Tried to sleep in a bit, but due to the time zones was up super early. Got to breakfast shortly after 7 and they still weren’t open but went back a little later and they were. The odd thing, the breakfast buffet was set up in a restaurant that had only one purpose all day: to serve breakfast. It was a huge room, definitely capable of seating a few hundred, but at no time did we ever see more than ten people there. The whole atmosphere was surreal.
The breakfast buffet was also quite large, with plenty of options, included a white chocolate fountain and fruits for dipping. It was a very strange combination of items, but more than enough choices. It actually felt rather wasteful as few people as there were there, but I was happy to get a good start to the day. Shortly after, I got a text from Ian that he had survived the post-terrorist attack chaos at Istanbul Airport and had just arrived in Ashgabat and met the driver. Shortly after he got to the hotel, and we headed out to do a city tour.
First stop was the ancient settlement of Nissa. The site is located about 10 miles outside of Ashgabat, and the driver said we should do it first thing in the morning since it involved a good deal of walking and it would be better to start before it got too hot. It was already nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit at 9am, so this sounded like a good plan. Nissa was a settlement of the Parthian Empire which lasted around 500 years from 250 or so BC to 250 or so AD. The Parthian Fortresses of Nissa are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but excavation has been slow. In order to protect the sites from the elements, many of them have been covered in mud temporarily to protect them. Here’s one spot where the mud was peeled aside to show just a little of what’s underneath:
Part of the old fortresses, partially restored. It was difficult to tell what was original, and what was restored:
Obviously, this part is mostly restored:
We wandered around for an hour or so, but it was really difficult to get much sense of the place because so much of it still had yet to be excavated. It was still interesting to see, but having seen so many other ancient ruins at places like Leptis Magna in Libya, this was more than a little bit underwhelming. I asked if we would be seeing the tall rotating statue of Turkmenbashi that used to sit in the city, and it was announced that was where we would go next.
The statue has been placed outside the city now, and while the gold statue of Turkmenbashi still stands atop, he no longer rotates so he is always facing the sun. According to our guide, this may actually be a legend, as nobody admits to remembering seeing it rotate in the past. I guess this is what happens when one ruler-for-life is replaced by another. The monument is known as the Neutrality Monument, built to commemorate Turkmenistan’s status as the only officially neutral state in the world:
Great views of the City of White Marble from above the viewing platform:
Although you can’t really see it in the pictures, one of the interesting features is that all of the government ministry buildings (which were absolutely huge and made of white marble) were constructed in the shape of what they were in charge of. For example, there was the ministry of health located near the local medical university. The building for dental studies was shaped like a large tooth, for example. The Foreign Ministry had a large globe on the roof, with Turkmenistan outlined in gold. The Ministry of Health itself was shaped like a giant syringe. We were told that one joke was if the University ever opened a department of OB/GYN studies you had to wonder what the building will be shaped like…
Funicular up one of the legs of the tripod, and from there you take an elevator to the observation deck:
Looking up at the monument from below:
Last stop before lunch was the Turkmenistan Independence Monument, surrounded by famous people from Turkmen history. None more important, of course, than the leader himself:
Celebrating Turkmenistan’s independence, and trying to look half as fierce as the guys in the background:
After a morning of monuments, we headed back to the hotel to get some lunch, and get out of the heat of the day. Before heading back, however, we needed to change some money. A very…favourable rate…was obtained, and suddenly prices didn’t seem to be quite as much of a rip off. On the way back to the Yyldz Hotel we stopped at the National Wedding Complex, complete with its own hotel for guests who come from outside the capital to get married: Definitely an interesting architecture:
View of the city from the hill outside the Yyldz Hotel:
We grabbed lunch at the hotel restaurant, not to be confused with the breakfast restaurant. This one was on the second floor from the top, complete with white tablecloths and a very formal atmosphere…and nobody other than us eating. Grabbed a couple of club sandwiches and beers, and took a couple hour nap before our long evening excursion.
After resting up, it was time to begin the approximately three hour drive out to Darvaza to see the flaming gas craters. We had originally planned to camp near the crater and spend the night, but being exhausted and in need of a good night of sleep we opted to drive back afterwards and just sleep in in the morning.
The drive itself was pretty uneventful, and the road was in decent condition most of the way. We stopped at a small village near the crater to stock up on important supplies: local beer and snickers bars. Definitely the dinner of champions!
First stop was the “water crater” and yup, it was filled with water. It was easy to climb over the security ropes, and get very close to take pictures. I definitely didn’t want to fall the 50+ feet down into the crater, however. Pretty obvious there would be no easy way out!
Second stop was the “mud crater” which clearly had some gas burning off as well, but there was lots of bubbling mud. Again, you could get really close, and in this case falling in was definitely not going to have a good outcome:
After these two craters we headed off to the final stop, the flaming gas crater. On the way, it was a bit of offroading through some very desertesque landscape:
Final stop, the Darvaza Gas Crater, otherwise known as the Door to Hell. It collapsed in 1971, and geologists set it on fire because local nomads kept wandering into the area and dying from all the poisonous gasses being released. They had expected the gas to burn off quickly, but now nearly 45 years later it is still going. The crater is more than 200 feet across and 70 feet deep:
As the sun began to set, we wandered up onto a nearby hill to take some pictures:
Ian looking down on the crater from the hill:
Sunset. You can’t tell from the picture, but there was an extremely strong wind in the open area, and I can’t imagine pitching a tent to camp there. It would definitely been a very windy and very uncomfortable night:
Sunset, with the crater in the distance:
Shortly after sunset, the crater gave a brilliant glow against the night sky:
Looking evil next to the flaming crater at night. It was hard to stand this close because of the extreme heat:
One last look:
By this point we were quite tired, and I’m pretty sure I slept on and off (mostly on) for the rest of the drive back to Ashgabat. We arrived around 12:30am, and I crashed hard for nearly 9 hours from exhaustion. Coming back was definitely the better call, because with a 4am sunrise, combined with sleeping in a tent it would have been very difficult to get enough quality sleep. Next up, time to see a bit more of Ashgabat and then head to Mary and see the Ancient City of Merv.