The Hardcore Traveler cheat sheet

Since most people are unfamiliar with Turkmen geography, provided below for your reading pleasure is a map of Turkmenistan detailing all the places I mentioned in my previous entries. The second map I found courtesy of the Turkmen Embassy in the United Kingdom. The patterns below the second map represent each of Turkmenistan's five states.

Map of my travels through Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan map from the UK Turkmen Embassy

The Gates of Hell!

Unfortunately…………the four to five hours of rest did not help one bit; in fact I woke up feeling even worse! I had the chills, a very upset stomach and had an absolute splitting headache. It became clear the food at the roadside teahouse had exacted its revenge on me. However, as horrible as I felt, I somehow needed to make it to the Mary Airport and back “home” to Ashgabat.

The Turkmen President staring @ me!
So, I got up, gathered my stuff and somehow stumbled my way to the Mary Airport with my guide. The airport was an absolute cluster f*ck and as I walked on to the tarmac I felt so lightheaded I nearly passed out. I’m not sure how I survived the hour flight to Ashgabat. As I sat there in utter pain there was a large portrait of the almighty President positioned at the front of the plane staring down at me! Damn, I thought, at least I don’t have to have surgery performed by Mr. President. Cold comfort, though!

When I got to my hotel I luckily realized I had brought with me a six-day course of anti-biotics for exactly this type of situation. Since all the usual over the counter stuff were proving to be worthless, I decided I might as well take the first day’s course.

Let this be a reminder to everyone and anyone reading that before leaving for a big trip abroad you should always bring medication for traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning and any other “bugs” that may try to hitchhike home in your body! For Americans, be sure to visit the Center for Disease Control website where you will find up to the date information regarding proper preparation for any nation you intend to visit:

The next morning I woke up feeling ok, yet ok was a lot better than I had felt the night before. My time in Ashgabat was short as that afternoon we were driving 163 miles north to the village of Derweze, home of the infamous Darvaza Gas Crater aka The Gates of Hell. I felt it was rather appropriate to be visiting The Gates of Hell since the night before had been a living hell for me.

Looking directly into the gas craters
Our plan was to drive three hours up to the village where the gas craters were located. There our driver, my guide and I would have a barbeque dinner or what is known in Russian as shashlik and then set up camp for the night. As we drove up the nearly empty highway, my guide started to glance on his mobile phone at the weather report for that evening. He reported to me there was a chance of rain and snow mixed with temperatures dropping well below freezing that night. Since he already had a horrible cough and I was still recovering from my food poison drama, we felt it’d be best to stop there, but not camp.

Turkmen Jeep crossing
On our way up I hardly noticed any signs of life except for the occasional “Turkmen Jeep”, otherwise known as a camel and lots and lots of rolling sand dunes. About an hour or so into our journey to The Gates of Hell, it was time for a prayer break! No, we were not stopping to pray for salvation before we entered hell, we stopped because my driver was a devout Muslim and had to complete prayer number four out of the five prayers a day. Within seconds of stopping he had his prayer rug in hand and white prayer skullcap on the back of his head and trekked up a sand dune looking for the best spot to plant his rug and pray east, toward the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The original pipe from the oil rig
The Darvaza Gas Craters are a very quirky place and is to Turkmenistan as the Sydney Opera House is to Australia in terms of “must see attractions”. Back in the Soviet days, pre-1991, the area that is now the Darvaza Gas Craters was an oil and natural gas field. In 1971 during a drilling expedition Soviet geologists tapped into a natural gas filled cavern. After tapping into this natural gas vain, a sinkhole developed subsequently swallowing up the entire gas well operation! In typical Soviet style, they felt the best way to remedy the situation was to burn the gas off. To this day the gas crater continues to burn endlessly resembling what can only be described as hell on earth!

The Hardcore Traveler in front of the Darvaza Gas Craters
I had heard and read a lot about the gas craters and was anxious to see it with my own eyes. Since there were no warning signs or fences around the crater I got within about six feet and looked right over into the burning crater. I’ve seen a lot of weird things in my life on my travels, but Darvaza Gas Craters had to have ranked near to, if not at the top of that list. It was creepy, weird, out of this world, and just plain odd all at the same time. I circled around crater getting a close up view and feel! It felt VERY hot and smelled of course like natural gas. The heat and the smell of gas would come in waves. One moment I stood there freezing, the next moment I would get a wave of nasty smelling gas and heat. It was like a gigantic gas fireplace in the middle of the desert. Since the craters opened up (as in actually opened up!) there have been numerous rumors that the Turkmen government will cap them and thus do away with one of Turkmenistan’s most well known attractions! However, there has been no action to date.

