Cowboy Camping in the Karakum Desert

Once I was dropped off by my taxi from the border in Dashoguz, the only thing to do was to find my way to the center of Turkmenistan where the Doorway to Hell lies. The only way to reach it on a transit visa (for my purposes) is to get a seat in a shared taxi that runs from Dashoguz to Ashgabat, and to get out halfway through. There’s other ways to do it, but none allowed me to do what I wanted to do: to camp overnight in the desert.

Actually getting the ride was easy enough. The only hitch is that they won’t lower the price because you’re only going halfway, which is understandable because it’s not like they’re going to pick up a replacement passenger in the middle of the desert.

From the moment I exited the first taxi and headed down the street to the cluster of longer-distance drivers, the aggressive negotiations resumed in force. My backpack was on the ground, and immediately a driver tried to pick it up and take it to his car. Before I could intercede, another driver grabbed my arm to pull me to his car. Just as at the border, my second wrestling match of the day ensued as curious Turkmen travelers looked on. After I pulled away from the main group, one driver bearing tattoo sleeves and a smile waved me over. He was the only one not actively trying to kidnap me and seemed genuinely sympathetic to my situation, and so his was the car I got into, much to the frustration of the other drivers.

We waited a few more minutes for the car to fill up, then set off through Dashoguz towards the desert. The whole time, I watched the temperature meter on the dashboard of the car as we went deeper and deeper into the Karakum. First it was 95, then 98 and 99, then 100.

105.

106.

The meter climbed and climbed as we sped at breakneck speeds down the sand-covered highway, racing blowing tumbleweeds (honest to God tumbleweeds) as we tore through the desert. I had tried to time my departure so that I would arrive in Darvaza after the hottest part of the day, but at the speeds we were moving, it quickly became obvious that I was going to get dropped off at high noon.

107.

108.

The Karakum is among the driest and hottest deserts in the world. This day was the primary cause of my anxiety around traveling to Turkmenistan. I really had no plan for once I arrived, except to, I dunno, do it. I had three bottles of water and a bag of bread in my pack to last me until whenever I reached Ashgabat the next day.

109.

110.

After two hours squeezed in the back of the car, we rolled up to a single building along the road. The driver turned back to me.

“Darvaza!”

I got out and took my pack from the trunk, then waved as they sped off, kicking up a cloud of dust as they did. The building, thankfully, was a truck stop with a restaurant, so in I went to pass some time and let the sun set some more. The man who ran it with his family brought me some plov (rice with peppers and meat) and a cup of tea. Another group on their way to Ashgabat invited me to sit with them, and one spoke English.

“Why are you here?”

“I’m going to the gas crater.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Be careful — there are wolves in the desert.”

“Hold up, what?”

“Yes, big wolves and scorpions! We go to Ashgabat now, good luck!”

With that, they stood and left, leaving me with the new knowledge of desert wolves. Scorpions and spiders and snakes (oh my) worried me enough. I sighed and stood to pay before preparing to leave. The crater was several miles from where I was, and hiking through the desert to find it was the game plan. A guy offered to drive me for a mere 60 USD. I stuck with walking.

 

Desert Trekker

From the moment I stepped out into the sun, I was knocked backwards by the absolutely oppressive heat. Having gone to university in Minnesota, I’m used to extreme cold, but extreme heat was new to me. No shade, and the wind brought no respite, only heat and sharp particles of sand.

I trudged down the side of the highway for nearly an hour before finding the road that led to the crater. It was no more than worn tire tracks, winding up and over the first ridge and out of sight. I drank some water, braced myself for an extremely uncomfortable hike, then set off. For a little while, it was tolerable. Then the road turned uphill, then it wasn’t even a road, just dunes.

I walked for two hours through the desert and had made it maybe two thirds of the way there. The creeping idea that I had made a significant mistake by coming here loomed over me but provided no shade. I walked on for another thirty minutes before coming to a large shrub. It was 3:30 PM and the sun was still well overhead, so I crawled under the shrub where it was just as hot but shaded, and decided I would sit there until the sun went down enough to keep moving.

Much to my surprise and delight, however, a truck rolled up thirty minutes later. The Turkmen driver leaned out and called me in, and I could not have been happier. I threw my pack in the back then jumped in with the three Turkmen guys who I learned were bringing supplies to the people who live next to the crater in yurts. Once I was in their car, it was another 20 minutes before we reached it. Walking the whole thing would’ve been a nightmare (and probably quite dangerous in the heat) so I was grateful.

