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September 26th 2016
Published: October 5th 2016
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26-9 After crossing the border we were picked up by 4WD vehicles to drive through the desert to the Darvaza gas crater. The Derweze area is rich in natural gas, and, whilst drilling in 1971, Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of 80 metres. To avoid poisonous gas discharge it was decided the best solution was to burn it off. Geologists had believed at the time that the fire would burn all of the gas in a matter of days. Forty-four years later the crater still burns, locals call it "the door to hell". We camped in small two man tents and the only facility was a drop toilet which consisted of a small hole with a plastic chair located above. The crater was an amazing sight when we arrived in the afternoon but by nightfall it was spectacular and a little scary, we were privileged to be the only group camping near the crater that night.

27-9 After breakfast and two more craters, one bubling mud and the other full of water, we headed to the capital Ashgabat. On arrival we checked in our hotel the Grand Turkmen to find it was not so grand, even though five star the Soviet building had once been beautiful it had been allowed to run down. That evening we were taken by bus for a night tour around the city to find Ashgabat was really as an amazing city filled with huge new white marble buildings, beautiful fountains and statues all funded by the countries rich natural resources.

28-9 After breakfast we boarded our bus for a city tour of Ashgabat, often described as the North Korea of Central Asia. Turkmenistan was different to the others Stans, the majority had been full of Soviet style buildings, this city consisted mainly of brand new white marble stunning apartments and office buildings. We visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Nissa and learnt this was the capital of the Parthian Empire and existed more than 2000 years ago. We then continued on to a horse farm where we saw the amazing Akhal-Teke horse breed from Turkmenistan, they have a reputation for speed and endurance, intelligence and a distinctive metallic sheen. These horses are adapted to severe climatic conditions and are thought to be one of the oldest existing horse breeds with only about 6,600 in the world mostly in Turkmenistan and Russia. In the afternoon we visit the Turkmenbashi Mausoleum and mosque, the stunning mosque was constructed by a French company and opened in 2004 and is the largest mosque in Central Asia, Turkenistan's well loved President Niyazov was buried in the nearby mausoleum in December 2006.

29-9 As the tour finished today everyone except for us was heading off to the airport after lunch. In the morning we visited the Carpet museum and National museum before having a farewell lunch at a 14th floor restaurant overlooking the stunning city. Ron and I moved from the fading Grand Turkman hotel to the brand new Sofitel for our last night in Ashgabat, and what a difference, the hotel was stunning. We had dinner in the 15th floor french restaurant and were so excited to be able to pick our own meals, the food on the tour while adequate had been a set menu each night with no choice and based mainly around simple Russian fare, salad, meat soup and meat dishes. Ron had been given fish nearly every night and if that was not available plain veggies, at the gas crater he had been given a bowl of potatoes for his main as nothing else was available.

We both agreed the tour had been amazing and we had been taken to areas we would have found very difficult to reach by ourselves. We had bounced around in Russian army vehicles high into the mountains, slept in huts at a high alpine lake, trekked to view a glacier, drove through winding mountain passes, visited local families, stayed at fading Russian hotels, danced with the locals and camped at a gas crater to recall just a few of the highlights. But most of all we had enjoyed the companionship our tour group, we had met and made friends with like minded Australians who were all interested in the journey to see the Silk Road, we will miss their good humour and sense of adventure.

Additional photos below
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The grand turkman hotelThe grand turkman hotel
The grand turkman hotel

Some parts of the hotel looked good, but overall a fading glory

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