To Hell And Back — Turkmenistan Part 3

Welcome back to our tour of Turkmenistan, the second most restricted country in the world and the final country I visited to achieve my goal of traveling to all 193 member states of the United Nations.

So far, we’ve bounced through the capital city of Ashgabat a few times, visited a not-so-grand canyon, and spent some time wandering around a beautiful but eerily desolate ghost resort on the Caspian Sea. We then flew from Turkmenbashi back to Ashgabat for a brief stop to get ready and gather provisions for the rest of our journey before driving for hours into the sprawling desert to catch a glimpse of hell itself.

Yes indeed, we’re going to Hades this time. We’ll also endure a desert sandstorm and a desert shitfeast. So bring your survival gear, but maybe leave your appetite behind.

Let’s go to hell 😈

Preparing for the Journey Ahead

So, let’s return to where we last left off, back in the white marble city of Ashgabat. After our early morning flight to the capital, we went shopping at the central market of Ashgabat, which was fairly modern and quite nice. It’s the largest market in the country, and it offers everything from food to clothes and electronics to various services. I got some tasty kebabs there, and they had lots of berries and other fruit that we bought to take along for the ride. 😋

After that, we headed into the desert. Soon after leaving Ashgabat, the desert appears as the first dunes rise from the sand.

There were many miles of barren desert between us and our destination.

We stopped in a local village along the way, where we wandered around a bit, saw some camels and some locals, and then went farther into the expansive Karakum Desert, which covers about 70% of the country. After about six hours of driving roughly 260 kilometers north of Ashgabat, we finally reached our long-awaited destination, the Darvaza gas crater.

My first glimpse of Hell’s Gate

Welcome to Hell

The Darvaza crater is one of the main tourist sites in Turkmenistan, unofficially known as the “Door to Hell” or the “Gates of Hell,” and officially known as the “Shining of Karakum.” It’s located in the Darvaza district of Turkmenistan, deep in the vast desert. The only settlement even remotely nearby is a small village of about 350 people, mainly consisting of camel herders and rug makers, who seem to live a safe enough distance from this scorching hole in the earth. 🔥

A few local residents hanging out by the crater

Exactly how long this crater has been burning, how it formed, and how it ignited are still somewhat mysteries, as it appears to be top-secret classified information. But basically, it’s a burning field of natural gas that has collapsed into a cavern. As one of the world’s top producers of natural gas, in Turkmenistan gas can sometimes leak out from the ground, which can cause the ground to collapse and form a crater. If the gas ignites, it will burn forever, as in the case of the Darvaza crater.

An existentialist camel gazing into the abyss 🤣

Some experts believe that the ground here collapsed in the 1950s and was set on fire in the 1980s to prevent the ongoing leak of toxic gases. Many others believe this area was drilled as an oil field by the Soviets that caved in after just a few days under the weight of a drilling rig. They say the Soviets set it on fire to burn off the poisonous gas, incorrectly assuming it would burn off on its own in a matter of days or weeks. Yet other scientists assert that when the cavern’s methane gas hit the oxygen-rich atmosphere, it naturally combusted. No matter how it was created, I think it is an amazing sight to behold.

Knock-knock-knockin’ on Hell’s Door 🎶

The Eternal Flame

Despite its unearthly beauty, locals complain about the negative impact of the gas crater on the environment and on the health of the local population. Politicians are also concerned that their most valuable natural resource is simply leaking out into the atmosphere rather than being bottled up for significant profit. There have been numerous attempts to shut it down, most recently by Turkmenistan’s eccentric president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedo, who announced in January 2022 (not for the first time) his intention to extinguish the fiery pit. 🧯Despite the multiple negative impacts and the president’s determination, all efforts to extinguish the Darvaza crater have been futile because if you close it, the gas will find another way out of the ground, creating a new flaming crater.

I was told that in the 1960s in Uzbekistan the Soviet Union dropped a nuclear bomb on a burning crater in an attempt to destroy it. The story goes that after drilling over 2,400 meters into the earth to extract oil, there was a huge gas blowout that shot flames 400 meters high into the air and burned for over a thousand days. Enough gas was spewing from this hole to power a large city, which was a huge waste of gas and also a dangerous environmental problem.

Burn baby, burn!

The Soviets tried to shut it down, first with firefighters and water cannons, then by trying to cover it with a special pressurized cap. The cap seemed to work at first, but then the gas found its way up through the ground somewhere else in the desert, creating a new burning hole. Finally, they decided to try to put out the fire with the first-ever peaceful nuclear explosion. With civilians just 17 kilometers away, they blasted the fire back to hell with nuclear fury. Again, this seemed to solve the problem for some time, but ultimately, the gas found other ways out. 

