The Turkmenistan government hid it for more than 40 years. To be clear, it was in plain sight the whole time, but off the radar for the few Western tourists that ventured into rural Turkmenistan. Called the Door to Hell or Gate to Hell by locals, Darvaza Gas Crater is a 225-foot wide and 65-foot deep gas-belching, fire-breathing pit.
I remembered reading a snippet about it online after President Kurbanguly Berdimukhamedov opened it to the public in 2013. I didn’t really think too much about it at the time. So several months ago, when I planned a Silk Road journey starting in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, I got the reminder.
I needed to get a visa from the Turkmenistan Embassy in Washington, D.C. Located in a nice brownstone, the visa office was in a dingy basement. If you’re thinking worn carpet and a single lightbulb hanging over an old wood desk, you’re on the right track. The administrative assistant was the bright spot. I planned to arrive in Ashgabat a day early, so asked him what I ought to see. “Darvaza Crater.” And what food I should try. “It’s all good. We don’t eat horsemeat.” Hmm, good to know.
Darvaza Gas Crater is the result of a Soviet-era natural gas drilling mishap. After they tapped a huge natural gas reservoir, the surrounding earth collapsed taking the drilling rig with it. Unlike the other two mishap-created craters nearby, geologists lit this one on fire to rid the crater of deadly methane gas. They expected it to burn out in a matter of days, weeks at the most. Forty-eight years later it still burns. By night, its glow lights up the pitch black Karakum Desert sky. What was an embarrassment to the Soviets is now a destination for adventurous visitors to Turkmenistan.
Since I had only one day to make the trip to Darvaza (called Derweze in Turkmen), I started researching the logistics at home. There are cheap ways to get there and fast/easy/not-as-cheap ways. The economical route (13.5 manat or about $4 USD) involves boarding a bus at Ashgabat International bus station bound for Dashoguz. Roughly three hours into the trip, you’ll be in Darvaza town, 167 miles (270 km) from Ashgabat. In Darvaza town, you need to hire a taxi to get to the crater 4 miles (7 km) away.
I chose the fast and easy alternative, booking a private car and driver from Ashgabat directly to the crater for me and my fellow adventurers. I arranged the day tour online through Exploring Tourism Turkmenistan.
The driver, a 73-year-old man of Russian heritage, picked us up at the hotel in the afternoon. We met him in the lobby, each handed over $140 USD in cash, and hopped into a waiting SUV with a total stranger. Like most tourists, we stayed in a government-owned, over-the-top white marble hotel in the modern, neon-bedazzled section of Ashgabat. The route north to Darvaza took us through Ashgabat’s older neighborhoods, past mosques and markets and uniformed school children walking home. The city eventually gave way to industrial areas then to the Karakum Desert, which occupies 70% of Turkmenistan.
Yuri Kubasovi, our driver, had much better command of the English language than I did of Turkmen. Yuri had spent some time at Boeing in Washington state as an aeronautical engineer after Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991. That, and his grandchildren, were the highlights of his life. When our conversation strayed to the more sensitive – what is your president like? how is life in Turkmenistan? are you free to do as you please? – he steered us back to those conversations strangers are allowed to have. When the conversation lagged, he shared tidbits of history. Did you know nearly one in ten people died in Ashgabat in the earthquake of 1948? The first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, lost his father in World War I and his mother and brothers in the earthquake. Since Niyazov spent his childhood in an orphanage, he focused his energy on building better orphanages when he became president.
We stopped to stretch our legs, explore some sand dunes in lieu of a rest area or comfort stop, and sip the piping hot tea Yuri poured from an old thermos. Several hours later over a road that got progressively narrower, we arrived at Darvaza Gas Crater – Turkmenistan’s leading but remarkably crowd-free tourist destination. Only a handful of people had gathered but it was abuzz with an ‘I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this’ excitement.
Yuri parked on a hill above the crater. As we walked downhill, the hissing sound and familiar smell of a propane barbecue waiting for steaks became more intense. The perimeter of the gaping hole was cordoned off with an unimpressive rope – the sort of barrier that would keep personal injury lawyers in the US in business.
It was a primitive, otherworldly place. In much of the world, you’d find an enterprising local charging a dollar for a picture of you peeking through a cutout painted with a cartoonish devil. But the area was refreshingly free of any commercialism apart from yurts that rent by the night. It’s also free of smoke, as the flames burn gas cleanly.
As the sun set, we returned to our panoramic view of the glowing crater and a home-prepared meal of meat stew, salads, and fresh bread, compliments of Yuri’s wife. The beer and vodka were Yuri’s contribution. Yurt owners barbecued meat and cooked flat bread in open-air kitchens for guests.
Some visitors opted to pitch their own tent or camp under the stars. If you go that route, be prepared for nighttime temperatures below freezing during the winter months. Public flush toilets are free of charge to use.
Ours was an afternoon and evening tour. Satisfied from eating a hearty meal, we took a few more photos of the Door to Hell, admired the vast star-studded sky, and headed back to Ashgabat, dodging free-ranging camels along the way.
Do you have a favorite unconventional day trip destination? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!