NOTE: VIDEO at the bottom of the post…
With less than ten countries left to visit in the world, I’m running out of things on my bucket list but the ‘Gates of Hell’ in Turkmenistan has been on there forever. Having twice been rejected for my visa, I finally managed to get it this time around and it lived up to every expectation I had.
I landed in Ashgabat, the Capital of Turkmenistan, it was really 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 the hugely developed city (they have oil and natural gas money), before my tour leader would pick me up and drive me to the Darvaza gas crater, where I had dreamed of camping beside for years, 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.
The gas crater is about a four hour drive from the Capital city, and 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. Anyway, on we went.
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, and 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.
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 a little under whelming to be honest, but I deal with excitement like a little kid, and I was so eager to see the ‘real’ crate that I jumped out, took a few snaps of the craters, jumped back in and said “How far to the burning crater?’. Another twenty mins or so, brilliant.
Off-road we went, and now we were in hard-core travel territory, the car swinging around aggressively, freezing 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.
So… finally I had made it, and it was amazing. 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. But what is it?
What are the Gates of Hell
Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas, so 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, so no-one knew there was any gas leakage so they moved on. 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.
It was still only around 4pm, so 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 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 sunsets, 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 kms, pitch black. I use my flashlight to clamber over the ridge that we’re camped behind and WOW, there it is.
My guide leaves me to it, so I grab a beer, and my travel book and I walk right up to the ridge, feeling 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, it’s about the size of a football pitch and you have to watch your step because if you stumble and fall, you’re done.
Once i’m back I just sit by the crate for around an hour, soaking in where I am, reaching a place I’ve dreamt of for years, appreciating the opportunity the word has give me. As I finish my beer, I head back, climb into my tent, then into two sleeping bags, surround myself in another blanket and 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?” He said. “No thanks, I want my last look to be the burning Gates of Hell at nighttime, 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, you’re also the best. A rare combination.