The Creation of the Gates to Hell.
Part 1 – Intro
Part 2 – Brief history
Part 3 – Visas & airport
Part 4 – Sightseeing in Ashgabat
Part 5 – People & police
Part 6 – Getting to the desert
Part 7 – Hiking to the gas crater
Part 8 – Escaping the desert
Part 9 – Crossing the border to Uzbekistan
Once you’ve had your fill of madness and marble, it’s time to leave Ashgabat behind you and head out into the Karakum desert.
The wealth of Turkmenistan is buried under these sands – a barren wasteland that just happens to contain the world’s sixth largest gas reserves. In 1971 Soviet engineers were exploring – somewhat carelessly – for this gaseous gold when the desert collapsed beneath them, burying their equipment and forming a huge crater.
As the crater was emitting poisonous methane gas, the Soviets decided to set fire to it to burn off the gas in what they expected would be a few weeks. Almost 50 years later and the crater is still burning hot. The locals call it “the gates to hell”.
I Would Like a Taxi to the Middle of Nowhere Please.
Your quest for the gas crater begins at the Ashgabat taxi stand. The first challenge is explaining to a driver that you want to be dropped off at the crater, which is located halfway between Ashgabat and Konye-Urgench. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the Russian word for “crater” so ended up explaining it via “fire hole” and accompanying hand gestures.
Our shenanigans had assembled a crowd of taxi drivers enthusiastically trying to understand what the foreigners wanted. Luckily, one of them was good at charades, and after dividing the cab with another Turkmen passenger (but paying the full fare to Konye-Urgench) we sped off into the desert.
The middle of nowhere.
According to the Lonely Planet instructions, you’ve reached your destination when you drive over train tracks in the road. This seems a bit a vague, and we spent several hours perspiring in the taxi, listening to the greatest hits of Turkmen music, while beginning to have a creeping feeling that we may have passed the train tracks without even realising.
Frequent police check points soon became a benign norm to us: the driver answered some questions, waved some papers and we were allowed onwards. Just as I was trying not to passive aggressively glare at our fellow passenger for lighting up another cigarette, suddenly there was a bump in the road.
“Train tracks!” we cheered, “we’re here!”
As the driver pulled over, a large and meaty policeman summoned him out of the car. After a brief exchange the policeman ambled over to tap on our back seat window.
And This, Dear Reader, is When the Story Takes a Bizarre Turn.
“Photo! Photo!” he said eagerly to us in English. “Photo! Photo!”
Confused, we got out of the car for the giant policeman to shake our hands. After establishing that we understood a bit of Russian, he explained, “you’ve come to take photos of the gas crater! … But it’s going to be expensive.”
My stomach did a flip flop. Expensive? I was a barely employed budget traveller, I didn’t do expensive! I suggested that we could just walk to the crater.
“Walk?” he scoffed, “It’s too far! Five kilometres! You need to hire a jeep. It’s going to be expensive. I’ll take you to where you need to go.” The taxi headed off at this point and before we could think of a polite refusal, the policeman ushered us inside his vehicle.
Many thoughts flew through my mind as he slammed the door shut – am I being arrested? Does he want a bribe? What’s the phone number for the British embassy?
I didn’t have much time to panic as a few minutes later the policeman stopped outside a row of wooden shacks. He took us to one, which turned out sadly to be a family house. The policeman embraced the man of the shack, and then we all sat down for a lunch of plov – a meat and rice Turkmen staple that is as stodgy as it sounds.
We discussed many topics: family, expensive jeeps, Russian colonialism. All the while, we tried to enjoy our plov while not being put off by the flies buzzing around the table. We felt trapped. We needed to escape this pushy policeman, but how?
“Well, I’ve got to go and do police things,” he said, eventually getting to his feet, “Stay here, and I’ll be back in an hour.”
Finally free of the policeman, the man of the shack gave us directions to the crater. Go up and over the dune, cross more train tracks and then walk straight for 5kms. We left some of our belongings in the house, paid him for the plov and storage, and then strode into the desert just as the sun began to set.