted we take a sample. It was still warm when we smeared butter on it back in our camper. Given the outside temperature between 95°F and 105°F, it would’ve never cooled off.

Next to the mosque and mausoleum of Bibi-Khanum, the market today no longer has its old buildings, but it still keeps alive the spirit of the ancient trading culture of this great city. We found dried fruit and nuts, traditional sweets, honey, dairy products and a selection of vegetables that rivals the best supermarkets in California. We even found one shop selling wonderful salami, only beef of course because this is a Muslim country. One lady insisted that Monika needed a traditional wedding hat. Something that was probably not available in the 13th century: Ice cream cones. In these temperatures, you have to eat it fast.

Samarqand, Uzbekistan 7/2014

August 4, 2017

Samarqand, Mirror of the World, the Garden of the Soul, the Jewel of Islam, the Pearl of the East, the Center of the Universe. Lying in the river valley of the Zerafshan, and flanked by spurs of the Pamir-Alai mountains, this fabled oasis at the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert has never failed to leave its admirers in awe. Samarqand (Samarkand) has survived the full sweep of Central Asia’s history. Up to 40,000 years ago Paleolithic man wandered through the area. The city proper ranks in age with Rome and Babylon. Six arteries of the trade routes west to Persia, east to China and south to India met here to form a major Silk Road crossroad.

The Registan of Samarqand

The Registan complex is at the heart of Samarqand. It is considered the greatest and most magnificent in the Central Asian Islamic world. These Madrassahs were like universities for advanced education and religion.

Heading north out of Bukhara on M 37, we wanted to reach the town of Ghijduyan, home for the sixth generation of potters from the Narzullayevs family, world famous for their beautiful hand-painted ceramics. We were able to watch an artist as he created a shapely vase. Even with the difficulty of transporting such treasures back to California we took a chance and couldn’t resist buying at least one piece.

The tiles’ details on this turquoise dome above the Bibi Khanum Mosque were exquisite.

The roads were good and we were able to continue all the way to Samarqand. Following the Silk Road as we were, we had to stop at the remnants of an old caravansary near the village of Lavish. Not much was left of it except the foundations with the grand entry portal where long caravans of treasure-laden camels once plodded through. Little else had withstood the test of time.

Finding the Hotel Abdu Babudir 2 we had previously researched in Samarqand was a challenge without a detailed map of the city. The easy way in such cases is simply to hire a taxi and have him lead you to the address. Our room was not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but the AC worked and we lounged in the cool air. It was a well-known stopover for overland travelers so it was a great time to exchange ideas and travel tips.

Beth from Auburn, California, near our home town was traveling all the way to Vladivostok on an obviously well set-up BMW.

Each morning as the first rays of sunshine melted over the arches and exploded off the multicolored mosaics surrounding us, we would wander through some of the most amazing architecture in the world. What was truly more astonishing is that most of the temples, minarets, mausoleums and madrassahs, (schools of science and religion), had been destroyed, sacked, burned to the ground and rebuilt numerous times by different rulers. In 329 BC, 2,346 years ago, Alexander the Great conquered the city. A succession of Persian and Turkic peoples ruled until 1220 when Genghis Khan stormed in. In 1370 Tamerlane, (Taurid Transoxiana), made Samarqand his Imperial Capital, a city beyond compare. During his

The showroom at the Narzullayev family’s studio displayed their pottery.

35-year trail of campaigning, an estimated 17 million people died in a path of blood marked by pyramids of skulls throughout Persia, Syria, Asia Minor and Russia. The plunder of his conquests funded his dream and the architects, masons, painters, calligraphers, tile-glaziers and glass blowers he brought back created the fluted domes and sky-blue mosaics that excite travelers even today. After falling into despair for a few hundred years, many of the buildings have been restored and others are undergoing restoration. When you look at the pictures below we have made our best effort to show you the amazing details. These are not simply painted designs. What you are seeing is hundreds of thousands of individually glazed pieces of ceramic and glass placed one by one to create the image. One cannot even imagine the human effort it required to engineer these massive works of art.

