Once part of the Soviet Union, today Turkmenistan is an independent state located in Central Asia. The country is known for its secretive nature, the 'cult of personality' surrounding its current and past leader, and and its historic strategic location on the ancient 'Silk Road.'
Many of its cities were main points of trade on the Silk Road, linking Eastern and Western civilizations. Turkmenistan today however is one of the most closed-off countries in the world, with only a small number of Western tourists seeing seeings its hidden sights.
The Darvaza Gas Crater
The Darvaza gas crater, also known as the 'Gate to Hell,' is a collapsed natural gas field located just outside of the village of Darvaza in Turkmenistan.
Soviet geologists intentionally set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. They thought it would burn only temporary, but instead has been burning continuously since 1971.
According to Turkmen geologist Anatoly Bushmakin, the site was identified by Soviet engineers in 1971. It was originally thought to be a substantial oil field site, as the entire region is known today.
The engineers set up a drilling rig and operations to assess the quantity of oil available at the site. Soon after the preliminary survey, they found a natural gas pocket, the ground beneath the drilling rig camp collapsed into a wide crater.
Expecting dangerous releases of poisonous gases from the cavern into nearby towns, they decided to burn the gas in order to prevent any contamination. They in turn, ignited the site - creating the Darvaza Gas Crater as we know it today.
As mentioned above, the geologists had expected the gas to burn out after only a few weeks, but instead has been burning for almost 50 years.
This is the primary account as to what happened that day in the Soviet Union, since no official Soviet or local Turkmen documents exist as to what exactly went on.
Where is the 'Gate to Hell?'
The gas crater is located near the village of Darvaza. It is in the middle of the Karakum Desert, about 260 kilometres north of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The gas reserve found here is one of the largest in the world and the country is a big exporter to surrounding regions and countries..
The name 'Gate to Hell' was given to the gas crater by the locals, not tourists. It refers to the fire, boiling mud, and orange flames in the large crater, which has a diameter of 70 metres. The hot spots range over an area with a width of 60 metres and to a depth of about 20 metres.
The Leader of Turkmenistan
The current leader of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has become known for his lavish and manly stunts displayed on national television. One of his more famous displays features him speeding and doing 'doughnuts' around none other than - 'the Gate to Hell!'
How to Visit the 'Gate to Hell'
Visiting the Darvaza Gas Crater, or the 'Gate to Hell' is more simple than tourists might think. The most common option is by joining a guided tour of Turkmenistan and adding it to your itinerary before arrival in Turkmenistan.
Another option is of course by obtaining a Transit Visa by planning a trip to a third country and visiting the crater on your way.
This way, foreigners are able to enter the country without actually having to apply for a Tourist Visa, and safe a lot of time and effort.
Turkmenistan State Committee for Tourism (2019). 'The Darvaza Gas Crater.' http://tourism.gov.tm/gazcrater.php