DAY 25 – Destination Darvaza

198 miles
#Ashgabat to #Darvaza

Distopic dreams never really end. To satisfy our need of dollars (dollars are so evil that you want them anyway, whether you have them or not) we reach the VNESHEKONOMBANK, as suggested by an offical at the border. The bank is in a monumental building, which would make Alexander the Great tomb jealous. Inside, people are crowding more than queueing in front of the bank counters. Turkmen Fun fact number 2931: people are actually crowding, but nobody of them is actually at the counter. They’re actually staring at it. Waiting. For something. We’ll never know what. We get from another Mongol Rally team that you can get all the dollars you can here (yatta!), but the procedure is a little bit weird. First, you skip the queue waiving you passport and your VISA card (?). They will shout at you, but we have to keep going (??). Then you reach counter number 31, where you ask how many dollars you need. Then you have to go to desk 33, where they will use your card with the POS. Then you go back to 31, where you will receive a postit with something written on top. Then you have to repeat 4 “Our Father” in 4 different languages. Then you go to desk 27, where you will get a paper we still don’t know what for. At this point, you need to domesticate a wild Turkmen horse. After that, you’re free to go to counter number 34 where you will eventually get your money. It is obvious to say that the pantomime at the bank strenghtened our belief that here people are paid to pretend to be citizens doing usual stuff, like queueing in public offices.

With our heads full fo fancy questions about this nation-wide conspiracy (guys believe us, that place is horribly strange), we load the car with frozen water, destination Darvaza, a.k.a. the Gate of Hell. At this point we thought the gate of Hell was actually the gate of Ashgabat. What can be worse than that?

The only thing left to sort out is the petrol. Now, for whom is not expert of Central Asia geography as we were before leaving for this trip, you need to know that Turkmenistan in basically a big desert. A real one, I mean, with sand dunes and camels and nothing but a bunch of bushes every now and then. There’s nothing in a 100 kms range in many bits. Temperatures may touches 50 degrees in the highest peak. Despite this, people around say that there is actually something around Darvaza. The word “something” never scared us that much. The something we need should have petrol tanks somewhere. To stay on the safe side, we decide to go for petrol, which should be easy in one of the country where petrol is cheaper. That might be true, if it wasn’t for the event of the day in Ashgabat: the arrival of the president of Azerbaijan. The only petrol station in town is actually on the way the bloody president will have to do from the airport to the “we dunno where the hell he has to go”. Which means that the station is closed. A good hour spent drivng around a city swarming with policeman to find another one.

Once we have everything in terms of liquids, we start to Darvaza. The road becomes from good, to ok, to almost ok, to semi-shit, to “what the hell did you see that pothole 1 metre wide and 30 cm deep, with camel whool inside?”, to sand. Yeah, sand. Real, deep, hot, dusty sand. To reach the Darvaza crater, you need to climb up a hill of sand. The enterprise looks easy. Everybody tells you: deflate your tires to half, go with the second gear, don’t stop for any reason. You say “ok, cool, it’s easy”. You find yourself going up and down this damned hill, burning half of your clutch, Jelly Belly jumping on the sand bumps like your in the Hazard tv series, cracking every possible thing in the bottom. Final result after the third attempt: you get the sand ladder, and you shovel shovel shovel. Ah, and you get help from two Canadians passing by. Exhaust rubber hanger broken, the “oil warning” light flashing in the monitor and a lot of stuff clanging from the bottom while to drive.

We will discover quite later that Darvaza means “gate” or “portal”, which alone might suggest you many things. You might expect a Stargate in the middle of the desert. When you arrive on the site, you actually realise what the rest of the name, i.e. “of Hell”, stands for. A massive conic hole in the ground breaks the flat monotony of the desert. From far you can only hear the sound of fire burning and cracking and see the air trembling out of the crater. When you reach the edge, the first sight leave you impressed. Hundreds of fires come out from the ground all around in the hole, with a bigger one in the middle. The air is hot, and when you’re upwind is hard to stay close to the border. Just after the first impression, as you think about the history of that thing, you start telling yourself “What the hell…”, and that’s why the place is called “The Gate of Hell”. Other stories say that it’s because the door to hell is located there, but we prefer the first version.

Number of countries crossed: 12
Days without accidents: 0
Number of times the counter has been reset: 1