 

 

 

Bukhara, Uzbekistan – 6/2014

June 8, 2017

Finally, we are back on track. We apologize for the delay in our blogs, but a three-and-a-half-month trip to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Singapore, places where we may not want to drive our expedition truck, in combination with a problem with the plug-in that was transferring our blogs to Facebook and Twitter, well —let’s just call it computer glitch. In any case, if you’ve been following us, we are back, and the amazing city of Bukhara was our next stop.

The massive fortress called the Ark is perhaps the oldest building in Bukhara.

Leaving Kiva, our visa actually gave us permission to explore the area around Beruni and Bostan to visit ancient ruins like Toprak Kale, but with temperatures hovering around the 110°F mark during the day and not a whole lot cooler during the night, comfortable camping might not be fun. Part of the restrictions of our Uzbekistan visa did allow us to wild-camp two out of every three days. All this was factored into the reality that we now had a drop-dead date on which we had to cross the border into China to meet our guide. With these constrictions and considerations, and still two and a half countries to cross, we headed straight through the Kyzilkum Desert to Bukhara.

After a little bit of searching online, we found a wonderful hotel in the center of town called the Lyabi House. Safe guarded parking was located just across the main park. This charming 19th century traditional Bukhara home was decorated with beautiful tile and antique articles. On the veranda overlooking a center patio we enjoyed a buffet breakfast. Our room was comfortable and the air conditioner worked. We were in heaven.

This water melon vendor in the market in Bukhara was happy to pose for a photo.

The region around Bukhara has been inhabited for at least five millennia. The city has existed for half that time. Located on the Silk Road, Bukhara has long served as a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion and when you look at the numerous mosques, madrassas, (schools), and amazing minarets, it’s no surprise that Bukhara is a World Heritage Site. Today Bukhara is more like a city museum with 140 archaeological monuments, but that did not detract from its history as we wandered through the narrow streets with people going about their normal daily routines.

This lady with her “golden” smile selling produce in the market reminded us of our Russia trip in 1996. During Soviet times gold teeth were very popular.

The legends that surround Bukhara can leave your mouth open in astonishment. The massive fortress called the Ark is perhaps the oldest building in Bukhara. By 500 A.D. it was already the residence of local rulers. The creator of the original Ark, as legend has it, was a young man named Siyavusha. He fell in love with the daughter of a local ruler. The girl’s father agreed to permit them to marry provided that Siyavusha would first build a palace on the area “bounded by a bull’s skin”, obviously intended to be an impossible task. But the young man cut the bull skin into narrow strips, connected the ends and inside this boundary built the palace and presumably married his sweetheart. Throughout history the Ark was destroyed and rebuilt many times after invaders like Genghis Khan sacked it and the Red Army destroyed it during the Russian Civil War. Portions of the walls, some as high as 66 ft., (20 m), are still being restored.

The peaceful setting of the 300 year old Bolo Hauz Mosque in Bukhara was impressive.

Another example of the amazing architecture in Bukhara is the Kalyan, “The Great Minaret”, also known as the “Tower of Death”. Legends tell us that thousands of criminals were executed by being thrown off the top. The tower is 149 ft. high, (45 meters), and was built in 1127 by Mohammad Arslan Khan. When Genghis Khan invaded Bukhara, he gazed up at the Kalyan Minaret in wonder, and in a rare gesture of humility, he bowed at the foot of The Great Minaret and ordered it to be spared in the ensuing orgy of destruction. Being an important stop on the Silk Road, beacons in its tower created a lighthouse to guide lonely trade caravans through the desperate wastes of the Kyzylkum Desert.

Of all the artisan crafts that are practiced in Uzbekistan, ceramic pottery is perhaps one of the most delicate and refined. We did see many beautiful examples in the market that tempted us, even as difficult as they would be to pack for our journey ahead. We also knew that on our way east, we would stop in the town of Ghijduyan where the workshop of one of the more famous potters was located, and we always like to buy souvenirs right from the artist.

