Visiting The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan; EVERYTHING You Need To Know!
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2021: Visiting The Gates of Hell Turkmenistan is a tricky task to accomplish. Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries in the world to get a visa for. I was rejected twice before finally I cracked it third time lucky (more info on that below). Unless you’re trying to visit every country in the world, as I was, then the main reason anyone visits Turkmenistan is to see the Gates of Hell. I’ve blogged my personal experience about visiting the Gates of Hell below, as well as added my YouTube video. I hope my blog post helps you plan your gates of hell tour. It’s an awesome experience.
Table of contents
- Visiting The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan; EVERYTHING You Need To Know!
- What are the Gates of Hell (aka the Derweze/Darvaza gas crater)?
- Where are the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan?
- How To Visit the Gates of Hell
- Is It Safe to Visit The Gates of Hell
- Tips on visiting the Darvaza/Derweze gas crater
- Visiting The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan; My Personal Experience
- My (shaky) Gates of Hell YouTube Video
- Travel Insurance for Turkmenistan?
What are the Gates of Hell (aka the Derweze/Darvaza gas crater)?
First off, what the hell is it?! Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas. For over forty years then been digging for more sources of natural gas. One day, four decades ago, a scientist dug a little too fast, and the crater was formed, collapsing in on a gas pocket. Natural gas doesn’t smell, humans add the smell so we can identify it later. That meant no-one knew there was any gas leakage and they moved on to the next plot of land. Before long the camels and goats were dropping dead around the crater, and they worked out why. Gas was spewing out of the crater constantly, twenty-four hours a day.
The solution? They thought they’d light it, and burn the excess gas away to end the problem once and for all. So they did burn it, but they certainly didn’t end the problem. It’s a huge reserve of natural gas, and it’s been burning constantly for over forty years, burning lots of money with it. And so here we are. The Government has been trying to ‘plug’ it for years, so there’s no telling when the gas will run out, or the Government will work out a way to stop it, so get there soon if it’s on your bucket list.
Where are the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan?
The Gates of Hell are in Turkmenistan. 250km or so north of the capital, Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan is a small secretive country in Central Asia, bordering with Uzbekistan and Iran. It’s rich in natural resources, yet the people remain poor.
How To Visit the Gates of Hell
First, you must get to Turkmenistan. That’s the tricky part! See info on the Turkmenistan visa below.
Once in Turkmenistan, you can visit the gates like this:
- If you’ve booked a multi-day tour, they’ll drive you. This is what I did, and how I managed to camp on the crater rim. (roughly $150 per day).
- If you’ve secured your visa independently, you can organise a day trip to the crater from Ashgabat (about $130)
- You can take a taxi there and back.
Most people enter Turkmenistan for less than 7 days. That means, technically, you’re eligible for a transit visa. Good luck with that. The next option is a tourist visa, that requires a LOI (letter of invitation). Again, a nightmare. 3rd option is to book a tour. They’ll take care of all your paperwork, and run you through the process step-by-step. The most expensive option, and in my opinion, the best.
I was rejected twice for my visa, then finally took the tour option. And boom. Success. It is even possible to get it sorted with your tour operator AND just pick-up the visa at the airport. You don’t even go to the embassy. Trust me, if you can, do this.
Is It Safe to Visit The Gates of Hell
First of all Turkmenistan is one of the safest countries in the world. Because of their autocratic leadership, no-one would date attack a tourist. They’ll happily overcharge you though. And the Gates of Hell itself, is it safe? Yes, but you have full personal responsibility. You can fall into the crater if you get too close. It’s up to you. It’s 100% safe as long as you’re not an idiot.
Tips on visiting the Darvaza/Derweze gas crater
- Use a multi-day tour. You can get it for as little as $500, and it’ll sort out one of the trickiest visas in the world
- Start organising your Turkmenistan tourism stuff 6 months before you plan to go.
- Bring warm clothes if you’re going to camp. I was freezing.
- The coolest way to do a trip would be Uzbekistan, then overland through Turkmenistan, then into Iran. Or vice-versa. Epic!
- If you get your visa rejected once, try again. Don’t give up.
- Email Artem or Artik on email@example.com and tell him I sent you. He helped me out SO much and finally got me in!
Visiting The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan; My Personal Experience
Back in 2016, I had visited 189/197 countries in the world. I had less than 10 countries left! Pretty cool, but the downside was that I was running out of things on my bucket list. However, visiting the ‘Gates of Hell’ in Turkmenistan has been on there forever. Having twice been rejected for my visa for Turkmenistan, it felt like it may never happen. Third time’s the charm though eh? I finally managed to get my visa and I was off to this strange country. Landlocked in the middle of Central Asia.
I flew into Ashgabat, the Capital of Turkmenistan. It was early in the morning in January and it was freezing cold. The owner of my tour company, TravelNotoria, had come to the airport to pick me up. Although I was shattered from the flight, it worked out well because we had a quick bite to eat in the airport, a small drive around Ashgabat, the hugely developed Capital City (they have oil and natural gas money), before my tour leader would pick me up and drive me to the Darvaza gas crater. Aka the Gates to Hell. The spot I had dreamed of camping beside for years. Soon to see it in the full pitch back glory in the depths of the Turkmen desert.
