The story of a different world: Turkmenistan part 2 – a Mongol Rally story

At around one in the morning, we got to a place where the GPS was telling us to leave the road and take a right straight to the desert, through the sand, for about 5 or 6 kilometers until the gate. We also saw immediately quite a large crowd on the side of the road, most of the men were with old communist bikes. It was like a small Sunday east European old school fare, done in the middle of the road, with everybody going around in circles just to see what is new this week, but the “new” was missing this week of course, because there was nothing for sale (at least we thought it wasn’t) only people and their 40 years old bikes. We got approached pretty fast by a kid on a bike, he was probably around 16 years old. We started to talk, we in English, he in Russian, but got along pretty easy, keywords here are “Darvaza” and “Go” obviously, because McDonald’s is out of the question here, in any language. After both parties started the discussion at a total of 5 dollars and a pack of cigarettes (to lead us to the fire pit), we eventually settled for 10 dollars per car and two packs of cigarettes. I think it went pretty well. With the negotiations over and successful we left the road and went 90degrees east into the desert. It was a pretty decent road that we were on, with sand but you could actually feel that it is a road and the car was not directly sinking in the sand. The tricky part was that this road had a lot of variations and if you went on the wrong one you would definitely get stuck into the sand. But for us, all was going well, we were having our kid and his friend on their bike in front of us, leading the way and making good progress. At a point though, something funny, not in a hilarious way, started to happen, as we were going deeper and deeper into the desert. We started seeing some lights now and then around us and realized we were between some dunes, that being the reason for their constant reappearance but still couldn’t figure out what it was. After a few more minutes it started to be clear, there were other motorcycles. We tried to count, there were around 20 motorcycles, with one or two persons on each, basically, the whole fair joined the trip and we were surrounded by them. We must admit that we were not happy about it. I was in the Sandero with Vali, he was driving. We immediately had flashbacks from the Iran episode but this time, being in the middle of nowhere, in the night, no SIM cards, with a huge firepit nearby that is well known for the fact that can burn to oblivion anything you throw in it… it felt like in Iran but slightly different. Vali remembered that he has a knife nearby him and said that if anything happens he will take with him at least two dudes, but I don’t remember if this was before or after he screamed like a little girl when a grasshopper jumped in the car. I was also searching for something, to at least look like I’m going to put up a fight. With all our focus on planning, we lost sight of Tudor and the Suzuki. After a quick look around we decided to continue our run because losing our guide wouldn’t be helpful either, although I don’t think we could’ve lost these guys even if we wanted to.

After what felt like 10 minutes, we arrived on a hill near the crater at 2 in the morning, also reuniting with Tudor. We have thanked our guide, paid our 20 dollars and two packs of cigarettes, and waited for them and the 20 more in the back, to leave… thanked them again, and waited… and waited. They were really friendly and waving but it was clear that they were not going anywhere. Another dude on a bike came to us and tried to sell us a bottle of Vodka, “really good” he said, and since it was already opened and started we actually believed him. The whole picture was like a flock of vultures going round and round and waiting on their pray that somehow ended up in the desert. After a quick team meeting, we decided not to go down from the hill with the cars, instead, we split up, Tudor remained to guard the cars and I and Vali would go near the pit to see what is happening there and see if other rally cars were around. We took our radios with us and went away. As we were going towards the crater, a big four by four appeared after a dune in a high rev engine sound. A remarkably enthusiastic dude was driving, who saw that we were with rally cars and welcomed us to the Gates of Hell and started pointing to his yurts across the pit. He insisted to come and sleep there as other rally teams were there already, the problem was that we could clearly see the yurts but no cars parked next to or close to them. We managed to promise that we would seriously take his offer into consideration and with no other real alternatives of sleeping for the night he was happy with the promise and revved away his car engine to the yurts to prepare for our arrival. We then continued our path to the pit and as we got closer and closer we could see a silhouette into the light of the fire. As we walked more we realized that it really is a person there, next to the railing (remember that it was 2 in the morning, in the middle of nowhere, with Ashgabat, the closest civilization point at around 300 KM away in a straight-line through the sand. We approached the dude, said hello, introduced ourselves, he did the same (I am truly sorry we don’t remember his name) and asked where are we from. “Romania,” we said, with the already proud reputation of our country in these parts. “Ahh! Romania! Si eu stiu vorbeste romaneste!” He replied, as our thoughts and hearts stood still for a second. We were in complete shock! After a while, we just asked how…? “Cum…?” The most un-probably Romanian speaker in the world probably saw our shock and started to explain himself, saying that he is actually from South America (did look like), that he went to university in Madrid where he took a Romanian language class, that he came to Turkmenistan as a tourist and then arrived at the Gates of Hell by train(?!?!) and bike with those guys, and that he is also staying at the yurts across the pit. At this point I and Vali were in complete shock at everything that was happening around us since we entered this country, trying to put together all the parts and figure out what should be our next step. The Romanian-speaking dude exchanged some more words with us, generally asking about our trip and how is going but we were in too much of a shock to have our usual “travel story energy” with us so he eventually went away at a point and we stayed with our limited options.

