On too many occasions, travellers plans their routes around the typical tourist spots. Obviously there's nothing wrong with this, but I would encourage others to explore some 'off the beaten track' destinations, which is exactly what I did when I booked a short weekend trip to Turkmenistan.
To be completely honest, I was running out of short haul locations to explore in order to feed my travel addiction. I spend around 5-10 hours a week searching Skyscanner and reading articles for possible travel routes and inspiration.
I read a particular article which sparked my interest in Turkmenistan, which was titled 'The Gateway to Hell'. From the article image displayed, the title was then self explanatory. The image was of the Darvaza Crater, and from that minute, I was hooked and had to visit.
What is the Darvaza Crater?
The Darvaza Crater is a natural gas field in Derweze, Turkmenistan. The gas field collapsed into an underground cavern in 1971, becoming a natural gas crater. You'll see from the pic above why the crater soon developed nicknames including The Gate to Hell, Door to Hell, and Crater of Fire.
Geologists set the crater on fire in 1971 to prevent the spread of methane gas, expecting it to burn out after a couple of weeks, but it's been burning continuously ever since. The diameter of the crater is 69 metres, with a depth of 30 metres. The total area of the crater is 5,350 m2 so it's basically the size of an American football field, which is by no means small.
Here's a photo of me at the crater to give you an idea of the size...
Where is the Crater?
The crater is located in the Derweze Village, which is in the middle of the Karakum Desert. This is around 260km north of Ashgabat, which is the capital of Turkmenistan, and the most convenient airport to fly in and out of. The crater can't be reached via public transport, so a road vehicle is definitely required. My personal opinion would be to go with a tour guide, as the crater is difficult to find in respect that there's minimal road signs. You're literally driving directly into the desert, and then there's a sudden turn off to the right.
Where to stay?
As you'd expect, there's not exactly an abundance of hotels in the desert, so this is definitely a camping location. The above photo shows a yak tent that's within 50 metres of the crater. You could comfortably fit a group of ten inside, although this is the only yak tent I saw within the vicinity. Either bring your own camping equipment, or go with a tour guide who will supply the necessaries.
Which tour company?
The tour company I decided on was Owadan Tourism. You can find all the necessary contact details on their website
Overall, they were extremely helpful and happy to tailor tours depending on the individuals needs. All supporting documents to comply with the visa process were also provided. My back up prior to this was to try and obtain an LOA from the hotel I had booked in the city of Ashgabat for the night, but the request for the LOA was refused.
Is the crater closing down?
There's been rumours for a number of years that the crater will be closing. This all started in 2010, when the President of Turkmenistan announced that he wanted the crater closed, but it never happened. I also read another article in 2014 that referred to a safety barrier being fitted around the crater, and possibly even an entry fee, but that never happened either.
The bottom line is that nobody really knows. As with all landmarks and attractions, if there's a way of generating revenue to the authorities, chances are it will be exploited at some point.
Anything else to see?
Obviously the Door to Hell is without a doubt, the main attraction, but Turkmenistan still has more to offer. The city of Ashgabat was an interesting place to stay, with plenty of history and landmarks to check out. My top 5 picks are: -
Turkmen Carpet Museum - Surprisingly interesting, with some very impressive hand woven carpets on display
Neutrality Monument - Commemorate the countries official position of 'neutrality' and has a panoramic viewing platform
Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque - Impressive architecture inside and out. Located around 7km west of Ashgabat centre
Independence Monument - Surrounded by green landscape, and also has a cascaded pool, in addition to 27 statues
Kow Ata - An underground lake at 35 degrees, containing different salts and minerals, most notably sulphur
Explore the city of Ashgabat at night for some stunning photos of the landmarks in lights: -
If you're searching for an 'off the beaten track' destination outside of the norm, then Turkmenistan is definitely worth checking out. At night, the Gateway to Hell offers a real wow factor with a unique camping experience. If you like a buzzing nightlife, you won't find that in Ashgabat. If I was to highlight a negative, I'd say the food on offer was very average.
The newly opened Ashgabat International Airport (2016) should make it much easier for flight options. I used flydubai from DXB Terminal 2.