After a couple of days in the marble city of Ashgabat, we made our way to Khiva in Uzbekhistan. Four nights of bushcamping, a surprisingly quick border crossing, burning craters and a night among shipwrecks at what used to be the bottom of the Aral Sea.
But let me start at the beginning. We left Ashgabat in the morning and began our dessert crossing. On the way, we found two of the Darvaza gas craters (one filled with water and one filled with bubbling mud), a salt lake with flamingos and lots and lots of dessert scenery. Small shrubs resisted the sun and the heat, but besides the occassional car passing by, there were no other signs of life. At one point, we left the road and started driving into the sand dunes.
That was when it got hard.
We made it over the first sand dune and over the next few patches of sand before we reached a longer stretch. Our driver accelerated and we bounced up and down on our seats, thrown around the bus. The jerrycan with water fell over. Then we slowed down. We straightened ourselves and suddenly came to an abrupt stop. The engine roared but we didn’t move.
We were stuck.
Have I told you I’m doing an overland truck along the Silk Road? For those of you who don’t know what that is, it means I’m travelling around in a truck. A huge truck. We have tents, a kitchen, folding chair, food and everyone’s luggage on the truck. So the truck is huge. Huge enough to hold at least thirty spare jars of mayonnaise and several kilogramms of rice. And don’t let me get started on the amount of pasta I found in one of the cupboards.
While the huge truck is amazing because it gives us plenty of storage, can you imagine pushing it? Even with twenty two passengers pushing, it is close to impossible. We dug the wheels out, used sand mats and brush that we tried to push underneath the wheels to give them some traction. It still took us three attempts to get the truck out of the sand (and don’t let me get started on the way back when we were stuck for four hours and had to get three Russian trucks to pull us out).
At least, the reward was amazing. The third gas crater is the most impressive one. Scientists had put it on fire, thinking it would burn for maybe a week or two. That was fifty years ago.
We camped next to the crater, which was a cool experience. At night, you could see its glow even from a hundred meters away. Fumes rose up, visible in the twilight only.
But as much as I liked the gas crater, we had to move on eventually. Turkmenistan is a huge country consisting mainly of desert, and we still had half of it to cross.
The next day was mainly spent digging out the truck but on the day afterwards, we stopped at Konye Urgench.
Everyone has heard of Samarkand. Some might have heard of Bukhara but other cities along the Silk Roads? Even when the names are listed somewhere, they don’t ring a bell. Or have you ever heard of Konye Urgench, which used to be an important town along the trading routes? These days, only a couple of buildings remain.
The main building, which, according to our guide used to be a palace, has a beautiful ceiling in a pretty good condition. Most of the buildings are in a bad state, with restaurations going on. To be honest, though, I’m not sure how quickly they are progressing. We saw crooked wooden constructions around the buildings, planks tied together with ropes, but no workers on them. Not that I would want for anyone to climb them.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time in Konye Urgench because we had a border to cross. Let me just tell you that it was very confusing but surprisingly quick. The Turkmens wanted to see my camera again. Fortunately, they didn’t delete anything. The Uzbeks made us fill out an immigration form and, once we were done, showed us a video on how to fill it out. They took plenty of pictures of us watching the video which was strange, and then we were allowed to leave.
We stopped at an Uzbek graveyard recommended to us by the staff at the border. Some of the mausoleums there, as we found out, were hundreds of years old.
After Konye Urgench, the border crossing and the graveyard, we somehow still made it to Moynaq.
Some of you may have heard of the town. These days, it is largely deserted except for some elderly people living there with their grandchildren while the parents have left to find work elsewhere. But fourty years ago, it used to be a bustling city on the shore of the Aral Sea, with boats moored in its harbour, fishermen unloading their cargo and trucks bringing the ships to canning factories. We camped just outside the city, next to two rusty shipwrecks. The desert has claimed what used to be the bottom of the Aral Sea. Sage brushes now grow where fish used to hide in between rocks. The only reminder of the Aral Sea are the shipwrecks and the seashells you find embedded in the sand.
The Aral Sea is often called the biggest man-made natural disaster on earth and as we stood there, at what used to be the shore, goosebumps raised on my arms despite the heat. The sea, or what remains of it, is now a couple hours’ drive from Moynaq. A whole ecosystem has been lost. I tried to imagine what it would be like, to jump into the Aral Sea. After four days of bushcamping in the scorching desert heat without the chance to take a shower, it seemed like heaven. But looking at the desert that stretched out to the horizon, it was impossible to imagine.
And it wouldn’t be until the next day, when we checked into our hotel in Khiva, that I got that refreshing shower. Far away from the Aral Sea, but still aware of it being drained every single day.