Riding on the Edge of the Abyss

Land cruiser Shadow next to a Crater in the Karakum Desert
Our Land Rover sits a little too close for comfort on the very edge of one of the ‘mud holes’ at Dervaza (Turkic for “The Gate”) on the Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan border. These enormous sinkholes go down for hundreds of meters and open up into vast pools of molten earth. One has to take care of the wind direction; noxious gases that emanate from them can easily cause asphyxiation. Or more importantly not to get out on the passenger side. That first step is a long way down.

Oasis of Sand

The Oldest Fortress of the Ancient City of Merv in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan

The ancient Silk Road city of Merv in the Karakum desert (Turkic for “Black Sand”) reminds me of a bit of the fate of ancient Carthage. Tracing its origins to the 3rd century BC, it was the largest city in the world in the 12th century only to be razed to the ground some 300 years later. What remains from that time is the unrestored Kyz Kala (“Girls Fortress”), standing quiet in the sunset.

Friday Evening Traffic Jam, Turkmenistan Style

Road to Merv

Don’t you just hate it when you’re on your way to visit a ancient city that’s been abandoned for 500 years and you’re held up by a herd of camels? Yeah, me too. I mean who wouldn’t want to just gawk at these magnificent ‘ships of the desert’ as they slowly made their way along the solitary sands.

It’s not easy being Green in Ashgabat

Plenty of water here in Ashgabat

If a visitor just stayed in Ashgabat and never left the city limits then they would never think that it is literally an oasis in the middle of the water parched Karakum Desert. Fountains are bursting out clean water and offer some much-needed relief from the heat.  The task of keeping the city and its surrounding parks both clean and green is a daily battle for the small army of city workers.

The Kopet Dag Mountains in the Suburbs of Ashgabat

It doesn’t take more than a 5 minute drive from the city center to see the picture above.  The Kopet Dang mountains in the south of the city mark where the vast Karakum Desert really begins. Here, there are no water fountains, air-conditioned bus stations or green parks.  The newly planted evergreen saplings appear to be an effort to liven up the place, but it’s hard to think that they have any chance of a long life without water to feed them.  It’s a hard life here in the desert even if you are in a country rich in resources.
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has a bold vision of doing the nearly impossible.  He wants to transform the desert into a lush and green forest.   His program is currently throwing money at the problem.  This vision is a positive one that many would love to be brought to fruition, but it’s not too hard to see how this one ends.