Turkmenistan isn’t exactly what you would call touristy.
Okay, that might the understatement of the century. Turkmenistan is not touristy at all.
I went nine days without seeing another tourist anywhere – at least not a Western tourist who stood out like I did.
Then I arrived at this burning gas crater in the middle of the Karakum Desert and suddenly they were everywhere. A Japanese guy and his guide set up camp on one side of us. Then a group of Germans arrived and pitched their tents on the other side. Just after nightfall, some Russians showed up and joined the Germans.
And what international gathering of tourists would be complete without a few Aussies?
Of course I ran into a couple of them as well – Dave and Doug from Melbourne who, as it turned out, were in the middle of driving from London to Mongolia. Yep, that’s right, another Mongol Rally team. They had actually planned to camp right next to the crater (not a good idea for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that the fumes might kill you), but I coaxed them into joining the rest of us a few hundred meters away instead.
After two nights camping in the desert with only my guide for company, the Darvaza Gas Crater almost felt crowded.
Yes, this giant crater that has been on fire for a few decades is Turkmenistan’s most famous (infamous?) tourist attraction. But while the crowds at major tourist attractions in places like France, Italy and Turkey just annoy me, I welcomed the “crowd” of a dozen other tourists at Darvaza.
I climbed up a nearby hill with the Japanese guy to watch the sunset and then met him again after dark, when we took turns snapping pictures of each other in front of the now-glowing crater. I chatted up the Australian guys, wandering around the crater with them, climbing up another hill for some better views, and taking about a gazillion photos (theirs turned out far better than mine!).
And then the next morning, I awoke and climbed back up the hill where I watched the sun set to catch the sun rise on the other side. As I enjoyed the solitude at the top, I noticed a guy setting up a tripod down below me. I headed over to say hello and it turned out to be one of the Russian guys. While he was from Novosibirsk, he had studied at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota (my hometown is a suburb of St. Paul).
But back to the crater itself.
I have to admit, I was initially underwhelmed. In fact, I didn’t even realize we had reached our destination when we pulled up next to the crater around 6:00 p.m., the sun still shining brightly. In the light of day, you don’t even notice it until you are within a few meters of the edge. Then, you can see the rising fumes and feel the heat – and when a gust of wind blows your way from the crater, you feel like you might be on fire.
But as the sun sets and the sky darkens, the orange glow of the crater becomes increasingly visible. In the dark of night, you can see it in its full glory – a giant pit full of flames that probably does resemble the Gates of Hell, as the crater is sometimes called. And that is the picture that most people likely think of when they think of Turkmenistan.
France has the Eiffel Tower.
Italy has the Coliseum.
Istanbul has the Aya Sophia.
And Turkmenistan…well, it has the Darvaza Gas Crater.