Our Turkmen BBQ
Our barbeque or shashlik was absolutely delicious! Plus afterward for dessert we had a ready made fire to roast our s’mores in : ) ! Nah, we didn’t do that, we were so cold we wanted to get the hell (no pun intended) out of there as quickly as possible. Our next stop would be about four hours way up north in the city of Dashaguz near the Uzbekistan border. Stay tuned for my next installment, DWU or Driving While Uzbek! Thanks for reading!

Turkmenistan Day 3

The Mosque
The next morning I was awakened pretty early to a noise coming from a loudspeaker across the street. For a moment I did not know what the hell the sound was until I realized it was the early morning call to prayer at the city mosque. I had traveled through Muslim nations before, so it did not cause much concern. I got up and headed downstairs to the breakfast room. I was pretty disappointed as the food was awful and the instant coffee tasted worse than anything I’d ever tried.

After returning to my room I gathered my stuff and went down to the lobby to wait for my guide and driver. While waiting I struck up an interesting conversation with two American women. I was rather shocked to meet up with American tourists in Turkmenistan, as the only Americans I had seen so far were Americans associated with big oil. It turns out they were traveling together through Turkmenistan on a tour and were heading to Iran that morning. And, I thought I was brave! As an American obtaining the proper paperwork to enter Iran is a difficult process at best, near impossible at worst! Eventually my guide and driver showed up and I wished the pair a safe and interesting journey through Iran.

Me in front of the ancient city of Merv
My day would be a full one with about four to five different stops. Our first stop was  the ancient UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) sight, ancient Merv. Luckily Merv was not located out a three-hour bumpy, muddy road, but a bit closer to town.

A mausoleum for a martyr in Merv 
We arrived in Merv early where we toured the entire sight and I learned tons of new information about all the ancient features and the meticulous restoration of this spectacular monument by archaeologists. It was absolutely amazing what they had done and how they were able to mix the ancient with the new. As a child I had always been fascinated by archaeology and wanted to grow up to be like Indiana Jones. I could not think of anything cooler than digging up ancient sights or trekking through a jungle in Southeast Asia to find some temple abandoned long ago. I’m sure there are a lot of down sides to being an archaeologist, but it still intrigues me to this day!

Anyway, Merv was absolutely stunning and had so many cultural monuments it was hard to wrap my mind around everything the guide said. I had wished he would have provided me with some written material about our visit, but alas I’ve had to rely on my memory and web pages to try to understand this ancient monument.

Mr. President taking the first cut!
Next stop, back into town to visit the Turkmen National Museum. My guide was eager to show me the entire museum exhibits. He knew the place quite well since he took tourists there all the time. I must admit when it comes to guides showing me around museums or galleries I quickly become really bored and very tired. I knew this would be a marathon tour, so I debated just how I should approach my guide about going it alone through the museum. When we arrived at the museum I told him it would be a lot more beneficial if I were able to take in all the “great and awesome” exhibits by myself!

He was a bit shocked at first that I would pass up the opportunity to hear him lecture about such awesome exhibits as the history of Turkmen national oil companies or the now deceased President For Life Turkmenbashi’s rough draft of his rambling, million page manifesto, Ruhnama, written out by hand! How could I miss such an opportunity? Eventually after a few minutes of negotiations he agreed to let me go alone. Praise be Allah (basically Thank God in the Muslim World), I was free!  

So, off I went on my solo trip through the museum. Nothing caught my eye except a picture of the current president dressed from head to toe in bright green scrubs and gloves readying for surgery…… Wait….. this guy is not only the President but also a surgeon? I flashed back to a segment I had heard on American TV that the current Turkmen President would celebrate the opening of a new hospital by taking the first cut……….as in the first cut on the first patient. Supposedly, he used to be a dentist, but I don’t think he was a surgeon. Surgeon, dentist, same thing right? But I suppose there is a difference between filling a cavity and say opening up a person’s chest for open-heart surgery!? Hell if I knew since I’m not a doctor or dentist. Maybe those skills are interchangeable? Unlikely, but then again this was Turkmenistan!

Having finished my express tour through the museum, it was time for lunch. Our driver knew a great local teahouse (sort of like the local diner, tavern, etc..) to eat and recommended we stop there for lunch. No worries I thought, I’m cool with wherever they wanted to eat. Plus, unlike the US where you have endless choices of fast food on every corner, this was really our only option. We walked into the café, sat down and I examined the menu. There was the usual assortment of weird meats, shishgabobs, etc… Nothing was looking too good, but I was really hungry. I finally found a good noodle stew called Lagman. I had eaten this before while in Central Asia, plus my host family/friends in Russia were from Kazakhstan and always served it for dinners. I’d be fine I assumed! But, of course never ASSUME or it makes an [ASS] out of [U] and [ME.]! I should’ve thought of that before I started my soup. Oh well!

