Darvaza: The Gates of Hell
Darvaza: The Gates of Hell
After a day and night on my own in the wacky Turkmen capital, I joined up with my official tour group – Dragoman – who I would be over-landing with for the next 2 weeks from Ashgabat to Tashkent. While I normally avoid guided tour groups, my chances of getting a Turkmen visa would have plummeted without one. That’s not even to touch on the local language skills required to navigate the most basic dealings, the destitute infrastructure outside the capital, and the frequent stops and interrogations from the overzealous and ever-suspicious henchmen of the police state. Ashgabat had been two of the wackiest and most captivating days of my life, but 2 days in an Orwellian 1984 is enough for anyone.
Having joined up with my group of 20 or so other intrepid travellers, we would now head four hours north, out of the spot-checked, fake perfect Ashgabat and into the real Turkmenistan, to camp the night in the Karakum (Black) Desert, whose star, bizarre attraction is the burning sinkhole known as the Darvaza Gas Crater. Darvaza itself, once a tiny village, no longer exists as the former president Niyazov had it removed for ‘displeasing’ him. Henceforth, the most famous attraction in Turkmenistan is hundreds of miles from even the most rudimentary settlement, in an offensively hot desert, off-road from a ‘main’ highway whose decrepitude is such that one can barely travel upwards of 30 miles an hour on it anyway. It seemed like an awful lot of effort to see a burning hole that by all rights shouldn’t even exist.
Back in 1971, Soviet prospectors mining for gas accidentally caused a collapse in an underground cavern, resulting in a gigantic sinkhole with methane gas seeping out of it. In order to stop the excessive build-up of gas in the area, scientists set it on fire, expecting it to burn out in a day or two. But it’s still burning today, and may well forever.
We reached the desert in our custom Uni-log truck around 5pm with the midday heat in decline to reduce the mercury to 45 degrees celsius. In this less than agreeable ambience, I clumsily set up my tent – something I hadn’t done in years – while an allocated number of our group prepared dinner on gas stoves. Dragoman takes a fairly hands-on approach to travel, something I found quite charming having just spent the night in the lavish excess of the Ylldyz Hotel.
After Dinner, with the sun starting to set and primetime viewing hours approaching , we set off in small groups in a 4×4 to the gas crater about 15 minutes away.
Sightseeing is one of those generally over-rated activities, where the more famous and exalted the exhibit is, the less impressive it tends to be. But given the Crater is neither famous or exalted, it really delivered for me. It actually feels like the gates of hell. It’s 70 meters in diameter and upon an expansive and desolate plain, with a small rise to the south which offers an impressive lookout. There is nothing stopping you from getting as close as you want, or indeed into it, though depending on which way the wind is blowing, you get a taste of what that would be like when you’re a few meters from the edge.
Back in Istanbul, knowing I’d be coming here, I purchased a $3 set of devil horns and pitchfork. It seemed like such an obvious photo idea, though I couldn’t find any evidence of this online, hence it was up to me to trail blaze what would have long been a clichéd travel picture in any country that ever got more than a few thousand tourists a year.
I got some really good snaps while the absurdity of it all dawned on me: I was camping in the middle of the desert, in an unknown police state, just to dress up as Satan and caper around the edge of a burning hole in the ground. Was it worth it? Strangely enough, yes. Especially after the sun goes down and hell really lights up to be the only source of terrestrial light for 100s of miles.