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Darvaza gas fire crater, Turkmenistan

  
  - darkometer rating:  8 -
  
A crater in the desert – aka "Door to Hell" – full of countless gas fires that have been burning for decades. It literally glows in the dark at night. Really, it has to be seen to be believed. It's one of the coolest and most mesmerizing places on Earth to behold. It does have its pretty dark aspects too, since it is the result of an industrial (drilling) accident. This unique sight is the absolute highlight of a trip to Turkmenistan!

BUT: hurry if you want to see it – its future seems to be doomed!  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos  

   

More background info: Basically the "crater" is a huge hole in the ground in the middle of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan. The hole is some 30 to 120 yards across … available figures vary wildly – my own estimate is ca. 50 to 60m. Its depth is something like 15-20m. It's apparently the result of some botched attempt at drilling for natural gas during the Soviet era. Sources also vary on exactly when this happened, but some time in the early 1970s seems to be the most often quoted period ... some sources even narrow it down to the year 1971.
 
What happened was basically an industrial accident. Apparently a cavern under the drilling rig collapsed and, according to some, swallowed all the gear – and the workers' camp – in the process. You can still see remnants of the industrial equipment. Otherwise it's just a hole in the empty desert.
 
Natural gas escaping from the bottom of the crater was later ignited – exactly how and by whom is, again, not known for sure. In any case, it has been burning ever since in clusters of hundreds if not thousands of individual fires at the bottom of the crater and all along its rim.
  
This flaming pit has been nicknamed the "Door to Hell", and indeed if there ever was something evoking such an image on an appropriate scale, then it has to be this hole of fire. It's truly spectacular, not only but especially from a dark tourism perspective – come on, how could the door to hell not be a prime dark site?
 
Unfortunately, however, its future is doomed. The second president of Turkmenistan has apparently decreed that the fires are to be extinguished and the hole filled in. Exactly why is not easy to find out, but allegedly it has something to do with a new gas pipeline.
 
Or maybe it's just to stop the waste of natural gas? Not that Turkmenistan is short of this resource – and anyway, they're 'flaring', i.e. burning away, more of the stuff voluntarily at all those rigs and other installations in the Caspian Sea and along the shoreline, as you can see when flying over at night coming from the west, e.g. via Baku.
 
Some say it's simply that the president "doesn't like" the crater. If that's so it begs the question why? But whatever the reason behind the plans to destroy it, it is clear that it will be a great loss – so great a loss in fact that it means Turkmenistan will drop in any dark tourist's priority list by several dozen places.
 
It may never have been mass tourism, but there's no doubt that the Darvaza crater has an incredible reputation amongst more discerning travellers, not just strictly dark tourists or extreme adventurers. So its destruction can only be considered a very mistaken and very short-sighted move.  
 
When exactly this is going to happen is still largely unpredictable. As my sources in the country put it: it could be next month, it could be next year. But they are certain it is going to happen. It will be such a shame. I hope more people will be able to experience this unique site before it's gone … If you're interested and haven't been yet, I urge you to go asap.
 
 
What there is to see: what it says on the packet, basically, i.e. a flaming gas crater – but those simple words cannot get anywhere close to experiencing this in real life. It really is one of those cases of "words cannot describe" what it's actually like. Still, I will give it a try. There are also the photos in the gallery below, of course, but even these can only give an approximate hint of what the crater looks like in reality.
 
Obviously, it's most spectacular at night. If you approach it when it's already dark (as we did when the group I was with in November 2010 got there), you'll even see the glow of the fires from afar as you drive towards it. Then when you get out of the car and walk towards the rim of the crater and the actual flames come into view, the wow factor is totally overwhelming: a fiery pit of flames of apocalyptic proportions that truly justify the site's epithet as the "Door to Hell".
 
And it's not just the sight that's so breathtaking to behold: it's also the sound of the roaring flames and the feel of the heat. Sometimes when the wind catches and blows over the crater rim towards you, you even have to avert your eyes because of the heat blast. Away from the wind, however, the heat from the pit is perfectly tolerable even right at the edge of the crater. In fact, in the cold of the desert night, it's a welcome source of warmth.
 
The glow from the crater also gives the surrounding desert dunes a faint orangey-pink hue. Away from the crater rim, however, you'll need a torch to help you find your step, as there are no other sources of light about ... apart from the stars and the moon, of course, but unless it's a full or nearly full moon, it's pretty much pitch-black in the desert at night.
 