As you look at the pictures in this blog, you must be amazed that many of these structures are hundreds of years old. We spent almost a week in this famous gem along the Silk Road and never grew tired of the changing light on the magnificent buildings. Just before we left, we made sure to walk across the street from our hotel and touch the saddle of the statue of legendary comic and story teller Hoja Nasreddin. It would bring us good luck.

Khiva, Uzbekistan – 6/2014

January 30, 2017

Escaping from Turkmenistan with full tanks of $1.00-per-gallon diesel, we entered Uzbekistan. Of all the countries we would visit following the Silk Road, Uzbekistan was certainly one of the most anticipated. Along with Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva was an important trading point on the historical Silk Road. It was also famous for its long and brutal history as a slave trading post, sandwiched in-between the vast Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, the latter of which we had just driven across.

The walls around Old Khiva seemed impenetrable.

We had obtained our visas from StanTours and they had arranged permission for us to wild camp two out of every three days. There may have been sections of the old Silk Road along the Amu-Darya River with at least one caravanserai on the Turkmeni side but that was out of the question. Turkmenistan immigration had made that impossible.

Given the oppressive heat and the fact that Khiva was only 38 miles away, we headed for our first hotel since we left Portugal with the bit firmly clenched in our teeth. This gave us a chance to relax in a sort-of air-conditioned environment, do a wash in the bathtub, change money and take a walk through the amazing streets of the old city. Unfortunately, much of the town inside the fortress walls had been scrubbed tourist-clean by the Soviets in the 1970s. Nevertheless, as we wandered amongst the madrassahs, (schools), and craned our necks at the spectacularly tiled minarets, we tried to get a sense of how crowded and bustling this town must have been throughout its history. It was not hard to imagine why Khiva is still considered an important center of Islam. The old walled town called Itchan Kala was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.

This English student requested to have her picture taken.

According to legend, Khiva was founded about 2,500 years ago when a son of Noah, Shem discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!” which could be roughly translated as “sweet water”. The Khanate of Khiva was a Central Asian Turkic state. The Khans (“kings”) were direct patrilineal descendants of Ghengis Khan and ruled for over 400 years (1511-1920). The amazing examples of Islamic architecture were built over a span of 600 years and stand as a reminder of Khiva’s greatness as a center of Islamic power. Today, the entire city is home to about 40,000 people, most of whom live outside the walls of the original town.

The photos and captions with this blog will give you a feeling of our experience of Khiva, but of course it is only a taste of this part of the Silk Road we have followed since driving away from the wave-torn cliffs of Portugal’s Cabo da Roca, the most western point in continental Europe and in fact, the most western point of the Eurasian landmass where we began The Trans-Eurasian Odyssey. Unknown adventures lie ahead. Already we were hearing of the difficulties of driving in China and before that, the dreaded “Tunnel of Death” in Tajikistan. We can hardly wait??

 

 

Turkmenistan – 6/2014

January 13, 2017

Okay, we were now driving in Turkmenistan. Oh Boy! It had been a long night and a long frustrating day. Since our five-day transit visa had already expired we were essentially driving in the country illegally. We knew that fuel in Turkmenistan was a dollar a gallon. Even though we had to pay $100 fuel surcharge, we had arrived with empty tanks. After a quick drive around town to change money we found the only gas station had run out of diesel. Thinking there must be other stations outside of town, we headed for Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, some 324 miles away. After driving 20 miles into the barren desert, there was nothing but ugly sand dunes and scrawny camels. We stopped at a construction camp to see if they had any diesel. They didn’t, but they said there was a station another 20 miles or so down the road. We had no choice. With the fuel needles resting past the red mark, we pulled into Belek on fumes and filled both of our Transfer Flow tanks to the top, a total of 84 gallons. That would give us an easy range of almost a thousand miles, enough to reach the border of Uzbekistan.

The heat next to “the Door to Hell” in Turkmenistan was intense.

Stopping in the little town of Serdar, we found a safe place for the night in a small park. The local people were friendly but we had little time to visit. Early morning, we walked around to get a feeling for the locals. One house had some ribbons and decorations for a wedding or perhaps a birthday. If we had stayed I’m sure we would’ve been invited. Monika passed one older gentleman working in his garden and he offered her his first cucumber as a present. This is a very Muslim country. A good friend in Istanbul told us that one interpretation of the Koran requires women to cover all of their personal features. The two girls that passed us in their chic dresses left little to the imagination of how beautiful they were.

