Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan

With August temperatures consistently over 50 degrees celsius and scant rain, you wouldn’t expect the Karakum desert to be a very friendly place. But the combination hundreds of miles of sand dunes and animals out of a science fiction movie make it one of the harshest places I’ve ever traveled through. The Zemzem, for example, is a 1.5 meter long reptile, called the crocodile of the desert. They move fast enough to be difficult to out-run, and if you get bitten by their dagger-like fangs they won’t let go for a couple of hours. Despite my reluctance to risk an encounter with one of these beasts, I decided to break my journey through the desert to visit a semi-permanent nomad encampment.

The economy of the village of Dervaza has three parts. Sheep, Camels, and makeshift service stations for the trucks and jeeps traveling the 500 kilometer long haul through the desert to north. I spent the night in what you could call the desert’s version of a truck stop, a nomadic Turkmen’s ‘Yurt’ tent. Since traffic must travel 24 hours a day, trucks were stopping all night. Word had gotten out that there was a strange tourist man about, and my sleep was interrupted at regular intervals by truck drivers shining a light through the door. When I looked up they took it as a sign to come and join me for tea, leaving me no choice but to oblige.

Though its tough to see it now, Dervaza is destined for greatness. 30% of the world’s gas reserves lie 1.5km beneath the Karakum desert. The Soviets knew it was down there and dabbled in exploration but with little success. Firsthand evidence of this can be found about 20km along a track through the sand. I got a heavy truck to take me out there. In the 1950s, scientists were conducting exploratory drilling and apparently found more than they’d bargained for. The entire drill head went up in flames in a massive explosion. A 50 meter wide, 50 meter deep crater has been burning ever since. As you approach the wind blows intense heat on your face and you the distinctive gas smell is everywhere. The perimeter burns lightly, but at the bottom of the crater, where the gas actually leaks out onto the surface, is an enormous bonfire. Though there is no smoke and the gas burns clean, the crater is covered in black soot from the fifty years of flames.