This world is full of many a strange mystery. The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, the Salt Plains in Bolivia, caves, ancient ruins, but one of Central Asia’s main mysteries was formed by accident when drilling and looking for natural gas, which is actually quite abundant in the region and brings in the money for the regional economy, especially that of Turkmenistan, and that is the Darvaza Gas Crater.
Turkmenistan is without a doubt one of the more peculiar places on Earth. It was my first day in this country when I got to see this giant gas crater, one of many actually in the area, but the only one that was visually impressive at night. One had a much smaller flame (MUCH) and another was filled with water. Next year might be a good year to visit Turkmenistan, as it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the crater’s formation.
The story goes that the team that found the gas, which lit up obviously and started burning, decided it would be safest to let the gas burn out. As it is still burning today, I guess no-one has since decided differently. It should be said that they expected to be burnt out within a couple of weeks. It’s fair to say they slightly underestimated just how much gas lay under the ground, stored in pockets.
In a country that does not see a lot of tourists at all, Darvaza is THE most visited tourist attraction. A hole in the ground with fire in it. Don’t worry if you want to go, it is NOT swamped with tourists from all over the globe desperately trying to get their selfies. Not yet at least.
It’s best viewed, for sure, at night. We arrived – my little tour party which included myself, my guide, driver and trainee guide – at sunset. 530pm or so I think. I’d crossed the border from Uzbekistan at 10am, visited Konye Urgench in the early afternoon and then we’d driven down a highway with virtually no lines or signposts for the most part through semi-desert. I must have covered 400 – 500km in the day. And the longer it went on, the more surreal it got.
Then the 4WD suddenly detours off the highway onto an un marked, unsealed ‘track’ through the desert. It was pretty wild all said! And then it was still a few kms to go. The surroundings we’d had were made all the more surreal by the total lack of other vehicles on the road. We could go 20 minutes without a car or more likely truck passing us. There were barely any signs of life in this part of the world.
Going over the sand dunes proved difficult for the driver. Or should I say the car? At one point we failed to get to the top of the hill and had to reverse down it, and backwards up the one before and get a good run up. Twice. Sand is not the friend of wheels!
And then, after hours of travel, there was a light in the desert as the sky darkened. As we got closer, I could see – we weren’t the only ones there. Yes, the crowds had come to Darvaza, there was nearly a dozen there – before we arrived!
It was November as it was not warm. Typical desert at night, it got down to a little over zero Celsius I think. The crater did provide warmth though! There were three German guys there, and I think the others were Turkmen. They had come through the same border as I did an hour or so earlier from Uzbekistan on a transit visa. I’ve talked about them before. They planned to take the train – apparently the station was 7km away – to Ashgabat at 3am or so. They were going to use GPS and walk across the desert. A couple of days in Ashgabat and then take the train to Turkmenbashi, the port city on the Caspian Sea. There they would take the ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan. The thing is, that ferry only leaves at irregular intervals, it could be a day, a week or two or more before it set sail across the Caspian Sea. By the time they left Ashgabat it would be on day four – of their five day visa (which is rare these day, it is usually refused). They would give themselves maybe a day to get the ferry only. There is no schedule.
I asked them what would happen if they missed it. They said they would be locked up in a small room with no access to food unless they brought it themselves and have to wait there until there was a ferry ready for departure. It must have happened to others, they described the room as white, and that there was a toilet. I still don’t know what happened to them. But in a place like Turkmenistan, now in my forties, this was not a prospect I would open myself to! All I can say is the conversation just made it all seem even weirder!
But then you realise, there’s only so much staring into a pit of fire one can do before, well, you’re done. Part of me was hoping that whilst I was there it would coincide with the time the gas finally ran out – make it a very special occasion, but the fire just kept a burning. It isn’t as you can see, one big flame, but numerous smaller flames alight where the gas is escaping. I still wonder if there is any danger that there will suddenly be a big explosion, but I was assured there was no risk of that and I guess after so many years, there are no large pockets of gas left right under the surface waiting to be ignited.
The accommodation is right there at the crater, well a hundred or two metres away from it. There are a number – maybe 30 or so – yurts set up with toilets (separate) and water, and there’s electricity from a generator that goes until they turn it off (around 9pm that night I think). There were more up a nearby hill, and I imagine a couple of months earlier, in the ‘tourist season’, they were mostly filled. But we had about three going with fires inside. Going to the toilet was a bit of an adventure but they were western toilets, it’s just that in the middle of the night there was a lot of wind and it was freezing!
Dinner could have been bigger and warmer, it was a couple of shashliks and potatoes but it really didn’t matter. The next morning I took some photos but they were way over exposed as I had left the camera on the settings I had for night shots and didn’t notice. I’m pretty useless in the mornings.
We took off and looked at the other two craters I mentioned. Like many things in Turkmenistan, it was all a bit strange. I’ve used the word ‘surreal’ a number of times, it seems apt. I’d wanted to see the Darvaza Gas Crater ever since I first read about it at least 9 years ago now, and I’d done it. In the middle of a sparsely populated country, a long long way from home. Thanks for reading today – May the Journey Never End!