Now this was one I’d been looking forward to for a long time. You’ll have all seen it before – it’s one of those tourist oddities that crops up in lists of strange places you won’t believe are on this planet. Or things to see before you die. Or Sovietfuckups dot com. Not sure that’s a real thing, but it should be.
The so-called “door to hell” or “gates of hell” has been on my radar for sometime, simply because of how cool it looked, one of those alien landscapes you don’t think exists here. It’s visited by more than 50,000 tourists each year, and is actually number one on trip-advisor for Turkmenistan. That’s not really anything to be proud of – that a burning hole in the ground is your number one attraction – the country really must have bugger all else.
And judging from our three and a half hour journey into the desert, you can well believe it. Because it’s best viewed after dark, we set off from Ashgabat mid afternoon, greeted by mile after mile of nothingness. It’s just one long, monotonous slab of tarmac through scrub and sand, occasionally pitching up bleak remote villages and the odd herd of camels. Some 98% of Turkmenistan follows suit.
The Darvaza gas crater is a man-made phenomenon, situated in a natural gas field in the Karakum desert. The story goes that Soviet engineers were on the search for oil, when a drilling rig collapsed into a natural gas chamber instead. Concerned with poisonous fumes, and in order to limit the emissions of toxic gasses, they decided to set it alight, estimating it would burn for a couple of weeks. That was back in 1971. Or 1950. Because Soviets.
Since then it’s been a continuous flame, with the glow at night visible from over 40 km away. Recent governments have been spit-balling filling it in, but nothing has happened to date. And why should it? It’s your country’s number one tourist attraction! But Turkmenistan isn’t exactly a country pre-occupied with tourists. You only have to look at the quality of the hotels and the difficulty in obtaining a transit visa to figure that one out.
And yet still the crater attracts visitors. Not all of these visitors are human. Spiders are drawn in their thousands to their fiery doom by the warmth the flames generate, and it’s fascinating to watch birds dance and swoop above the heat. During warmer climes, intrepid travelers set up camp in the surrounding desert and party into the night. On one such occasion someone drunkenly fell in (I’m going with Australian) but surprisingly enough they were successfully rescued by a crane some time later.
Still, you wouldn’t want to fall in, and indeed I’m a little apprehensive at standing too close to the edge. When rallying through the sands in the dark and seeing the crater for the first time, it literally looks like a door into the underworld because you can’t see the bottom. There’s something distinctly unnerving as you approach, with the thought that the ground is going to give way and suck the 4×4 and all its occupants into Hades. I was happy to keep my distance, and happy another one is off the bucket list.
Before beginning the long journey back in the dark, we stop for local food and refreshment at the famous remote tea house – a way-point for truckers and travelers. My visa expires tomorrow, and I need to make a decision how I’m getting to the border I’m allowed to cross, some ten hours drive away. Reluctantly I decide the best option is to leave at 4 am, and so snatch a little sleep in the back of the pick up. It’s going to be a very long day.