Our morning began with a breakfast buffet with the rest of the group also staying at Hotel Ak Altyn. The food was simple but fresh. After a lazy breakfast, we packed up the car and started for Darvaza, also known as Door to Hell.
Before we could start driving towards Darvaza though, we needed to change money. Joanna had changed a lot of her US dollars into the local currency, but that meant she was left with a lot of Turkmen Manat that would not be used. She needed a place to change them back into dollars. We were told we could go to the ‘Economic Ministry’ where this would be possible. The translated term sounded sketchy to begin with. It didn’t sound like a real place at all!
After trying several banks and several government offices that people pointed us to, we still couldn’t change any money. In the end, we decided to go back to the Sofitel Hotel. The receptionists there are absolute angels. I don’t know how many times a day desperate tourists come knocking on their doors, but they changed Joanna’s Manats into US dollars. They had even changed the Dollars into Manats the previous day when we discovered that the ATM in the hotel actually did not function anymore. Their customer service, despite the fact we were not really a customer of Sofitel, was astounding. Joanna even managed to procure a couple of bags of ice from the hotel restaurant to use in our coolers!
After this, we were ready to start driving, but only after stocking up on supplies. We managed to tank our cars, even though there was a huge queue. I received a few furtive glances as I drove into the station. I’m guessing they don’t see a lot of female drivers in foreign looking cars with strange stickers on them!
We bought food supplies as well. This included stocking up on water. We were heading up north into the Karakum desert after all. While in Ashgabat we’re mostly in city landscape, the Karakum desert covers nearly 70% of Turkmenistan’s land mass, which explains the humid, arid environment. The Door to Hell lies right at the heart of this desert.
Our frenzied shopping spree set the shop owner’s daughter into fits of giggles. She was helping her dad at the cash point. Every time we thought we were done, we’d find one more item to add to our growing pile of supplies. She was amused by our need to buy up the whole shop, and agreed to pose for a photo with her dad.
Getting out of Ashgabat was not easy. Our navigation system is not up to date, and some roads do not exist anymore. Given Turkmenistan’s relative connectivity to the rest of the world and the number of tourists it usually gets, updating maps for the country in apps such as Scout or maps.me (both based on Open Street Maps) is pretty challenging. After asking several people for directions and going round in circles multiple times, we found our way out of the city.
We drove the five hours to Darvaza in relative peace, only to be interrupted by camels crossing the road.
Due to the extreme heat, we started to notice that our car was slowly starting to give up on us. At one point while I was driving, the left side-mirror fell over and I couldn’t avoid driving over it. We were left with a shattered side-mirror which we still put back up with a cable tie. Because of all the stuff we were carrying in the back of our car, we couldn’t see much through the rear-view mirror. The only functioning mirror was on the passenger side. So it’s safe to say that there were moments we were driving pretty much blind! Not that it mattered then. The traffic on the highway was sparse.
We arrived at the base of the crater in the late afternoon. You can’t actually see the crater from the main road. You need to take a turn off the main highway, climb sand dunes and drive a good ten-minutes to reach the Door to Hell. We got to the sand dunes and wondered if our cars would be able to get up. Neither the firetruck nor our Kangoo had four-wheel drive. In fact, we would’ve been very surprised if it did work. Nevertheless, we made several attempts with the Kangoo to get up the dunes. It did not work. Jeroen tried with the firetruck and that didn’t work either. Joanna and I had walked up on top of the dunes to take some photos of the rally cars roaring up. It goes without saying that this was far too ambitious an expectation of our cars!
By this time, we were wondering what our game plan is. As far as travel advice goes, a hike up to the crater on foot takes 2.5 hours. It didn’t seem practical either. From the top of the dunes, we saw a local car drive up to Moritz and Jeroen. We climbed back down to catch the tail-end of their conversation. The older guy driving the four-wheel drive explained to us in broken English that he could take us up to the crater for USD 40. We had no choice and took him up on his offer. He had already taken up another team that evening and they were camping near the crater. We were grateful for his offer. We were not in a position to hike for 2.5 hours in the dark and it would be a shame to not be able to see the crater.
The Door to Hell is actually a 40-year old natural gas crater. It is evidence of a failed Soviet exploration back in 1971. Around the time, the gas field had collapsed into an underground cavern. Geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas and it has been burning ever since. In fact, when you stand close to the crater, the smell of methane gas hits your nose immediately. The massive crater measures 69m in diameter and 30m in depth.
Once we had accepted the offer to take a ride up to the crater, we had to decide where we’d sleep that night. The other team had left their car at the base of the hill and had taken their camping equipment up near the crater. Since both our and the firetruck’s sleeping arrangements are tied to the car, we decided to go up to the crater, have a look around, come back down for the night and set up camp near the base.
We packed up our cameras and bundled ourselves into the four-wheel drive. Dusk was approaching and we witnessed a beautiful sunset across the Karakum desert. As we bounced around in the backseat of the car, the guide explained to us just exactly why it would have been impossible for us to come up here in our own cars. The sand and rock would make it impassable without a proper four-wheel drive.
The crater itself was so much more than we expected. It is essentially a giant hole burning with fire. The heat emanating from it makes it nearly impossible to stand for longer than a few minutes at the edge. While we’d seen photos of it before, the experience of this gigantic hole burning for over 40 years is awe-inspiring.
We spent about 30 minutes up at the crater, making sure to take plenty of photos and feeling rather envious of the team that would spend the night camping at the crater. We eventually came back down to set up our own camp. A storm was approaching by then. A desert storm? This should have been interesting. We tried to set up camp and put up a tarp between our two cars to protect ourselves from the storm that actually never came. I hoped for some rain, but all we got were a couple of drops. The wild wind, however, turned all our things upside down.
Making a simple pasta dinner for four people took forever. Or were we that hungry? All the while, we were in the midst of a stand storm that left us with alternate layers of dust and sand. Ordinarily, we would just hang out after dinner, but sitting outside in the sand storm was not very practical. We got ready for bed.
Bathroom arrangements were of course non-existent. Attempting to squat behind an abandoned-looking hut was also not very practical, given how windy it was. I can say with a great deal of certainty that that was the grossest I have felt while on the road! Being caked in sweat, dust and sand, and then eventually splashed by my own pee thanks to the wind takes most of the fun out of being in such a beautiful setting.
We tried washing up with some bottled water, but there’s only so much you can do in a sand storm. I decided to tough it up and just crawl into my sleeping bag. With the storm raging outside, there was no way to open the sunroof due to the sand but that just made the car unbearably hot.
There were two other teams in the vicinity: a Dutch team that were up at the crater when we arrived, and an Italian team that showed up after we set up camp. Both have been ferried up by the local guide and were camping near the crater.
The day’s drive hadn’t been too bad. But this desert camping is rather unpleasant. It blocked up our breathing and made us itchy. We didn’t think we’d sleep much that night. It was hot, so I tried to sleep in a tank top and I kept thinking that I’d wake up with random strangers staring into the car and at my bare legs.
At about 2am, the guide who took us to the crater came to our campsite which was near his hut, laid down a mat out in the open and went to sleep. He got up at 5am, and went to pick up the other teams. I saw all this through my fitful sleep.
We got up early as people were milling about our car anyhow. We skipped breakfast, reorganized the car by turning it into a transporter, and started for Khiva, Uzbekistan at about 8am.
We said goodbye to Joanna and Jeroen as they had a different route out of Turkmenistan and hoped we’d meet again somewhere in Uzbekistan.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.