Getting an early start the next morning, we more or less blitzed the capital of Ashgabat. It had that tinsel look of an overgrown Las Vegas wedding chapel. Having seen the obvious third world poverty in the little town where we had spent the night, it was pretty obvious where the money the government was raking in was going, and it wasn’t to the people. The massive building projects outside of town reminded us of the “phantom” apartments being constructed in China. No sign of anyone living nearby.

We sought refuge behind a hill to escape the additional heat source of “The Door to Hell”. It was still around 140F!

The Karakum Desert encompasses over 70% of Turkmenistan, about 135,135 square miles, (350,000 square km). Reported to be the hottest desert in Central Asia, it may also be in the running for the least appealing. We drove north on marginally OK pavement but some sections pocked with bathtub size potholes kept our speed below 30 mph most of the time. Work was ongoing but overloaded trucks and the extreme heat had created a rollercoaster effect on the melting blacktop. Our only stop was to buy a fresh watermelon from a young roadside vender.

To keep the desert sand from completely obliterating the road, huge sand barriers had been constructed from bunches of reeds sewn together and partially buried in the sand. About 160 miles north of Ashgabat we came to the area that was supposed to be the village of Darvaza. Its inhabitants, 350 of them, were mostly Turkmen of the Teke tribe, preserving a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In 2004, the village was disbanded following the order of the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, because “it was an unpleasant sight for tourists”.

Camping behind a hill by “The Door to Hell” we were somewhat sheltered from the heat and the fumes.

In 1971 when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn’t support the weight of their equipment. When it collapsed a crater about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep was formed. (40° 15’ 10” N 58° 26’ 22” E).

Natural gas is composed mostly of methane, which, though not toxic, does displace oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This wasn’t so much an issue for the scientists, but for the animals that call the Karakum Desert home — shortly after the collapse, animals roaming the area began to die. The escaping methane also posed dangers due to its flammability — there needs to be just five percent methane in the air for an explosion to potentially take place. So, the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time. Now, 46 years later, it’s still burning! It has since acquired the name of “The Door to Hell” or “The Gates of Hell”. (Check out our YouTube link below the photo gallery) Aside from the occasional tourist, reports say that it also attracts nearby desert wildlife. Some attest to seeing local spiders plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames.

All along the road through the Karakum desert were these hand planted traps to keep the roads clear from drifting sand.

Apparently the Turkmenistan government doesn’t really like people visiting the crater. There is no sign for the entry to the well-used two-track. The sand was very soft so we locked the hubs. After about a half an hour we climbed over a final sand dune where we could see the pit. The temperature was oppressive, about 140°F near the edge. We didn’t drive too close, not knowing how strong the overhanging lip was. We did inspect on foot to see if any friends or relatives who don’t read our blogs were hanging by their fingertips.

Wanting to see the crater by night we drove behind a nearby hill thinking the heat would be less. Nighttime came and the temperature dropped to 130°F. Even with damp towels laying over us and both Fantastic-Vent fans on high, sleep was miserable. We ended up starting the engine and sleeping in the cab with the AC on high.

One could easily understand why they placed these sand traps along the road.

Driving out the next morning was more challenging than expected, more uphill than I had remembered. We should have aired the tires down to 20psi but I was reluctant to the task of airing them back up after only a few miles to the pavement. I locked the front ARB differential and let the TrueTrac limited slip in the rear do its best with a few hops and clunks as we struggled up through the soft sand. As always, the situation was too tense to take any pictures. This was no weather to get stuck in and there was not a tree or winch point for miles. Back on terra firma, we took a deep breath and turned north toward the border, 77 miles away, hoping it would still be open. It wasn’t.

We had not seen a fuel station on the highway since we left Ashgabat. Apparently there was only one. A taxi driver offered to show us the way. We topped up both tanks and filled the two auxiliary jerry cans. Returning to the border, we camped as close to the entry as possible, just next to a cute café. There was a party going on and we were quickly invited.

