Darwaza: Gates of Hell

Darwaza Gas Crater

The Darvaza gas crater is a failure in a massive natural gas field in the Zaunguz Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. For almost half a century, the dangerous site has been engulfed in flames, attracting numerous explorers and tourists. The crater is over 60 meters in diameter and about 30 meters deep. People call the location “the entrance to the underworld” or “the gates of hell. This is the most mystical attraction in Turkmenistan.

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Video: Darwaza Gas Crater

History of the Darwaza Gas Crater

The word Darwaza means “gate” in Persian. Near the settlement of Darwaza, researchers discovered an underground accumulation of gas in 1971. Geologists decided to equip a well to obtain more accurate data. Almost immediately after delving into the ground, the drill encountered a large underground cavity where the entire work site, including vehicles, equipment and the derrick itself collapsed.

The incident did not cause any injuries, but there would soon be casualties, as gas was gushing out of the hole in the hole. To prevent a full-scale environmental disaster due to poisoning of people, flora and fauna, the pit was set on fire. According to geologists’ calculations, the discovered methane reserves would run out in just a few days. As a result, the burning was prolonged for many years.

Some Turkmen scientists are certain that the Darwaza gas crater formed back in the 1960s, but this version is not official. In 2004, the nearby village was demolished and its inhabitants relocated closer to the railway station of the same name. In 2010, this unusual landmark was personally visited by the president of the country, ordering that the sinkhole be backfilled or any other measures be taken to limit the leakage of a valuable natural resource. Despite this, no plan of action was ever developed.

In 2013, a scientific study of Darwaz began. Specialists stated that modern technology and inclined drilling on the side of more stable areas of soil could allow the use of the field. In addition, there were closed wells on the site, reinforced with rebar. In the future, they may be opened to continue production.

Tourists at the crater

Other craters

The fire pit is not the only gas crater in Darvaz. Not far from the famous crater are several of its less popular “brethren”. They are also places where natural gas comes out, but the methane pressure here is much lower, so the craters don’t burn. The bottom of one crater is covered with bubbling gray mud and the other with turquoise mud.

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Coming to these places, a look at such unusual natural sights is also worthwhile. These craters are less impressive, so they should be viewed during daylight hours. The best option is to arrive a couple of hours before sunset and go to the colored craters first, and closer to dusk to admire the “gates of fire.”

Darwaz water crater Darwaz mud crater

Exploring the Gate of Fire

Canadian explorer George Coronis was the only person to visit the bottom of the Darwaz gas crater’s fiery sinkhole and successfully escape. In 2013, the National Geographic Society funded the adventurer’s journey to obtain soil samples from the glowing crater. The most exciting question was whether microorganisms could exist in such harsh conditions.

The traveler said that he had been preparing to descend into the depths of Darwaz for 1.5 years. During this time, he obtained permits, gathered a team of like-minded people and trained with mountaineering equipment. Coronis even hired a stuntman pyrotechnician who set a special explorer’s suit on fire for training purposes. This helped him get used to the surroundings of fire and avoid panic at the crucial moment.

In addition to the fireproof suit, the explorer used custom-built Kevlar gear. Only items made of this metal were capable of withstanding the heat of the crater. In the samples obtained by Coronis, scientists discovered a special kind of bacteria that can successfully survive high temperatures and minimal nutrients. These microorganisms are not found anywhere else on Earth.

The results have implications not only for the knowledge of our planet, but also for the development of astrobiology. On many planets, especially those outside the solar system, the conditions for the emergence of life differ little from the bottom of the fire pit in Turkmenistan. The data obtained look encouraging: harsh conditions are not an obstacle for the development of organisms.

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Good to know

At the gas crater Darwaz has a special atmosphere – there are no people for many kilometers around, you will not find souvenir shops or parking lots, only hot sand and a red-hot hole in the desert canvas. There are also no fences, gas stations, or other infrastructure.

All of the craters mentioned have loose edges and steep, loose slopes, so tourists need to be extremely careful when visiting Darwaz. You should not go close to the cliff, as it is almost impossible to get out of such a trap. In the main crater this is also facilitated by the extremely high temperature.

To see the “gates of hell” in all their glory, it is advisable to come here in the evenings. The fiery tongues of the pit look especially spectacular in the soft twilight and rays of the setting sun. It is not recommended to visit the crater at night – in pursuit of a good shot, it is easy not to notice the fragile area at the edge. Tourists are not recommended to stay near the craters for a long time, because not all of the escaping gas burns, and the temperature of the air and soil remains high.

If you like mystical and unusual natural sights, it is definitely worth visiting the Darwaz gas crater before it is liquidated. So far, the authorities of Turkmenistan have not approved a project to extinguish the flames by beginning to make useful use of the gas. However, the probability that the “gates of hell” will still be reorganized is extremely high – the 50-year “anniversary” of the crater, actively depleting local strata of valuable natural resources, is approaching.

How to get there

Darvaza is located at the intersection of the borders of Akhal and Dashoguz regions in the northwestern part of Turkmenistan. The sight is located 266 km to the north from Ashkhabad and 90 km from the settlement of Erbent. The most convenient way to get here is by a rented car that one can easily rent in the capital. Taking into account the distance of the trip, you should calculate the duration of transport use correctly.

