The Darvaza Gas Crater, or the Door to Hell as it is sometimes called, has to be seen to be believed! Situated in the middle of the Central Asian Karakum Desert in reclusive Turkmenistan, this accidental man-made marvel is well and truly off the beaten track.
The republic of Turkmenistan is a strange place. Spotless, empty streets, a former President who renamed bread after his mother and a capital city that looks like Las Vegas on steroids but with the population of a post-apocalyptic world.
White marble is shipped in vast quantities from Europe to create a city-scape like no other and gold statues of former president Saparmurad Niyazov line the parks and streets. Police and soldiers patrol every important building and more fool anyone who happens to walk past with a camera in their hand!
So it is with no surprise that tucked away in the middle of this Central Asian country in the vast and empty Karakum Desert is another strange addition to this already bizarre place; the Darvaza gas crater, or Door to Hell.
This huge hole, 70m in diameter, was created as the result of Soviet oil exploration in the 1970s. In 1971, while drilling for oil at the site, the ground gave way to giant sinkhole.
Geologists noted the escape of natural gas coming from the site, and in an effort to render the area safe, decided to set the hole on fire to burn off the gas, which they envisioned would take about a week. 46 years later however, it is still burning strong.
From Ashgabat to the Darvaza
The journey from Ashgabat was an enjoyable one. The 20 year old Toyota Hilux was a sturdy machine and coped well with the numerous pot holes covering the road. As did our driver Andrej – a gruff, blonde-haired Russian in his fifties with a hoarse voice and melancholic character. “Okay boys…” he would whisper in his throaty, accented English; “ten minutes” he would tell us when we stopped for a toilet break and cigarette.
We left the road and soon came upon a large crater in the desert. Andrej pulled the vehicle up to the rope barrier and issued his usual instruction; “Okay boys, ten minutes!” It was an impressive sized hole, filled with greeny/blue water, and sadly a huge pile of plastic bottles which only became visible from a certain angle.
Beyond the crater the sun was beginning to set over the desert, casting an orange glow over the scrub. We walked round taking pictures and were able to duck under the rope to get a better look.
Darvaza Gas Crater – The Door to Hell
We arrived at the Darvaza gas crater at around 7pm. After leaving the main Ashgabat – Konye Urgench Highway we drove up into the sand dunes, before entering some greenish brown pasture and scrub.
We bumped down some tyre tracks and in front of us was The Door to Hell! The jeep sped down towards the crater and I prayed that the breaks were in good order. We pulled up and got out to inspect this incredible site. “Okay boys, two metres” Andrej whispered. “Don’t go nearer than two metres. Very dangerous” he advised.
Dumbstruck, we walked around the crater taking photograph after photograph from every conceivable angle. The noise and the heat were something else. Every few seconds a “whoosh” of flames would flare up from the bottom and a gust of hot air would almost knock you off your feet. Unlike the water crater there were no ropes or barriers here.
Another jeep was parked a little way up the hill and further on we could see a hut and some tents lined up under a ridge. I grabbed a couple of beers from the vehicle and handed one to my friend. We toasted our achievement of reaching this incredible spot. As the sun set over the Karakum, the crater took on new dimensions and an eerie orange glow emanated from below.
It was certainly clear why this place go the name Door to Hell! Andrej left and parked the car up on the ridge and we stayed to marvel at this unique site. Aside from a group of German girls who had by now left, we were the only people at what anywhere else in the world would be a major tourist attraction.
Night Falls at Darvaza Gas Crater
A light flashed from the hut up on the hill which was indicting for us to go up there. Our stomachs also told us that we were ready for dinner. A trestle table was set up overlooking the crater half a kilometer or so away. We sat down to a meal of borscht and barbecue chicken, all washed down with a couple of beers. After dinner we headed back down to the crater to soak up the ambiance.
On the walk down to the crater I noticed that my head-torch kept illuminating little glowing things on the desert floor. I wondered with excitement if I was seeing scorpions. I told my friend to look out for small reflections with his torch and he noticed them also.
As we zeroed in it became clear that they were small sets of eyes. Closer still and we realized they were spiders. As we drew closer still, one scuttled down a hole that it was perching out from. We scanned round and could see more sets of eyes. We approached more carefully this time and were able to observe these arachnids close up.
Desert Storm at the Door to Hell
What happened next was both unexpected and enthralling. The sky directly in front of the crater lit up with an explosion of light. Not only were we looking at one of the most spectacular man-made scenes in the world, but nature was also about to give as an equally impressive show.
Forks of lightning darted across the sky and struck the earth a little too close for comfort. The strikes were going off in 360 degrees around where we were, and I was quite concerned about the tents up by the ridge, as this is the prime area for lightning strikes to earth.
The rain came pouring down and the lightning was getting really close now so we headed back up to find Andrej and our tent. He drove us the few metres to our canvas home and we bundled in to escape the rain. “Okay boys, breakfast at 7am” and with that Andrej departed to his own tent.
We sat in the awning drinking vodka and cherry juice watching the light show and the crater down below. As the rain eased and the thunder grew more faint we noticed orange silhouettes above the crater flying in formation. We decided the only sensible thing was to go back down there for a closer inspection.
Is it a bird, is it a plane?
The desert floor had turned to mud and our boots were caked in it. It was very slippery so we needed to be careful about getting too close the edge. When we got closer we could see what I thought were bats, but what my friend correctly pointed out were birds (I owe him a tenner for that!).
