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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Go to Hell

Go to Hell!
October 29th, 2009

Fellow PCV: “So, are we still going to Hell this weekend?”
ME: “I don’t know, it might be really cold”
PCV: “Dude, even if we froze, I would still go.”
ME: “Alright, Hell it is then. But pack extra socks.”

Yeah, this snippet of conversation might seem a bit odd. Actually, what we were talking about was the Crater of Darveza, known locally as the Pit of Hell. To backtrack, a while ago some fellow volunteers has told us about a place they had heard of that was this huge burning pit literally in the middle of the desert. To reach it, you had to go north into the center of Gara Gun desert, drive off the main road a while through the sand dunes with a 4 x 4, and then camp out at the site overnight. There was no cell phone coverage, no town within a several hundred-kilometer radius, and no marked road to show where you needed to go. For a normal person this might sound like more trouble than it’s worth. For a bunch of entertainment and adventure-starved volunteers, it sounded like GOLD. And rumor had it there was a group of Russians who rented out SUV’s and for a dime or two, would take curious travelers out there to check it out. So it was then that on fall break a group of fellow volunteers and I, faced with a week of free classes, escaped our work sites, piled into SUV’s, and headed into the desert. As I hadn’t left site for nearly two months, I was more than ecstatic to be out and about. (I suffer from a bad case of zip code claustrophobia-too long in one place and I start to go a bit bonkers. Ecstatic might have been an understatement.) Although I have lived here for over a year now, working a six-day week and travel policies really limit how much of the country I have seen, and as my work site is a fair stretch from most of the other volunteers, my social calendar is pretty much slim to none. Thus far my experiences have been mostly around my region, and so little excursions do a lot to make life here a little bit more exciting.
Added that this week was the celebration of Turkmenistan’s independence, a few of us decided the best way to ring in another year of Independence would be to camp out under the stars next to a burning pit of gas. As 4 of our assembled group live in the south and the other 4 live in the north, we had to coordinate meeting up before hand. Being as there is no cell phone service or road marks, this process was a bit tricky. But we did know that the stop was exactly halfway between the capital city and the Northern city of Dashoguz (about half of a 6 hour trek in), so what we came up with was to leave at the same time, and the group with the SUV’s would pull over on the side of the road where the halfway point was and wait till the other half of the group arrived, roughly within the same hour. When the second group spotted our vehicles, they would stop, switch to the SUV’s, and we would all head into the dunes together. As retarded as this sounds, believe it or not it actually worked, and in the middle of nowhere almost without a hitch we managed to locate the correct lone vehicles on the side of the road, exchange rides, and head inward in search of the pit as the evening closed in on us.

The history of the pit is a bit sketchy, and there are a few different versions to how it came about, but most of the stories circle around the Russians drilling expeditions. One story goes that in the 50’s or so the Russians were drilling for natural gas like they did over most of the country, and they hit a small pocket, but concluded it wasn’t large enough to draw from. So they decided to burn it out it so that the stagnant gas wouldn’t be left exposed. Apparently there was more gas there than they bargained on, and 50 years later the pit is still burning. Another story goes that while they were drilling, one of the workers accidentally dropped his cigarette into the pit and it lit the gas on fire. There was no putting it out, and so they had no choice but to leave the deserted pit burning. Probably was kind of hard for him to find another job after that. Yet another story says that while the workers were drilling they hit an unexpected air pocket that collapsed underneath them and took the drill head with it. When the drill hit the bottom of the cave, it hit rock and sparked, and the sparks hit the gas, and ta-da, the oversized Bunsen burner was born. Whatever the real story is, it resulted in a large fiery pit about the circumference of a small football field and the depth of a three story building, that has been nicknamed by the locals the Gate of Hell, or The Pit of Hell, and is pretty damn cool when the sun goes down amid miles of stretching sand and dunes.
So we arrived around sunset, cooked some BBQ with our fearless Russian leaders Sasha and Vladimeer (our drivers, who proved true any stereotype you’ve ever read about burly Russian men), met some fellow travelers from Austria who had also managed to hear about this odd place and found their way out into the sand, and settled in to watch the sun go down and the flames burn bright with some old fashioned Russian vodka to keep us warm. It was a pretty neat evening all around, and a nice change from watching my family’s Russian Soap Operas, which make up our normal evening entertainment. And let me just say, who needs fireworks on Independence Day when you have an endless supply of blazing flames coming straight from mother earth? All in all, going to Hell was a good time. Even if it was bloody cold out there and I am still recovering feeling in my toes  In the future, I will definitely tell anyone to go to Hell. It really is quite a nice place.


sentz said...

Dear Megan,
REally enjoyed your photos and description of "going to hell", and also forwarded your grammar lesson to several teachers including a former Peace Corps volunteer to Romania. Decided my next package to you will include potting soil, so please let me know if there is anything your spirit or physical self needs for goodies. Did the 3rd package with yarn and strawberries ever reach your arms?
Sending a hug and enjoying your stories.
linda sentz

Pablo (yo) said...

Great blog!!!
If you like, come back and visit mine:

Pablo from Argentina

megan said...

Yeah linda, I got the third package-it was great! Thanks again so much for sending all the great stuff-it means so much, and they are enjoyed not only by me, but also other PCV's and my Turkmen friends!