After a good nights sleep, I got up early for a run to see a bit more of Avaza. On the beach just before dawn.
Another of the amazing buildings. Avaza is planned to be completed by 2020 at an estimated cost exceeding $5 billion. Also planned is a Dubai-esque artificial island, an indoor ski park and a casino.
The Avaza Sports Academy. I was surprised to see a group of guys out running too in the early morning on the empty streets. I would later find out they were the football team from Mary, also on their way home back to Mary today.
And back to the Serdar Hotel, complete with a golden bust of former Presdient Niyazov at the front entrance and his face smiling down from the top of the hotel. Despite all the gleaming new hotels, there are doubts that they can ever be filled with visitors in a country that rivals North Korea in its isolation and authoritarianism. And with the average Turkmen monthly salary of only $150, the five star hotels will not be filled with locals anytime soon. Although it was rumoured that ministries in Ashgabat had received orders to select staff to be sent to spend a few nights in the five-star hotels, with some having to pay out of their own pocket.
Back outside Türkmenbaşy International Airport for my flight back to Ashgabat.
The four-story terminal was opened in April 2010, ready to process the masses rushing to their seaside vacation at Avaza.
Despite being an 'International Airport' with seven jet bridges, there were only three domestic flights today, all to Ashgabat.
The restaurant back at the hotel didn't open for breakfast until 9am and there were no cafés at the airport so I had to settle for a 2 manat Turkish donut from the tea lady.
Pushing back with the view of each of the seven jet bridges.
Flying high over the Karakum Desert.
And arriving back at Ashgabat Airport just before midday, with some of the Turkmenistan Airlines fleet, including a couple of Ilyushin Il-76's and a newly acquired Boeing 777-200LR.
Resting. It was another 3 hours until I could check in for my flight to Mary, so I went for a walk into Ashgabat.
At the Arzuw Kafe, where they were grilling some tasty shashlik.
And where I got an ample serving of chicken, salad and bread for lunch.
I then slowly walked back to the airport. The older buildings on the main road to the airport had gotten the 'white marble' treatment.
And another older building, with steel framing in preparation for more white marble.
The flight to Mary was only ~315 kilometres. There was a TV in the boarding area showing Turkmenistan cultural performances and news. They also showed President Berdymukhammedov inspecting the new airport terminal under construction while being followed by ~4-5 people who were furiously writing notes in a book as he gave his expert guidance and direction. Very Kim Jong un-esque!
Boarding the 737 with a couple of the Mary Football team players on the right.
Banking right soon after take-off.
And heading due east to Mary.
Crossing the Murgab River (which originates in Afghanistan) on approach to Mary Airport. Mary is a city on an oasis in the Karakum Desert, with one of the main crops being cotton.
Disembarking for the longish walk to the terminal.
With President Berdymukhammedov smiling down at us on the way.
I then met up with my guide/driver for Mary, Murat, where he dropped me off at the Hotel Margush where I would be staying the night.
Rated #2 Hotel in Mary on Tripadvisor (out of 2).
My very average room. Only for 12 hours though so perfectly bearable.
On the recommendation of Murat, I went for a walk along the Murgab River to Kafe Gyzylgum for dinner.
And had some shashlik with a very tasty salad before retiring for the night for the busy day tommorow.
I was up early at 6am to meet Murat for the ~40 minute drive to explore the remains of the ancient city of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
First stop was the Tomb of Ahmed Sanjar, built in 1157.
The tomb was recently restored with aid from Turkey. Originally the tomb had a magnificent turquoise-tiled outer dome, said to be visible from a day’s ride away.
Inside was a local family who were praying. The name of the architect, Mohammed Ibn Aziz of Serakhs, is etched into the upper part of the east wall. According to legend, the Sultan had his architect executed to prevent him from designing a building to rival this one.
Sanjar’s simple stone ‘tomb’. Although, fearing grave robbers, he was actually buried elsewhere in an unknown location.
Merv's largest and best-preserved Kushks, Greater Gyzgala. Kushks were a building type unique to Central Asia, and were a kind of semi-fortified two-story palace surrounded by large corrugated walls, and were the residences of Merv's elite.
While the Turkmenistan government is spending billions to build lots of empty hotels by the Caspian Sea at Avaza, the restoration of the 11th century Greater Gyzgala is being funded by the U.S. Government.
The entrance to an underground water storage well.
With the sunlight streaming through.
An Icehouse built during the 13th century. Made from brick and covered by a conical roof, it was used to keep meat and other foods frozen during the summer.
The structure could hold ice and food packed in and frozen in the winter for up to 2.5 years.
Erk Gala, the oldest part of the city of Merv.
Built in the 7th century BC as a Persian Style fortress.
Grazing Camels with the old city walls in the background.
The last stop of the tour, the Mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zeid.
The Mausoleum was built in the 12th Century and restored in the 20th century.
The earthen-brick interior. Ibn Zeid, a prominent Shiite teacher, actually died four centuries before this tomb was built and is known to be buried elsewhere however.
The entrance to another water well.
And the beautiful symmetric brick roof.
