Tashkent - Ashgabat Rally #3
Day 4 – The Infamous Trek Across the Karakum Desert
March 16th, 2018 will go down in lore as the day eternal bonds were forged in the sands of the Karakum Desert. Seven weary travelers limping along after midnight in a stranger’s rickety Toyota brought to a close thoughts of abandonment and despair. If the previous incidents with the windshield and the tire portended future distress, then the result would be borne out on this fateful day.
The day itself started out as the others had: chilly and gloomy. The group, however, was in fantastic spirits having experienced the wonders of Khiva. The group set off for the Turkmen border, arriving there around 10 a.m. We had all of our documents ready to go, and our two diplomatic vehicles comprised the entirety of the cross-border car traffic. We were cautiously optimistic of a speedy entrance.
Surprisingly, we departed Uzbekistan without even leaving our vehicles. After 20 minutes, Uzbek officials stamped our passports and off we went. Immediately upon crossing into Turkmenistan, a group of friendly soldiers greeted the vehicles. Looking completely perplexed by the group in front of them, the commanding soldier sifted through the documents confused. On the one hand, all the documents were in order telling him that he should release us. On the other, he didn’t know what to do with a bunch of American diplomatic tourists. Eventually the stamps on the form won out over his confusion, and we were waved into the processing center.
The in-processing and visa process was surprisingly smooth. We had visas stamped within 20 minutes. At that point, however, we broke the matrix. Now we had reached the point where they actually had to let us in the country. The officials looked at us, looked at our passports, saw the visas, looked at us, looked at the visas, looked at us, and didn’t know how to proceed. Their solution was to handwrite all the information down in a ledger…. seven times in seven different offices. Eventually when enough information had been handwritten down, we were admitted into Turkmenistan, two hours after we had arrived.
A few miles into Turkmenistan we were greeted by the pleasant city of Dasoguz, more than 500km from the capital city of Ashgabat.
Dasoguz gave us our first insight to the country of marble and gold.
On the outskirts of town, we found a row of shops, and L and Jason went inside to get in touch with the yurt guy, since we were en route to the gas crater that evening. Much to the amusement of the now 40+ strong group of onlookers, they borrowed a local cell phone and made the necessary calls.
Early afternoon greeted us as we left Dasoguz on amazingly-paved roads filled with giant statues, white marble buildings of one kind or another, and optimism about seeing the gas crater at nightfall. T had prepared S’mores and beach chairs for a cookout (not that we would advise that, but we were prepared). The winds of optimism soon turned to concern as the road transformed from awesome to ridiculous. By far the worst road we encountered was the Dasoguz-Darvosa stretch. There were potholes the size of vehicles; it would have been far safer had the road just been dirt. Our average speed slowed to under 35 mph, and despite this, within an hour, the Mini Cooper popped its second tire of the trip.
This time it was serious, and there was no spare until we would reach Ashgabat, still 380 km to the south of us. We assessed our options as it was now 3:00 p.m. We were 170 km from the crater and just as far to Dasoguz. As we had nowhere to stay in Dasoguz, we abandoned the Mini Cooper in the desert at a police checkpoint and moved all the people and belongings to the Subaru. So there we were, a typical Central Asian family. Seven people, way overloaded in supplies, car completely filled to the brim, child in the front seat on an adult’s lap, and no space for seat belts. We planned to finish the 170 km to the crater to get to the yurt and assess our options for getting the Mini Cooper out of the desert the next day.
Sixty-two kilometers outside the yurt camp and the day worsened. Overloaded to the brim, the Subaru hit a deep pothole and sliced the sidewall on the back, right tire. At this point, we were not overly concerned. There was a spare in the back. T and Jason start unpacking the vehicle to change the tire. However, it turns out that the Subaru had a single anti-theft lug nut on it, and when Jason and Nozomi shipped the car, the tool was removed and not replaced. So there we were, completely defeated by a single lug nut and night approaching. Several vehicles stopped to help us, including one car who asked us for a stethoscope as they were taking their grandmother under cardiac arrest to the hospital in Ashgabat (why did they stop to help us? Because everyone in Turkmenistan is super helpful apparently.) Two hours later and the tire still would not budge. The locals helpfully suggested to just drive it as it and the lug nut would eventually fall out. Needless to say we thanked them for the advice and wished them well.
As night fell, we were out of options. Either we find a ride to the gas crater and abandon the Subaru in the desert, or we sleep overnight in the car and figure out options in the morning.
(Side Note: At this point, we would like to point out things we brought that absolutely saved us and should be required on any trip: satellite phones, several liters of water – we had more than 10, portable battery charger banks – we had four, entertainment for the kids, granola bars and blankets. From a food/water standpoint, we could have been stranded in the desert a week and survived.)
Using both of our satellite phones, we notified Embassies Tashkent and Ashgabat of our predicament. We decided we would try to get a hold of the yurt guy and see if he could drive the 62 km north to pick us up and take us to the yurt where we could sleep and regroup. Eventually, at 8 p.m., we got a hold of him, and he agreed to make his way north and try to find us. Not for the first or the last time, we were happy that two of our members spoke Russian. Therefore, we hunkered down in the Subaru as the desert chill started to become pronounced. The kids watched Cars on the iPad, and we waited on the roadside in the pitch black desert.
10 p.m. Three tired kids. Two annoyed guys at the comedy of errors leading to this situation. One tired mom watching a cartoon for the 11,000th time. And one Japanese woman convinced we would never escape the desert again. More importantly, still no sign of the yurt guy. At this point, we were resigned to spending the night in the desert.
Just after 11 p.m. a shining light pierces the desert black and our Knight in Toyota Armor has arrived. Assessing the scene, our savior is convinced that the last eight hours were all a mistake and clearly the lug nut could be removed on the Subaru. Twenty minutes later, he accepts the fact that maybe we weren’t all just a bunch of idiots, and we all start piling into the Toyota with him and his son. For the second time that day, we abandon a car in the desert.
As the nine of us head to the camp, with T in the back snuggling up ever so closely to a methane tank in the trunk, the Toyota begins to move with every check engine light known to man lit up. As it reaches its top speed of 20 mph, we realize why our savior needed three hours to reach us, and we settle in for the slow trek to camp, praying that our savior’s carriage also does not become disabled, as we left 90% of our emergency supplies back in the Subaru. Shortly after 1:30 a.m. the weary group stumbles into the yurt camp and is greeted by these amazing images of the Darvoza Gas Crater.
Shortly after 2:30 a.m., 19 hours after we had set off from Khiva full of optimism, 12 hours after we left the Mini Cooper behind, and ten hours after being completely disabled in the desert, we finally put an end to the longest day of the journey. Somehow, despite having reached rock bottom, even at the time we were all impressed with Turkmen hospitality and optimistic that things could only go up from here.