Everyone we met on the road told us that there are only two things worth seeing in Turkmenistan: the bizarre capital Ashgabat, and the Door to Hell. Ashgabat is basically a mad dictator’s personality disorders come to life. The Door to Hell is a gas-filled crater in the middle of the desert that the Soviets set on fire.
A gas filled crater in the middle of the desert that has been set on fire. It’s difficult to imagine, but the name “Door to Hell” is pretty accurate because it looks like this:
It’s been burning since 1971. Soviet petroleum engineers hit a jackpot natural gas site in Derweze, a tiny town in the middle of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. They began drilling and harvesting the gas, but in a big “FUCK YOU” from nature, a gigantic crater opened up and swallowed the the drilling rig and camp. They wanted to snub the release of gas, and had the brilliant idea to set the entire thing on fire, figuring it would burn out in a few weeks. Almost 45 years later, the Door to Hell is debatably Turkmenistan’s most popular tourist attraction, and people come from all over the world to watch the country waste this extremely valuable resource.
Sadly, the picture above is not one of ours. Despite our best efforts, we were never able to peer into the fiery depths of the Door to Hell. But every good traveller learns from their mistakes. The internet is already full of stories and pictures of Derweze Crater excursions, so here are our top four tips on how to NOT visit Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell.
1. Don’t book a tour or get a guide
Tours are lame and expensive. Nothing says “I am lazy and have too much money” then paying someone to schedule an itinerary then drive you around from place to place, so you don’t have to think for yourself. And to book a tour when you have your own perfectly good car? Stupid!!! On our five-day transit visa, we were hell-bent (ahahaha) on forging our own path and being truly independent travellers. And despite the fact that everyone said we absolutely needed a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there, we were determined to do it in our little VW Golf. Why should we trust the word of money-grubbing tea house owners who wanted to sell us a Jeep and a guide for 1.5 hours for $70, anyway?
2. Do the minimum amount of research
Google Maps will tell you that the Door to Hell is located right on the main highway, just slightly south of the now-inexistent town of Derweza, so definitely just assume that’s where it is and hope for the best. Skim the Thorn Tree forums for some information that you can unhelpfully bring up later when you’re lost. “I think someone online said it’s five kilometres from the road… or was it seven?” “Yeah, I guess someone might have mentioned that we need GPS to get there…”
3. Don’t ask for directions from friendly people
If you see a guide at one of the other two craters (there is one filled with water, and one filled with mud), and if he waves and says he saw you in Ashgabat, and DEFINITELY if he’s only got two customers and has loads of room in his Jeep, the very last thing you should do is ask to join them.
4. Do wait until dark and then hike through the desert
When one of the greedy tea house owners laughs at your paltry offer of $20 for a guide and tells you to just wait until dark and then “follow the light”, you should take his advice despite the fact that he said the crater is seven kilometres off the road. After about an hour, when you’ve been tripping through sand and weeds in the dark and the light that “is probably over the next hill” hasn’t got any closer, you definitely will not find the Door to Hell.
BONUS: Camping when you can’t find the Door to Hell
Apparently the thing to do is to pitch your tent near the Door to Hell and have a night by the fire enjoying the company of your rich, lazy tour mates and greedy tour guide. We planned to join them, but since things went decidedly pear shaped, we had to quickly formulate a Plan B.
This Plan B involved stopping at the side of the road and pitching our tent in some sand next to the car, listening to traffic all night and hoping no police would come and boot us out. Plan B was an amazing success. We woke up the next morning relatively refreshed (but cold) and without a cop in sight.
What was in sight, however, was a huge herd of camels. Gotta love the desert.