Travel fail: 4 ways to not visit the Door to Hell

door to hell

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:

Door to Hell

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?

 

Google map door to hell

Hint: This is not where the Door to Hell is

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…”

 

crater

We met a friendly guide, but were too busy looking at some other boring crater to ask for help

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.

 

door to hell

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.

desert camping

Still sick…

What was in sight, however, was a huge herd of camels. Gotta love the desert.

camels

camels

camels

camels

camels

Jagger



There are 11 comments

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  1. Markus

    Hi,

    I read your blog entry and it was really excited. As i understand, you went to the gas crater without a guide? You said, it’s easy to find the way from ashgabat to the dervaza (a city without civilisation? ), isn’t it? And it’s no problem to the way by a normal car because it’s an asphalt road, right? And then the highway ends but how did you continued the last 5km in the desert?

    I will go their in September and it’s not easy to get information so i hope you can help me

    Nice greetings from austria
    Markus

    • Semi

      Hi Marcus! Thanks for the comment and sorry about our late reply.

      Actually, our post was how we unfortunately didn’t make it to the crater because we couldn’t find it without a guide 🙁

      The road from Ashgabat to Dervaza is in very good condition, so it’s easy to get there in a couple of hours. From Dervaza to the crater, however, you have to go off-road through the desert for about 5km (as you know), and without a four-wheel drive vehicle I think it’s nearly impossible. If you have your own 4×4, you can try to find it yourself, but there are no signs and the locals are very secretive about it because that is their main form of income. We got quoted very high prices for a 1.5 hour trip with a local guide ($60-$70).

      Retrospectively, what we wish we had done was looked on Google satellite images to pinpoint the real location of the crater so we could have hiked to it. Unfortunately the wifi in Turkmenistan is almost non-existent, so we didn’t have that opportunity. You can definitely see it on the horizon after it gets dark!

      Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and make it there yourself!! If you do please let us know 🙂

      • Semi

        Okay, so maybe it’s not visible on google maps!! There seems to be a couple sites that offer GPS coordinates.. I would try researching those. 🙂

  2. ln

    Thank you Semi, very interesting (and of course helpful) article, I googled the coordinate following your suggestion and am actually shocked to find the actual location is miles away (north east) from where is marked on google map!? ridiculous! is it easy to find a jeep in Derweza if we arrive late in the evening, say, 9pm? thanks!

    • Semi

      Thanks for your comment 🙂 Isn’t it crazy how wrong the location is on Google Maps? I don’t know if it’s done on purpose or not. Based on our experience I would actually recommend trying to organise transport in Ashgabat, as you might be able to team up with a tour group or other independent travellers to reduce the cost. You can hire a driver at the teahouses along the road, but they will try and charge you a premium because they know there’s no alternative, and I believe it would take some time for the vehicle and driver to arrive. I’m actually not sure if they’re willing to off-road at night because it’s so dark. But… never try, never know. 🙂

  3. ln

    ok just came across with a thorntree post talking about the same tea house, the price was 50 dollars for a Jeep (stay over night) + driver 2 years ago. seems now it’s increased to 70 dollars for 1.5 hours only, sigh. Have you ever asked about possibility/quote for staying overnight in a Jeep? thanks.

    • Semi

      Yeah, I read that same post before we left. My only guess is they were there at a time of year with more tourists, so the locals were a little less desperate. Who knows…

      The man at the teahouse asked if we wanted to sleep there and we said no, so that was the price he gave us just for a jaunt there and back. As you know, everything is relative in that part of the world, though, so you may have a better chance. Good luck! 🙂

  4. LN

    thanks for your reply, unfortunately we will enter Turkmenistan via Dashoguz so Ashgabat isn’t really an option. again thanks for sharing the experience am currently contacting tour operators n see if transport can be arranged in advance. “I don’t know if it’s done on purpose or not.” – I suspect yes. 🙂

    • Semi

      Hey, sorry about our late reply!! I guess maybe you’ve sorted this out yourself by now, but for a transit visa you don’t need a letter of invitation. Just go to the embassy, fill out the forms, and write a basic letter with your exact dates, borders, and reasons to travel through the country. It was pretty easy to get!


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