Only rarely do we travel to our dream destinations – is that because we dread disappointment since they are never as beautiful as we imagined?
There are places you once traveled to ten, twenty or even more years ago that have never quite let go their hold on you. It seems as if you must have left a microscopic part of yourself behind there. Sometimes I tell my children about my travels. About the autumnal forest in northern Lapland during the magical ruska season, which with its captivating monotony and near stunning grandeur has you believing you’ve landed in a fairy tale come true. Or I tell them about the vastness of the sky over Zambia, the sublime light and the slow-motion gait of the giraffes down by the Luangwa River. Or about plunging – with a soft whimper – into the waters of the hellishly hot springs in the mountains around Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture, Japan.
Every thought, every recollection of these travels is always accompanied by the profound desire to go back again someday, ideally with someone to show these places to, your own children, say, in the hope that they, too, will be touched by the magic.
And then there are the other places. The ones you’ve never been to before, even though you’ve always wanted to visit them. One of those places can be found in the Karakum Desert in Central Asia – in Turkmenistan, to be more precise. The desert is so vast, says the German version of Wikipedia, that it makes up 90 percent of the area of Turkmenistan. The desert is home to caracals, a species of cat similar to the lynx, says Wikipedia, and to Asian cobras and desert monitors. The Silk Road ran through Karakum, which gets shimmeringly hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter, says Wikipedia. Because I’ve never been there myself, I have to rely on the reports of others, on pictures. And in these I see fire, a massive blazing in the middle of the great desert. Near the village of Derweze, there’s a hole in the ground, 70 meters across and 30 meters deep – and it’s filled with flames.
Here’s what happened: In the 1970s, Soviet geologists were at work and perhaps not entirely sober. They were looking for natural gas, as the arid desert’s depths hold an abundance of it. And then something went wrong, a rig collapsed, the hole opened up, and gas escaped. The geologists decided to burn off the escaping gas, but the flames have been hissing there ever since. The locals soon came up with a name for the manmade phenomenon: the “Door to Hell.” Ever since I heard about it for the first time, I knew this was a place I wanted to see with my own eyes. The phrase “I’ve got to go” burned itself onto my brain. There were several occasions when I nearly booked the trip, nearly ordered the visa. I can’t count the times I went to outdoor clothing stores and asked to see outfits suitable for use in desert conditions, mobile espresso makers and sun caps with stowable neck shades. But something always came up, prevented the trip, so that it remained a case of wishful thinking. Every once in a while, I felt that the reason for this could be something akin to fear: the fear that my expectations of this unseen place could have grown to such an extent that they could not possibly be met.
Well, that doesn’t stop me still telling friends, acquaintances, my children and my wife that we will all be travelling to this hellhole one day. The wife rolls her eyes – she long ago dismissed my yearning as a crazy notion – and the children look at me with a mixture of fascination and fear, listening as though I were a confused old captain spinning a rum-soaked yarn. And recently, I sense a touch of pity from the eldest, when he says: “The burning hole? Weren’t you talking about that just yesterday?”
One fine day, when the children are old enough, we’ll pack our bags and take a trip to the desert, look down into the flickering, hissing flames, and the wife will be there with us, too. I am absolutely convinced of it – 100 percent. Because the world in which we live is large. And it is beautiful. You just have to look at it.