Of all the places to visit in Turkmenistan, Darvaza Crater in the Karakum desert is the one people have most likely heard of. Darvaza Crater, also referred to as “The Gates of Hell”, or “Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell”, or other similar “hellfire” variation is not a lava lake, but a site of industrial accident turned tourist attraction. If you think that’s a little odd… well, welcome to Turkmenistan. It’s just one of the many oddities you can find in this little known Central Asian country.
Turkmenistan “Door to Hell”
Turkmenistan is one of the least visited countries in the world. The country was never in my radar until I saw a picture of giant sinkhole on fire in Atlas Obscura. In a book filled with the most wonderful oddities from around the world, this large fiery hole in the ground definitely stands out.
The Gates to Hell was “created” when a Soviet drilling rig caused an underground cavern to collapse, bringing the whole rig collapsing down into the crater. If that sounds bad enough, just wait… it gets better. The collapse also caused a massive gas leak. Our tour guide mentioned that the leak caused the deaths of at least 2 shepherds who were camping nearby. To “fix” this, the same brilliant Soviet engineers decided to light the pit on fire, expecting the gas to burn off in a “few days”. Well.. here we are some 40-plus years later and I can confirm that it’s still burning.
Most visitors to Turkmenistan they make a beeline to Darvaza Crater. It’s without a doubt the country’s most visited attraction. Weirdly enough, it’s never featured on any tourist brochures and the site is totally undeveloped. It is literally a hole on fire in a desert. There are no hotels, no billboard with an arrow that says “Fiery pit, next exit!” Most locals are not even aware of its existence.
One might even suspect that the government is embarrassed of it. The current Turkmenistan president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, visited Darvaza Crater back in 2010. He reportedly thought that it was a “waste of gas” and ordered it filled in. I’d like to think that he was secretly impressed by the crater, because who wouldn’t? Things move slowly in Turkmenistan and I wonder if it will ever happen.
My first impressions of Darvaza Crater, The Door to Hell
As our jeep crawls up a small sand dune, we finally got to see the flat plain below us. And whoa!
How to visit The Gates to Hell in Turkmenistan
I visited Darvaza Crater as part of an 8 day tour of Turkmenistan (I used Travel Notoria). You’ll need a 4WD car since the last 3 miles to Darvaza is driving on sand. Foreigners are also not allowed to travel outside of Ashgabat without a guide, so you’ll need to contact a travel agency to arrange a guide/driver and a 4WD car. The crater is 4 hour driver from Ashgabat, the capital. Darvaza Crater is the most visited sites in Turkmenistan and believe it or not, this was the only place where we ran into other tourists in 8 days.
Camping near Darvaza Crater
The most common trip here involves camping overnight so you can see the sinister fiery glow in the dark. Being in the middle of the desert, it gets chili at night. Even though tent and sleeping bags were provided, you’ll need to bring extra layers. I wasn’t prepared for the cold, so I was glad I had my travel scarf with me.
Before starting the 4 hour journey, we stopped to stock up on food and alcohol in Ashgabat. The latter was much treasured due to the desert’s biting chill at night. As we were enjoying the crater, the guides/drivers went a little further away to set up our tents near a shepherd’s hut and cooked dinner of chicken wings and roasted eggplant. Everyone turned out to be packing some sort of hard liquor, so there was much merriment to be had.
On our way back from Darvaza Crater, we stopped at 2 other sinkholes. Compared to the sight we just witnessed the night before, they were positively underwhelming.
For many in our group, Darvaza Crater was THE reason to visit Turkmenistan. One can argue that it’s the only legit tourist sight in the whole country. For me? It was the icing on the cake. A fitting end to a week of wonderful encounters, eyebrow-raising moments, and the most memorable travel experience.
I decided to go to Turkmenistan because I was looking for different, and I sure got different alright. It is without a doubt one of the weirdest places I’ve been to. I’ll be writing more about this country in the next few posts (see all Turkmenistan posts).
For something similar, but arguably even more impressive – you have got to check out Erta Ale in Ethiopia. A lake of bubbling lava that blew my mind!
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