The History of the Gates of Hell are not a simple one. The Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan has to be one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world. Also known as Darvaza, which means “gates” in the Turkmen language, it is an integral stop on any of our Turkmenistan tours.
There is a lot on the internet about the Gates of Hell in the centre of Turkmenistan. Some of it is accurate, some of it not so accurate. We often come across tourists coming out of Turkmenistan, having been given the wrong information by well-meaning locals. Well here is the accurate history of the Gates of Hell.
The Karakorum desert in Turkmenistan is the 12th largest desert in the world, but more importantly, it has underneath it the world’s 4th (or 6th depending on your source) largest gas reserve. In the 1950s and 60s, the Soviets began serious gas exploration in Turkmenistan. One of the side effects of gas exploitation is sinkholes. The gas inside pockets under the ground prevent the ground from collapsing to fill the hole, however with no/less gas in these pockets, and there isn’t enough upward pressure to avoid these sinkholes from forming.
The Darvaza crater was formed originally as a sinkhole when the earth collapsed in 1971 and was left unlit until over a year later. The reason for the lighting the crater was actually because of the death of a local shepherd. He had slept near the crater, not realizing it was releasing a lot of gas. As many of you will know, gas is odourless, and it’s only because of additives that we can smell it when we leave the stove on at home. In order to prevent any more accidents of this sort, it was decided to set fire to the crater to burn off the gas rather than it being released naturally and potentially causing more deaths. The Soviet engineers predicted the gas would take nine months to burn off. They didn’t realize at the time how big a gas reserve they were standing on, and we now know there are several thousand years more gas left.
When did the Gates of Hell become an official tourist attraction?
After it was set on fire in 1972, not much happened until two years ago. The Turkmenistan government has previously ignored the crater, considering it an embarrassment. It was officially not on any tour itineraries and according to the government, it just didn’t exist. There were even constant rumours that it was going to be put out, and the hole filled in.
However, in 2017 the Turkmenistan government realized the potential of the Gates of Hell and started advertising it and officially allowing people to travel there. They even included images of it in their Asian Games Opening Ceremony. With this acknowledgment has brought a lot of downsides, including the fence that was built around the crater for the Turkmenabat to Turkmenbashy car rally. It’s also meant that there are a lot of tourists who never would have previously gone there. There’s even onsight accommodation now and a lit carpark!
While these changes have made it less unique and some of the mystique is gone, it still hasn’t taken away from the amazing view that one gets to experience, and the extra tourists now mean there are a small number of other people there as opposed to YPT being the only people there, which is what it was when we first started going to Turkmenistan.