Morning came and the trouble started. Our 5-day transit visa had expired and the fact that the ferry was 4 days late made no difference. We had to return to the local immigration office in town to get a new visa or exit permit paper. (This government loves paper work!)

As the sun set the hill behind “The Door to Hell” started to glow.

To make a long story short, we had two choices. Pay a $380 fine each for being in the country illegally, or fill out a letter of explanation in long hand, (two copies), explaining why, and then be deported with the stipulation that we could not reenter Turkmenistan for five years. We wanted to say, “Great!!! Make it 10 years!”

More problems! Of course, the border was closed for their 2-hour lunch. Another hour of paper work. A $25 fee for what we didn’t know, and finally an inspection of the camper, (We were leaving, remember?), and oh by the way, it was illegal to exit the country with any auxiliary cans of fuel. Thank goodness we had filled our two Transfer Flow tanks. Still, we had to empty the jerry cans. I was so pissed I was ready to dump them on the ground, and oh, by the way, our truck could not leave the Customs compound. In the sweltering heat, Monika and I lugged the two 5-gallon cans 200 yards across the baking concrete and out the gate, and just by sheer chance, of course, the guy with the taxi had a big drum in his trunk and he generously offered to dispose of the 10 gallons of diesel.

The sunset at “The Door to Hell” in Turkmenistan was spectacular.

We stormed back with the empty cans and I was rapidly turning into the “Ugly American”. Can I blame the heat? Monika demanded to see the written law that said we could not leave the country with full external fuel cans. They showed it to her. All she could read was “saliarca”, the Russian word for diesel. Now the agent, who was enjoying being an asshole, wanted to know what was in the blue jerry cans. I said “water asshole, wanna see?” Knowing that the cans were very full and the outside temperature was still over 110°F, I made sure he was very close when I flipped open the sealed cap, which exploded with hot water in his face. I said “See asshole? Water!! Want to see the other one?” He didn’t. (Monika took over quickly as I was close to getting into real trouble due to my choice of words.)

We left with a couple of good blasts of our twin air horns as we passed the last guarded gate where another diligent guard carefully inspected all our papers—like we could have gotten this far without them. Good-by Turkmenistan!

Click on this link to see our “Gate to Hell” video on YouTube.

Azerbaijan 4 – The Caspian Sea – 6/2014

January 6, 2017

It was Sunday, June 15 now, and still no sign of the ferry. Sometime late that night or early Monday morning it docked and we woke up to find two Brits and an American who had arrived from Kazakhstan by ferry camping next to us. They were coming from Kabul, Afghanistan and headed for London. All day of the 16th we waited thinking we might load at any moment. Still nothing happened. The 17th, Tuesday, the whole crew left to take a day off, and the clock on our five-day transit visa kept ticking.

We were happy that the ferry crew placed our truck on the upper deck.

Finally, on the morning of the 18th, the complicated loading process began. A collection of rusting derelict equipment and parts lay scattered along the docks. By some stroke of luck, we were the first on board. A huge hydraulic lift raised us up to the upper deck where we were directed to park along the rail. The heat was sweltering but there was an occasional breeze. We sat behind our truck looking for shade and watching the show. Several of the huge semi-tractor trailers were raised and parked behind us, leaving space between them of less than a foot. Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon we finally sailed away from Baku.

At last we were on the ferry and we soon began to meet the friendly Turkish truck drivers. One guy spoke little English. They obviously knew the drill and began setting up their little travel kitchens and preparing dinner. They were most likely Muslim but no one blinked an eye when Monika emerged in shorts. She was undoubtedly the only female on board.

The long line of 18-wheelers slowly lumbered towards the loading ramp.

Arriving at the Turkmenistan port of Turkmenbashi it was 7:00 am and a strong wind was blowing. The tugboat that ushered us in was much smaller than what the captain had requested and was unable to be of much help in the wind. After several failed attempts to get close enough to the dock to tie off, we ended up motoring back out to sea where we spent the rest of the day and that night 5 miles offshore. We tried to imagine we were on a luxury cruise across the Caspian Sea. That’s stretching the imagination.

