Camping at the door to hell! Turkmenistan

DocGoneWild is delighted to welcome a guest post by Steve Rohan from thetripgoeson.com

Turkmenistan is not an easy destination to visit and receives fewer tourists than North Korea, but that makes it even more of an interesting place to stay as you will get to see a country few others have. Since the death of former president Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi; leader of the Turkmen as he preferred to be called, the country has opened up a little, but much mystery still surrounds this ancient Silk Road nation.

I was planning on travelling along the old Silk Road from Europe back to my home in China and Turkmenistan lay slap-bang in the middle of my route. Upon investigating this little-known country it soon became clear that it would take considerable effort and cost to pass through this desert republic, but that such efforts would be handsomely rewarded. One of the main sights of interest was the Door to Hell, or Darvaza gas crater.

After a drilling accident in 1971, the soviet authorities set fire to a giant sinkhole to burn off the natural gas that was escaping, thinking it would extinguish itself once the gas burned off within a few days. 46 years later and the crater is still burning strong!

And so it was that I arrived very late one night at the Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi (that’s right, named after the president) with a friend after taking a cargo vessel across the world’s largest inland sea from Baku in Azerbaijan (you can read about that here).

My friend and I were kept waiting at customs long after even the ship’s crew had left as the border official tried to validate our paperwork. A guide was waiting for us outside the building and was called in to come and speed up the process. After a lot of frantic phone calls and a rigorous search through our entire luggage, we were finally granted entry into Turkmenistan.

We were whisked away through empty streets to a tourist area made up of many large and ornate looking hotels overlooking the Caspian, but there seemed to be something missing, namely tourists or other people.   After checking in under the watchful gaze of a suited man loitering nearby we were shown to our room.  It was impressive, save for the orange water running from the taps.

The next morning after eating breakfast in a huge but empty dining room, we were picked up by taxi to go and meet our guide and continue our journey across the desert to the capital, Ashgabat. As we left the coast the land turned to sand and scrub with camels grazing by the roadside. We stopped at a restaurant for a lunch of plov (rice, vegetables and meat, popular in central Asia) and tea before continuing on to the capital.

Our next stop was the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque; a huge edifice with space for 20,000 worshipers built of marble and gold trim. It looked impressive under the scorching desert sun and we walked around in silent awe.

As we drove through the city into Ashgabat it was strange to note the still quiet streets and the sea of white marble surrounding us. We had to ask our guide if it was ok to take pictures as snapping the wrong place can land you in hot water pretty quickly over there.

We were dropped at our hotel, the Bagt Koshgi, on the outskirts of the city overlooking the Kopet Dag mountains separating Turkmenistan from Iran 20km away. We checked in and were told to be ready for departure to Darvaza at 2pm the next day.

We explored the city and made our way to Independence Park, 2km of statues and manicured grounds in homage to President Niyazov. Gold statues glinted under the sun and soldiers stood guard at intervals throughout the park. A large copy of the Ruhnama, Niyazov’s little green book, towered above us in a cobbled square.

We were met at 2pm the next day by our driver, a Russian called Andrei, who picked us up in a 4X4 for our trip across the Karakum Desert to Darvaza. We left Ashgabat on a small highway and had to stop every 15 to 20km to go through police checkpoints. The paved highway deteriorated as we went further into the desert and we had to continually swerve into the opposite lane to avoid pot holes, often with heavy trucks bearing down towards us!

Sand dunes covered the land to the horizon and the occasional camel could be seen in the distance. After about two hours we stopped at Yerbent, a small village in the middle of the desert. We cooled off with a beer bought from a man inside a shack and took photos of the rusting soviet vehicles and yurts that dotted the settlement. Usually camels can be seen wandering between the yurts, but on this occasion we were unlucky to have missed them.

We made our way further across the desert and after a few hours of bumpy track we reached the first crater; this one filled with water rather than fire. A quick photo stop and then we left the road and drove off sharply into the desert, up over the dunes and through thick scrub. It was quite exciting to be doing some proper off-roading and the vehicle made easy work of the terrain.

