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The Gates to Hell still burn at the Darvaza gas crater

BY Tim Johnson

27th Feb 2024 Travel Stories

8 min read

The Gates to Hell still burn at the Darvaza gas crater
A fiery chasm burns in the Turkmenistan desert, but with the climate crisis worsening, the Darvaza gas crater (known as the Gates to Hell) could soon be plugged
Circling the globe as a travel writer, visiting almost 150 countries over about 20 years, I have seen a lot of remarkable things.
I’ve stood in the basket of a hot-air balloon and watched herds of elephants crossing the Serengeti.
I have travelled by helicopter in Antarctica to see humpback whales feeding in the frigid waters.
I’ve been awestruck by the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Pyramids of Giza.
I have even felt the last rays of a sunset quickly fading over Cambodia’s Angkor Wat as I sat atop a temple. 
But I have never, ever seen or experienced anything like the Gates of Hell, its flames dazzling from the bottom of the crater 98 feet below, lighting up the Karakum Desert with burning methane.
My visit, nearly a decade ago now, was truly an unforgettable experience. 

Turkmenistan's methane problem and the climate crisis

Darvaza gas crater in desert at dusk
That place is on my mind these days because it has been in the news recently. Darvaza, Turkmenistan’s famous flaming gas crater, is finally about to be extinguished, its polluting abyss plugged, hopefully forever.
The country’s new president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, has announced that the United States is going to help his country do it for the good of the whole world. 
The crater is in one of Turkmenistan’s two main gas fields, both of which are huge contributors to climate change (satellite data gathered on behalf of The Guardian shows that methane leaks from those fields caused more global heating in 2022 than all the carbon emissions of the United Kingdom).
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, methane is responsible for more than 25 per cent of the global warming we are experiencing today; it traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than carbon dioxide (CO2), making it 80 times more potent than CO2, and for longer—20 years after it is released. 
The United States in particular has been earnest in this matter, with top brass, including former senator and now special envoy for climate John Kerry, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with Turkmenistan’s president and other officials in spring 2023.
Taking care of the Darvaza crater was one of the main goals of the global community heading into the United Nations COP28 climate change summit in Dubai last November. That’s a good thing. But allow me to indulge in my memories. 

The highway to hell

My visit back in 2015 to Turkmenistan’s biggest tourist attraction was near the end of an epic overland trip across Central Asia, on the trail of the old Silk Road.
I had landed in Tashkent, the bustling capital of Uzbekistan, the country to the northeast of Turkmenistan, and spent some time with a small international tour group exploring that country: the blue domes and busy bazaars of Bukhara and the grand old city of Samarkand, the heart and soul of the conqueror Tamerlane’s 14th-century empire. 
I got a haircut and shave, traditional style—meaning that the barber used an open flame to shear excess hairs from my face. I washed down hearty meals like shashlik (mutton skewers) and manty (dumplings filled with spiced lamb) with cold local beer.
Then it was time for the long drive to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. I couldn’t wait to see it; I’d heard it had the most white-marble-clad buildings in the world. And some fairly bizarre structures, including a giant thermometer and the world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel.
But first, we’d be stopping along the way for the main attraction: to see the so-called Gates of Hell. 
"We hustled toward a flaming crater on the horizon"
After we crossed the border into Turkmenistan, the arid, endless landscapes became even more vast. The basic, cosy motels we’d stayed at until this point were well behind us.
We rolled over miles of rough desert roads for the next few days, far from any significant settlement, and slept in pup tents, just a thin layer of canvas between us and the stars. 
Finally, pulling into a flat spot tucked between two hills one afternoon—one of the most desolate places I’ve ever seen—we reached the Darvaza crater area, where we’d camp that night. First though, our guide told us, we’d be going to see the crater, five miles away. 
Soon, a driver arrived from Ashgabat in a big four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser that we’d need to get near the flaming hole. Our group of six piled in and, chasing the sunset, we raced through the Karakum Desert, driving hard on the road to hell. 
According to the old saying, this particular route is paved with good intentions, but in reality, ours wasn’t paved at all. We fishtailed through the sand and kicked up a rooster tail of dust that looked a mile long.
Crammed into the back of the Land Cruiser, I held on tight as our Turkmen driver pushed the vehicle to breakneck speeds, music cranked, tuned to a mix of Europop and twangy Middle Eastern strings. 
As we wove around hills and roared over ridges, old, disused pipes and drilling equipment flashed by in the shadows. We spotted a lone camel, up high on a copper-coloured knoll to our left.
But both were soon left in the dust as we hustled toward a flaming crater on the horizon. 
And there it was. 
Seeing the flames, my companions and I twitched with excitement. “Hell,” said my seatmate in a crisp Liverpool accent, “here we come!”.