The Turkish truck drivers on the ferry were a friendly bunch.

Late in the afternoon, a strange thing happened. You may know that there are ongoing territorial and ethnic tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia called the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. In any case, the second machinist, pretty drunk, decided he didn’t like the map on the side of our truck. It showed our intended route through the small country of Azerbaijan and the tape covered up the name but not Armenia (which we did not visit). In a fit of patriotic violence, he pulled out his knife and attempted to scrape off Armenia on the map. Our Turkish truck driver friends grabbed him about the time I was going to. Probably a good idea since it might’ve ended in a conflict much more violent. I think they were about to throw him overboard when the captain was alerted and the offending crew member was locked in a cabin until he calmed down. It took several hours and in his rage, he smashed up everything inside and punched a hole through the window. The captain did not speak English but the chief engineer did. He was very apologetic, invited us for tea and snacks and offered to pay for the damage. We accepted a token one hundred dollars that he would deduct from the crewman’s wage. He wanted to fire him but we requested to refrain. The machinist came twice to apologize profusely to both of us and then one more time with the chief engineer in tow. It was quite embarrassing for him but we hope he got to keep his job. We weren’t very happy about the damage though it could have been worse. I guess I should have use the Louisiana bumper sticker: “Ever wonder about life after death?——Touch my Truck!”

It was 3:45 AM the next morning, Thursday, the 20th. The wind had died down and the larger tugboat arrived, enabling us to finally dock. Unloading went quickly for us since we were first and by far the most maneuverable. We barely had time to say farewells to our fellow passengers. We were directed to the Customs building where we spent the next 4 hours and 20 minutes going from office to office and window to window, 14 of them if I recall. Each office was in charge of something, we knew not always what for, but most of them had a small fee we had to pay before they put a rubber stamp and signature on our entry permit. Interestingly, they only accepted US dollars. The only thorough inspection was of our first aid kit. One of the few English speaking officials had luckily forewarned us that major painkillers will be taken away, so Monika hid them quickly in a place where the very efficient female officer would never even look. Finally, we were driving in Turkmenistan. 

Azerbaijan 3 – 6/2014

December 30, 2016

It was Saturday, June 14. No sign of the ferry which reportedly takes about 14 hours from Baku across the Caspian Sea to the port of Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and reportedly another four hours to get through customs. Our five-day transit visa through Turkmenistan would begin on Monday, June 16. It wasn’t looking good. Well, you know what they say about making lemonade from lemons. With our truck safely parked in the guarded customs compound, we walked out and caught the bus into town.

The curiosity of this little girl caught our attention and we caught hers.

Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, situated on the southern tip of the Abşeron Peninsula overlooking the Bay of Baku, along the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It lies on an ancient trade route, (part of The Silk Road), from the Central Asian steppe towards Europe, being the main port that received trade from the east. Heading westwards from Baku, merchandise would either be transported north through the Caucasus Mountains and thus to the north of the Black Sea or would travel due east, into Turkey towards Istanbul.

Historically, Baku is a city founded upon oil. For its inexhaustible fountains of naphtha, it owes its very existence, its maintenance and its prosperity. The immense output in crude petroleum from this single city far surpasses that in any other district where oil is found. By the beginning of the 20th century almost half of world production was being extracted in Baku.

There are reports of oil being sourced from open wells around Baku as early as the Middle Ages and evidence of petroleum being used in trade as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries. Information on the production of oil on the Abşeron Peninsula can be found in the manuscripts of most Arabic and Persian authors. There is even a passage in the Scriptures: “—the rock poured me out rivers of oil.”

The main plaza in Baku had some interesting art on display.

The following paragraph from the accounts of the famous traveler Marco Polo is believed to be a reference to Baku oil: ‘Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil, and in all the neighborhood no other oil is burnt but this.”

One observer wrote: “Oil is in the air one breathes, in one’s nostrils, in one’s eyes, in the water of the morning bath, (though not in the drinking water, for that is brought in bottles from distant mineral springs), in one’s starched linen – everywhere. This is the impression one carries away from Baku, and it is certainly true in the environs.”

