When Jim dreamt up this Test Pilot in Turkmenistan, most of the office had no idea where on earth it was. This land-locked country is the lease densely populated place in Central Asia and is one of the most repressed countries in the world with no social media, no Whatsapp, limited internet and with less than 15000 tourists visiting each year.
So of course we had to go!
We took a group of curious Test Pilot's on a cycling adventure to the famous Gates of Hell. Read on to hear all about the experience from the eye's of one of our Test Pilot's; Budgie Wright.
As Rat Race events go, this is definitely up there with the most fun one can have, in the shortest possible time, in a benign dictatorship!
Logistically, once your Letter of Invitation has been issued (obtained through the highly efficient Aman, in country), it’s quite a breeze. Flights to Ashgabat, via Istanbul connect nicely without overly onerous layovers and on-arrival visas are a formality, as are the currently-required PCR tests. We arrived at about 3am, Friday morning and, given the airport is enormous and very sparkly white-green-and-gold and almost deserted at that time, we were through quite quickly - with the ‘assistance’ of a very determined porter ($50 request for services was expertly negotiated by Jim down to $20) we passed exit customs without issue, only one bike box unpacked and questioned. Result.
Once outside we marvelled at the beautiful structure of a huge bird in swooping flight which forms the main roof and superstructure of the airport terminal. It, like much of what preceded and was to follow was predominantly white and spotless. Apparently it was built for the 2017 Asian Games and, given incoming foreign visitors have been all but excluded by Covid closure from 2020 til this year, it all looks pretty pristine. It was a flavour of what was to come.
The car park was full of hundreds of white cars, which appears to be the almost national obsession and only very few that we saw in the next couple of days bucked that trend. They too, as least in the capital, were pristine. The roads to the Sport Hotel, a 30-minute breeze, were deserted, as one might expect anywhere at 4am, which allowed us an unobstructed view of the incredible architecture found in the city.
Ashgabat is a feast of white, mainly marble-clad towers, many very new, some refurbished Soviet-era edifices, interspersed with many roundabout-sited statues and monuments. Most of the buildings are additionally festooned in neon LEDs, which change colour, form moving tableaux, or drip and explode like firework displays. It’s Narnia, crossed with Disney and a side dish of the Las Vegas strip.
The Sport Hotel is vast, immaculate and apart from appearing to have been decorated by Liberace’s interior-designer is very welcoming; great showers, comfortable beds, has decent wifi (on which more later) and is an excellent base for a night/day preparing for the event itself. After an excellent breakfast of eggs, avocado, coffee/tea, we took a guided tour of Ashgabat and its environs on the Friday.
We saw virtually nobody all day, which was really quite spooky for a period of about six hours. Unless you count the women planting bedding plants at the junctions of roundabouts and one industrious lady sweeping up dust at the slipway onto the motorway with a dustpan-and-brush. (I kid you not. This is an immaculate city. No litter, no leaves, no graffiti (it’s ‘Stepford Wives’ clean!).
A 7 a.m. start on Saturday, Day 1 of the cycle, following a decent cooked breakfast, the four riders and two support vehicles heading North-east out of the city towards the Karakum Desert and our ultimate prize, the Darvazas Gas Crater, some 300km away.
We cycled on now busier, but not jammed, main roads for approximately 20km until the cityscape became less dense and of lower height and after about two hours riding and 40km distant we encountered our first real glimpses of the desert landscape and the ubiquitous camels happily meandering alongside the thoroughfare.
These would become a regular sight and, on occasion, part of the traffic flow as the roads, which had been flawless in the city, began to degrade slightly more as the kilometre-count increased. The weather was perfect; clear blue skies, temperature at about 12 degrees when we departed, rising to about 25 degrees at midday. After a quick stop at 40km we pushed along at a decent but not exhausting pace with each rider taking turns to lead the mini-peloton and ensuring that we remained a tight group, sited between the two outrider vehicles which contained our kit, tents, food and water, plus the local snacks we’d bought to supplement snack for the ride. Various Turkish delight style sweets, nutty-sweet chunks of an unknown variety and some savouries went down well, but the mango-layer block which had the same weight and specific gravity of a black hole was unanimously declared unfit for human consumption and abandoned.
To our left a rail track occasionally hummed and rattled with the passing of long chains of industrial wagons and gas containers, whilst on out right the desert continued to evolve from scrub to sand to dunes. Namibia it isn’t, but it’s still pretty impressive and quite strange to by cycling ‘desert-adjacent’, rather than struggling rim-deep through powdered mica. Pit-and-pee stops were at regular 40km intervals, with one coinciding with the road dipping into a natural depression at the bottom of which were two small lakes, which we were informed were saltwater pans and definitely NOT for ingestion! Plenty of camels seemed to suggest that they have a different view on the matter. A pretty photogenic stop, regardless.
