Highway to hell – Karakum desert

We get up together with Tim, since he is going to work early. After breakfast we soon leave.
We want to visit the wedding palace which is another bizarre building just a few hundred meters away from Tim’s apartment.

The wedding palace
The wedding palace
Adapting to the locals

We now want to leave the city to the north and try to hitchhike to Yerbent, a little oasis town around 170km north of Ashgabat. While we are cycling through the city we find a district which has actually normal houses, with backyards and gardens.

nice part of Ashgabat
nice part of Ashgabat

Soon we leave Ashgabat and are on a wide road towards the Karakum desert.
We fill our fuel bottle for the camping burner at a gas station and since a lot of cars are stopping here, we try to hitchhike. After almost an hour, we move on, because most of the drivers seem to go to a nearby bazaar.
We soon find the bazaar and first have lunch there. It’s around 1pm. The bazaar is busy, but almost no cars or trucks are leaving towards Yerbent. We move further along the main road, until there is no more intersection or U-turn. The road now leads into the desert. Not many cars are passing, but we need to get a ride.
Two trucks loaded with cement stop, but of course cannot carry the bicycles. After another 45 minutes a car stops. It is an old Opel Vectra. Cora can’t believe everything fits in there, but I want to give it a try, since the driver seems to be convinced this is possible.
In fact we manage to fit everything inside the car and even put some tissue between the frames, so they don’t get damaged during the ride.


One of the weirdest parts of our journey is about to begin. The Opel of course has no air condition and with 485000 km is rather old. The wind is constantly blowing through the car, especially with the trunk open. However it feels like a big hair dryer is blowing at us. With more than 50°C the Karakum desert is the hottest place we have been so far.

Soon the actual desert begins. It is difficult to describe. Maybe similar to a ship on the ocean. Actually everything is pretty normal. Until you realize there is just nothing around you. And other than on the sea, you can only see a few hundred meters. The road is going straight through the desert. It is getting really quiet apart from the noise of the car. The road has big holes. The driver doesn’t seem to care. He is going with more than 140 km/h. After a while we stop at a ground water lake.

Groundwater lake
Groundwater lake
Camel in the Karakum desert
Camel in the Karakum desert

Then again only sand and a few dryed out plants. After one and a half hours we reach Yerbent. A big hole in the road hits the car and it loses one of its hub caps.
We decide to ask if he wants any money, in case we go further to Derveza. He moves his hand like he doesn’t want any money. He seems to be happy that we want to go to Derveza. I actually assume that he is going through the whole dessert and likes to be accompanied.

Yerbent doesn’t seem to be very interesting and with only a few cars on the road we are happy to have this ride to Derveza. Derveza is in the middle of the Karakum desert and is actually our goal for today.

So we continue. The wind is still hot, the road bad and we have one hell of a driver who almost falls asleep and only stays awake due to the big holes in the asphalt. Several times we lose a hub cap. The driver then stops, turns around and looks for it. This happens a lot until he has the great idea of storing the cap in the trunk.

He found the hub cap we lost seconds before
He found the hub cap we lost seconds before

The motor is getting hot, so we have to stop and fill in some water for the cooling system.


Soon we have to stop again because the engine is almost 100°C hot. We have to wait several minutes to let it cool down. Even then it barely starts. But soon the driver is again going with 140 km/h.
A strange noise is coming from the engine. The driver doesn’t seem to notice it. Cora tells him and so we take another break. He ask for our last water bottle and pures all the water into the cooling system. He stops another driver to ask for help, since he is unable to keep the temperature down and several attempts to start the engine fail.


We wait around 15-20 minutes, then he tries again. After the third attempt the engine runs. It sounds very bad, but it works. The temperature is down again and he only says: „Derveza!“. We are only around 50km away from Derveza. I tell Cora it is unlikely that this engine fails today within the last 50km after it has run for 485000 km. I assume this is something that happens constantly and the driver is just used to it.

He is now going 70km/h and the engine seems to be able to handle this. For several kilometers everything works well. Then a loud noise and smoke is comming from underneath the hood. The driver immediately stops the car. He calmly steps out of the car, opens the hood and panics. He is shouting all over the place and is running onto the road to stop some cars. We leave the car.
One other car stops. Our driver is running towards it and aggressivly asking for something: Water!

The other guy panics as well. Another car stops. The driver steps out, realizes the situation and panics as well. Everybody is running towards our car with water bottles in their hands and puring all of them onto the engine. When they run out of water, they take sand from the desert and throw it onto the engine. Meanwhile we got the bags with our most important documents out of the car. I mean it is shitty enough to have your car break down in the middle of the desert in Turkmenistan. I don’t need my passport with the Turkmen visa to get burned, too.

Soon everybody calms down again. The two other drivers continue their journey and we are left with a smoking car and a desperate driver. We move the bicycles out of the trunk and all the panniers, too. The driver than shows me the actual problem. The engine just broke apart. There is a big hole in the engine block. That’s it. They were afraid the whole car just catches fire since fuel and oil was all over the place.