Needless to say, Baku has been an important and multicultural hub in the Caucasus region throughout history, and it’s actually quite a nice city. On the skyline the beautiful Flame Towers are the tallest skyscrapers in Baku at 190 m, (623 ft.). They are dramatic anytime of day, but especially at night when they look like huge flames or multicolored rainbows leaping into the sky. We took time to wander the streets of the old inner-city which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular interest was the fortress-like walls which may have guarded the old caravanserai, a stopping point along the Silk Road.

British automaker Manganese Bronze Holdings painted its normally black taxis violet at the behest of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijan plans to have 3,000 London-style cabs on the streets by next year.

Aside from the Flame Towers, the most notable landmark is The Maiden Tower, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is recognized as the symbol of the city. It has a mystique and hoary history that are linked to two periods, though none conclusively established. The story we liked the best was the legendary tale of the king willing to force his daughter to marry a man she didn’t love. She escaped by asking her father to first build a tower for her, and when it was finished, she committed suicide by jumping from the top.

Another version holds that the king on his return from his war campaign found that his wife had given birth to a daughter instead of a son. He became furious and ordered the killing of his baby daughter. However, the baby’s nanny took her away to a secret place where she grew up to a beautiful lady. At age seventeen she got engaged to a lover. At this juncture, the king chanced to see her, wanted to marry her and therefore took her away and kept her in the Maiden Tower. The girl’s lover was furious with this turn of events and he managed to kill the king. (Don’t you loved these legends?) He then ran to the Maiden Tower to rescue his lover. However, when the girl heard the sound of footsteps approaching towards the tower, she thought it was the king coming to get her and she immediately committed suicide by jumping down from the tower. These things never have a happy ending.

The streets of the old inner-city were lined with antique stores that tempted us, but the decisive question is always; “How are you going to get it back, and when you do, where are you going to put it in your house that is already full with travel treasures?” There were enough beautiful plazas and little coffee shops to keep my mind off buying stuff we didn’t need.

 

Azerbaijan 2 – 6/2014

December 22, 2016

The clock was ticking again as we arrived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and the port where the infamous ferry departs for Turkmenbashi, across the Caspian Sea to the country of Turkmenistan. We had gotten a letter instead of a visa in Istanbul. With this letter we were to go to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Baku. We had a vague idea of about where this embassy was supposed to be, but no one really seemed to know for sure. After finding a safe parking place on one of the main streets near the alleged location, we spent an hour wandering through alleys before finally finding the correct address. No sign, no flags, just an address, and of course it was closed for lunch. We waited along with others at the back entrance.

By sheer chance, we struck up a conversation with Intigam Ismayilov (Volcano Travel, i.ismayilov@volcanotravel.az), a gentleman who seemed to know his way around visas. He was able to speak to the guard and get us into the waiting room where we waited, and waited. Finally, with his help, we were able to get into the office of the person in charge of visas. Inspecting our letter, he made several long phone calls and we finally got our five-day Transit Visa that we had requested.

We found safe parking near the Europa Hotel that was in the general vicinity of the address we had for the Turkmenistan Embassy.

According to the ferry schedule, (joke), it was to leave the following day. Not a lot of time for sightseeing. We rushed to the port area and after a couple of U-turns, we found the terminal, and then the other terminal where the Row-Row ferry docks. Of course, it had not arrived yet, and no one seemed to know where it was.

We had heard all the funny stories about this ferry, that it was a rust bucket and always late. Some wondered why it hadn’t sunk already. After entering the gated compound, we were told where to park and we found the Customs Office. It was closed. We were a bit concerned that the ferry had not arrived yet. We knew that once it departed it would take about 14 hours to get to Turkmenistan. We gauged our five-day transit visa on the probability, (joke), that the ferry would leave on time. The distance on miserable roads from the entry point at Turkmenbashi via Ashgabat to the border of Uzbekistan was 733 miles. At a reported speed of 35 mph due to road conditions, five days sounded possible with a stop at the “Door to Hell”. “Good Luck”!!