Day 4 – Karakum Desert

10 May

Waking up at 5:30am didn’t happen very often to me. Awaking before the morning alarm call doesn’t either. Both happened this morning at the edge of the Darvaza gas crater.

Packing quickly, I scrambled to the top of the nearest hill to witness the sunrise.  One of our drivers had pointed out an eagle nest just below the summit.  It took me two attempts scrambling up the hill to find it, complete with eagle chick on top. Taking the photos was the easy part. Not falling down the steep uneven slope was more challenging.

The gas crater was still glowing in the low light. After a light breakfast – thankfully – we had one last chance to see the crater up close before starting on our very long journey.

First stop of the day was only a few kilometres down the road at another crater, but this time containing lots of mini erupting mud volcanoes. There must have been some gas as the flames danced over the mud as well. Some highly dodgy safety barriers here which were duly ignored by the keenest photographers.

Back on the road, we turned off the tarmac and spent the next 3 hours in our Toyota Hilux jeeps being bounced around sand and tracks, stopping only for the travel sick (regularly) and natural toilet facilities (occasionally).

The Karakum Desert is not pure sand. Earth, salt deposits, many shrubs and the occasional colourful flower make up the terrain. Sometimes small dunes are also apparent. The odd camel and herds of goats were also passed.

Our three drivers expertly navigated their way through and we soon arrived in pretty much the centre of the desert at a village called Damla which was one of the main villages of the Teke tribe,  one of over 100 tribes in Turkmenistan.

The were approximately 500 villagers spread over many houses, most built of mud and straw, but some with bricks and one painted white with a traditional green corrugated iron roof. The latter was owned by the richest man in the village, with many camels, each worth $2000, he was close to being a millionaire.

We walked into the village and were immediately approached by many curious children of all ages.

We headed to the village school but weren’t allowed to see inside – likely because not all the children were there as they are supposed to be by law. The young boys were likely out tending the goats, sheep and camels with their fathers.

The woman and other children (who apparently attend school in the afternoon only) were making bread in a traditional clay oven – a Tandyr. The bread had an 8 pointed star designed in to it, and you weren’t allowed to turn this the wrong way up.  We were offered a piece each. Fresh and warm, this was the best bread ever! The woman were cooking a 5 day supply. The men would take bread and meat with them to tend the animals and live away for 3 or more days at a time. The woman stay at home.  Most were on the larger side!

We were then asked to take photos of all the children.  Repeatedly. And again, just when you thought you’d finished! I think I must have made a thousand promises to send printed copies to them. This might be more difficult than they realise. 80km from any tarmaced road and over 300km from a post office.

We then had time to wander about and I witnessed the many satellite dishes – 2 for each family,1 European and 1 Russian ($20 each) – the local “Tazy” dogs that are used for hunting as hare retrievers. Most were friendly, one was not. No rabies shot for 7 hours = extra careful. Also watched kids playing a game involving chucking bits of metal at plastic bottles tops. Fascinating but no idea of the rules, despite them trying to explain in their Turkmen language and Russian.

One of the fathers arrived back and I managed to get a great photo of his family which I did promise to send him.

We then met at one family’s yurt for lunch. Our host was nearing 60 but looked well beyond his years.  After adopting the correct sitting position, with our feet pointing away, we were served bread (not so new) which we were encouraged to dip in camel’s milk. Not necessarily something I would repeat often, although it did repeat on me.

We also had copious amounts of (very nice) potaoes and onions, but no meat in sight. We brought the family vegetables as they are in short supply.

The men sleep in the yurt, but the females sleep in a more solid house next door. Whilst having a look at this, we were offered camel cheese, which proved incredibly hard and very salty, but otherwise very nice in small quantities.

Off we drove again – back along the same 80km, 3+ hour track to the tarmac.  Stopping more often to help some of the group come to terms with lunch, we eventually managed to settle our stomachs when we arrived back on solid tarmac. Was going to do a Pope impersonation at that point.

Stopping only so the drivers could get a rarely available phone signal, we headed off to another crater – this time filled with water.  Suffering majorly from crater overload at this point. There are only so many holes in the ground that even I can find interesting.

Reassuringly we made it to the only petrol station for miles (20p a litre) and filled up.

Back on the road Maksat joined our car and I quized him on life in Turkmenistan before we both caught up with some  sleep.  The drivers reached speeds of 140km/h and ate up the 260km back to Ashgabat in record time.

We checked into the hotel and I managed a quick shower to get rid of the desert sand from most orifices.

We headed into town for a bar meal, minus Caroline who had succumbed to the Turkmen lurgi.

Managed to try another local dish – Gyuwech – “meat on pot with spices”, which was a bit like a Lancashire hot pot, with bread sealing the top.  Very nice.

At 9:45pm, having been up since 5:30am, we managed a late night driven tour of the lights of Ashgabat. As electricity is free throughout the country, this is indeed quite a sight, with every white marble building adorned with moving LED lights.

In case I hadn’t mentioned, it’s only 464 days until the Central Asian games take place here.

Back at the hotel for 10:30pm I had a chance to check email – Google is the only part of the internet that seems to work. Facebook, WhatsApp and WordPress don’t.

An excellent day with a busy schedule.

Repacking for an early start again tomorrow …

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