Somewhere something went terribly wrong
Somewhere something went terribly wrong

Now what? We decide to move on, since Derveza is only around 10km away according to the driver. He needs to hitchhike anyway and it is getting late, so we need to hurry. We ask again if he wants any money: „200 dollars“. He says.

Well, if my car broke down and I had two German tourists with me I would probably also give it a try. Of course we are not willing to pay that much. I mean he can get another Opel Vectra with 485000 km for 200 dollars.
We refuse to pay. He then says 200 Manat, which is around 60 Euro. We calculate: One liter of fuel here is 1 Manat, so around 30 cents. He drove us for four hours. Lets add two more hours if he goes back without any passenger (which is definitely the case). That would be 10 euro per hour. Seems too much for Turkmenistan. We offer 100 Manat, he declines. We tell him that we then will move on without paying him. We are in the middle of the desert, we have no time to discuss. It’s our first time in the desert, so we are still a bit nervous and it is getting dark within the next hours. He refuses to take our offer. We start to cycle. He grabs my rear bag and tries to stop me. He moves inside the car. I’m getting scared. He is furious and searching for something. We both don’t like this situation. There is nothing around us. Only a few cars pass by once in a while. This guy is desperate and angry. It is hard to guess what’s going on in his mind. I tell him I have a friend in Ashgabat. He seems to interpret this as some sort of threat, because he answers with an evil smile: „I have many friends in Ashgabat. If you don’t pay, you are in big trouble“.
Now that wouldn’t scare me at all, if we were in a city, because he couldn’t find us as soon as we are around the next corner. Unfortunately there are no corners in the desert and Deveza isn’t a town. It is a Chaikhana – a tea house, in the middle of the desert. That’s all. I tell him to call Tim. It seems like he is calling someone else. Anyway, he seems to have no network. And neither do we.
I try to calm him down. I tell him we can meet in Derveza again and discuss everything there, but we have to leave now. He seems to understand, that it is important for us to move on and finally lets us go. When we are just a few meters away he shouts at us. We stop. He asks for a little money, so he can get a ride to Derveza. We give him 50 Manat. I don’t want to be the guy, who left someone in the desert without any money. The mood of this guy is tense enough. We leave. He seems a bit calmer.

I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell

AC/DC – Highway to hell

There is a metal tower at the horizon. Like a military outpost. Our driver said Derveza was there. It is still pretty far, but we come closer. Some drivers throw water bottles out of their moving trucks. But to be honest, most cars just pass without even slowing down. I mean there are two cyclists in the middle of nowhere in 50°C, I would definitely stop and ask. We wish we were back in Iran. People probably couldn’t help us, but would at least take pictures of us dying in the desert.
One car slows down. We ask the driver where the Chaikhana is. He says there is no Chaikhana. We ask if there is any shelter at Derveza. He says no. We ask him if we can call Tim. Great, we can hear Tim at the other end of the line. We tell him what happened. Unfortunately the connection is bad. We agree to call him at the Chaikhana again…..if it exists.

While we are slowly moving through the desert I’m starting to daydream.

Dream One
The Chaikhana doesn’t exist. We have to pitch the tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It will be a hot night in the tent, we will wake up early, stop the first car and try to get out of the desert to Konye Urgenc in the very north of Turkmenistan.

Pro: Our driver will never find us, we don’t have to pay him for leaving us in the desert.

Con: No fun camping in the desert and with only a few cars passing by almost no chance of hitchhiking to the north.

Dream Two
The Chaikhana exists but is as cyclist-friendly as the „Titty Twister“ in „From Dusk till Dawn“. We arrive there within the next hour. A totally pissed driver has already gathered some big guys around him. There is nobody else around. We get forced to pay 200 dollars and they leave us in the desert. Without any money it is hard to make it out of the desert. We then have to call the police. The police will check our visa. At least we are at Derveza as mentioned at the border crossing. We tell them our story. They don’t believe us. They want a bribe. We cannot pay. They put us into jail.

Pro: The issue with the driver is settled. The jail maybe has air condition.

Con: We still have no money for a bribe and run out of time. Chances are they just deport us.

Dream Three
We arrive at the Chaikhana. No matter if it is open or not, the driver of course couldn’t convince any big guy to drive 300km out into the desert just to get some 200 dollars. So the driver is waiting at the Chaikhana. We call the embassy. They talk to the driver and tell him that he wants way too much money. The driver is not sure if he is talking to Angela Merkel and the last thing he remembers about Germany is some 70 years ago. He gets scared, doesn’t want any more money and leaves with his 50 Manat and the next ride he can get.

Pro: We actually can make use of the German embassy
Con: We are still in the middle of the desert

After thinking everything through, I come to the conclusion, that no matter what happens, it’s gonna be hilarious. And I start to smile.

Cora notices me smiling, turns to me and says:

Don’t make a funny story out of that! It is not funny.

I have to admit, I was scared just a few minutes ago and I still have no idea what will happen when we reach the Chaikhana, but I know one thing for sure: When I am able to write about this in a few days, some of my friends will read this. They will relax on their sofa with a cool beer and their iPad and I can only imagine it will be funny then.

