Many aspire to crack open a cold one at the Gates of Hell. It’s a sentiment often passed between old friends, a nod to a life well-lived. But if you’re Dylan Thuras — co-founder of media and travel company Atlas Obscura — it’s also meant in the literal sense.
He’s not talking about the entrance to Dante’s Inferno (though the resemblance is admittedly uncanny). Rather, these Gates of Hell refer to a fiery crater measuring roughly 230 feet wide and 100 feet deep that’s been burning in the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan since 1971.
Known officially as the Darvaza gas crater, this little-known destination came to be when a group of well-intentioned Soviets struck a “massive underground natural gas cavern,” causing the ground to collapse and a drilling rig to plummet into the gaping maw it left behind. When toxic fumes began leaking, the Soviets lit the hole on fire in an effort to neutralize the potential for environmental damage. They assumed the fire would, like all other fires, burn out in time. They assumed wrong.
More than 50 years later, the fire in the Karakum Desert still burns, its glow reportedly visible for miles. It’s exactly the kind of oddity that inspired Thuras and co-founder Josh Foer to launch Atlas Obscura in the first place.
“We wrote it up before we even launched the site because we had heard about this thing and we were kind of like, ‘This is the epitome of what we’re talking about. How can this thing exist, and no one knows about it? That’s madness,’” Thuras says. “It was almost like the poster child for the whole idea behind Atlas Obscura, which is that there could be these incredible places that people didn’t know were out there.”
“We would always say to each other, ‘Hey, if this thing really works out, we’ll go have a beer at the edge of The Gates of Hell,’” he adds.
Thuras and Foer planned to run the first trip to Turkmenistan in March of 2020. It sold out in 24 hours, but, needless to say, that trip never happened. At the onset of the pandemic, Turkmenistan shut its borders and hasn’t issued a single visa since.
Fast forward to 2022, and they’re faced with a secondary obstacle, which is that — not for the first time — President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has ordered the government of Turkmenistan to begin researching how to put the fire out. Citing “negative effects on health of people living nearby; wasting of valuable natural gas resources; and environmental damage,” per a report from CNN, Berdymukhamedov has instructed the deputy prime minister to gather a team of scientists who will be tasked with extinguishing the famous flames.
According to Thuras, it’s not necessarily a surprise — the Turkmenistanis’ relationship to the crater is a fickle one. “One day they’re condemning it, and saying they’re going to close it,” he says. “[But] then the next day, Head of the Foreign Ministry, is like, ‘The Gates of Hell is one of our great treasures.’”
Others still don’t know it exists at all. But it remains their biggest tourist attraction, with the potential to, ahem, fuel an otherwise nonexistent industry (a fact which is not lost on the government, as evidenced by the recent installation of nearby bathrooms and a perimeter fence).
In a day in age where there’s so much scrutiny surrounding the ethics of tourism, it makes for an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, there are a number of destinations — e.g., the Great Barrier Reef — that are ephemeral because of human inference. On the other, there are destinations — like The Root Bridges in Cherrapunji — that would likely have disappeared without human interference.
“Tourism is powerful. It spreads attention and it spreads money, and it can do it in ways that are really positive or ways that are really negative,” Thuras says. “So it’s more just about calibrating your own travel around how to do it in the maximally positive way. I think tourism is a powerful force for good when it is.”
The Darvaza gas crater is a particularly interesting case study, since extinguishing the fire would also extinguish one of the most important features of a struggling tourist industry. But since there is no way of knowing how long the fire will burn on its own, it’s also a precarious economic lifeline. The consequences of human interference in either direction are difficult to predict.
When asked whether or not he thinks Turkmenistan will actually go through with plans to put it out, Thuras errs on the side of skepticism, if for no other reason than it’s not as easy as filling a pit with sand. The proposed solution may very well wind up causing more damage to the environment.
“I think they would probably just fill it with gas,” Thuras posits. “Then instead of burning the methane into CO2 — which is actually a slightly better greenhouse gas than methane — it would actually probably just leak methane again. And so you’d have this thing that was both not interesting and still an environmental hazard, which just seems like the worst of all worlds.”
He also maintains that, regardless of what happens with The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan is worthy of a trip.
“I hope they don’t put it out, but if they do, there are still a lot of other incredible things in Turkmenistan. It’s obviously flashy, it’s got a great story — although how much of its creation story is myth versus truth, we may actually never know — and it really catches your eye,” he says. “When you tell people about it, their jaw drops. And so [the crater] is this wonderful way to invite people to a place they might not otherwise go. But even if they close it, there are still incredible, incredible things to see in Turkmenistan.”
That said, he’s still eager to knock Darvaza off his own personal bucket list. “There’s definitely a sense of, if Josh and I are ever going to have that beer, we better do it soon … or we’ll just go down as one of these almost-but-nevers.”
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