Tucked away behind the sand-dunes of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan lies one of the strangest sites on earth, the Darvaza gas crater or “Door to Hell”.
In 1971 the site at Darvaza was thought to have substantial oil deposits and so the Soviets (Turkmenistan was then part of the Soviet Union) moved in drilling equipment to explore the site for black gold. What the scientists and prospectors soon discovered however was a large natural gas field and the equipment sunk into a giant sinkhole. Worried about the escape of natural gas it was decided to ignite the vapours to burn it off, surmising it would take a few weeks and then extinguish itself. That was 47 years ago and the flames have been spewing forth ever since!
In April 2017 I was travelling from London back to my home in China overland and Turkmenistan was slap bang in the middle of my route, so a few months before I set off I started the arduous process of obtaining a VISA for Turkmenistan (one of the hardest to get, even North Korea was easier). You cannot travel independently in the former Soviet republic due to its paranoid dictatorship, so I booked a private tour and managed to convince a friend of mine to come along to lower the costs.
We arrived in the port city of Turkmenbashi (named after the former president) on the Bagtyyar, a cargo vessel that plies the Caspian Sea between Baku in Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan (you can read about the interesting crossing here). Having read a bit about the place before we arrived, we were still not prepared for the utterly bizarre experiences that would follow.
After a long wait at customs while the border guards tried to work out what to do with us (they evidently didn’t see many tourists) we were driven to our hotel by the coast; a vast palace of marble surrounded by other such hotels. The only thing that stood out was the lack of guests or sign of life anywhere. We were checked in under the watchful eye of the local secret policeman hanging around trying to look innocuous and got a few hours’ sleep before the long drive to the capital Ashgabat, the next day.
We breakfasted the next morning in a large ornate dining hall which looked like a 1940s ballroom. We were the only two people in the whole place and it had an absurd air of Fawlty Towers about it, with a slightly menacing undercurrent. I was glad when we were on the move and driving through the parched desert towards Ashgabat.
The capital of Turkmenistan has to be seen to be believed. The city is largely made up of white marble buildings glaring under a hot desert sun. If ancient Rome and Las Vegas had an illegitimate child, it would go some way to explaining the place. Ashgabat looks like a new city due to a devastating earthquake that levelled the city in 1948 killing tens of thousands.
The former president’s love for marble led to the country being the world’s largest importer.
Beyond the city the Kopet Dag Mountains rise in the distance forming a natural land border with Iran 50 milometers away.
Former President Saparmat Niyazov, also called Turkmenbashi, or ‘Leader of the Turkmen’ was a strange character indeed. His father was killed during the Second World War and his mother died in the 1948 earthquake that destroyed the capital. Having risen through the ranks of the communist party, when the Turkmen SSR gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenbashi took control and outlined his thoughts for the country and much else in his erstwhile musings named The Ruhnama – a not so little green book that is still required reading for all schoolchildren. A giant copy of the book can be found in Independence Park in Ashgabat.
Some of the stranger dictates to come from President Niyazov included the banning of dogs (due to their odour), gold teeth, circuses and long hair and beards on men. Many of the old rules have been eased, one must still exercise caution when visiting this paranoid place.
After a night in another grand hotel in the capital, we set off in our 4X4 to cross the desert to Darvaza. As we left the city we had to pass through multiple roadblocks and police checkpoints before we hit the bumpy desert road.
Every now and then we would swerve onto the other side of the road to avoid a pothole, always as a huge truck came bearing down on us from the opposite direction.
We stopped for a break to stretch our legs at a small desert village called Yerbent. Rusting Russian jeeps lay next to gers and yurts and dogs wandered through the small settlement. Usually camels can be seen grazing on the edge of the village but unluckily for us they had wandered too far into the desert to see on this day. We enjoyed a beer while we surveyed the scene before hitting the road again to complete the journey to Darvaza.
As the sun started to set over the desert we left the main road and drove up over the sand dunes and down the other side. A glowing red in the distance confirmed that we had reached our destination. Our driver, a gruff Russian guy named Andrej, drove us right up to the craters’ edge as I prayed the breaks were in good order.
The first thing I noticed upon exiting the vehicle was the roar of the flames and the heat. Andrej told us to always stay at least two metres back from the edge of Darvaza Gas Crater (of course there were no safety ropes or anything like that).
We peered over the edge and every few seconds a giant burst of flames would whoosh up; the heat nearly knocking us off our feet.
Andrej drove up to a small camp nestled on a ridge a few hundred metres above the crater (camping too close is dangerous due to the poisonous fumes) and we stayed down there taking pictures and drinking in the atmosphere of the place.
As it got dark, the sky danced with lightning and the roar of thunder echoed around the desert. This was something entirely unexpected and we didn’t think it possible for the scene to be any more dramatic than it already was.
We were called up to the camp for a barbeque dinner of chicken and salad, and I retrieved the bottle of vodka that I bought in Ashgabat for this occasion. We ate our dinner overlooking the fiery crater down below. After our meal we donned head-torches and set off back down to the pit. On our way the torch beams would pick up bright shining beads on the ground, which upon closer inspection turned out to be the eyes of desert spiders poking out of small holes in the ground.
Heavy rain sent us up to our tent where we sat in the awning and toasted our surreal experience. As the rain died down we noticed groups of birds or bats swooping down above the crater and went back down to have a look. Hundreds of birds flew above our heads and swopped down into the crater and back up on the thermals. The noise of the birds and flames was intense and the experience continued to awe us.
It’s difficult to put into words the sheer spectacle of everything we witnessed, but needless to say it was an evening that I will remember for the rest of my life!
For more information on how you can visit Darvaza Gas Crater including how to get a VISA, you can see my article here.
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