I also learned about a guy who went all the way into this fiery inferno back in 2013 to gather samples from the dirt at the bottom. He said that when he dug into the earth to collect a sample, it created a new path for the gas and started a new fire. It’s a practically impossible problem to fix, so the site remains open for locals and tourists alike to come and marvel at.

I got pretty close to the edge but I can hardly imagine climbing down into this thing. 🥵

Blazing Glory

When we arrived at the crater, we found that we were the only people there, which I guess makes sense given the state of the nation’s tourism. Some yurts were off in the distance, but generally, it was pretty isolated in the desert, with just some hills nearby. As soon as we arrived, we could feel the heat of the flames, and when we got close, we could hear the sound of the crackling fire. There was also a distinct smell of gas and something burning, which I caught a whiff of as soon as I stepped out of the car.

The crater is about 60 or 70 meters in diameter and 30 meters deep, so it is fairly massive. While it kind of looks like one big fire pit, it’s actually kept alight by hundreds or thousands of natural gas fires, all burning simultaneously. We set up camp there with our tents and enjoyed watching the crater burn. 👀

You can see many individual fires burning in unison.

It was not so interesting to watch in broad daylight, but it was still cool to check out and walk around. The scenery got much more interesting once the sun set and it got darker outside. It is a truly stunning sight, this hole in the ground full of flames.

Watching the flames burn brighter as the sun went down

I circled the molten hole quite a bit, observing it from different angles. I walked to a hill nearby and waited for the sun to set. As the sun went down and the sky grew dark, the flames burned brighter, intensifying the effect.

The Sandstorm From Hell

A nice clear night fell upon us. The weather was fine, and there were no clouds in the sky. There wasn’t much to do, so we had some drinks and enjoyed the scenery until a sandstorm began to brew.

It started small, so we thought it might not be a big deal at first, but then it grew stronger and stronger. At some point, parts of the tents that we were supposed to sleep in began to fly off, and I got worried that everything might blow away. I went back to the tents because no one was there, and someone went to tell the group leader that the tents looked like they were about to fly off. Some people got scared and decided to still try to sleep in their tents for the night. The gritty, turbulent sandstorm continued to get worse and worse, to the point that we could no longer walk unless we closed our eyes or in my case, wore goggles (it always pays to be prepared). 🥽

We ended up breaking down the tents quickly and fleeing to a big yurt about 500 meters away, where we spent the night cuddling. The sand was still coming in, and I was worried that the top of the yurt might fly off in all the chaos. Regardless of the terrible conditions, I took another walk up the hills to take some nice pictures of Hell’s Gate because the wind from the storm had shifted the flames and smoke, dramatically altering the landscape, and I wanted to catch it on camera. 📸 Needless to say, it was not the most peaceful or comfortable night at all, but it was certainly one to remember.

It was worth going out in the sandstorm to capture a few more epic photos.

A Shitty Morning

I had barely slept the night before, only squeezing in a few hours of rest because we’d taken an early flight to Ashgabat that morning. The night of the sandstorm, of course, I barely got any sleep either. I was exhausted when I woke up the following day and I desperately needed to use the toilet. We didn’t have a proper toilet there, so I went into the desert to take a nice shit.

Much to my surprise and amusement, as I defecated, many beetles came out of nowhere to enjoy the treat. When I arrived, the spot I chose was vacant, but after one minute, there were something like 10 dung beetles, or mistkäfer as they are called in German. They were rolling up my shit into neat formations before gorging on their hot, fresh meal, so of course I had to pause and take some videos of them rolling my shit together. That was quite fascinating to observe and somehow made the morning slightly less harsh.

After taking care of my morning business, we walked back to the crater. The sandstorm that had passed through in the night was now long gone, and we took another look at the burning pit, flames crackling loudly in the quiet of the early morning.

I love the smell of methane in the morning. 🤪

Technically, while this site is referred to as a crater, it’s actually a sinkhole since it was caused by the ground collapsing under it rather than by some kind of impact. There are a couple of other sinkholes nearby, although instead of being filled with hellfire, one has water at the bottom, and the other is apparently full of mud that bubbles from gas emissions that occasionally burst into flames. We took a detour to visit the water sinkhole, which I thought looked very interesting. We were told not to get too close to it, though, as there was a risk of the sinkhole growing larger and potentially swallowing up the unsuspecting tourist. 😨

Join us again next time for the last leg of my journey through Turkmenistan as we visit the ruins of what was once one of the largest and most important cities in the world, a traditional old village with healing powers and some incredible underground hot springs.