Day 27 – Ashgabat to Davaza

We woke to a quiet, air conditioned hotel suite, marble lined bathroom, city views of white and gold. While last night’s arrival was something very colourful indeed, the morning gave true light to Turkmenistan’s jewel of marble and gold in the desert – a nod to that pinnacle of glamorous architecture, Dubai. We made our way down to the breakfast hall – a 20-foot ceiling with vast decoration and chandeliers, 3 waitresses all on station greeted us with smiles, but no other guests were seen. It seemed for all its splendour, the Hotel Ascabil was almost empty – maybe a dozen guests at most for a hotel that could cater for 200. We were treated to a breakfast of multiple courses; nuts, fruit, toast, omelettes, cereal with hot milk. The plates kept entering and exiting the table. If Reza could see this now, we all thought.
For today a few key objectives were required to get us underway for the next stage of the rally. With Hartley now on board as well, there was a need to sort out an Uzbekistan visa, as well as replenish money supplies, especially after the Turkmenistan border had eaten into our reserves. We would all head out to the international bank, return to the hotel sans Hartley who would get his visa process for Uzbekistan, wait till the afternoon to collect the visa then pick up supplies for Davaza and the Gateway to Hell, and head north to enjoy the fiery spectacle. Taking Mickey out for a rare inner city commute, we collected US Dollars with relative ease; credit cards were thankfully very much in common use here, so the need for local currency was not on the priority list. The process and waiting time as compared to other countries was almost instantaneous. As with everything so far in Asgabat, the scale of the bank was large and spacious, the people few and far between. We later learned this city was home to just 750’000, and the country totalled just 5 million citizens, with a population decrease seen in more recent years.
Leaving Hartley to the Uzbekistan Embassy, we returned to the Hotel, checked out and enjoyed a morning in the lower floor spa – a 20 metre pool, hamam, salt room, and massage rooms. With a scorching desert awaiting us just outside the city, this was preferable; waiting out the intensity of the day for the cooler night air. Hartley returned by lunchtime, his visa application successful, to be processed ready for the afternoon, and so getting back into the outside world, we repacked Mickey and headed for the Yimpas Shopping Centre, a multi-storey setup with your classic supermarket on the lower floor, clothing and then restaurants on the respective upper floors. We stocked up on food and water, taking in a small but significant scene of the supermarket’s fruits and vegetables section, with barely a single plastic package to be seen anywhere.
The desert road to Davasa, even for the early evening, was akin to driving through a tumble dryer. There was no rest bite from the heat in this part of the world, especially where temperatures reached 50C in peak-summer. The Micra was unfazed, having survived the extremes of Iran, this was just another desert to soldier through without issue. That was until we had to fill up at the Bokurdak petrol station – trying twice to fill up the Micra’s tank resulted in the sender needle only reaching ¾ full. We decided to allow a few minutes for the sender to settle – the first time we had experienced this problem through the rally, but a fairly minor one, as we knew from the average consumption how much Mickey could take on board, and how many miles to expect from each tank.
Watching the sunset across the flat horizon, and dusk turn into night, we were treated with our first views of the Persoid Meteor Shower – streaks of light dancing across the night sky, already flooded with stars and the ever-present galactic arm, as we had seen on the Bulgarian-Turkish border a few weeks before. It wasn’t long before we passed a family stranded on the side of the road, the bonnet up on their large van, the father on the phone seemingly requesting help. Oli quickly put an open question to the car – do we stop and help, or carry on? We decided to turn around and offer what assistance we could, and for starters we switched on the roof LED bar to illuminate the scene, and offered the family water and some fruit which they were very grateful for – having been stuck on the desert highway since the afternoon. The symptoms of the van indicated a couple of major faults – the battery was flat and didn’t have the necessary power to turn the engine over, the alternator was possibly not sending the required power to the battery, and the expansion tank had over boiled, sending the contents out of the cap threads and all over the engine bay. A few minutes were spent just taking on the symptoms over, and deciphering exactly what could be done. Much to the amusement of Rhys, the driver described the noise the engine made as “dahdahdahdahdah”, translating literally to “yes yes yes yes yes yes”, confusing matters in the broken conversation of charades and Russian-English. Oli first resolved the expansion tank issue, checking over the tank or any leaks and topping it up with water. Next was the problem of why the engine had failed in this fashion, a lack of power may account for an electric water pump failing, and as a result, the water was not being circulated through the radiator effectively, resulting in the boil over. The expansion cap may have been blocked up – forcing the built up pressure out of the cap threads or forcing a crack in the tank seams. With the fuses and voltages looking correct, we attempted a jump start using our mobile jump pack – a glorified laptop battery with capacitor set that would dump power into the car’s power system for 20 seconds – enough to start the engine and disconnect the jump pack again. This worked, but only briefly, and a drive down the road only got the van 2km at walking pace. We had to try something else, and while we tried to avoid using our spares, and also failing a towing attempt from the Micra (then appreciating we would have never succeeded from the gross weight of the van), we did have a spare battery in the boot. Replacing this and using our Iranian bought hammer to wedge the smaller battery into place, the van jumped back into life on the first start – it was time to head for the nearest town, Yerbent. We made speeds of 40-50kmph, and Yerbent was on the horizon, much to the relief of everyone.
The unfortunate ending to this good deed, is that with every town and district through Turkmenistan has police stop zones, where good vehicles must stop, and other traffic is at the whim of the police on duty. We were pulled over, and with that, the expansion tank couldn’t hold the heat and pressure of the engine coolant, sending it pouring across the police layby. Thankfully the father of the family and his wife were more than happy to defend our position – we were simply trying to help them reach the town to seek a mechanic and shelter for the night. It took a lot of convincing and pause for thought on the side of the law. Finally, after much deliberation the police let us go, and without hesitation (or our hammer and spare battery) we said our goodbyes to the family and continued north to Davaza. Other van drivers were on hand to assist at this stage, and with the police watching our every move at this checkpoint, it was best to leave quickly.
Another hour driving across the desert we were met with The Adventurists’ Tea Party location from the week before – the moustached classic racing character with a large hand pointing left stood out for us, offering a key pointer for how close we were to the open gas crater. Unfortunately, the one thing we couldn’t find was the track leading there; after several passes at the closest point, and an attempt at going off road that landed us in a sand bunker and braking out the waffle boards, we conceded that finding this track in the daytime was not possible with the time and resources we had. Checking the maps and taking baring for both the car and the gas crater, we found the best path through the desert, securing the car away from the roadside and heading east across the sand dunes. The orange glow of the crater tempting us closer and keeping us on route.

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