When my guide arrived, we went straight to the shopping mall to pick up some groceries and food to cook that night for when we got to the gas crater. A whole chicken, some break and a few beers later and we were off in the SUV. I knew that the Capital would be developed. A little like Astana in Kazakhstan perhaps. But having traveled through Uzbekistan, bordering to the north, and Iran, bordering to the south. I hadn’t expected it to be like this. Baskin Robbins. McDonalds. Huge malls. But very little people. They had built all this ‘developed’ stuff, but there was no-one around. The whole place had a strange vibe.
Truth be told I wasn’t that excited about visiting Turkmenistan as a country. Sure Ashgabat is cool, mostly because it sounds like the kind of place Harry Potter would find himself in. And that fact that it’s referred to as the North Korea of the ‘stan countries makes it interesting. But for me, it was all about the gas crater. On we went.
Driving to Derweze/Darvaza
The gas crater is about a four-hour drive from Ashgabat, the Capital city. The road is really good, paved the whole way. Check the map below. If you haven’t traveled in crazy countries much, you mightn’t know that this was quite the luxury. After the best part of a year traveling through West Africa, every time I’m on a long journey and I see it’s a paved road I wanna jump out of the car and kiss it.
The scenery, at first, is pretty epic. Endless desert on both sides as you dissect the Karakum desert right into the hear of Turkmenistan. You’re on the old Silk Route, which is a romantic idea .The sand seems to go on forever. Before long, you’re pretty used to dusty yellow landscapes. And because I had taken the redeye from Istanbul, it was time to catch a nap. Perfect.
I was awake again. I whacked my head off the car door as we went off-road. A sign that we were nearly there. Before we headed to the burning crater, we made a quick pit-stop at two other craters,. The mud crater and the water crater. They were both a little underwhelming, to be honest. The gates of hell were so close. I couldn’t be bothered with anything else! So I hurriedly jumped out of the car, took a few snaps of the craters, jumped back in and said “How far to the burning crater?’. Another twenty mins or so. Brilliant.
Finally. The Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan. Wow.
Off-road we went, and now we were in hard-core travel territory. The car was swinging around aggressively. It wasreezing cold, only desert surrounding us. It was ‘low’ season in Turkmenistan, so we were pretty much guaranteed to have the place to ourselves. So when we finally pulled up, I was a little gutted there was another car. They were locals though, so my guide was sure they wouldn’t spend the night. Just a couple of hours vodka drinking and then home, he assured me.
Camping by the Gate to Hell
So… finally, I had made it, and it was pretty epic. A huge crater in the middle of the desert, burning an intense fire, roasting hot to stand beside yet, yet if you step back ten metres it’s freezing again.
It was still only around 4pm. We went to collect firewood for dinner, and set up camp. I’d be sleeping in a tent alone, and my guide would, quite sensibly, be sleeping in the car. An hour or two of prep, the tent was reading, the fire was burning, the potatoes were roasting and the chicken was grilling. This was everything I had dreamt of and more. Oh, and our local tourists? They had gone now too, perfect. We cracked open two beers and chowed down on a super delicious meal.
The Gates of Hell at Night
The sun was finally setting, and this is when the magic starts. Sure, the Gates of Hell are awesome in the day time, but when the sun sets and the darkness comes, there’s nothing quite like it. Darkness in the Karakum desert is TRUE darkness too. No light pollution for hundreds of kilometres. It’s pitch black.
Time t check out the crater properly. I got out of my tent. It was around 5 degrees, and I hadn’t brought enough clothes. Shivering, I used my flashlight to clamber over the ridge that we’re camped behind and WOW, there it is.
My guide left me to it. He’s seen it all before. I grabbed myself a beer, and my lonely planet and I walk right up to the ridge. Instantly I could feel the intense heat, and hearing the roar as the natural gas surges out of the crater and ignites. So, so impressive. I walk around the crater, then come back to my starting point. It takes about twenty full minutes to circumnavigate. The ‘Gate’ is about the size of a football pitch and you have to watch your step because if you stumble and fall, you’re done.
Sleeping beside the Gate
Once I had taken all my photos, I just sat by the Darvaza gas crater for around an hour. Close enough to not be freezing, further enough away not to fall in. I focused on soaking in where I was. Finally reaching a place I’ve dreamt of for years. And appreciating the opportunity the world has give me. As I finished my beer, I headed back, climbed into my tent. Then into two sleeping bags and surround myself in another blanket and managed to fall asleep in the most contented manner imaginable.
I don’t even feel the cold that night, perhaps due to how truly satisfied I felt. I woke up after a solid night’s sleep, had a quick bite to eat, and was reading to set off back to Ashgabat.
“One last look at the crater?” My guide asked me. “No thanks, I want my last look to be the burning Gates of Hell at night time, I’m done thanks, buddy, let’s go” And off we went. What a trip.
I just want to say a huge thanks to TravelNotoria.com. You succeeded where other famous companies in Turkmenistan failed. Thanks for helping so much with my visa, and thanks for an amazing tour. Not only are you the cheapest, but you’re also the best. A rare combination.
My (shaky) Gates of Hell YouTube Video
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