August 20, 2014

The Gate to Hell. Darvaza.

We left Ashgabat around lunchtime in a convoy of three 4WD cars, packed with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, and, of course, many bottles of Vodka. We were heading to the site of a Soviet mining accident in 1971 when Russian geologists were drilling for oil. They found gas instead, and the drilling rig collapsed into a crater. The gas was expected to burn out within days, yet 40 years later it is still burning brightly.

We were heading for Darvaza (also known as Derweze), located in the middle of the Karakum desert. The roads were positively medieval. The road surface had melted in +50C temperatures creating massive wheel ruts and tracks. We spent more time driving beside the road than actually on it, and the experience was similar to that of being on a continual theme park rollercoaster. We arrived about 19:30 to set up camp, and look at the burning hole beneath us.

We watched the sun go down and the crater began to dominate the landscape. It had been visible before, but with darkness, and no moon, it was giving off a huge orange glow and flames could be seen leaping out of the black landscape.

Barbequed chicken, tomatoes, bread (Russian black loaves) and copious amounts of vodka were consumed as we watched the show in front of us. From 500 metres away there was no noise, and all around was silent. I watched the fire of the crater against the black of the desert, while shooting stars streaked across the sky.

Gone Midnight, time to actually go down to the crater…

The heat coming from the crater was intense. I could feel my face burning as if under hot sun. The smell, not surprisingly, was pure gas. It was like being in front of a stove with all four rings on, but not ignited.I wandered close to the edge, but not too close, as the earth was crumbling and burnt at the edges. Fall in and you would be instantly cremated. Many fires were burning in the crater, and flames leapt from spot to spot, flaring as they moved, sometimes the flares would jump to the very edge of the crater. The noise was unrelenting, a constant roaring.

I stayed there until the early hours, taking advantage of the heat. Despite 40C temperatures in daylight the thermometer dropped to single figures at night in the middle of the desert.

An incredible experience. But sadly it may not last much longer. The President stopped by recently and was not impressed. He saw it as waste of Turkmenistan’s natural resources and ordered it put out, using helicopters to drop earth and water. Let’s hope he changes his mind, as this is by far the best tourist attraction in Turkmenistan.

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