Darvaza ('Gates') lies 110km north of Erbent, close to the border with Dashoguz Region, and the start of a special permit zone. The settlement was once the site of a sulphur works, which closed in the 1960s. Prospecting for gas during the Soviet period has resulted in a curious series of sights around the area: several large, circular craters, one of which is aflame.
To reach the flaming crater, a 4x4 is essential, as is a good driver who knows the route. The track heads east from the main road, immediately to the south of the road checkpoint. It then passes over a formidable sand dune (hence the importance of good off-road driving skills), reaching the crater after 7km. The crater is roughly circular in plan, some 60m in diameter. Its floor crackles with hundreds of small fires, the flames fiercest around the edge. The smell of gas and all those flames will take you back to school chemistry lessons, with every Bunsen burner in the classroom in action. This is a worthwhile sight in daytime, but truly remarkable at night, when the glow from the crater can be seen for miles around.
Another gas crater lies in the settlement of Darvaza itself, just off to the west of the main road. Another deep, circular hole, this somewhat smaller crater is surrounded by a metal barrier. There is no fire here, though it too offers a strong smell of gas. Another crater lies some 18km south of Darvaza, on the west side of the main road and just about visible from it. This crater has neither fire nor a particularly pungent smell. Instead it is partly filled with water, through which gas bubbles gently up.
Until 2004, Darvaza was the major halt on the drive between Ashgabat and Dashoguz. A series of cafes, mostly run by ethnic Uzbeks from Dashoguz Region, was spread out along the road north of the settlement, serving the buses and minibuses making the long journey between the two towns. Several of these places offered overnight accommodation in yurts, an option which Turkmen travel agents were wont to describe as the authentic desert experience, but which felt rather more like the authentic night-in-a-litter-strewn-truck-stop experience. Nonetheless, this was convenient accommodation for a nocturnal visit to the flaming crater. In 2004, the whole settlement was demolished, including the roadside cafes, for reasons which have not been made clear, but which may have been linked to the government's plans to upgrade the transport link between Ashgabat and Dashoguz. It is possible to visit the gas craters as a (long) day trip from Ashgabat, but in order to see the flaming crater at night the only current option seems to be to camp nearby.