The sound and sight of these creatures diving and swooping above the crater was awe inspiring; their underbellies glowing like hot sparks from a fire. We watched this spectacle for a while before heading back up to the tents to get some well-earned rest.
Practicalities at Darvaza Gas Crater:
Turkmenistan is not a country geared towards tourism, and in fact with its vast oil and gas resources providing revenue, it actively discourages visitors. If the gas and oil ever runs out, maybe things will change, but while the coffers are full they are not interested in tourist dollars. This can have advantages and disadvantages for the adventurous traveller. The obvious advantages are the lack of tourists and being able to visit somewhere few others have been.
The disadvantages are numerous however. Obtaining a VISA is a difficult process, and most are declined without reason. If you do manage to get a VISA then you need to book a tour, which doesn’t come cheap. We paid $1104 for 3 days through Owadan Tourism, a company based in the capital Ashgabat. A trip to Turkmenistan will not come cheap, but for the truly adventurous, there is no other place like it.
Arriving at the Door to Hell:
We arrived in the small port town of Turkmenbashi from Baku by container ship and were met by our driver who transported us by car to the capital, Ashgabat (8 hours). After a night in the vast but deserted Bagt Koshi Hotel, we were taken by 4X4 across the desert to Darvaza (5 hours) a pit stop at Yerbent Desert Village.
After a night camping at the crater (tents provided and already set up) we were then driven on very bad roads to the border with Uzbekistan at Dashoguz (Dashkhovuz – 6 hours) via a stop at the impressive Konye Urgench.
As we had a tour booked, all our travel arrangements were taken care of, but it is possible to plan a trip on your own if you get a five day transit VISA. This option is fraught with uncertainties and we ruled it out because the chances of being refused seemed to be higher.
There is no public transport to the crater, but from Ashgabat you can take a Marshrutka towards Konye Urgench. You can stop at the turn off and walk the few kilometres through the desert from the road.
However, you really need to know what you are doing here and plan it with military precision as getting lost in the Karakum Desert would almost certainly be the last thing you ever did. Booking a tour is highly recommended. There are very few tourists and you will have ample time to explore on your own.
Entry to Turkmenistan:
By far the best way to see Turkmenistan is through an independent tour, which I would never normally recommend. It takes out a lot of the hassle but still leaves you with a lot of the freedom associated with independent travel. Young Pioneer Tours offer a great selection of packages for ‘people who don’t really don’t like tours’. Check out their Turkmenistan page here for more information.
Another great place to book your tour of Central Asia is through Indy Guide. Their website contains a lot of useful information for those travelling the region and has some excellent deals on tours of Ashgabat.
VISAs for Turkmenistan:
Citizens of almost every country require a valid VISA to enter Turkmenistan. Apply in your home country as applying on the road is not recommended. If you apply for a tourist VISA you must first obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which can only be applied for by state aligned tourist agencies.
We used Owadan Tourism but other companies include Young Pioneer Tours and Indy Guide. To make a stronger case for your VISA approval, it is worth providing information on the route you are travelling.
If you are exploring the region and can provide details of onward travel it will help your case. If you are simply visiting Turkmenistan on its own as a tourist destination the chances of obtaining a VISA are slim. Combine your trip with other places on the Silk Road.
Once the LOI has been approved (takes around two weeks) getting your VISA is just a formality. Take the LOI to your Turkmenistan embassy along with completed application form (download here), passport and fee (we paid around 60 pounds in London). Our VISAs took 10 working days, but there is also an express three day service for double the price.
Entry Tax: An entry tax of $14 per person is payable upon entering Turkmenistan.
Getting to Darvaza Gas Crater and the Door to Hell
Air: Flights to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport depart from a limited number of European airports including Frankfurt, Istanbul, London and Moscow and the airport has links to other central Asian cities such as Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumqi in China.
See Trip.com for flights.
Land: There are border crossings with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. You will need to take a taxi, bus or Marshrutka to the border. Then walk across and do the same the other side. We left Turkmenistan at the Dagosuz border crossing. The crossing is not far from Urgench in Uzbekistan which has links to Khiva, Bukhara , Samarkand and Tashkent.
Read my article about how to travel from London to Beijing along the Silk Road, which includes Turkmenistan as a stop.
Sea: There is a crossing from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in the west of Turkmenistan. There are no passenger ferries, but it is possible to buy a ticket for a cargo vessel plying this route.
Think carefully before opting for this as delays are frequent and it could mean your VISA runs out before you even get to Turkmenistan. We had two extra days built into our tour to cover such delays, but it’s not been unheard of that a vessel could be waiting to dock for up to six days (thankfully rare).
In the end our boat was only delayed by half a day and we were more or less on schedule. Our ticket for a seat in the passenger lounge cost $50 (cabin $90). There are no services on board. So make sure you stock up with enough food and water to last the duration and possible delays. Aside from the uncertainties, this is by far the most rewarding way to arrive in (or leave) Turkmenistan.
Visit Darvaza Gas Crater and the Door to Hell before it’s too late!
Note: The Turkmen government are planning to extinguish the fire at the Darvaza Gas Crater. Therefore it is not known how much longer the flames will be spewing from the door to hell. See it soon, before it’s gone forever, if you dare!
You might also like to read about the incredible Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) in Azerbaijan!