Beyond all the weirdness of this parallel universe, the place itself was something unique. The pit was burning slow into the quietness of the night but projecting its power, it was as powerful as it was calm, you could actually hear and feel the huge wave of heat produced by the burning gas. After a quick piss towards the crater (didn’t work, it is still burning) and an incognito picture was taken by Vali to continue an already thousand kilometers old custom and after another shock of seeing a huge spider running around us, we decided to go back to the cars and get the hell out away from the Gates of Hell. After a shorter negotiation with the same kid that got us here, we started our way back to the main road. The way back was as chaotic as the way in, this time the little Sandero was left behind the bike and the Suzuki, we almost got stuck in the sand at a point but as it started to happen I jumped out from the passenger seat and pushed the car, it was just what it needed to keep it going a few more moments in order to pass over the deep sand area.

After we got back to the main road, the kid let us off easy with just some more cigarettes and we continued our way north, probably in the laughter of more than twenty Turkmen bikers. We were exhausted at this point, being on the road for around 18 hours, looking at empty maps, and thinking what now? What’s next? We decided “nothing”, it was enough for our episode. With absolutely nothing on the map until the Uzbek border, not even out-of-sight camping spots on iOverlander, we encountered a police checkpoint on the road (the usual Asian type, with barriers in the middle of the road and a small office on the side of the road). It was so late in the night that they didn’t even bother to stop us but we did anyway. We parked our cars a couple of hundred meters after the checkpoint, next to a bus stop (yes, you’ve read that right, there was a bus stop), and decided to sleep until sunrise. Of course, nobody had the energy (or will, knowing the spiders that roomed the lands) to pitch their tent, so we slept in the cars. It was as safe as it could be at this point, and it turned out to actually be ok for all of us, except for the front Dacia logo of the Sandero which decided to continue the journey on itself while we were all sleeping. 

Around two hours later when the sun has risen, we realized it actually turned out to be our best decision of the day, because around 200 meters from the place we stopped, the road turned from “deserted soviet road in a remote part of a stan country” type of bad to “I would have preferred to actually drive through the Gates of Hell rather than this shit” type of bad. We did the last 200 KMs until the border with Uzbekistan in over 8 hours and we wouldn’t have had any chance at night, especially after the night we had. On our way to the border, we drove more on the side of the road than actually on the road itself. I think it was the first time we have done a proper rally raid and although it was at a low speed it turned out to be a perfect training ground for what would happen in the Pamir mountains and the Mongol plains. In that middle of nothingness, we even got to overpass a truck fully loaded with school kids, or very young workers accordingly to Tudor, we still don’t know or want to know.

With good, bad, but mostly weird, we ended up at the Uzbek border in less than 24 hours since we entered Turkmenistan. Once we got into customs to get out of the country, an old and equally nostalgic border guard greeted us. He wrote our passport information down in a book that looked older and thicker than a prophecy book, probably Genghis Han himself signed in that registry, he took our body temperature with a weird contactless device pointed to our foreheads (yes, it was 2019, the Turkmen were doing it way before it was cool and yes, we were the “peasants” here because we didn’t see such a device before… we know, this aged well…). While his colleagues searched our car and we were looking towards a gate, the gate that would make our exit official from this universe, the old nostalgic guard asked the most simple of questions, “Where is GPS?” The question was as heavy as it was simple because we instantly realized what “we have forgotten” while entering the country… to be monitored. We got that border guard so off his game with our decision to camp that he actually forgot to mount the GPS on our car, the one that we knew we would get from talking with all the other teams that already passed through. We now had to explain why we did the whole country in under 24 hours, why we didn’t stay at a hotel as promised in the visa application, and why we didn’t have the mandatory GPS. It might not seem too much of a deal, but in a place like this, there were way too many unanswered questions. As the old and still joyful border guard was making some phone calls I was just having flashbacks from another Mongol Rally story two years before us, where one of the teammates ended up stuck in the desert in “no man’s land” between these exact two border passings because of some visa issues.

The situation looked pretty dim but after some more laughs over the phone and probably some info in Romanian on our rogue Dacia logo, the guard gave us our passports, finished our paperwork, and let us through the gate into freedom, into Uzbekistan! Here, our new border guard friends will give one of the most thorough searches on our cars, a german shepherd dog almost pissed on the back seat of the Suzuki, we had to open a quick repair kit envelope of vaseline to confirm it wasn’t a drug (but I think that and the huge vaseline tube from our sponsor raised more questions than answers) and show our pictures and movies from our phones to prove we do not have porn… but this itself is subject of another story… Until then, I can only say that I am really looking forward to returning to Turkmenistan and staying more than 24 hours.

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