Turkmenistan's Famous 'Gates of Hell' May Soon Be Extinguished

The country's president hopes to put an end to the decades-long fire

Gates Of Hell - Turkmenistan
Dale Johnson / 500px / Getty Images

The president of Turkmenistan has called on experts to extinguish one of the country’s top tourist destinations—the “Gates of Hell,” a gas crater that has been burning for five decades.

During a televised speech on Jan. 8, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov urged government officials to find a “solution to extinguish the fire,” citing various health and economic concerns.

“We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people,” Berdymukhamedov said.

Located about 160 miles north of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, the Gates of Hell (officially known as Darvaza Gas Crater, after its neighboring town) have quite a fascinating backstory. The most popular story of the crater’s origins dates back to 1971 when a team of Soviet scientists began drilling for oil in the Karakum Desert. An oil rig hit a pocket of methane, collapsed into the ground, and formed a 230-foot-wide crater that began releasing poisonous gases.

In an attempt to stop the spread of gas, scientists lit the crater on fire, assuming that the gases would burn up in a couple of days—an assumption that would quickly be proven wrong. The fire never dwindled, and the crater has remained steadily ablaze for the past 51 years.

There are no official records of the 1971 incident and local geologists have since come out with disparaging theories, but its quasi-mysterious backstory is part of why the Gates of Hell have such a widespread fan base. While Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries to visit due to rigid entry requirements, getting up close to the crater remains on many intrepid travelers’ bucket lists.

Thanks to crater-centered tours offered by several travel companies (including G Adventures and Advantour), this slice of the Karakum Desert has seen a tiny boost in tourism in the past decade or so. Those lucky enough to gain entry into the country—and endure the long and bumpy drive from Ashgabat out into the desert—are rewarded with one of the most surreal experiences on the planet. Guests are allowed to walk right up to the edge of the crater, shielding their faces against the gusts of hot winds and gazing down into the infernal coliseum. 

Despite the air of renown surrounding the crater, Turkmenistan only receives around 10,000 foreign visitors every year—that’s less than the average number of people Yellowstone National Park welcomes in a single day during the high season. Meanwhile, the country is ranked fourth in the world in terms of natural gas reserves, and energy exportation remains its primary source of money.

The reserve of natural gas under the burning crater holds far more economic value than the crater’s niche slice of tourism, so it makes sense that President Berdymukhamedov is calling for the eternal flame to finally be snuffed. It remains to be seen how government officials plan on extinguishing the fire, and there is currently no set deadline for the closure.

Article Sources
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  1. The Earth Observatory. "Gates of Hell." September 14, 2011.

  2. U.S. Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs. "Turkmenistan." Retrieved on February 7, 2022.

  3. National Park Service. "Yellowstone Visitation Statistics." Retrieved on February 7, 2022.

  4. The World Bank. "The World Bank in Turkmenistan." Retrieved on February 7, 2022.

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