 

The Crater

Once we arrived at the yurt camp that’s maintained for the few tourists that do come, I laid down in the shade. I seemed to be the only traveler so they gave me some water and invited me to sit with them. They offered me a bed in a yurt, but it was 30 USD and I wanted to sleep under the stars, so I declined. This meant, however, that I had no shade except the shade from the yurt. So I sat in the sand, leaning against the tent wall, waiting for the sun to set some more before setting out to take my first look at the crater.

But of course, what is this thing?

Way back in the Soviet days when Turkmenistan was still the Turkmen SSR, scientists were here looking for oil and natural gas. While drilling on a fateful day in 1971, they found an underground cavern, which collapsed and took the drilling rig with it. In fact, there’s still metal springs and beams protruding from various spots in the crater. After the collapse, noxious methane gas began spewing into the atmosphere. In a disaster-mitigating move of typical Soviet style, scientists went, LOL, let’s set it on fire and let the gas burn away.

Well as you can see, nearly 50 years later, there’s still gas to be burned, albeit less. At the time of burning it, the glow of the crater could be seen for miles in every direction and the flame was a raging inferno.

Now, the glow is of course visible at night, but the flames are much smaller. Nonetheless, the heat one feels when approaching the crater is like looking into a volcano. You know that feeling when you’re too close to the bonfire and your clothes heat up so much that it’s painful when they touch your skin? Imagine that, but on your entire body as soon as you get within a few meters of the crater. Stand upwind of it and there’s no respite no matter how far you go. The air above it shimmers and distorts from the heat waves radiating from the crater, and birds that fly over it are launched high into the sky from the thermal lift. After stepping away from it, the 110+ degree heat felt cool by comparison.

Of course, there’s only so long I could tolerate the heat and I returned to my shadow by the yurt for the next several hours until sunset came.

Once the sun was down, I went back to the crater to see the glow and the full glory of the flames, and to reflect on the journey that has led me to this place.

In a lot of ways, getting to the Doorway to Hell has been the most-anticipated moment of the year, since well before I found my teaching job in Nepal. Back when I was looking at jobs in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan, I had always been planning what I might travel to when my contract was finished. For any job in Central Asia (and Asia in general), this was the spot I wanted to find. This whole Asia/Silk Road traverse is a direct result of me wanting to get to this spot. So my arrival here in the middle of the Karakum Desert represents the realization of a now longtime goal and is the result of a lot of planning, stress, and outright luck. But after all that, I made it here and am so far the only person I’ve ever met (and am likely to meet) who has managed to do so.

And y’know what? Every bit of hype and wonder I had going into this fell flat by comparison, because the Doorway to Hell is the weirdest thing I have ever seen.

I stood there for awhile. At one point, a truck pulled up and a Turkmen guy leaned out the window.

“Beer?”

I shrugged and said yes, so he gave me a thumbs-up and drove away. Twenty minutes later, I heard the squeaking of a bicycle. It was the same guy, rolling up out of the darkness, beer in hand. He handed it off to me and teetered off into the night once more.

 

Cowboy Camping

To those unfamiliar with the expression, cowboy camping is when you just roll out your bedroll right on the ground and sleep there under the stars. No tent, no shelter, just open air. I had wanted to do this for awhile, despite the threat of spiders, snakes, scorpions, and now wolves. I hadn’t seen any while walking, so I figured it must be alright, right?

I went out with my tripod to take some star photos after setting up my sleeping arrangements. It was all set up in a bare patch surrounded by dried, dead desert grass. I took the photos I wanted over the course of several hours, until I decided it was time to head to sleep. I packed up my camera gear and started walking through the grass back to my setup.

As I walked, I felt a little tickle on the back of my neck. I figured it was one of the flies that had been buzzing around, so I reached back and waved it off. When I pulled my hand down again, perched on it was a spider so large that the bag of my hand was covered and its legs wrapped around my thumb onto my palm. There was a moment where the spider and I looked at each other, internalizing.

Another moment passed, and then I snapped my hand towards the ground with a loud “fuh-king hell!

The spider hit the sand with an audible thud and then scuttled off into the grass, kicking up sand onto my shoes as it made its getaway. I stood a moment, arms crossed, the vibe of cowboy camping sufficiently killed. Slowly, I returned to my campsite in the grass and immediately set to work adding a bug net, propped up with my camera tripod.

It was a fitful and unrestful sleep to say the least, but thankfully I had only the one visitor that night. How it got all the way onto the back of my neck while I was walking, I don’t know. I prefer not to think on it. I would have rather met a wolf.

But I survived to fight another day in Turkmenistan, the most anxiety-ridden part of my entire trip finished.

Next stop, Ashgabat.

 

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