If you’re ever trekking through the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, there’s a chance you might come across a nightmarishly apocalyptic sight. A 70-metre-wide and 20-metre-deep pit filled with boiling mud and tall, flickering flames, it’s been nicknamed the ‘Gateway to Hell’ – and it isn’t hard to see why. Officially named the Darvaza gas crater, it’s been on fire for more than half a century.
So, how on earth did this hellish landscape come into being? Well, it’s not known for sure – but here’s one version of events. The Karakum desert is an enormous gas reserve and, back in 1971, when Turkmenistan was still part of the USSR, Soviet engineers identified the site as a great place to extract natural gas. They built a big rig and prepared to drill.
But it turns out that Darvaza was not a great place to drill. The field collapsed into an underground cavern, forming the current crater. Thinking that poisonous fumes might leak out into nearby towns, engineers thought the best solution was to set the pit on fire and burn off the gas.
Though they thought it would all be burnt off in a few weeks, the fire has continued to blaze for just over 50 years. More gas continues to leak into the Darvaza crater from a much larger gas field underneath, which is feeding the current fire – and will likely continue to fuel it for years to come.
While the exact timings of the collapse and ignition are somewhat disputed, there’s no getting around the fact that Turkmenistan now has a huge hole that’s been burning for five decades. Understandably, it’s become one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, sitting as it does around 270km north of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital and largest city.
But it appears that the crater might not be burning for much longer – if Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov gets his way, that is. Last week he ordered a commission to extinguish the fire, citing that it wastes natural gas resource, causes environmental damage and is unhealthy for those living nearby.
It isn’t the first time Berdymukhamedov has ordered it closed. He did so in 2010, too. We’re no firefighters, but we imagine that trying to quell the flames of hundreds of fires, all with near-infinite fuel, is an easier-said-than-done kind of thing.
On a separate note, there might be other reasons for Turkmenistan’s president being so keen to put the fire out. After all, Berdymukhamedov is accused of helming a regime rife with human rights abuses, brutal authoritarianism and far-ranging corruption. Perhaps having the ‘Gateway to Hell’ on his doorstep is a tad too close for comfort.
While we’re here: have you heard the one about the Dutch town with precisely zero roads?
And did you know there’s a load of rampaging cocaine hippos in Colombia?