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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Welcome to the Gates of Hell

Discovery Channel Magazine, December 2010

The locals call it the gates of hell. And you don’t have to get too close to see why.

Deep in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan is a flaming crater that has been burning for half a century. At night you can see the glow for miles, and up close, it’s truly, beautifully, diabolical. Flames lick up from vents in the rock in a crater three hundred metres around. It’s like looking at burning barbecue coals on an epic scale, and when you get downwind of it, and the shimmer of intense heated air comes your way, it’s like being microwaved: a vast, consuming heat, a cooking stove bigger than a baseball diamond.

This geological oddity owes its existence to the Russian gas exploration activities of the late 1950s. In 1959, when Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union, experimental drills were conducted all over this desert, seeking to tap into the region’s bountiful stores of natural gas.

To see the article as it ran in Discovery click here: GatesofHell

To see a photo essay in the Los Angeles Times click here

Then one day – locals say May 19 1959 – a drilling rig collapsed into a hidden pocket of gas; its engineers had unknowingly been building on the ceiling of a cavern. As the roof went in, taking the drill equipment with it, a massive crater was formed, and from it came the familiar smell of methane.

The geologists, reasoning it was better to burn off the gas in the crater rather than letting it pour out unignited, took a decision: they would set it alight. “They thought it would burn in one or two days,” says a local person, repeating stories he has heard about the crater. “Then they could drill some more or just leave it.”

That was 1959. More than 50 years later, it’s still burning.

The flames outlasted Russian exploration in the area; that was dismissed as uneconomic and unproductive the following year. Then they outlasted the Soviet Union itself: Turkmenistan became an independent state in 1991. They outlasted the president who has stamped his image all over the nation in gold statues, towering monuments and a cult of personality to rival Mao: Saparmurat Niyazov, who renamed himself Turkmenbashi (the country’s main port would later take his name), died in 2006. And it seems that it will take man’s intervention to ever extinguish them.

The flaming gas crater is one of three craters in the area: one is filled with salty water, another with bubbling, sulphurous mud, though they appear to be natural rather than man-made. And they have become a curious tourist attraction – there are few more unique camping locations than under the stars next to leaping flames with a glow that never fades. It’s tempting to dangle a lamb kebab over the side and let nature do the cooking.

But learning more about the crater and how it came about is difficult. Turkmenistan does not welcome journalists and my guide and driver declined to be named or photographed. Local people who have assisted foreign journalists have been imprisoned in the past. Turkmenistan is the only country in the world where the author of the local Lonely Planet has insisted on anonymity, to protect the locals who helped with the research. And there’s no point looking for local people who might remember because there is no longer a local town.

There was: it was called Darvaza, or gateway, named after the crater. A small town grew, sustaining itself on natural gas pouring from the ground in such quantities that it didn’t even need to be drilled for. (There is so much gas under Turkmenistan that it is free to locals: their only cost is the matches to light it.)

But in 2004 Niyazov saw Darvaza – some say he visited in person, others that he viewed it from the air – and didn’t like what he saw. It was tatty, ramshackle; it didn’t fit with his vision for a golden age for Turkmenistan, writ large in the imported white marble grandeur of the national capital, Ashgabat.

“In 2004 there was a law that all families should leave this place,” says my guide. “The government said they wanted to close it. That is all.” Why? “He thought there was no job for the people, and it will be better for them to get out from this township and move to the cities and try to find work there. Therefore he says it is not necessary to be here if there is no job.” It’s an odd claim, as those who recall the town say it was self-sufficient. “Families were traditional people, using natural gas; they cooked, they weaved their carpets,” says one. “I head the president demolished it because he didn’t like it from the air.”

Niyazov ordered the town razed, its mainly Uzbek citizens resettled elsewhere. And today, all that remains of Darvaza is the skeletal steel of a drilling rig on a hillside. With it has gone all hope of local memory of what happened in 1959.

Instead, unlike Turkmenistan’s cities, there is a sense of decay out here in the desert despite the vast mineral wealth. Miles down the road there is a town called Airport. But it doesn’t have an airport. That closed after sulphur and agricultural production left the area. A village clings on in the desert.

As for why the crater continues to burn, it’s clear that the geologists set fire to a large seam of methane that continues to pour from the rock and ignite today. How much gas has been wasted, and how much more might follow, is anybody’s guess.

But it might not last much longer. Locals say the government plans to stop it, whether by sealing the crater, dousing it or drilling elsewhere to tap the flow. Signs on a nearby highway announce a gas project for a Russian company. In mid-2010, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who succeeded Niyazov, was reported to have ordered the crater to be filled in.

If it happens, it will be something of a shame, for Turkmenistan excels in oddities that have a certain quirky appeal for travellers. This is the home of a huge sulphurous underwater lake; of some of the world’s most outstanding dinosaur prints (the country has attempted to name the culprit a Turkmenosaurus); of a leader so ostentatious he topped his city’s main monument with a gold statue of himself that revolved with the sun until its removal in August this year. Locals find it odd that foreigners would get on a plane to see an inferno that rose from a mining accident. But, in small numbers, they do, chartering guides to drive them three hours into the desert from Ashgabad.

“It is one of the unique things of Turkmenistan,” says my guide as we breakfast on bread dipped in lamb fat, boiled on a campfire. “It will be sad if it goes.” People don’t appear superstitious about it, more pragmatic: they call it the Gates of Hell because that is undeniably what it looks like.

While the government considers how to end it, the crater blazes still; jutting pieces of steel at one edge, severed and bent, are a reminder of how men created this demonic vision. The glow rises high in the sandy air in this place where the earth is on fire.

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