Opening the gateway to hell in Soviet Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan capital city Ashgabat
Turkmenistan was, until 1991, one of the southern republics of the Soviet Union, which eagerly harvested its vast natural-gas resources. Since the fall of communism, the country, with a population of 6.5 million, has been ruled by a succession of three eccentric dictators. 
The first, Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself “president for life,” renaming the months of the year after his family members and erecting dozens of golden statues of himself across the country before his death in 2006. 
After him, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov allowed for a greater opening of the country—one that led to a remarkable influx of tourists, who come here to gaze up at shimmering minarets and down into the depths of Hades. And he continued his predecessor’s authoritarian ways while settling for a more modest personality cult. 
Well, I say “modest,” but as leader he was also a little eccentric.
For example, on the Turkmen national holiday in 2018, he released a video in which he rapped about his favourite horse breed—the same breed that, a few years earlier, he’d commissioned a gold-coated statue of, with himself in the saddle. It sits on a busy roundabout in Ashgabat.
"The ground opened up, creating a hole some 226 feet wide and 98 feet deep"
And in 2020 he unveiled a statue of his favourite canine breed. A large gold-plated Alabai dog, a symbol of Turkmen pride, stands on another Ashgabat roundabout. A video screen at its base shows children playing with the breed, running through grass and the desert.
He stepped down in 2022, though he still bears the nickname “Arkadag” (Hero Protector). 
His successor is one of his offspring, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, who appears to be continuing down the same road (like father, like son). The new regime is building a city 18 miles from the capital at a cost of nearly £4 billion. Its name? Arkadag.
Turkmenistan’s biggest tourist attraction is still, for now, the flames in the desert. Roughly halfway between the Unesco World Heritage Site of Kunya-Urgench at the northern border and Ashgabat in the south of the country, the Darvaza Gas Crater sits near the geographic centre of Turkmenistan. 
But it’s been here for only around 50 years. In the early 1970s, Soviet geologists, believing they were sitting on an oil patch, started drilling on this spot. To their surprise, they hit a large pocket of methane. The ground opened up, creating a hole some 226 feet wide and 98 feet deep.  
The geologists then doubled down on their mistake by setting the crater on fire, believing they could burn off the methane pouring forth from it within a few weeks. Five decades later, Darvaza still burns.

Gazing into the underworld

man stood on edge of Darvaza gas crater with molten ground below
Before we arrived at the crater, we had been warned to stay ten feet from the edge, because pieces of the dry, cracked desert are known to crumble into the pit (countless spiders also plunge into its depths, apparently pulled there by the light within).
At the time of my visit, the site had no designated pathways or guardrails. I’ve read that a modest fence was installed in 2018. 
Like those spiders, most of our little group were drawn to the glow. Climbing out of the Land Cruiser, I made my way to the edge, peering down at the central flame. It was a surreal, otherworldly sight: a hole just glimmering and smouldering in the desert.
I had expected the rotten-egg smell of sulphur, but the gas was almost odourless. And when the shifting winds chased the heat out of the crater, it was an intense, dry, sauna-like smack to the face—like being hit with the powerful wash from a jet engine.
I had to check my eyebrows to make sure they hadn’t been singed off (which would have been fitting, given my barber shop treatment earlier in the trip).
"The danger was part of the thrill, knowing the ground could give way at any time, casting me into a burning pit"
The gusts were also stifling; methane isn’t toxic, but it displaces oxygen, making it hard to breathe for a few seconds.
We were there roughly three hours. I circumnavigated the crater several times under the darkening sky, standing perilously close to the lip, even venturing out on a small, overhanging spit of soil reinforced by some old, now-broken pipes to get a better vantage point.
The danger was part of the thrill, knowing the ground could give way at any time, casting me into a burning pit. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones.
We took turns posing in front of the great, flaming chasm for once-in-a-lifetime photos. One couple unfolded chairs and sipped cheap Uzbek wine, their faces and glasses illuminated by the nearby flames as they enjoyed a weird, romantic moment.
Too soon, we were on our way back to our ersatz campsite, those same vaguely Middle Eastern beats thumping from the speakers, a nearly full moon illuminating the desert. 
You could say I had been to hell and back, but it felt like something else. A visit to a strange land, certainly, or a different planet, maybe. It could have been the gas (or the adrenaline) affecting my senses, but I felt the glow all the way back to camp.

Dousing the fires

Darvaza gas crater in desert during day
Looking back on my visit, that chasm seemed ferocious, unquenchable. And indeed, despite the current excitement about closing the crater, some experts have serious doubts that it will help.
Even if the flames can be extinguished and the crater and the surrounding area are filled with cement, the gas will still likely find a way to leak out, says Mark Tingay, a professor with expertise in petroleum geo-mechanics at Australia’s University of Adelaide. 
“The gas is likely coming up from its deep source through fractures and through the rock’s natural permeability,” he says. If it were somehow corked, “the gas would likely still flow around that cap and escape to the surface along new pathways.” 
It seems these theories will be tested, and soon. Even attempting to plug it will be a mammoth project. Just the first task—extinguishing the flames—could involve dousing it with a mind-boggling amount of foam (picture a giant fire extinguisher) or suffocating it with a colossal fire blanket. 
And even if there were no flames, there’s still the problem of all that methane that would continue to rush up from the depths and leak out. 
There is a possibility that the methane could actually be captured before it hits the atmosphere and be used as an energy source, but there doesn’t yet seem to be a firm plan in place for the Darvaza crater.  
But in my mind, Darvaza will always be that moment the sun faded, and the stars came up.
Standing there on the edge, the night cooling, so many miles of desert around me, in that faraway land. The flames below, fearsome and sublime, burning through the gloaming.
Something from a fantasy, or a dream. On the brink of one of the Earth’s great curiosities, somewhere between the heavens and—yes—hell.
Banner credit: Travel Directors, CC BY ND 2.0, via Flickr
@2023, Tim Johnson. Portions of this article first appeared in The Globe and Mail
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