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A mysterious crater in Turkmenistan that has been burning nonstop since 1971: 'Door to Hell'

There have been several attempts made to quell this roaring fire but they've been unsuccessful so far.

A mysterious crater in Turkmenistan that has been burning nonstop since 1971: 'Door to Hell'
Representative Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Giles Clarke

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, has a dusty brown landscape punctuated here and there with white marble monuments, hotel-like tea houses, and statuesque fortresses. While one traverses through the old Silk Route, going deeper into the Karakum desert, one comes across the most unusual sight: glaring amber-orange flames emerging fervently out of a pit dubbed the “Darvaza Gas Crater” and, even more popularly, “Door to Hell.”

Representative Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images
Representative Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images

The gaping hole has been ablaze since 1971. All the efforts to soothe and quell its fury have been fruitless so far. This crater is a part of a crater trio and while the other two holes are bubbling with mud and water, this hole is constantly emanating flames. According to Live Science, on January 8, 2022, that the country’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov appeared on a state-run TV channel, urging officials to “find a solution to extinguish the fire.” 

The President believes the pit is causing a gigantic chunk of natural resources to be wasted. "We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people," said Berdymukhamedov, per the news agency Agence France-Presse. However, he had previously attempted to do the same in 2019 unsuccessfully. According to ABC News, this burning hole came to public attention when President Berdymukhamedov released a video of himself driving near the crater in a rally car, rapping on his horse, lifting a gold barbell, and performing doughnuts. It was his campaign to counter the rumors of his death after a weeks-long disappearance.



 

Despite the ecological concerts, the fiery crater has made Turkmenistan a popular tourist destination in the past few years. The burning crater has piqued the curiosity of geologists and adventure-seeking travelers worldwide. 

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Masih Shahbazi
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Masih Shahbazi

According to Outlook Traveller, it's believed it was once a flourishing village until a shepherd accidentally stumbled upon a massive sinkhole filled with poisonous gases. Fearing for the safety of his livestock, the shepherd set the cavern ablaze, hoping to eliminate the threat. However, the flames continued to burn for decades, creating an almost otherworldly sight that intrigues the locals and the researchers. Its surreal appearance makes the tourists visit this site, which seems like a fantasy portal to the underworld. The tourists usually set up their camps in the desert land surrounding the crater. There are no hotels in the area, but most of the tea houses tucked across the main road offer beds for the night, provide meals and even sell gas.

Representative Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images
Representative Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images

As for the President’s project, a solution is yet to be found. According to National Geographic, only an explorer named George Kourounis made a descent down this crater in November 2013. He felt like a baked potato, he said.



 

“As I was digging into the ground at the bottom of the crater to gather these soil samples, the fire would start coming out of the hole I just freshly dug because it was creating new paths for the gas to come out of the crater,” Kourounis added. “So, even if you were to extinguish the fire and cover it up, there’s a chance that the gas could still find its way out to the surface and all it would take is one spark to light it up again.” He returned there in 2019 as well.



 

While the crater may offer scientists and travelers a plenty of research material, it also leaks valuable and environmentally harmful methane gas into the atmosphere. The crater is “a polluting environment,” said Stefan Green, the director of the Genomics and Microbiome Core Facility at Rush University in Chicago. He accompanied Kourounis on the 2013 expedition to look for life inside the crater. They did find simple organisms, like methane oxidizers, thermophiles, and spore-forming bacteria, living amongst the flames. But Green says he wouldn’t lose any sleep over the death of these organisms if the crater were filled in. He adds that in the “long term, you would want to stop it.”



 

 

Gianluca Pardelli, the founder of Soviet Tours and consultant on Atlas Obscura’s Turkmenistan trip, sheds light on this matter from the perspective of tourism trade. He said, “The crater is, without a doubt, the biggest tourist attraction in the country.” But he also said that less than 10,000 people visit Turkmenistan every year, so looking at that, it would be no big a loss. But even after considering why it should be stopped, extinguishing this 52-year-old blaze is not as easy as merely pouring truckloads of sand into the fire pit. 

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