Turkmenistan Plans to Extinguish One of its Top Tourist Attractions
Image: Freda Bouskoutas/Shutterstock
Best seen at dusk, the Darvaza Gas Crater is nicknamed the “Door to Hell.” It’s certainly a surreal sight – a pit 20m deep and 60m across that lies in the middle of Turkmenistan’s sun-scorched Karakum Desert. As you approach from miles away, an eerie light is seen to radiate from the site. As you get closer, it becomes evident that the light is due to an inferno of flame. Though some alternative histories exist, the crater is generally thought to have been created when some Soviet-era petroleum prospecting went wrong: a geological gas-rich cavern collapsed when engineers started boring a test well. Rather than plug the complex gas leak that the cavern created, the team set fire to the site expecting the methane to burn off within a few weeks. Half a century later, it’s still burning.
Now, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has demanded that the fires be extinguished, according to local press reports issued on January 8. This is terrible news for the country’s tour agencies: Darvaza has become one of Turkmenistan’s top tourist attractions – rated third after Ashgabat and Konye Urgench in Lonely Planet’s Central Asia Guide. That might not be saying a lot. Turkmenistan was never the most accessible place for tourists to explore. Even before Covid restrictions, there were restrictive visa rules and the general requirement that foreign visitors be accompanied by a tour guide throughout their stays. However, the site’s relatively high profile as an attraction meant that the announcement of its potential elimination was reported worldwide.
President Berdymukhamedov is not exactly wrong in pointing out that the crater’s emissions “negatively affects both the environment and the health of the people.” However, Darvaza’s desert steppe land setting is so remote that the numbers of residents considered “living locally” are pretty minimal. Also, while visually spectacular, the quantities of methane being burnt here are relatively minimal compared to the huge volumes of “associated gasses” flared from offshore oil rigs in the Caspian (a problem that is finally being partially addressed after decades of wastage). Perhaps more important is the hopes of commercially tapping the underlying gas reserves. It was that very idea that caused the creation of the crater in 1971, which has continued to burn for 50 years given the inability – or lack of motivation – for Soviet and Turkmen engineers to address the problem.
It remains to be seen whether the president’s decree will result in any on-the-ground action. After all, in 2010, Berdymukhamedov made a very similar pronouncement. Later, however, he seemed to forget it. In 2013, the crater gained international attention when Canadian explorer George Kouronis was lowered into its fiery depths in a flame-proof suit to search for extremophile life forms that might exist despite the intense heat. In 2018 the crater was renamed with the romantic moniker Garagum Ýalkymy (‘The Karakum Glow’). Then the following year, the eccentric president swapped his horse-riding and musical stunts for a videoed exploit of high-speed driving, whizzing around the crater’s lip in a souped-up pick-up truck.