Karakum Desert's burning pit helps to keep the local town afloat.
The Door to Hell in Darvaza, Turkmenistan
Dropped off at a truck stop, we surveyed our surroundings. Darvaza – a village in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert – consisted of eight buildings, two of them crumbling to the ground under caved-in roofs. Tamdyrs (bread ovens) considered too holy to be destroyed were dotted around the sand, surrounded by camels circling beneath the sun.
Darvaza – meaning “The Gate” in Turkmen – is the closest settlement to a Russian gas rig that collapsed in 1971, the entire drilling station disappearing into the pit beneath it. Fearing the escape of poisonous discharge into the local environment, Soviet petrochemical students lit the gas under the illusion it would eventually burn it all off. Forty years later, it's still going, and a number of local rumours have sprung up as to how the blaze originally started – my favourite being that a local shepherd, fed up with the gas poisoning his sheep, set a tyre alight and rolled it into the hole.
Flying over Darvaza in 2004, former president Saparumat Niyazov was struck by the destitution below. “I don’t want to see this next time I fly over,” he said. The bulldozers soon moved in, giving the 3,000 villagers an hour to pack. Forcibly displaced by soldiers, they knew better than to argue at the time, but a handful later built another encampment away from the president’s flight path – the new Darvaza village.
One of the area's primary sources of income comes via the thin trickle of tourists coming to visit the pit. But no one's sure how long that's going to last, as – a couple of years ago – President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ordered the flames to be extinguished.
I thought it was kind of odd that there's a settlement in the middle of a desert that relies on a 40-year-old mining accident for income, so I thought I'd pay it a visit.
Setting off from the town of Konye-Urgench, there was no difficulty getting transport to Darvaza; a cluster of hopeful cab drivers surrounded us, proclaiming the virtues of their respective vehicles. My brother Stan and I went with a guy called Shikrullah because he spoke decent English and hadn’t tried grabbing our bags out of our hands, like one driver who seemed almost dangerously committed to getting us into his car.
“Goodbye, Shazam – fuck you!” Shikrullah laughed, waving at the man whose fare he’d stolen.
Driving over apparently every pothole the Karakum Desert has to offer, Shikrullah started to grill us, asking my brother his marital status.
“I’m single,” Stan replied.
“No wife? Take please Turkmen girl,” he suggested. “I can find for you, yes?”
Even if he could find Stan a nice Turkmen girl, it wouldn’t be all that easy for them to settle down. Until a few years ago, any foreigner wanting to marry a Turkmen woman had to pay the state $50,000 (£30,000) for the privilege. Now, they have to live in Turkmenistan for at least a year before the wedding, and there’s a mandatory three-month engagement period following the proposal.
People zipped past us on motorbikes, swathed in fabric to protect themselves from the wind and sand. Signs warning of camels crossing were dotted along the roadside, and we quickly found out why. Passing Ruhubelent, an isolated gathering of uniform white buildings, we hit the back of a camel jam – a vast train of them blocking the road ahead of us. Working our way around, we spotted the militsiya (police) hiding behind a spindly bush, pointing speed guns at the road. Safely past them, Shikrullah turned to flash his middle finger back towards the checkpoint.
“Fucking idiots,” he laughed.
Arriving at the Darvaza truck stop, those in smarter cars took one look at their surroundings and sped away. We stayed, because the only way we were getting to the crater was by catching a ride from someone there. Ushered inside by the boss, Timur – a tall, muscular man in a mismatched tracksuit and FBI cap – we were met by a crowd of people, either staring at us intently or giving us suspicious glances.
After negotiating a Jeep to the crater from the truck stop, we were left in the care of Vladi, a sunbaked Russian man-child with bright blue eyes and a shock of blond hair. He told us that, when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, he and his father had been in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital. Non-ethnic Turkmen weren’t feeling particularly welcome post-independence, so most Russians went home. However, during their journey back to Kazan – a city in Tatarstan, Russia – Vladi and his father were split up.
With no passport, he was landless and unable to return home. Thirty-one years old – though the lines on his face make him look 50 – he’s been in Darvaza for 11 years. Nationality in Central Asia being about blood, bonds and history, he’ll never be fully accepted here.
Before we could leave the truck stop, we were summoned back inside by Abdullah, Timur’s shouty number two. Everyone demanded we show them the photos of our trip so far, and the increasingly hammered Abdullah began pulling moody poses for photos he demanded I take.
By this point, it was clear that my plan to see the gas crater at sunset was never going to happen; it was gone 10PM by the time Timur called for us, declaring: “Problema – niet machina.”
Without a Jeep, it turned out our next best option were a couple of motorbikes. As I mounted mine, the front light fell off, so the driver reattached it with Sellotape and sped off into the night. I quickly got the feeling that he’d never been to the crater before – a feeling compounded by his frantic circling around the pitch dark dunes. My ankles cut to shreds as we slid through low scrub, I clung to his paunchy belly for dear life.
When he finally saw a faint glow on the horizon, he couldn’t contain his excitement. “Gaz! Gaz!” he screeched.
Arriving at the Darvaza gas crater – which locals have dramatically named the “Gate to Hell” – I felt a bit like I'd reached the edge of the world. From a depth of 25 metres, methane gas seeped out of the rocky ground, fireballs erupting from white hot embers. Finding Stan, we navigated our way around its 200-metre circumference, a smouldering haze rising in front of our eyes. Its hardened sand walls ablaze with yellow flames – the overpowering stench of gas, a lone rusted tamdyr and a twisted metal strut the only indications that the rig had ever existed.
Our drivers were set on leaving almost as soon as we arrived, but we stalled them for as long as we could, sitting on a high slope with the gate to hell burning beneath us.
On the way back, determined to keep pace with his friend, my driver jumped from dune to dune, before eventually dropping me off at the dosshouse next to the truck stop. With the generator cranked up, the male staff dragged us to a TV, determined to demonstrate the merits of Turkmen porn. Following me around, a 12-year-old boy flashed videos of penetration at me on his phone, mimicking the action with urgent hand gestures. To the group's disappointment, we escaped outside.
The language barrier was hard to broach, but it became apparent that camel herding and truck stop catering are the only real means of income for the few that remain in Darvaza – so the small amount of people who pass through on their way to the crater are always welcome. The government could probably market the site as a pretty successful tourist attraction if they were that way inclined, but considering Turkmenistan is one of the world's hardest countries to access after North Korea, it doesn't seem like they're going to invest in a tourist board any time soon.
Waking up the next morning, the 12-year-old pointed towards the exit. With Abdullah already at the vodka, barking instructions at us, it seemed that we’d already outstayed our welcome. Attempting to hitch a ride, we trudged through the heat as a succession of lorries blew dust into our faces. Until, arriving like a mirage along the shimmering highway, Shikrullah drove past on his return journey to Konye-Urgench.
He laughed: “Transport problema?”
Striding into the middle of the road, he flagged down the first truck that drove past, leaving us to wave goodbye from the cab as we left Darvaza behind.