The “Door to Hell” didn’t look impressive or scary from a distance. Everything changed when I came closer. About 30 meters from the crater, the air got thick. Unpleasant blasts of hot air hit my face while the overpowering smell of sulfur irritated my nostrils. Standing at the edge of the crater, I finally saw it in its full glory. The high flames blazed inside—it was as though I was facing the real gates of hell.
I felt tiny and insignificant standing next to the hole with a diameter of 70 meters. This impression intensified when I realized that the crater, the full moon and the smoldering fire from our campsite were probably the only sources of light in a radius of more than a 200 kilometers. All around me, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the dark Karakum Desert …
Several years ago, this place looked different. Derweze was a small village with several hundred inhabitants. However, in 2004, the former dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, ordered the demolition of the village because “it was an unpleasant sight for tourists.”
Well, truth be told, Turkmen villages don’t look impressive—but, after all, poor appearance seems a trivial reason for depriving many people of their houses. Currently, a few stones hidden between the dunes are the only traces of the village.
Since there are no permanent residents in the area, the crater is in a very secluded area. The nearest town, Ashgabat, is located nearly 300 kilometers away. There aren’t any towns or villages nearby, except for few nomads’ dwellings.
This is why Derweze is one of the best places in which to embrace the feeling of solitude and be alone with your thoughts. Instead of people talking, cars passing by and mobile phones ringing, all you’ll hear are the crackling flames. (Gazing at the flames is mesmerizing: I spent a few hours sitting at the edge of the crater without getting bored.) It’s the best place for reflection, as your everyday life will be a few thousand kilometers away.
Almost everyone who hears about Derweze asks the question: How did this oddity appear in the middle of the Karakum Desert? The history of the “Door to Hell” dates back to the early 1970s. The Soviets planned to develop large-scale infrastructure for extracting crude oil and natural gas in this area. However, when they began their operations in Derweze, the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, forming a hole with a diameter of almost 70 meters.
After this incident, further mining operations were canceled, but a new problem appeared: Large amounts of gas were evaporating from the crater. The Soviets decided to solve this issue by setting the gas on fire and burning it all away in a few days. However, local gas resources were clearly underestimated, because the gas has been burning in flames up until now—that is, for more than 40 years.