This experience was from late summer 2018. I wanted to visit the ancient city of Merv, camp by the gas crater, Darvaza “(Gate to Hell”), in the middle of the Karakum desert, and maybe catch the melon festival instituted by the eccentric Turkmenbashi. After weeks of researching and going over posts on Caravanistan in early 2018, my travel mates and I took a leap of faith and finally booked this tour.
We took an early taxi arranged by our hostel in Khiva to the border post of Shavat. The border area was already bustling with locals that brought their goods to trade at the market nearby. Our taxi stopped a few hundred meters before the border gate, and we took our backpacks and walked to the Uzbekistan border gate. The staff at the border checked our bags and stamped our passport, quite hassle-free. We then walked on to the Turkmenistan side (a few hundred meters from the Uzbekistan customs), where our guide greeted us in person and chatted with us as we waited for our paperwork to be processed.
The Turkmenistan side took a bit longer for paperwork processing (I’d say we waited for about 30 minutes), but the immigration traffic was light, and we even saw some tourists coming in from the other direction. Our guide told us that some tourists would do a day trip from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan to visit the famed Darvaza crater. After collecting our bags from the Turkmen customs, we hopped on the jeep provided by Owadan, the tour company that provided our customized trip and visa support.
Looking back, the trip was definitely worthwhile. The melons were great (there were so many varieties!), the camping experience by the crater was unique, the buildings in Ashgabat (the city of marble) were quite impressive, and I got to visit to the legendary city of Merv, an ancient pearl on the silk road that was sadly destroyed by the mongols. Although Merv is a UNESCO heritage site, I did not see many international tourists there, and most of the points of interests did not have posts of information for tourists’ reference. There was some joint projects between Turkmenistan and Turkey, and hopefully the site would be more accessible soon.