Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Gates of Hell

When someone mentions "the Gates of Hell," do you think of Rodin's masterpiece in the Musee D'Orsay, a Tom Petty song, or a failure of Soviet engineering in Turkmenistan? Well, after today, I'll be thinking of the last one.

I arranged to be picked up from hotel at 1:30 pm with another guy from work. The day was gray, wet, and overcast in Ashgabat.
We drove past Tolkuchka on our way into the Karakum desert. At roughly 2:15, we came to a checkpoint. We stopped at a stop sign, didn't see anyone wave us thru, and then we were on much less well maintained roads. Kind of like the ones you see when you cross state lines in the US and it's obvious which state considers funding their infrastructure a higher priority. It was a divided highway, but we occasionally went into the oncoming lane for no discernible reason other than the sign that said to. Yes, there are signs that tell you to drive into on-coming traffic here.

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Every so often, it also felt like we were going through the same kind of turbulence you experience on a plane going though a thunderstorm...while we were hurtling down the road at 110 km/hr. The sandy, yellow-gray soil looked like it was damp from the fog, with sporadic gray shrubs thrown in every now and then.
There were also some sort of sand dune retention grids made from sticks of what look like bamboo or thick straw. This view continues for hours.
Breaking up the monotony, we passed a herd of cattle and a couple herds of sheep. The first camel sighting (a dromedary) was at 3:15 pm, where it was hanging out by telephone pole near road. We passed three more shortly after that, but we were going so fast and they were so close to the road that I couldn't get a good picture. There was one guy on side of road praying, but I really haven't seen the same dedication to prayer here that they have in the Kingdom. We passed another checkpoint by Yerbent at 3:30 pm, and a camel was crossing the road just as I was noting the time. Mental note: I need to stay in the moment!

Then, moments later, two camels crossed the road up ahead and I got a video as we passed.
The camels here are much darker than I expected, almost black in some cases.
The car's mp3 player pulled up "Spice Up Your Life", and I couldn't help but smile. While the song was playing, I got a pretty good photo of two camels grazing in the distance, only because the driver pulled over for me.
We passed a herd of 11 camels, then a second herd shortly thereafter and I lost count of how many I'd seen. My tally was up to 30 at that point, and it was only 4:25 pm. 
A herd of camels on the horizon
Which is just as well, because right then we veered off the highway to see Crater #1: the water crater. There's no sign or anything, but  It's deep and full of water. I think this is what the others were intended to look like. 
We continued on to Crater #2: the mud crater, which was also just off the highway. But it wasn't just mud...it was bubbling mud on fire! You could actually hear it bubbling, thought the flames weren't large enough to feel any discernible heat where we stood. 

Burning mud!


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Crater #3: the gas crater is what we came here for. Here's a link to the story about how the Door to Hell was opened. It required the most off-roading, and our driver stopped to ask a couple of locals in motorbikes about the trail conditions. 
Which path did he say not to take?
It was dry and sandy, so we kept some good speed through those parts so we wouldn't get stuck. It reminded me of my desert safari in Qatar what seems like a lifetime ago.
 I was looking at a yurt in the distance as the gas crater appeared from behind a low hill.
It was larger than the previous two craters, but much more impressive. That's why they call it "The Door to Hell."
Ok, that is a bit eerie
Walking the 50m down to the edge of the crater from where we parked, the wind was so cold and strong that my hands started to get chilly enough to put them into my jacket pockets. 
Use the human for scale.
But the heat from the crater felt so much like a campfire I started thinking about making s'mores. I walked around the crater, and it looks like parts of the crater wall have recently collapsed. I base that on the relatively uncharred appearance of the rocks both on the rim and in the pit.
Not gonna get too close to the edge. Note: there is no railing.
It's big enough and deep enough to make it difficult to fit into one photo.
Another section of the wall had remnants of whatever long-since abandoned infrastructure had been installed before they lit the pit on fire. 
On the left, you can see the burned out infrastructure.
The whole time I was here, I kept thinking that I needed to have Tom Petty in some headphones singing "You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down.
RRR warms himself up
We were on our way back to the hotel at 5:10 pm, so we probably spent 3 hours (each way) to go stare at a flaming hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere. But now I can use the experience as an analogy and an anecdote for so many other situations.
You might be cool, but you're not motorbiking-through-an-Asian-desert cool.
The drive back felt a bit like a race against nightfall while we were dodging potholes and head-on traffic on an unlit stretch of pavement as the sky grew increasingly dark. Most of the cars we saw had their headlights on, as did the occasional tractor-trailer. Everyone in both directions was swerving to avoid potholes and other large burlap-bag-looking things in the road (possibly sleeping camels?).

By the time we reached the nearest checkpoint on our return, it was 6:20 pm and so dark that it was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the road began. At that point, I was glad that we started when we did (our original plan was 3 pm, 90 minutes later), because we wouldn't have seen much of the first two craters in the twilight. I've heard that folks camp near the gas crater...I am guessing it's so they don't have to drive at night. I kept thinking that the road ahead looked like something out of Radiohead's Karma Police video.

By the Yerbent checkpoint, we saw several groups of people grilling food by picnic tables that had been surrounded by canvas sheets on three sides to provide protection from the wind. Embers flew into the street, and carried with them the delicious smell of grilled meat. Remember all those camels we saw near Yerbent on the way out to the crater? Well, they're still in the area, but it's much more disconcerting to happen upon them walking down the side of the road in the dark when you're going over 100 kilometers an hour. Hitting one of them would make for a very bad situation. Fortunately, we didn't hit any.

The only other thing worth point out from this excursion is that the light pollution from Ashgabat was visible on the horizon over an hour out from the city. Imagine Las Vegas, but with Pyongyang-style architecture. Check out my other posts from this trip to see what I mean.

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