Rally Day 15 – 17
Along the coast
As mentioned earlier we decided not to drive to Isfahan after our Tehran adventure as we didn’t have time. A shame but that’s the way the Mongol Rally works, we are under severe time pressure and our car is not all that good. Instead we drove to the Caspian Sea and had a scenic drive through the more green parts of the country. We found a hotel in Gorgan within a days driving distance from the border to Turkmenistan.
Out of Iran
We got up at 4.00 in the morning which is very early by Team No Khan Do standards. We just drove and drove with next to no stops as we wanted to get to the next country as soon as possible. We were aiming for a border crossing some 450 km from Gorgan and we made it in 8 hours, which is surprisingly good considering the traffic and road conditions. The border crossing itself is in a mountain pass 2000 meters above sea level and is really remote, no big towns nearby on the Iranian side.
We had to get our Turkmenistan visa at the border using a special invitation we brought with us. Usually Turkmenistan only gives 3 day transit visas but we got 5 days due to this invitation. Everyone was in a good mood at the border, so it only took us an hour to cross. Later we met a team that had spent 6 hours at the same border getting increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy. The funny part is they crossed the same day as us, only they did it in the morning / afternoon and we did it in the early evening.
One small funny situation did happen at the border. We have a guitar in the car that Anders left us and of course one of the Turkmen custom guards had to try it after searching the car for drugs. He couldn’t play so he asked Christian to show him, but he can’t play either. Due to language difficulties a hilarious Benny Hill situation occurred where Christian and the Turkmen were handing over the guitar to one another and saying “No, you play!” and then the other would hand it back “No, No, No – you play!”. After the guitar changed hands 10 times or so, the customs guy got tired with the whole situation and let the car through.
The Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat is really close the border and we had heard it was the weirdest city on earth. The Lonely Planet describe the city as an absurd combination of Las Vegas and Pyongyang in North Korea, sounds great! The previous dictator in the country was a bit eccentric to say the least and he started remodeling the city with gold and marble sometime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among other things he banned listening to music in cars, ballet and men having big beards. He also started naming the months after his family names etc. The new dictator is a bit better but still the entire country feels like something straight out of a Monty Python movie.
We came down from the mountain and suddenly found ourselves on a brand new 3 lane highway going towards the center of the city. Almost no other cars were present and we could see lots and lots of new buildings all around us. They were all clad in the finest marble and the entire city has a white glow to it when seen from afar. Coming from Iran it was the most surreal thing we have ever experienced. The whole marble and gold city has been built with oil & gas money, but we later saw that the rural population could have used the money better…
After spending a night in a 5 star hotel and taking a swim in the pool, we went out for a bit of sightseeing. Mind you that in Ashgabat temperatures can reach 50 degrees and we have no air condition, so it is a bit taxing. The city has an enormous amount of statues, big parks and amazing buildings. The only thing missing is people since most of the new part of the town is kind of deserted, people simply can’t afford to live there.
At the first park we visited we met another Mongol Rally team named “Team Raven Shoe”, consisting of 2 Australian guys and a Malaysian guy. Since they were driving the same way as us we teamed up, better to have backup in the scorching Karakum desert where we were headed.
The Door to Hell
In the afternoon we drove towards central Turkmenistan and the Derweze gas crater. Back in the 1971 when the Soviets were drilling for gas an underground cave collapsed into an open crater. Gas was leaking and they decided to burn off the gas since it was poisonous, but instead of burning out in a few days it has been burning continuously for 43 years.
About halfway to the site we met 3 other teams at the side of the road. Team Doinit was part of this convoy and we have met these guys a few times in Europe, so weird to run into each other in the middle of nowhere. They had sailed across the Caspian Sea instead of driving through Iran. We were now a small convoy of no less than 5 crappy cars driving through the desert.
Late afternoon we found the 4×4 track leading the crater and then we had a moment of severe bad decision making. Some Turkmen offered to take us to the crater in their big land cruiser for 10 dollars each and said it was about 7 km from the main road. Most of the 4×4 track appeared to be sand, but in true Mongol Rally fashion we decided to give it a go ourselves.
Around 3 hours later all 12 of us had to abandon our little off-road adventure, the cars simply got stuck all the time. Then we went back to the Turkmen guys hoping the price had not gone up in the meantime… Luckily the previous offer was still on the table and soon we found ourselves at “The Door to Hell”. It has been one of the highlights of our trip and the whole off-road experience made it into an even better story.
It is a bit hard to find proper WiFi in the Stan states (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc.) so blog updates might be a bit delayed.
– Team No Khan Do