I wanted to go somewhere really different. A place I didn’t know anything about. No expectations. Nor good or bad. It would be the start of a three week journey through Central Asia and the old Silk Road. Known as the biggest adventure of all time, it didn’t disappoint me.
After eight hours in an old Russian airplane, a three hour stopover in Minsk, and absolutely no sleep. I finally arrived. In Ashgabat. The capital of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world. After all, North Korea has almost become the new charter destination. What would I encounter? I had no idea. But the lure of the unknown was irresistible.
The old Silk Road was the scene of the Marco Polo travels. It’s known as the biggest adventure of all times. And Ashgabat is the perfect starting point.
It was in the middle of the night and I was far, far away from home. I held the invitation letter in my hand. It’s the only way to get into the country. A military man scrutinized me. I looked him in the eyes. His poker face was flawless. He wanted to make sure I really was…me. I was. He let me through.
Ashgabat is a strange place in so many ways. The city was transformed by the first dictator after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With a long and difficult name, he decided to simply call himself Turkmenbashi, meaning “the leader of Turkmen”. Why complicate things.
Turkmenbashi wrote a book on how to live your life called the Ruhnama. It’s mandatory reading in school and you have to answer specific questions to get your…driving license.
Turkmenbashi decided to rebuild the entire city in marble. White shining Carrara marble sent from northern Italy. Perfect squared blocks. Monstrous monuments. Golden statues of himself. It’s a case study in megalomania. Or just another oil country with too much money. Needless to say, the most spectacular place in town is the Turkmenbashi mausoleum encapsulated in the Ruhy Mosque.
Our driver took us from the one grand place to the next. Every monument had a story of its own. Beautiful poetry written by the state department. A gold decorated building with a two storey gate passed by my window. “Sorry, you can’t photograph here. Government building”. Alas, I had to put the camera down.
Everything in Ashgabat is clean and tidy. Almost too clean. I walked down a long and empty street. A light buzz was heard from the Russian bazar. A woman, polishing the ornaments at the National Museum, watched me, as if I was from another planet. Two blocks away, the only restaurant in town. An “English” pub. With the odd exception that nobody in the bar spoke English.
He sat in the shadow under a pistachio tree when I arrived. As a state professor in history, he knew about everything there is to know about the ancient fortress in front of us. Situated just half an hour from Ashgabat, Nisa is easy accessible and one of Turkmenistan’s three Unesco World Heritages sites.
The ruined city of Nisa is one of those places you most probably only encounter in an Indiana Jones movie.
The professor continued the monologue as we walked through the labyrinth of paths inside of the fortress. “The Karakum desert got its name from the colour of the sand”, he said. “Karakum means black in Turkic languages”. I suddenly understood the importance of the desert. The small grain of sand occupies over three quarters of the country.
We headed for the desert. An ocean of sand lied in front of us. The jeep bumped as a stubborn horse as we made our way through the rough ground. It was getting warmer. The air conditioner struggled and the temperature climbed to almost fifty degrees celsius. The sun was ruthless. The air vibrated. We stopped the car. I wanted to feel the desert.
The loose sand felt like water around my feet. I walked cross the dunes. The wind was hot. It felt like someone put a hairdryer to my face. “Look over there”, a boy on a motorcycle shouted. A caravan of camels, just about to cross the road. “They are called the kings of the desert”, the boy explained. They sure looked mighty.
I had heard about it long before we arrived. It’s called the door to hell. A burning gas crater in the middle of the desert. So large and intense you can’t approach it on a windy day. Discovered by Soviet engineers in the 1970s, it was accidentally put on fire. Everyone thought it was going to burn out in a couple of days. It’s now been burning for more than 40 years.
The sun was just about to set as we reached the crater. We were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of an ocean of sand.
The sky was overwhelming. Thousand and thousand of stars looked down on us. I made my way through the darkness. The crater glowed in the night. The heat was unbearable. Giant flames from the inner of the earth, a fire that never dies. People around me disappeared, became silhouettes in the night. I starred into the crater. I was in trance. It was a sight I will never forget.
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