The nightly glow of the crater even attracts birds – apparently there to catch the thermal updrift and hunt for insects that have been attracted by the glow of light. So there's an unexpected "wildlife" element involved too.
 
The main thing, though, is simply gazing down into the flaming pit – you get a better understanding of how Zoroastrian fire temples must have come about (cf. Azerbaijan). It's also cool to go enjoying the glow from a bit more of a distance. You get an even better sense of middle-of-nowhereness that way. Most people, though, stay close to the rim, also because it's least cold there. In fact, it's not unknown for a bit of a party atmosphere to develop, especially as people attempt to keep warm through the copious intake of vodka.
 
Still, some people stay up all night by the crater – if only to avoid the cold of desert camping (see below) – or simply because they just cannot drag themselves away from this captivating sight.
 
During the day the crater is, unsurprisingly, less spectacular to behold, but still quite a sight when standing right at the rim. And only in the daylight are you able to see the surrounding setting properly and get a feeling of the desert – that middle-of-nowhere aspect that's also part of the package here.
 
It's best to be up and ready for seeing the sun rise on the horizon beyond the fire crater. The atmosphere then changes by the second (and photographers go into even more overdrive): from a dim blue haze to chilly long shadows with pricks of light reflected on ice crystals from the nightly frost. Finally it morphs into the typical sandy beige monochrome of the desert. All the while the flames of the crater roar on, although now you can only see them when actually looking into the crater. From further way it looks like the crater has been turned off.
 
Apart from the fire and light spectacle that is the Darvaza "Door to Hell" gas crater, there's also a few things of further interest specifically to the dark tourist, namely remnants from the industrial accident that brought the thing about in the first place. Along some parts of the crater rim you can still see bits of metal poking out that used to be part of the drilling rig that caused the collapse of the ground to form the crater. There are also bits of steel cables and other strange and unidentifiable chunks of mangled metal about. Even at the bottom of the crater itself you can see bits of pipes … but fortunately no skeletons.
 
In fact, the latter could have been almost expected. Since there are no safety railings or anything and since falling into the crater would mean certain death, it's actually quite amazing that this apparently never happens ... unless, of course, the remains of the victims are then quickly removed – though I fail to see how it could be possible to do that at all. Anyway, having seen people's nonchalant and/or drunken behaviour by the crater rim, I for one find it rather remarkable that nobody ever falls in.
 
Arguably, this dangerousness of the place even adds an extra dark thrill to coming here. But this is hardly rubbed in. In fact, the only safety instruction given by our guide was simply "er, guys, don't fall in, right …".
 
Many of the more adventure-oriented operators currently offer such trips to Darvaza. Absolutely not to be missed when travelling to Turkmenistan! … as long as it is still there, that is – because unfortunately this incredible sight is scheduled to be destroyed. See under background info above.   
 
 
Location: ca. 160 miles (260 km) north of the capital Ashgabat, in the middle of the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, near the oasis village of the same name. The crater lies a few miles to the east of the central cross-desert highway between Ashgabat and the northern border town of Dashoguz.   
 
Google maps locator:[40.2526,58.4394]
  
 
Access and costs: very remote indeed, thus not easy or cheap to get to; but free to view once you're there.
 
Details: the Darvaza crater can only be visited after a long drive on the cross-desert highway between Ashgabat and Dashoguz and then a few miles off-road directly into the desert itself. In total it's ca. a three hours' drive from Ashgabat. A 4x4 vehicle with an experienced driver with a good knowledge of the route is indispensable for access to the crater. If you feel confident and adventurous enough to do it yourself, and have the necessary type of vehicle at your disposal, a rough track leading towards the crater branches off the main road to the right of the highway (when coming from Ashgabat, that is) just before the access road to the middle-of-desert train station branches off to the other side of the road. The highway runs mostly parallel to the train line.
 
Part of the track crosses desert sand dunes, where driving can be a bit tricky … getting stuck in the sand is not uncommon – another reason why driving in convoy is always a good thing in sandy deserts! But the track is used sufficiently often to be visible enough to follow. In the dark it's trickier, of course, on the other hand, finding the crater is easier then, once you can see its glow, whereas that indicator is naturally invisible in daylight.
 
