What do you do when you accidentally ignite a fiery hellish conflagration that has been burning for half a century and shows no signs of ever stopping? Obviously, you promote it as a tourist attraction, right? At least, that is the proposal for Turkmenistan’s Darvaza gas crater or, as locals call it, “The Gates of Hell.”
The Darvaza gas crater started as a natural gas field near Derweze, Turkmenistan. Soviet engineers identified the site in 1971 as a potential oil field. No sooner did they begin drilling when they came upon a natural gas pocket. This was only the first — and the least problematic — of the obstacles that stood in the way of striking black gold.
Shortly after the discovery of the gas pocket, the ground on which the oil rig and surrounding structures stood collapsed. Fortunately, no one was killed in the cave-in, but it did swallow all the drilling equipment. It also left a massive crater, with a depth of 30 meters (98 feet) and a diameter of 69 meters (226 feet). All told, the crater engulfs 5,350 square meters (57,587 ft2).
With the earthen lid gone, the gas packet became a gas crater. The high levels of methane created obvious hazards for future oil exploration. Worse, the gases threatened to spread to nearby populated areas.
Engineers decided the best way to address this problem would be to light a match to it. They estimated the ensuing blaze would burn all of the gas away within a few short weeks and they would be able to get back to oil exploration.
This went about as well as the time engineers used an open flame to help identify a leak in the largest gas container in the world. The gas ignited as expected. It burned slightly longer than anticipated, however. Half a century later, the once-promising site for an oil well is an immense crater of that is fuel for hellish nightmares. Its horrifying appearance, in fact, has earned it the nickname “The Gates of Hell.”
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow seems to have a love/hate relationship with the site. In April 2010, he ordered that the hole venting the gas be sealed. When that proved more easily said than done, he declared the crater and the surrounding area a nature reserve. He now hopes it will be lucrative tourist attraction.
Darvaza certainly has all the fixings for becoming an internationally-known place of interest, albeit not necessarily for the reasons most governments want to brag about. It was featured in a publicity photo for the 2014 film Godzilla, showing MONARCH agents and vehicles conducting an investigation around the blazing cavity. A July 16, 2014, episode of the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying showed explorer George Kourounis becoming the first person to set foot at the bottom, gathering samples of extremophile microorganisms. See the episode here.
President Berdimuhamedow even used the crater for his benefit. When rumors circulated in 2019 that he had died, he released a 25-minute video montage in which he can be seen riding bicycles and horses, singing, playing various instruments, working out, bowling, and firing an assault rifle. The climax of the video shows the leader driving around the rim of Darvaza.
From all accounts, a vacation to Darvaza is memorable, but the luxuriousness of the experience will leave a bit to be desired. Located about 270 km (167 miles) north of the capital city of Ashgabat and 335 km (208 miles) south of Dashoguz the next biggest city, it is by no means a quick trip to the crater. If you opt for the public transportation route, you will have to catch one of the buses that run between Ashgabat and Dashoguz. There are two buses a day, and neither of them actually go to the crater. They do go to the village of Darvaza, however, and you can depart the bus there. The ride will take around 3.5 hours. The bus fare is 20 Manat ($5.72 USD), and you have to pay the full fare, even if you intend to get off near the half-way point. From there, it is a 7-km (4.3-mile) journey to the crater.
If public transportation is not your thing, you can take a taxi from either Ashgabat or Dashoguz directly to the crater. The cost of a shared taxi is about 150 Manat ($43 USD).
Some people prefer to hitchhike from the cities to the crater. If you decide to do this, you should be aware that traffic can be a bit sparse at times. One traveler counted a total of 11 cars on the road during the drive from Ashgabat to the crater.
If you are used to staying only at 5-star hotels, you probably won’t want to spend the night at Darvaza. There are no hotels or guesthouses near the crater. Several travel agencies have erected yurts (traditional tent-like structures), and some no-frills toilets. Given these limitations, many visitors simply opt to bring their own tents and camp out.