"Las Vegas meets Pyongyang."
That's how our guidebooks described Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat, and from what we saw, that seemed like an apt description. In fact, there was something about the entire country that was downright odd.
After North Korea, Turkmenistan is generally regarded as one of the most isolated, reclusive, and authoritarian nations in the world. It's the sort of place where the government has outlawed cigarettes, opera, and the import of black-colored cars. Where the former president renamed the days of the week and months of the year after himself and his relatives, and built a giant, 24-carat-gold-leaf statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun. A place precious few outsiders ever get the chance to visit.
So we felt privileged we were able to get visas, even though they were only good for a mere five days.
Our journey began when we exited eastern Iran and arrived at the Turkmenistan border station, an imposing government building on a hill, adorned with a giant portrait of the country's president.
Crossing over entailed several hours of waiting and then shuffling from office to office, paying for our visas, buying car insurance, paying for it at the cashier, filling out tons of forms, then making trips to several other mysterious offices with more portraits of the president.
Someone on one of the other Mongol Rally teams that entered the country from the west (at a different border crossing than us) spent his idle time drawing a Rube Goldberg-esque diagram of the bureaucratic mess he encountered, and I think it's hilarious, cause it's pretty similar to what we experienced:
After driving across a military base that seemed more like a drive-through safari with its herds of wild gazelles, we descended the mountain and saw the capital city laid out before us. But considering that it's home to a million people, the streets were eerily quiet. Nearly all the buildings were constructed of white Italian marble, so while it certainly had the feel of a capital city, it also felt sterile and soulless. The city was also dotted with statues and monuments to the former leader that seemed to get progressively stranger and more extravagant!
We spent the night in a five-story "luxury" hotel where we appeared to be some of the only guests.
After hearing that another rally team passing through Ashgabat discovered what they thought was some sort of listening device hidden in their hotel room's chandelier, we all grew a bit paranoid that us foreigners were being watched and monitored wherever we went!
We left the capital city and headed north across the Karakum Desert, one of the hottest and driest deserts in the world, where we passed wild camels out for a midday stroll.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination: the football field-sized Darvaza Gas Crater, commonly known as the "Door to Hell." Watch this video of our arrival, and you'll understand why it's called that (with apologies in advance for the foul language).
The story goes that a Soviet-era gas drilling rig collapsed into a sinkhole back in the 1960s or '70s, and some scientists decided to light it on fire to burn off the escaping noxious gases. They figured it might take a week or so, but Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world, so several decades later, it continues to burn, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!
We met up with several other Mongol Rally teams and camped out for the night at the crater's edge.
But then our car problems returned when our radiator sprung a leak as we headed east across the country!
Will we fix everything and get across the border into Uzbekistan before our visas expires? Stay tuned to find out, but in the meantime, listen to episode 11 of Far From Home, "Just Plain Weird."
Thanks as always to my brother Drew Gurian for sharing his excellent photos and videos.
If you're interested in seeing more of the weirdness of Turkmenistan, I recommend watching Travels With My Camera: The Happy Dictator, a television documentary shot undercover a number of years ago by a British film crew pretending to be on a drunken stag weekend in the country.
Thanks for listening!