In fact, the only thing not funny about our current situation is that we are actually part of it.

My inner Google Earth Software zooms out again and again just to give me a proper imagination of where exactly we are. Because your brain just cannot comprehend this. I always assume there is a village or anything behind the next curve or hill. But there will be nothing at all.
We already cycled 20km when sun sets. But no Chaikhana in reach. We meet a truck driver who is eating a water mellon with his 10 year old son. He says, there is a Chaikhana, definitely. Good to know. It is now getting dark. We turn on our lights and are now moving through the dark desert. At least the temperature is decreasing to maybe 45 or 40 °C. What a relief!

Street lights where the tracks cross
Street lights at the only railway crossing in the Karakum.

A few kilometers later we pass the dirt track that leads to the gas craters. I haven’t told you about the gas crater. Derveza actually isn’t a town. It once was a place where some gas company tried to dig for gas in the 1970s. Then an accident happened and gas came out of the ground. Apparently it was bad for your health, so they just lit it on fire. They assumed it will burn for a few months. Guess what, it is still burning. And that’s actually the reason we wanted to stop in Derveza for one night. Now the dirt track to the gas crater leaves the main road, but we have to stay on the road. Because an angry driver is waiting for us. And I don’t want him to show up at a burning gas crater called „The Door to Hell“ in the middle of the night, because he knows we wanted to pitch the tent there. So we continue.
It is another 5 km until we finally see the lights of the Chaikhana. Just a few hundred meters in front of the Chaikhana a truck stops and a guy steps out. It is our driver. He just gave up waiting and probably assumed we already died. He walks towards us and calls someone on his phone. He is smiling. Daydream Two returns. I assume he calls his friends telling them: „I got them!“. Then he hands over the phone to me. On the other end is Tim. Hey friend, good to hear from you.

He tells us, that we should give the driver the 200 Manat. This was a normal price he says, but apparently a misunderstanding, because we didn’t know we actually had to pay. We earlier had pretended we don’t have 200 Manat and therefore Tim even had offered to pay the driver as soon as he is back in Ashgabat. That’s just an overwhelming move, but we can of course pay the driver. We pay him, he approves it, so Tim doesn’t pay him a second time and we altogether move to the Chaikhana, where the driver is trying to get another ride to Ashgabat and we take a rest and drink some tea.

Pitch Black – The door to Hell

Cora is too tired to go to the gas crater. I feel physically ok and after settling the issue with the driver I can concentrate on the Door to Hell.

I take 1.5 liters of water, the GPS, the compass, the camera, the head lamp and some batteries.
The guy at the Chaikhana says if I walk straight to the crater it is around 8 km through desert. I also ask about snakes, scorpions and spiders. He says there are no venomous animals out there.

At around 10pm I start to walk. I cross the road and after only a few hundred meters it is pitch black. I’m in a little valley, so if I turn around I can’t even see the lights of the Chaikhana any more. But there is a dark red glowing on the horizon. I head towards it.

It is pretty exhausting to walk through dunes in still more than 40°C and I soon realize, that I maybe underestimated the desert. I therefore decide to walk until the water bottle is half empty. If the crater is not in sight then, I will turn around and go back to the Chaikhana.

I see some spiders and many lizards, because their eyes are reflecting the light of my head lamp. The GPS says it is only 5.5 km to the crater, but the glowing at the horizon is not getting brighter. In fact whenever I’m going down another hill it almost disappears. A big dune is in front of me. I struggle to climb it and slip again and again in the sand. Out of breath I finally make it to the top. Still I can’t see the crater. It’s an intense situation and I concentrate on the spot of my head lamp to keep focused and calm. I move across another dune and then I see it: The Door to Hell.

An impressive big dark red burning crater in the middle of nowhere. It’s fascinating.

The first view of the door to hell
The first view of the door to hell

I move another 500m and stand at the edge of the crater.

The flames create a loud noise. Other than that it is totally quiet. Nobody else is out here. I take a look down the crater. In the middle there is a big flame and I feel intense heat on my face.

The Door To Hell
The Door To Hell

After 20 minutes I start to walk back. Cora is already waiting. I told her I will probably be back around 00:30. Zero dark thirty.

Unfortunately she didn’t come outside with me when I was leaving the Chaikhana and so she doesn’t know, that my headlamp is only visible when I’m already close to the Chaikhana. She shouts something as soon as she sees the head lamp. I illuminate my hand and show thumbs up. Then I take the last sip of water from the bottle. It was just the right amount. I was never thirsty during my walk.

After two and a half hours and 11km through desert I’m back at the Chaikhana and to be honest I’m pretty shaky. The heat and dunes were exhausting. And maybe some adrenaline was also involved.

Anyway I am glad I did it. I think it was the most unusual thing I have ever visited. And going alone in the middle of the night made it even more impressive.

After that we relax at the Chaikhana. I am done with Turkmenistan. I don’t care if we see Konye Urgenc or some old little villages in the north of Turkmenistan. We had already enough adventures in the first two days of our short stay in this country.