A hundred kilometres in and a few minor chafes and aches were felt by the finely-honed athletes, but nothing that was going to interrupt the party. We were warm, well-fed and cycling in a fairly easy rhythm, enjoying the increasing remoteness and broadening landscape. Occasional signs of human habitation, single-storey one-room railway stations and sheep and goats interspersed with the camels provided some points of interest in the increasingly-stark horizon. Arriving at the only filling station we’d seen in about 150km (Petrol 10c/litre…!), on the outskirts of Ashgabat, we were pleasantly surprised to find that they stocked very tasty ice-creams and extremely cold Coke, which we consumed in a leisurely manner as we had only another 10km to ride til our expertly-selected and prepared campsite, arriving near dusk, at about 6p.m.
Single-occupant tents, placed snore-baffling distance apart, with a dining table and chairs situated close to the wood-burning fire-pit on which a delicious lamb stew was bubbling, provided a wonderful spot from which to watch the sun ebb into the sand to the west. With a couple of cold beers to wash down the wholesome repast, all the attendant darkening desert sky hues and the emergence of the blanket of stars the lack of ambient light allows, it was a fine end to a very decent day’s riding. An absence of either mechanical, or physical issues meant sleep was restorative and only interrupted once, at about 2 a.m. by the sound of an enormous truck roaring past on the road, but sounding very much as if it was about to crash right through the centre of camp!
Rising and dressed by 7am, for another lamb-based offering (very hearty, these Turkmen meals!), we were out of camp an hour later, with ‘about 90km’ to go. This, as it transpired was a Jim Mee-style underestimation, so it must be an adventure-guide thing!
Temperatures were of a similar profile, but, as the road worsened and cracks and pot holes went from ‘bird’s-nest to elephants nest’, to quote our guide, the wind rose from nothing to a decent side-then-head wind, slowing our progress and turning flying sand from the occasional passing vehicle, into a decent skin-peel.
As it turned out, we were to cycle 105km on the Sunday, with the last 8km truly off-road, occasionally deteriorating into get-off-and-push-quality sand. Rolling hills of decent length but no real ascent played on tired legs and forearms, but nobody had to take more than the scheduled breaks and whilst we took almost the same length of time in the saddle both days(although there was an an unexpected two-hour cooked-lunch break which elongated things a bit!), there was no question of us not achieving the goal we had set.
We passed the occasional signpost filled with bullet holes, or indicating a gas field, but other than that, it was largely a gloriously featureless desert landscape.
Approaching the finale, we were advised that there are three similar craters, not just the one.
The difference is, only one of them has been burning continuously for fifty-two years. The other two are the warm-up acts (pardon the crap, yet deliberate pun), one of which is purely a yawning gap filled with more sand and the other is filled with murky jade-green water.
Having seen both, we were ready for the star turn and, after a leg-burning ride through the toughest terrain of the day, we arrived just before dusk.
The crater itself is hidden from view right until one crests the last small rocky hillock and then it appears in front of you as a disc-shaped hole 100 meters across, with a lick of flame, a warm draft of air and the smell of a gas-fire burning in a camp site.
Freewheeling (carefully, if you want my advice, from near-disastrous experience, having almost crashed in sand 50 metres from the finish line!) down to the wonderfully decrepit ‘safety’ rail circling the fiery pit, it reveals itself ever more impressively as you approach. Flames from myriad fissures surge and ebb, leap and die and are blown in different directions by the light gusts of wind that blow across the surface of the desert, 25 metres above the crater floor.
Remnants of the abortive Russian attempts to drill for the gas can be seen in situ, with the tangled and twisted steel cables and rusted, broken pipework a reminder of their efforts in the late 1960s, to capture the seemingly inexhaustible reserves below.
Having congratulated ourselves on a fantastic achievement, we returned to the camp situated a couple of hundred metres above, where a few permanent gers (or yurts?) house the visitors who make it this far. Another filling feats and attendant beverages and we returned to the crater, in the dark, to witness its full majesty. With marshmallows on sticks. Now, unless there’s a twenty-metre stick lying handily about, you’re not really going to be able to toast one, but it makes for a good photo op. At night, standing on the lip of the crater, watching the flames dance and play, there’s an incredible sense of the power of nature and the things we still don’t fully understand about our planet. This, added to the sense of remoteness and relatively untravelled journey makes this a fabulous trip for anyone to experience.
As long weekends go, I truly defy anyone to find anything that really rivals it. The rest was a breeze. Up at dawn, another visit to the splendour of the crater and, with bikes, bags and bodies loaded into the support vehicles we headed out on the return to Ashgabat. Approximately four hours later we were back at Sport Hotel, unloaded and off for a spot of lunch and retail therapy in the mall. A couple of beers in a bar from which you could see the mountains to the south-west which about 30km away form the border with Iran, passed the time before showers and out to dinner, ahead of a midnight departure for the airport.
With Turkmen vodka and furry sheepskin hats as duty-free trophies, we boarded out Turkish Airlines flight on time and they did the rest. A fabulous time had by all and highly recommended on your ‘Where? Never heard of it!’ Travel list.
If you fancy joining us in Turkmenistan in 2025. Make sure you're on the waiting list!
Fancy becoming a Test Pilot? There are very limited spaces left on our 2024/25 TP adventures.