I dropped a gear and sped into the Karakum desert, nature’s full fury laid out before me. Lightning flashed to the left and right of the tiny car, the air crackled and sparked.
It felt like days before we had been in Ashgabat, instead of hours. Ashgabat is quite possibly the strangest place I have ever been in. The guide book accurately describes the capital of Turkmenistan as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The city has opulent, hulking marble buildings, enormous 50 foot gates and more fountains than Vegas. It stands in contrast to the rest of Turkmenistan, a poor post-Soviet era desert country.
Turkmenistan was ruled by an eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, from 1985 to 2006. He declared himself ‘President for life’ and institued a raft of ridiculous laws. He outlawed lip syncing, ordered everyone to have a clean car at all times and banished dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odour.” When he quit smoking, he banned smoking in all public places and declared that everyone should chew on bones to strengthen their teeth. Niyazov built a giant gold statue of himself in the middle of the city and had it rotate to follow the Sun. And then announced that the Sun was following him.
We headed North from Ashgabat into the Karakum desert. Just as we were leaving the city the wind picked up and started blowing sand across the road in front of us. Marty in the passenger seat said, “If the weather gets too bad we’ll have to turn around.” The wind whipped the sand into small cyclones to the side of the road. A wall of sand moved in from the left and swept across the road, enveloping us. I slowed to a crawl as visibility was down to five feet in front of the car. “We’ll push on for a while.” I suggested hopefully. After a few minutes of driving blind, a large drop of water landed on the windscreen. Followed quickly by a torrential downpour. The sandstorm was immediately replaced by an old fashioned rainstorm. Marty rolled over and went to sleep.
After twenty minutes the rainstorm cleared and I roared eagerly into the crisp desert night. I drove on for two hours and the sun set on the perfectly asphalted Turkmenistan highway. I crested a small hill and suddenly in front of me there was a breathtaking sight, a huge sandstorm in the distance to the left of the road, inching closer and closer to the road ahead. It looked like a circular wall of light brown sand, stretching as far as the eye could see, cloaked in darkness and rumbling angrily. I was struck by how much it looked like something out of a movie. It was at least three times larger than the last storm and a smaller version sat off to the right of the road. Thunder rolled and lightning cracked on the edges of each storm. I held my breath, not wanting to make a noise in case Marty woke up and had us turn around.
I eased the accelerator to the floor and flew towards the maelstrom ahead. At this point, I had navigated through the chaos of the roads in India, snaked around crumbling one lane mountain roads in Peru with thousand foot drops to the side and edged my way through traffic in Istanbul. I hadn’t felt fear in years, but driving into this abomination of nature I suddenly felt alive again. Our course intersected directly with the path of the large thunder\sandstorm on the left and we were again engulfed, but this time it was less like a belt of sand passing across us and more like we had entered into a new world where instead of oxygen, the air was made up of little sand particles, each one lit up and dancing across the beam of the headlights. I made sure I wasn’t touching any metal part of the car, not knowing if that would help if we took a direct hit of the lighting. Lightning flashed within feet of the car to the left. Just when I was starting to feel like I was the greatest living adventurer in the world and that my name should be immortalized with the likes of Scott and Shackleton, I started to make out a dark object in the storm in front of me. I pulled into the left lane and passed, eventually making out a 125cc motorcycle with a young Turkman of about 18 sitting on top, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. When he saw me passing, he raised his left fist and shouted ‘WOOOHOOOO.’ There is always someone worse off than you. After ten more minutes of fighting through the sand, we came out the other side into the crystal clear night. A stupid grin plastered across my face for days after.
Two hours later we arrived at the Door to Hell. In 1971, Soviets started drilling in the Karakum desert looking for oil. The entire oil rig collapsed into the ground, creating a two hundred foot wide crater. It was actually a reserve of gas instead of oil, engineers decided to burn off the gas so as not to poison the nearby town. They threw in a match and lit the gas reserve, expecting it to burn off in a few weeks. It, instead, has been burning for forty years.
I had secretly been worried that it would be a let-down and would just be a hole in the ground that was on fire, an oversized fire pit. But arriving at the crater I could feel the majesty of the place. The air was burning against my face. The silence of the desert with the crackling of the giant burning pyre was almost spiritual. ‘This is amazing.’ I turned to Marty. ‘Sure. About to get more amazing.’ He reached into a black bin bag and pulled out two armfuls of fireworks. He launched them into the crater. The urge to throw something in eventually gets the better of everyone that goes there, but Marty had come well prepared. The fireworks landed at the bottom of the crater. And then nothing. We waited for a few minutes but we were left disappointed. His idea had come to nothing.
We set up our camping chairs to the cooler side of the crater and sat drinking warm cans of Turkmenistan beer. I had expected the usual crass tourist trapping that you find at every tourist attraction, but there was nothing there, just desert and a big flaming hole. It was refreshing.
The sun finally rose, lighting up the sky with glorious reds and blues that you only see in the desert, and those were quickly followed by unnatural greens, oranges, purples, yellows. The fireworks were exploding, painting the sky above the crater with fantastic colours. We were witnesses to a perfect moment. Never to be seen again.