After a cramped night with the whole team in the two ambulances, the next morning turned out to be an eventful one… We soon realised that the car park in the centre of Ashgabat that we had decided to camp in along with the Drift Kings and Warren Point boys was for a WW2 memorial. We then set out to complete a much needed supermarket sweep, with no local currency and Turkmenistan completely devoid of ATMs it was always going to be an adventure. Minutes after setting off however, ambulance Adventure was up to its usual tricks; it decided that now would be the best time to destroy its fan belt. Hobbling back to the car park, we switched ambulances and bump started Endeavour before driving around town looking for any kind of auto shop.
Heading out of town turned out to be a good decision and we eventually stumbled upon what appeared to be car city, with almost every shop dedicated to car parts or garages. Two hours and a fair amount of miming later we walked away with four new fan belts and two newly-repaired tyres, with only the lack of a starter motor troubling us now.
We returned to our Ashgabat car park feeling pretty pleased with ourselves to find that our new rally friends had also had an eventful morning. Ashgabat is an incredible city, within the government controlled inner city every structure is coated in bright white marble and gilded edges around doors and windows. Unfortunately, despite its beauty, the Turkmen government decided that no photos are allowed to be taken in the capital, and with a policeman literally on every corner, its not a law that is particular easy to flout. The Drift Kings and Warren Point however decided that the city was too incredible not to photograph…. and were promptly arrested outside the presidential palace. After demanding $500 for their release and keeping them for a couple of hours, the police deleted their photos and released them free of charge – although it turned out harmless it was an alarming reminder of the paranoia and heavy-handed policies of the Turkmen government.
With all the teams now present and ready to leave, we were on track to reach one of the most exciting sights of our trip: the burning gas craters in the garagoom desert. This is not your typical tourist attraction. More than forty years ago, the USSR was drilling for oil and gas in the desert when one of their rigs collapsed, opening up a 100m wide sink-hole and released tonnes of natural gas into the atmosphere. Hoping to burn off the excess gas, some bright Russian spark decided to throw a match… and it has been on fire ever since. We arrived at an unmarked lay-by already populated with other Mongol Rally teams, and for the distinct feeling that the Turkmen government is not particular proud of the craters, with only a tiny dirt track over 7km of sand dune and desert and no sight to indicate its presence.
Fortunately for us Warren Point’s four wheel drive Mitsubishi Shogun was more than a match for the desert track and two hours later all twelve members of the group, some walking and some driven, had arrived at the large fire crater.
It is impossible to describe in words, or even with pictures, the fiery crater known as the ‘Gates of Hell’. Its glow can be seen on the desert horizon for miles around, but as your approach the view changes to something not of this world; with the wispy orange flow of the smoke rising slowly from the crater and the intense heat that greets you as you near, you could be on Venus, or Mercury. The flames themselves emerge from a hundred different places and the lack of barriers or health and safety only increased the feeling that we were experiencing something truly unique.
After spending a few hours taking in the sheer beauty of the crater, we camped nearby with a couple of other teams ready to hit the Uzbek border the next day.