Right from the off we knew it was going to be an unusual experience as our route was dictated to us at the border by the ‘The Ministry of Do What You’re Told and Travel From A to B Without Photographing a Thing Whilst Collecting The Appropriate Rubber Stamps En-route’ who drew it on a special map. “You must not deviate from the map.” We were told in a stern voice.
Unfortunately the route given to us was a straight line across the east of the country. Had we been able to take the westerly route we would have passed both Ashgabat and the Crater. The previous week we’d read countless reports of overlanders being refused transit visas and so we were just happy to be able to get through to Iran.
The entry process involved taking the ‘special map’ to at least 6 other departments, having our details entered by hand into 6 separate ledgers whilst gathering the 18 pieces of paper, 38 stamps and 25 signatures needed to enter the country.
According to the World Press Freedom Index the country is ranked 178th, third from last, ahead of only Eritrea and North Korea. It’s not surprising then to learn that between the state-run press and television the heroic Turkmen President has been featured winning a $11 million prize horse race, flying in a supersonic jet, removing a benign tumour and playing a Rick Wakeman-esq keyboard solo. In 2011 Berdymukhamedov awarded himself with the country’s highest honour – The Hero of Turkmenistan Award!
To his credit, when Niyazov had to give up smoking after major heart surgery all his ministers had to follow suit. He then banned all tobacco advertising, smoking in public, state buildings and the army. If this didn’t improve health in his cabinet he ordered a 36km “path of health” to be built into the mountains surrounding Ashgabat which government officials were forced to walk. The former Soviet republic now tops the world’s non-smoking league with fewer than one in 12 people still smoking.
The Darvaza Crater is definitely still smoking. Nicknamed the "The Door to Hell" it is a truly unique site, one which I was looking forward to visiting for nearly 5 years! At 69 metres wide and 30 metres deep this flaming pit in the middle of the desert is worthy of its nickname. Its origin is disputed, but the theory most widely accepted involves a Soviet expedition for gas, some noxious fumes and an overzealous desire to chuck a match in! Contrary to what the Soviets thought would happen it has now been burning for over 40 years. Hopefully it will be burning for another 40 years so that we’ll finally get a chance to visit it.