About 260km from Ashgabat in the middle of the Karakum Desert, we visit the Darvaza Gas Crater. Also known as the 'Gates of Hell', this natural gas crater is 70m wide and 20m deep and emits the most incredible heat. Mesmerised, we spend a couple of hours taking photos of our silhouettes against the fire and the night sky from every angle. With just 10 people present on the night we visit, it feels like an exclusive experience.
Heading north to Uzbekistan, we immerse ourselves in the local scene, staying at a little family-run guesthouse in the ancient city of Bukhara. We try plov, a filling dish of lamb, rice, onion and carrots, at a restaurant overlooking the city, and knock back rough, local vodka bought for us at a neighbourhood bar where Uzbek music blares from a laptop hooked up to a TV.
We step back in time here, taking in the ancient architecture of impressive blue- and gold-covered mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (Islamic schools). In southeastern Uzbekistan, Samarkand is similarly striking, its Registan was once the largest public square in the country, filled with markets and lined with caravanserai – local inns for weary Silk Road travellers.
After Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the much larger Kazakhstan feels decidedly more European. Mosques give way to Russian Orthodox churches with shiny and brightly coloured exteriors, and shopping malls and pubs are dotted all over Almaty, the largest city. Nestled at the base of the snowy Zailiysky Alatau mountain range, verdant, modern Almaty is in stark contrast to the arid deserts and dunes of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Also surrounding us is the distinct aroma of chocolate, wafting from the Rakhat Chocolate Factory in the city centre. We savour the sweet treat as we wander the Green Market. Piled high with fermented horse and camel milk, nuts, fresh produce, Georgian sweets and Korean salads, it’s a taste of Central Asia and all its complexities and influences.