When I went there in November 2010 on an organized group tour, the only other people about were clearly there independently – and they camped independently, in two tents behind a dune nearer the crater than our group camp was. So it must be doable. Note, however, that there are several checkpoints along the highway, so make sure you have the relevant paperwork sorted before setting off on this trip.
 
Most visitors, however, will in any case be on one of the organized tours that some operators based in Ashgabat offer. This is surely the safest, most hassle-free and generally easiest way to do it.
 
Tours to the crater typically involve a night's camping near the crater. Our group of 24 (plus two guides and the drivers of the seven 4x4 jeeps) set up camp ca. 200-300 yards away from the crater rim, with several tents set up around a campfire for BBQing. Sounds cosy, but make no mistake: this is pretty basic and rough camping all the same, with no further facilities provided. That means the "loo" is the wide empty desert, there are no showers or other washing facilities. You also have to bring all the food and drink you may need, although some water and food is usually provided – but if you're vegetarian like me, you still need to have your own, as most of the food provided is kebabs.
 
Most importantly: do not underestimate the cold (many people do). Temperatures out here are bound to drop to or below freezing, and since you'll be sleeping almost directly on the cold ground, it does get extremely chilly, and the sleeping bags provided may not be enough to keep you sufficiently warm at night. So it is recommended that you come prepared: thermal underwear and several layers of clothing are useful, as are warm socks and boots and at least a good woolly hat, perhaps gloves too. (Oh, and preferably earplugs too, if you intend to try and sleep – it only takes one snorer and/or prolonged drunken partying of some group members, both of which is likely to happen, to make sleep impossible otherwise.)
 
As for prices, viewing the crater is free at all times, but of course the organized camping tour doesn't come cheap.
 
Finally, a health and safety warning: the crater rim is actually a bit dangerous, since the soil on the edge is basically baked clay, and thus potentially crumbly, so approach the crater with extreme caution. You absolutely do not want to risk falling in. That would mean certain death: even if you managed to avoid the flames themselves (and there are only a few patches on the crater floor that are not directly on fire), all the oxygen down there is being used up by the flames, so you'd still suffocate quickly. So it really is crucial to take care when near the crater.
 
 
Time required: It takes about three hours or so to drive there from Ashgabat, and another three for the way back. As visiting the crater only really makes sense when you can see its hellfire-ish glow in the dark, most visitors camp in the desert overnight. That makes the whole operation minimally a two half days excursion.
 
In theory, it is possible to just drive back through the night once you've seen enough of the crater, and indeed one member of our group had arranged just that (presumably at significant extra cost), since he didn't want the camping experience. He missed out on the glorious sunrise in the morning though.  
 
I'd say the discomfort of chilly desert camping is a price well worth paying for having the full night, dawn and day experience of Darvaza.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: en route, or on the way back from, the Darvaza gas crater, two more craters can be visited. Both are the result of similar industrial accidents too, i.e. collapsed caverns leaving deep craters. Only in these there was no gas to ignite, but one turned into a bubbling mud volcano and the other simply filled with water. They are less spectacular than the flaming gas crater but still very much worth seeing when out here.
 
Normally, they should be visited en route towards Darvaza, as that way the drama builds up, starting with the water crater and working up towards the highlight of the flaming gas pit. When I visited, however, our group had been late in departing Ashgabat, so it got too dark to stop by these other craters. So we made it straight to Darvaza that evening and left the other craters for the following day. That way the sequence of craters was a bit anticlimactic, but I still found both the mud and the water crater cool to see.
 
The water crater is the more harmless of the two to look at, being just a bluish lake at the bottom of a ca. 15m (50 foot) deep steep-sided crater. But it's more "interactive" as it were, since you can throw blocks of rock in. Conveniently there's a big pile nearby. It's what you do when at such a body of water – as our guide Simon put it: "if there's water, you throw things in – it's part of the human condition". Unfortunately, it's not only bits of rock that people through in – there's also a patch resembling a mini-version of the "trash vortex" in the Pacific, i.e. a cluster of floating empty plastic bottles and such like. Very unsightly, but probably not unexpected … the water crater is close to the cross-desert Ahsgabat-Dashoguz highway at some 10 miles (16 km) south of the where the track to the Darvaza crater branches off.
 