While waiting for lunch to come, my driver wanted to know a bit more about me asking in Russian “Stiv (Steve)……………..are you married?” I responded “no”. He was shocked, and then preceded to ask how old I was? I answered I was 36. He nearly had a heart attack (let’s hope the President wouldn’t work on him) and nearly dropped his cigarette and cup of tea on the ground! He could not believe it, saying, “36 and not married, your mother must not be happy!” Luckily, my mother is cool with my marital status. Before I had to mount a defense to why at the ripe old age of 36 I was not married, our lunch came.

The noodle soup was ok, nothing spectacular! We finished our lunch and I had a decision to make. Did I want to go out another dirt road for about an hour one-way to visit The Talhatan Baba Mosque? The guide explained the mosque was nothing spectacular, but that it was included in my itinerary so it wouldn’t cost me anything extra. Having just survived the rough road out to Mashguz the other day, I decided it was best to punt and conserve my energy.

The main bazzar in Mary.
However, this left a gigantic gaping hole in my day as the flight back to Ashgabat was not until late that night, giving me approximately eight to nine hours to kill in a rather boring city. We killed about an hour at the local bazar/market, which is like a gigantic one stop shopping mall. My guide found some cool DVD music videos and some other great stuff. I however was starting to feel real, real tired! It was natural to get a bit tired after a long day of sightseeing and socializing, but for some reason I was feeling much worse than your usual tired after a long day! I suddenly start to feel hot, chilled, dazed and just downright awful. I could not imagine sitting around for six hours in this condition!!

A Russian Orthodox Church we stopped at after lunch.
Recognizing that I was feeling pretty ill, plus the fact that the flight back to Ashgabat wasn’t for another whopping seven hours, I felt it’d be best to pull off the road and refuel! Luckily, my guide helped me find a small hotel in town that was willing to only charge me $20 for a half-day use of a room!

Turkmenistan Airlines
I was convinced that four to five hours of rest would completely recharge me and I’d be more than ready to face the cluster f*ck that was the Mary Airport and Turkmenistan Airlines. Unfortunately……………………………………… Stay tuned to find out whether I made it back to Ashgabat or wound up in a Turkmen hospital where President Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow would come in and operate on me : ) !!

Turkmenistan Adventure

My first 36 hours in Turkmenistan were a real learning process. I quickly learned any conversation I had with my guide about Turkmenistan had to be approached very, very gently! This became very apparent to me when I innocently asked a question about the changes and freedoms in Turkmenistan since the 2006 death of “Turkmenbashi”, the former president for life, God on earth, dictator, cult figure and “father of all Turkmens.” Not. A. Good. Idea! He instantly turned around asking me in a very defensive voice what I meant by “freedom”? I sat there a bit petrified as he ranted on for a good five minutes on how the Turkmen people were the freest people on the planet and that they have always been free, so just how could they be freer than they were before? At that point I knew I better keep my mouth shut as any question may be seen, as my questioning the greatness of Turkmenistan! The wall of propaganda was too thick to penetrate and I certainly was not going to try it!
The main mosque in Mary

Our next destination was the nation’s second largest city, Mary. Once in Mary we would meet up with our driver who would take us out on a muddy and dirt road to the ancient Byzantine City of Margush (a UNESCO designated heritage sight). Joining us on this journey would be my guide and a government archaeologist who would give us an overview of Margush. Since it had just rained several days ago there was some debate to whether we should venture out on a three-hour drive. Our driver concluded the road would be passable since he had just been out there.

So, off we went in our “Jeep” over the pothole filled, muddy, rough, dirt road bound for Margush. You may wonder why I put the word Jeep in quotation marks? In Turkmenistan if the vehicle is four-wheel drive it is considered a jeep, no matter if it is a Toyata 4WD van, or a Land Cruiser or really anything. By the time we arrived at our destination I was absolutely exhausted from every small, big, medium, huge, gigantic pothole, bump, etc… As we pulled into the village standing right in front of our car was a man with his pet.…………snake, yes you read that right, a snake! It was rather funny how casually he held this guy; I suppose it did not faze him that one spit of venom could kill him within seconds!
The man with a pet snake
The monument was absolutely breathtaking!! In the 2nd and 3rd century BC, Margush was a thriving metropolis only to fade into history. Every spring archaeologists and historians from around the world descend upon Margush where they feverishly work to uncover, understand and restore this ancient civilization. Due to the unrelenting heat in the summer, there is a very small window to work with. Luckily, though there were no worries about the weather giving us plenty of time to explore every last inch of this fascinating sight!!

After a full three hours of soaking in all the history it was time for us to journey back to Mary over the road from hell. The experience of being able to see these sights and have a world-class archaeologist by my side to explain everything (in Russian) was absolutely priceless! When we finally made it back to civilization I felt great. I was on fire, nothing could stop me……..except maybe a biological souvenir…… 

Restored walls of Margush
Margush UNESCO monument