The Gates of Hell can be seen for miles. The 230-foot wide crater in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan is roughly the size of an American football field and approximately 20 meters deep. The large crater has been on fire for close to 50 years, creating a spectacular site as flames rise from the depths of the earth. The Gates of Hell, or Doors of Hell, as they are sometimes referred to, are located in the settlement of Darvaza, approximately 260 kilometers north of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
In this desert region far from the buzzing metropolis, the local population of is made up of just 350 people, most of them Turkmens of the Teke tribe. This partially nomadic tribe lives in yurts, round wooden-framed dwellings covered in koshma felt. The locals named the unusual geological occurrence the Gates of Hell, referring to the constant glow that arises from the pit, ostensibly an opening to the underworld. The area of Darvaza, also known as Derweze, is rich in sulfur, gas, and oil. When the natural gas field collapsed in 1971, it was allegedly set alight by geologists to prevent the spread of methane gas and a further explosion in the nearby village. With the appearance of a door to the underworld, the site has become a popular tourist attraction and many visitors camp overnight to enjoy the desert phenomenon. The area is best viewed in darkness when the flames contrast with the night skies for a dramatic effect. Visitors note the extreme heat in the area near the crater.
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History: The area surrounding the Gates of Hell was originally explored as a substantial oil field site. In 1971 a Soviet drilling team set up a rig at the site to assess the area for oil. While drilling, the rig accidentally punctured through the roof of a large underground cavern. The entire rig fell in, and is assumed to still be there to this day. When the puncture began leaking poisonous fumes and gasses at a dangerous rate, engineers worried that the gas might reach nearby towns and ignite, causing a disastrous explosion. In response, they set the location on fire to consume the escaping gas. The plan was not well thought out, and what was expected to be a quick burn off has continued for close to 50 years, as the flames continue to consume the gasses rising to the surface. Of course, these versions of events are up for debate, as there is no actual record of the Soviet oilrig catastrophe. Some say the crater opened up as early as the 1960s and was not lit on fire until the 1980s. In 2013, the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, declared the area of the Karakum Desert surrounding the crater to be a nature reserve. This decision is perhaps a nod to the popularity of the site as a tourist attraction, since 3 years earlier, in 2010, the president had asked for the hole to be closed, due to fears that the burning fires would decrease the available natural gas in the area. Or rather, the government seemingly found a solution in which gasses could be harvested without fully closing the site. Tourists claim that the flames were higher until the Turkmen began piping gas from the crater for use.
Ongoing Programs and Education: There are several tour groups leading camel rides or 4x4 adventures through the desert from Ashgabat to the Gates of Hell, and visitors may camp nearby in a traditional yurt. Staying overnight is a popular option as the darkness of the night offers dramatic views of the flames inside the crater.
What’s Nearby: Although many people camp at the Doors of Hell site to enjoy the nighttime views, the trip can be done as a one-day trip from Ashgabat. Ashgabat is the largest city in Turkmenistan. Known as “The City of White Marble,” Ashgabat was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2013 for having the highest concentration anywhere of white marble buildings. The city is full of history from its Silk Road origins, through a period of Soviet rule, to its present-day status as a center for commerce and industry in the region. Also within a day’s ride to the north is the Kaplankyr Reserve, a 70,000-acre national park established for the protection and restoration of indigenous plants and animals in 1979.