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It is necessary to turn from the highway to the country road, which changes to sand a few hundred meters before the crater. You can leave your car at some distance from the crater, as it is not easy to cross this section even on foot. To get closer without the risk of getting bogged down in the sand, you should rent an off-road vehicle. In general, the track and even the dirt road are of very high quality, and the route has been popular with tourists from all over the world for decades. This means that finding the famous landmark will be easy.

A few kilometers south of the Darwaz gas crater, you can have lunch at a roadside cafe, but the nearest stores and other infrastructure are in Yerbent. It is advisable to take care of a full tank of car and at least a minimum supply of food and drinks for all participants of the trip.

Darwaza Gas Crater. Gates of Hell.

The gas crater of Darwaza. Gates of Hell. Darwaza crater, Turkmenistan, Video, Longpost

The fiery crater is located in Darwaz, 270 kilometers from Ashkhabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, to the north. The place is extremely deserted: the animals leave this place when they sense the malicious smell and people prefer to settle further away. There are few tourists here: to see the gas crater of Darvaz, you must overcome the red-hot sands, and the nearest village, the village of Erbent, is almost a hundred kilometers away. It is noteworthy that the name of both the desert and the aul, where this amazing phenomenon is located, is translated quite symbolically: “Karakum” means “black sands”, and “Darvaz” means “Door”. It is not at all strange that the fire that appeared in the desert, as it turned out, unburnable, the locals called the “Gates of Hell.

This unique well appeared after an extremely promising deposit was discovered by geologists near the village of Darvaz in 1971 (which is not surprising, given that Turkmenistan is the fourth-largest in the world in terms of natural gas reserves). They could not ignore such a find and started prospecting, first excavating and then drilling. And they came across a cavern – a small cavity in the rock, most likely created during the solidification of a lava saturated with gas.

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As a result, a huge hole was formed in the Earth’s crust, into which all the equipment used for the drilling operations fell: the drilling tower, equipment, vehicles (human casualties have fortunately been avoided). And gas began to escape through the newly formed crack.

According to the official version, in order to prevent the gas, dangerous for people and animals, from coming to the surface, it was decided to set it on fire with the expectation that after a while it would burn out completely – and the fire would go out. That’s where the scientists made a mistake: the deposit in the area turned out to be so large that, since 1971, the fire has been burning ever since. Some residents of Darvaz argue that the decision was not taken so quickly, it was a long time and they point to other dates: the drilling work, they claim, was carried out in the sixties, and the gas was set on fire already in the early eighties.

Now we have the opportunity to observe the amazing phenomenon of Darwaz, the like of which is not found anywhere else in the world: the indomitable fire, ceaselessly blazing from the bowels of the earth (it is believed that during this time several billion cubic meters of natural gas have already burned up here).

The gas crater of Darwaza. Gates of Hell. Darwaza crater, Turkmenistan, Video, Longpost

The view of the Darwaz fire phenomenon is impressive: The diameter of the “Gates of Hell” is sixty meters (the size of half a soccer field);

The depth is twenty meters (the height of a seven-story house);

Fires from the well soar to a height of 10 to 15 meters. The natural gas first enters the Darwaz well from the bowels of the earth, then ends up in the middle of the fire and begins to burn. As it ignites, it splits into a huge number of fires that fly upward.

The gas crater of Darwaza. Gates of Hell. Darwaza crater, Turkmenistan, Video, Longpost

While scientists are figuring out how to extinguish the fiery crater of Darwaz Turkmenistan, in late fall 2013, Canadian traveler and explorer George Coronis decided to go through the Gates of Hell and descend to the bottom of the crater. The goal of his expedition was to collect soil from the bottom of the fire pit for further study in order to determine whether any organisms could survive in such conditions.

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In order to descend to the bottom of the fire crater, Coronis had to prepare properly, namely to obtain permission, assemble a team, prepare and test the equipment – for this purpose, he repeatedly descended the cliff above the river with special climbing equipment, wearing a heatproof suit and breathing apparatus (clothing and other equipment were made of Kevlar – a special material with increased density and capable of withstanding temperatures around 500 °C). George Coronis also hired a stuntman to set him on fire (so that in the future, finding himself in a fiery crater among the burning flames of Darwaz, the explorer would not panic).

Despite careful and lengthy preparation, his descent was not easy and was like a journey to another planet. The researcher had no time to be afraid, he says: he was too busy – he had to watch the breathing apparatus, the ropes with which he was descending, make video recordings, etc. Down there, Coronis was lucky: not only did he collect soil, but he also found unique bacteria that do not live on the surface and thrive only in certain conditions (in this case – at the bottom of a red-hot crater). Such a finding is especially important for those who study astrobiology: apparently, the conditions on planets outside the solar system are extremely similar to the gas crater Darwaza. Upon his return, Coronis called Hell’s Gate the Colosseum of Fire, for there are thousands of small fires burning everywhere–and yet, amazingly, no smoke is visible anywhere, only the sound is audible–a powerful, puffing sound, reminiscent of the rumble of a jet engine.

Not far from Darwaza are two more craters of similar origin, but there is no fire in them anymore. The bottom of one of them is covered with mud, endlessly bubbling under the action of escaping gas, and the other has the bottom covered with turquoise-colored liquid.

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