Scarring the earth like a vicious pockmark, the Darvaza Gas Crater burns ferociously in an intense, permanent rage. Sunken into the heart of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, the flaming circular pit has become known as the “Door to Hell”, inspiring images of a fabled entrance to Lucifer’s Underworld. Completely remote in an already isolated nation, it may just be Central Asia’s most peculiar attraction. But despite the obvious appeal to intrepid travellers, very few people actually have the chance to see this curious spectacle.
The Darvaza Gas Crater only came into existence relatively recently. In 1971 a Soviet team were conducting oil exploration with a drill rig when a natural gas field collapsed in the Karakum Desert, creating a gaping scar. Methane began leaking into the atmosphere from what turned out to be the sixth largest gas reserve in the world. How the crater became the burning pit of hell is a disputed mystery, but many believe geologists deliberately ignited the gas, hoping it would extinguish in a few days. Over 40 years later, it is still alight.
As we were drawing up our plans to cross central Asia we knew that we would have to add the Darvaza Gas Crater to our itinerary. However trying to get to the Door to Hell is a tough affair. Besides its remote location, there are no signs to alert travellers of its whereabouts and no common methods of transport to get there. Most people do day trips from the capital city Ashgabat, spending hundreds of dollars for the chance to see the crater for just a few hours.
Even more difficult is just being approved for a Turkmenistan visa in the first place.
Travelling to the ex-Soviet nation is a mission in itself. Turkmenistan already has some of the strictest visa laws of any nation on the planet. Independent travel is almost impossible, with the only option of entering Turkmenistan being on a difficult-to-attain transit visa. These are valid for between 3-5 days and are date and location specific. The process is often delayed for weeks on end, or denied without reason. The only way to arrive on a longer tourist visa is by joining a group tour, being escorted by a government-approved guide everywhere you go. It may not allow for independent travel, but it does let tourists stay past 5 days and explore more thoroughly. This was the option we ended up taking.
We visited Turkmenistan with the overland adventure tour company Dragoman, which not only allowed us to have more time exploring the nation, but meant we had our own transport to drive to the Door to Hell. And with more time on our side, we had the unique opportunity to spend the night camping at the Darvaza Gas Crater.
Having spent our first night camping in the wilderness near Konye Urgench, an important historical site from the fascinating Silk Road, we headed south on a mild November morning. Our group was eager to get to Darvaza before darkness set in. With the kilometres rolling over on a potholed highway and the scenery rarely changing, it seemed like perhaps we would be cutting the daylight hours fine. Suddenly our guide Murat pointed down an unpaved road and said we had reached the turn off. Soon we were leaving the highway and heading into the desert.
A rough track carved its way through the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert, spidering off in countless diversions. There are no signs guiding the way, or even to alert you that one the Door to Hell lies just 7km from the highway. If it wasn’t for Murat we would have sailed straight past the road.
We bounced along the track, almost getting stuck in the deep sand. As there are no overhead obstructions in the way, we were allowed to sit on the roof seats for an unparalleled view of the desert – a unique feature on the Dragoman trucks. The going was slow, but eventually we climbed a hill and caught our first sight of the burning gas crater. Even in the mid-afternoon sun, it glowed brightly like a lit flare buried in the soil. Its size was immense, and cries of astonishment were shouted in unison. We parked the truck only 100m from the crater, the wind blowing the noxious fumes in the other direction. We had arrived at the Door to Hell.
Before evening kicked in we pitched our tents and made camp; setting up the cooking gear and preparing our campfire. We had been collecting firewood en route, knowing that the chance of finding any near the crater was almost zero. As the sun began to set we climbed to the top of a nearby hill to watch the day turn into night. The darker it got, the more the burning crater radiated, creating an orange haze that rose into the sky.
Under the infinite Milky Way the Door To Hell took on its haunting guise. We walked to the crater’s edge and stood mesmerized as flames danced and twirled below. The crater is 70m in diameter and up to 30m deep. In 2013 an expedition partly funded by National Geographic abseiled to the bottom of the crater, examining whether life can survive in this insane environment. They did indeed find bacteria at the bottom of the pit. But for us, standing near the crumbling edge with no protection, a fall would mean almost certain death.
After our group cooked a delicious dinner Alesha and I circumnavigated the Door to Hell, snapping photos and just generally being overwhelmed with the magnitude of where we were. We stood in silence for what felt like an eternity, hypnotised by the burning pit beneath us. No photos or stories can ever truly explain the feeling of being there.
We eventually retired back to our campsite, sitting around our own small fire drinking beer and wine with the group; the Door to Hell acting as the impossible backdrop. Around midnight we headed to our tents, keeping one door open to admire the Darvaza Gas Crater in our temporary front yard.
Waking before the sun we climbed the hill again to watch the dawn of a new day. Our big group of friends all huddled around on the peak, smiling at the gorgeous sunrise over the Karakum Desert. Afterwards it was time for breakfast and to pack up our camp. We bid farewell to Turkmenistan’s strange attraction and headed back along the rough track. We managed to get the truck stuck in the sand, forcing ourselves to dig it out. Even the journey out was treacherous and difficult. By lunchtime we were on the way to Ashgabat, ready for an entirely different experience.
We’ve pitched our tent in some sensational locations – on the beaches of Hong Kong, in a Tibetan Monastery, on the Great Wall of China and on the edges of lakes in Mongolia – but camping at the Door to Hell has made its way into one of our all-time favourite campsites. Rumours are abound that the new Turkmen president has plans to plug the Darvaza Gas Crater to continue resource extraction. If this is true, then the Door to Hell won’t remain around much longer. But for now, it still burns furiously in all its might. And having travelled there before the attraction is gone, sleeping on its edge and watching its flames dance will live on as a memory we will never forget.
We partnered with Dragoman during our tour across Central Asia. All thoughts and opinions are our own.