To Appear is not a Sober King

An interesting title. It was the first rule for an underground lake we’d passed earlier that day, and we found it so funny that it sort of stuck. God knows what it was meant to say, probably some dodgy Google translate about not drinking. Anyway, it’s the title of this blog because when the events of this evening unfurled it felt like someone had commanded us to do rule number one. It just made no sense. How had we so completely misjudged the situation that we ended up, lost in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night, 100 km from our destination, and perhaps the only English speaking people in that radius? How!? I’m honestly still not sure.

We were driving from Türkmenbaşy to the Darvaza gas crater, or Gates of Hell as it’s more commonly known. It was getting dark and we still had quite a distance to drive, but never mind I thought, the Gates are best viewed at night time anyway. I should have learnt from our last night escapade in Georgia that nothing goes to plan when travelling after dark. But, alas, I didn’t, so on we drove, away from the light pollution of Ashgabat and deeper into the desert.

The map we had for all the ‘Stans was awful, so the Gates, one of the main tourist attractions in Turkmenistan, was not on it. Instead, we relied on the maps and descriptions given in our guide book. Which we read and reread throughout the day to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. Now I’m paraphrasing here but it basically said: “get to Jerbent then turn left.” So when we got to the police check point at Jerbent we played charades with a lorry driver to ask how far, he held up one oil-stained finger. One kilometre. Great! Everything seemed like it was going to plan, but of course, the sun had set long ago, so it was actually unravelling.

We drove for 20 pot-hole-swerving-camel-dodging-kilometres without any sign of a left, or right, turn. More charades with a passing motor biker, who took us back to the check point and to a lorry driver, who took us to a police officer, who took us to another lorry driver, who lead us to a home on the outskirts of Jerbent. Our plan had always been to get some food and then a taxi to the craters as the drive to them entailed a lot of deep sand which we did not feel like navigating at night, so we followed him into the town.

A phone was held in front of my face by a frustrated young girl who lived at the house, with ‘100’ displayed on the calculator. “You’re wrong. Nyet. To the GAS CRATERS.” I drew a horizontal circle in the air and wriggled my fingers underneath to look like flames. “Da, da,” she said and tapped the phone screen. It couldn’t be 100km away, the book had said it was just after Jerbent. By this time dad had driven back to the main road to get second, third, and fourth opinions on the matter. It just didn’t make any sense. I was so sure and stubborn in my belief that I knew exactly what was going on that I couldn’t hear anything else. Not even the people who had lived in the town their whole lives, you’d think they’d know if there was a massive fire pit right next door. Dad returned with four “100km North’s,” and was just as baffled as I was. We finally had to accept the fact that is was us who was wrong and not everyone else. Funny that.

While we sat at the table on a block of concrete outside the house, eating tough meat and stale bread, talking about how we had got it so wrong, the girl, Bagul, pulled out the seat next to me, sat down and proudly showed me her English notes. She had a variety of different words in Turkmen and their English translations in all the different tenses written across from them. I went through them with her for a couple of hours, helping her with pronunciation and she taught me the Turkmen equivalent. I think it’s safe to say I had the easier task, where I learnt one word, she learnt four! When she got bored of this I was shown around the compound, from the outhouse to the camel enclosures. I realised in the morning how big the gender divide in Turkmenistan was, where I was welcomed and treated like family by the women, dad was largely ignored apart from a greeting. And where dad was treated the same way by the men, I was entirely ignored and stared at as I drove past. It is illegal for women to drive in Turkmenistan, however, as I was driving a foreign registered car it was okay.

In the morning we drove the remaining distance to the craters, we knew we had reached the right place by the men skulking around trying desperately to get us to choose their taxi services rather than their competitors. But we said, “no thanks gents, we have a MICRA!” And on we drove onto the dunes of deep sand, feeling like brave, intrepid explorers. We charged, a thin green line, at the first dune, and instantly got stuck, wheel-deep in the hot red sand. “Err… taxi!” Within seconds, two guys on a motorbike were by our stranded automobile, writing ridiculous prices in the sand. They started at over $100 to get us out, but by the end of the negotiations, it was $40 to get us out, drive our car to the craters and then back in the morning with one of us on the back of the bike.

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Nearing the end of the Soviet period, they were mining for natural gases in Turkmenistan. One of their mines began to leak, and the resulting decision was to light it. The explosion, so I’m told, could be seen for hundreds of kilometres around, and many of the people I spoke to in Jerbent could recall when it happened. The explosion formed the crater which must have been around forty metres deep and seventy wide. Numerous gas leaks litter the crater, all of which burnt, creating a speckled carpet of flames which licked the blackened rock above. Clouds of heat rose from the huge hole in the ground, they blurred the air and made my skin tighten. I stood at the edge and threw a rock in, expecting it to reach the middle, however, unless I was standing at the very edge I couldn’t even see where it landed on the slope. It was that massive.

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I made a shelter from the sun using my tent and the car, and we sat underneath eating watermelon and waiting for night to fall and the Gate of Hell to look it’s most impressive. We were later joined by a Korean couple who unrolled their sleeping bags next to our camp, shared coffee and pasta with us and later taught me the names of the constellations in Korean.

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As the sun set, I climbed the dunes behind us to catch the last rays sinking into the horizon. Then I turned and watched as the crater transformed from a dark pit in the ground, to a glowing, smoking gateway to hell. Only then did I fully understand its nickname.

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Next, we were joined by David From Germany. And we sat, drinking vodka, and staring into the flames below. The night ended with me sitting in the sand, head back staring up, trying to remember the Korean I’d learnt earlier, warmed by the fires of Hell.

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One thought on “To Appear is not a Sober King

  1. Hi Sarah and Ian
    Just read on Tessa’s facebook account that you have finally got to Mongolia. Very well done to you both indeed. Epic in every way. I don’t know whether this is of interest to either of you, but I came across this RGS competition for a grant to support a travel project: http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Grants/Expedition+fieldwork+and+independent+travel+grants/Journey+of+a+Lifetime.htm
    By now you might have a few ideas methinks!
    Take care
    H x

    Like

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