If you happen to find yourself in Turkmenistan, drive three miles north of Ashgabat. Once you’re out of the gold-paved capital of one of the world’s most insulated dictatorships, you’ll soon find yourself trundling through the empty desert. At night, the sky becomes a thick blanket of indigo, speckled with constellations of flickering milk-white stars. But just ahead, a greater fire burns down on earth: the Darvaza gas crater, a deep chasm of orange flames more commonly known as ‘The Gates of Hell’.
The fires in this inferno have been burning unaided since the 1970s – and some say even earlier. But now, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has unveiled plans to extinguish the flames, citing safety concerns and economic loss as an ever-spiralling crowd of methane works its way up into the atmosphere.
A plan of action would be a good place to start. Without it, Berdymukhamedov’s words are pretty meaningless. People have been trying to put out the fire for years but have never once succeeded. Similarly, the question of how the fire started in the first place has never really been answered, which is of course what makes this hellish inferno so alluring. The most commonly held belief is that the crater formed in 1971 after a soviet gas driller searching for natural gas in the Karakum desert hit on a cave, leading to the formation of a huge crater. Toxic methane started leaking into the atmosphere, so, for the sake of the environment and neighbouring settlements, geologists decided to set fire to the pit, hoping that the gas would burn out within a few days.
50 years later, however, the fires are still burning, The mind-boggling scale of the crater has made it one of the most photographed natural phenomena of recent times. Even President Berdymukhamedov, after rumours of his death began to circulate, shared a video of himself racing around the creator in a supped-up rally car. Just to cement how alive he truly was, he also posted a video of himself eating a packet of doughnuts with the flames licking behind him.
The Darvaza gas crater still poses a big problem for the environment. It is an inherently polluting environment, which leaks huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day. When Stefan Green, director of the Genomics and Microbiome Core Facility at Rush University in Chicago, spoke to Atlas Obscura, he was quick to point out that, while it might look stunning, and the flames convert methane into Carbon dioxide – a slightly less harmful greenhouse gas – it still spells bad news for the environment. “As attractive as [the crater] looks,” he says, “long term you would want to stop it.”
In this sense, the debate surrounding the closure of the crater on environmental grounds can be seen as symbolic of a much larger debate currently going on within the tourist industry, specifically: how do we face up to the inconvenient reality that the tourism industry is one of the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions? While we have been led to believe that it is our right to see as much of the world as we like, by taking long-haul flights to far-flung destinations, we are accelerating the collapse of those places and the destruction of their biodiversity, which, a lot of the time, is the very reason we visit them. The Gates Of Hell attract hordes of travellers each year, but I wonder how long we’ll be able to justify visiting Instagram-worthy locations for little more than a good photo. That being said, people haven’t exactly been keen to travel to Berdymukhamedov’s dictatorship in recent years anyway.
When Gianluca Pardelli, the founder of Soviet Tours, was asked about the planned closure of The Gates Of Hell, he was quick to dispel any notion that the president’s plans are motivated by a concern for the welfare of the surrounding villages, mainly because there aren’t any. Berdymukhamedov famously destroyed all of the surrounding villages because he didn’t like the poverty-stricken vibe they were giving off. We’re talking about a man who has erected countless solid gold statues of himself around Ashgabat. Such wanton displays of disregard for one’s people don’t come as much of a surprise. But if Berdymukhamedov were able to mine beneath the crater, he would be able to extract huge amounts of incredibly valuable methane. It is this economic factor, many believe, which has motivated his decision to extinguish the flames. Nobody’s quite sure how much gas lies beneath the crater, but the fact that the flames have been burning for nearly 50 years would imply that the supply is vast.