Goople maps locator (note that it classic maps it is erroneously marked "Door to Hell" and in teh current view some of the photos are placed wrong too): [40.0454,58.4285].
 
 
The mud crater is closer to the turn-off to Darvaza, just 2 miles (3 km) south of it. Instead of water, the bottom of this similarly-sized crater hole is a bubbling cesspool of grey mud. It's like a cluster of mud volcanoes, or rather: a mud lake. Like those mud volcanoes at Qobustan in Azerbaijan all thrown together into one big hole. Also like them (but unlike those geothermal bubbling mud pots in e.g. Iceland) it's cold mud. Still, you definitely do not want to fall in there either. Interestingly, by the way, there are remnants of steel-rope railings that apparently once protected the rim of these craters ... whether for the safety of humans or to stop animals stumbling in is an open question. But these railings have mostly so deteriorated that they offer no protection. And anyway, to actually see into these craters you need to step up closer to the edge in any case.
 
Google maps locator: [40.1679,58.4107]
 
 
In the vicinity of the craters there are also other remnants of past drilling operations visible, including at least one tower-like structure like an oil derrick. I was told that there used to be a lot of sulphur mining going on here. So maybe it was from that.
 
For more dark sites that can be combined with the trip to Darvaza see under Turkmenistan in general, and especially under Ashgabat.
 
Further away still: the cross-desert highway that leads past Darvaza continues all the way north to Dashoguz; from here Nukus in Uzbekistan, 90 miles (150 km) from Dashoguz (25 miles/40 km north-east of Konye-Urgench), is the jumping-off point for trips (another 100 miles/160 km north) to Muynak by the dried up Aral Sea.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Virtually all organized tours to Darvaza start from and return to Ashgabat, so see there for more suggestions.
 
The cross-desert highway that the Darvaza crater is near to leads all the way to the north of the country to Dashoguz near the border with Uzbekistan. In the vicinity of Dashoguz (well, about an hour's drive west of it) are to be found some of Turkmenistan's most significant ancient monuments, mainly at Konye-Urgench, with its impressive tall brick Gutluk Temir minaret and various mausoleums standing in a vast, sprawling necropolis.
  
  
 
  • 01 - Darvaza flaming gas crater01 - Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 02 - Darvaza flaming gas crater02 - Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 03 - Darvaza flaming gas crater rim03 - Darvaza flaming gas crater rim
  • 04 - Darvaza flaming gas crater bottom of pit04 - Darvaza flaming gas crater bottom of pit
  • 05 - sitting by the Darvaza flaming gas crater05 - sitting by the Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 06 - remnants of the drilling rig still poking out06 - remnants of the drilling rig still poking out
  • 07 - yours truly at the Darvaza flaming gas crater07 - yours truly at the Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 08 - the glow of the fires on the nearby dunes08 - the glow of the fires on the nearby dunes
  • 09 - the nightly glow of Darvaza flaming gas crater09 - the nightly glow of Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 10 - Darvaza flaming gas crater at the crack of dawn10 - Darvaza flaming gas crater at the crack of dawn
  • 11 - sunrise at Darvaza flaming gas crater11 - sunrise at Darvaza flaming gas crater
  • 12 - Darvaza flaming gas crater in the morning12 - Darvaza flaming gas crater in the morning
  • 13 - still impressively large fire pit13 - still impressively large fire pit
  • 14 - evidence of a frosty night14 - evidence of a frosty night
  • 15 - steel cable near the crater15 - steel cable near the crater
  • 16 - mangled steel object at the crater rim16 - mangled steel object at the crater rim
  • 17 - bits of drilling rig still poking out at the crater rim17 - bits of drilling rig still poking out at the crater rim
  • 18 - Darvaza flaming gas crater by day18 - Darvaza flaming gas crater by day
  • 19 - Darvaza flaming gas crater in the Karakum desert19 - Darvaza flaming gas crater in the Karakum desert
  • 20 - mud crater20 - mud crater
  • 21 - bubbling mud21 - bubbling mud
  • 22 - more evidence of drilling operations22 - more evidence of drilling operations
  • 23 - water crater23 - water crater
  • 24 - throwing blocks of rock into the water crater24 - throwing blocks of rock into the water crater
  • 25 - a stop in the desert25 - a stop in the desert
  • 26 - shadow of  4x4 in evening desert light26 - shadow of 4x4 in evening desert light

  

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