At about 9:30am we headed back to Mary, and stopped on the way to watch the Turkmen ladies harvest cotton from the fields.
Making the trek out onto the tarmac again at Mary Airport (MYP).
I actually preferred the long tarmac walk rather than a short bus ride or a jet bridge, as you really get to see the plane up close. Despite being very much a modern aircraft, the unmistakable 1950's styling of the 737 nose (and borrowed from the 707) is down right beautiful!
Flying into Ashgabat after the short flight from Mary, with the rows of white marble building in the distance.
And disembarking from my fourth and final flight on Turkmenistan Airlines.
I then met up with Serdar, my driver and guide for my trip to the Darvaza Craters. We then went to a local supermarket to buy some food for the trip into the Karakum Desert.
And then grabbed some lunch of lamb chops, couscous and fries for lunch.
We then headed out of Ashgabat on the main highway.
The drive to the craters was due north, and 264 kilometres away from Ashgabat.
The main highway soon petered out, and the road reverted to potholed and patched up asphalt.
A couple of Turkmen Camels.
Jerbent, 160km north of Ashgabat. A ramshackle collection of homes, battered trucks and yurts. Jerbent appeared to be slowly being consumed by the desert as sands continue to blow from the encroaching dunes.
And inside a local rest stop. The actual village of Darvaza, 100 kilometres further north, used to be a similar small town in the desert. However, during one trip to the Karakum desert, President Niyazov stopped at the town and was not pleased with its dilapidated state. He then ordered the village razed to the ground and removed from the map à la Chinggis Khan.
More camels as we drove north.
We then finally came upon the first (of three) of the Darvaza craters. The three craters are a result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s.
Both the first and second craters are next to the road, so easily accessible.
We then headed east off-road, for 7 kilometres through the desert to see the most famous crater...
...the blazing 'Door to Hell'! Soviet geologists started drilling for gas at the site in 1971, but unfortunately the boring equipment drilled into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed.
Fearing that the crater would emit poisonous gases, the scientists took the decision to set it alight, thinking that the gas would burn out quickly and this would cause the flames to go out. But they never did, and they now serve as a potent symbol of Turkmenistan's vast gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world.
'Jumping in'! In 2013, Canadian George Kourounis descended into the crater wearing a heat-resistant suit and Kevlar harness, looking for heat resistant bacteria.
There is a naturally sheltered camping place beside a small hill, just south of the crater. There were a few tents set up by a guide for some tourists in a few days time, but I would be the only person sleeping in a tent tonight by the crater (Serdar opted for the guide's yurt).
The sun setting to the east from the camp site with the crater to the far right.
A couple of German and Austrian tourists stopped to see the crater at dusk. One of them in the distance on the crater lip. The crater has a diameter of 70 metres (230 ft) and a depth of 30 metres (99 ft).
Comtemplating jumping in again, luckily before having second thoughts! The crater is described in the Lonelyplanet guidebook as "A bizarre combination of human accident and natural phenomenon, and a vision of hell amid the incredible lunar landscapes of the Karakum desert".
The heat and hot gases rising up was quite overpowering when standing on the edge. Getting close to warm up must be alot more inviting in the cold winter though.
Looking east again, with the sun well below the horizon and the moon in the sky.
I then retired to the campsite where Serdar had setup a campfire.
BBQ'ed chicken and feta cheese with bread for a tasty dinner in the desert.
And some Russian mineral water to wash it down with.
Serdar and the guide chatting by the campfire. The weather wasn't too cool and was great to gaze at the stars with the crater blazing just behind us.
The light from the crater acts as a beacon at night for people trying to find it from the drive offroad from the highway.
My 'room' for the night at the end of day 4. The gentle rumble and orange glow from the crater was very conducive for a good nights sleep too.
I got up before dawn to see the sunrise from the east.
And a last chance to see the orange glow from the crater.
And a selfie before heading back to camp for breakfast.
Serdar's black kettle by the campfire.
My breakfast of hot coffee, cheese, croissant and donut on an angry birds paper plate!
A herd of goats wandering past the campsite.
And after packing up the tent, we were off back to the main highway.
Stopping for some petrol. It used to be free for anyone with a car in Turkmenistan under President Niyazov. This is no longer though, although it is still relatively cheap (1 manat a liter).
Stopping to wash the Nissan before heading into Ashgabat, as a dirty car is a finable offence in the capital.
We then stopped off at the Tolkuchka Bazaar on the northern outskirts of Ashgabat.
Photo's are strictly banned here by the police, but the place was quite sterile and boring and not very photogenic anyway.
After saying farewell and thanking him for the great trip to the craters, Serdar dropped me off at the Turkish Ýimpaş mall in the centre of Ashgabat.
On the top floor was a sandwich shop which looked suspiciously similar to a certain US chain.
I opted for some delicious Pide and Ayran instead though.
I then caught a taxi to the airport and got one last wave from President Berdymukhammedov.
Spending my last manat at an air-side café.
And about to board the flydubai 737 for the flight back home after a very interesting five days in Turkmenistan!