After 20 minutes or so we crossed a small ridge and down below was our first view of the Door to Hell! Andrei drove us right down next to the huge crater and I prayed that the breaks were in good order. We got out, dumbstruck by the sight in front of us and peered over the edge into the fiery abyss. A gust of heat came rushing up and almost knocked me off my feet. Andrei told us to stay two metres from the edge at all times lest the ground give way. There were no safety ropes or signs to be seen. I retrieved a couple of beers from the jeep and celebrated our arrival with my friend. This was arguably the highlight of the whole trip and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Up on a ridge there was a small hut and a few tents dotted about, but aside from that it was just us, the crater and the vast desert in front of us. We spent a good hour taking pictures and walking the circumference of the crater before we were called up to the hut for a barbeque dinner overlooking Darvaza down below. As we walked up to the ridge the glare of my torch kept catching small bright reflections on the ground, which upon closer inspection turned out to be large desert spiders. We had been told to check our clothes and boots for scorpions and spiders and a small shiver went up my spine while peering at the creepy crawlies.

After dinner as it got dark the sky lit up with lightning. Standing above the crater with a spectacular storm raging overhead is something that will stay with me forever.  I had packed a bottle of vodka especially for the occasion and my friend and I toasted the night away staring into the flames before us, thinking to ourselves what an incredible and unique experience it was.

The next morning was our last day in Turkmenistan and we made our way across even worse roads to the border with Uzbekistan where my friend would fly back to London and I would continue on alone to China.

Practicalities:

There is no public transport to the crater, but from Ashgabat you can take a Marshrutka towards Konye Urgench to the turn off and walk the few kilometres through the desert from the road. You really need to know what you are doing here and plan it with military precision as getting lost in the Karakum Desert would almost certainly be the last thing you ever did. Booking a tour is highly recommended. There are very few tourists and you will have ample time to explore on your own, so forget ideas of being driven to teahouses and factory outlets to be swiftly relieved of your money. A tour is simply a means to get to the crater and usefully includes dinner and camping.

Entry to Turkmenistan:

VISAs: Citizens of almost every country require a valid VISA to enter Turkmenistan. Apply in your home country as applying on the road is not recommended. If you apply for a tourist VISA you must first obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which can only be applied for by state aligned tourist agencies. We used Owadan Tourism. To make a stronger case for your VISA approval, it is worth providing information on the route you are travelling. If you are exploring the region and can provide details of onward travel it will help your case. If you are simply visiting Turkmenistan on its own as a tourist destination the chances of obtaining a VISA are slim. Combine your trip with other places on the Silk Road. Once the LOI has been approved (takes around two weeks) getting your VISA is just a formality. Take the LOI to your Turkmenistan embassy along with completed application form (download here), passport and fee (we paid around 60 pounds in London). Our VISAs took 10 working days, but there is also an express three day service for double the price.

Entry Tax: An entry tax of $14 per person is payable upon entering Turkmenistan.

Air: Flights to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport depart from a limited number of European airports including Frankfurt, Istanbul, London and Moscow and the airport has links to other central Asian cities such as Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumqi in China.

Land: There are border crossings with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. You will need to take a taxi, bus or Marshrutka to the border, walk across and do the same the other side. We left Turkmenistan at the Dagosuz border crossing close to Urgench (train links to Bukhara , Samarkand and Tashkent) and the ancient Silk Road city of Khiva in Uzbekistan.

Sea: There is a crossing from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in the west of Turkmenistan. There are no passenger ferries but it is possible to buy a ticket on one of the cargo vessels plying this route. Think carefully before opting for this as delays are frequent and it could mean your VISA runs out before you even get to Turkmenistan. We had two extra days built into our tour to cover such delays, but it’s not been unheard of that a vessel could be waiting to dock for up to six days (thankfully rare). In the end our boat was only delayed by half a day and we were more or less on schedule. Our ticket for a seat in the passenger lounge cost $50 (cabin $90). There are no services on board so make sure you stock up with enough food and water to last the duration and possible delays.  Aside from the uncertainties, this is by far the most rewarding way to arrive in (or leave) Turkmenistan.

Note: The Turkmen government are planning to extinguish the fire at Darvaza to enable gas exploration and production in the area so it is not known how much longer the flames will be spewing from the door to hell. See it soon, before it’s gone forever, if you dare!

Thanks again to Steve for his wonderful adventure report and practical guide. If you want to check out more of his adventures head over to thetripgoeson.com

Fancy a trip to Turkmenistan yourself? Check out the only two travel guides currently available in the English language here:

Turkmenistan: Far Flung Places Travel Guide

Turkmenistan (Bradt Travel Guides)

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