For 800 miles the Karakum desert ripples towards Afghanistan in pale yellow waves. Bordered to the south by the Kopet Dagh and the Hindu Kush, and to the north by the long hypotenuse of the Oxus river, this shifting, fine-grained wilderness throws up no landmark, no distinctive feature at all, but is fringed by choked wells and salinated fields. A Roman historian remarked in astonishment that its people could travel only by the stars, like sailors.
Across these wastes, in 329 вс, Alexander the Great had marched his 60,000-strong army to the Oxus under a scourging sun, and here, when a soldier brought him water in his helmet, he refused to drink while his army was dying of thirst, and poured the water into the sands.
Later expeditions were drastically depleted, or vanished altogether. General Skobelev, moving against Merv in 1881, started out with a pack train of 12,000 camels, and ended with only 600 living; and the formidable General Kaufmann salvaged barely one twelfth of 20,000 camels and horses from his desert march on Khiva in 1873.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
The Karakum desert is a sun-scorched expanse of dunes and sparse vegetation in the centre of Turkmenistan. It’s Central Asia’s hottest desert but manages to support a handful of settlements, including the oasis town of Jerbent, 160km north of Ashgabat. A ramshackle collection of homes, battered trucks, yurts and the occasional camel, Jerbent is being slowly consumed by the desert as sands continue to blow off the overgrazed dunes. While it doesn’t look like much, the village does offer a glimpse of rural Turkmen life, and you can watch traditional cooking methods and sit down for tea inside a yurt.
If you have time, money and a sense of adventure, a travel agency can organise 4WD trips further into the desert towards ever more remote villages. As this requires much time, extra fuel and possibly a backup vehicle, you’ll need to request that your guide lists agreed details of your trip on the itinerary. Off-road trips usually require at least two vehicles, which costs around US$250 per day (depending on how many people are travelling, but this price is for groups of three or four people).
Although the village of Darvaza was demolished in 2004 on the orders of President Niyazov, who apparently didn’t like what he saw while inspecting the new Ashgabat–Dashogus highway, you’ll still see it marked by the road on some maps. Slowly local herders are returning to the area, if not to the site of the village itself, which is well worth a visit for a chilling illustration of Niyazov’s total power – nothing of the village survives save the odd vehicle chassis and the ubiquitous bread ovens, considered too holy in Turkmenistan to be destroyed. Darvaza, whether the village of the same name continues to exist or not, is the halfway post between the capital and Konye-Urgench.
It’s also at the heart of the Karakum desert and draws visitors for the Darvaza Gas Craters, one of Turkmenistan’s most unusual sights. Apparently the result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s, the three craters are artificial. One has been set alight and blazes with an incredible strength that’s visible from miles away. The other two craters contain bubbling mud and water. However, on a visit here in April 2010, President Berdymukhamedov ordered that the burning gas crater be extinguished to enable exploration for gas in the area, so that while at the time of research the crater was still accessible, it’s important to check the latest news with a travel agency in Ashgabat.
The fire crater is of course the most impressive, and it’s best seen at night, when the blazing inferno can only be compared to the gates of hell. There is a naturally sheltered camping place behind the small hill, just south of the crater. Getting to the crater is an off-road ride and drivers frequently get lost or get stuck in the dunes. There is no one around to give directions, so make sure you go with somebody who knows the way. If you intend to walk from the road, think twice. While the walk only takes two hours through the dunes, you’ll have to spend the night here, as finding your way back to the road without the reference of a huge burning crater is very hard. Even in daylight you may get lost – it’s much better to pay for a tour. There are no hotels in the area, but most of the chaikhanas that line the main road just north of the turn-off to the crater offer beds for the night, provide meals and even sell petrol. As there are no signposts for either the turn-off or the chaikhanas, the landmark to look for is where the train line crosses the main road. If coming from Ashgabat, the turn-off for the crater is about 1km before the railway line, and the chaikhanas are a few kilometres afterwards. If you plan to camp at the crater, make sure you sleep a good distance back from its edges, as breathing in the gas all night long can make you very ill.
All buses and marshrutkas heading from Ashgabat to both Konye-Urgench and Dashogus go through Jerbent and pass nearby the Darvaza Gas Craters on the main road.