Turkmenistan's Burning Gates of Hell
The Gates of Hell
Map Showing Derweze, Turkmenistan
Where Are the Gates?
Every year since 2004 participants in the Mongol Rally journey from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 10,000 miles away. There is no set route; each team chooses their own way, much of it off-road. Those teams that take a Middle Eastern route pass through Turkmenistan, north of Iran and east of the Caspian Sea. Usually, they make a point to include a visit to the Gates of Hell.
On the pothole-ridden main north-south road that cuts through the middle of the Karakum desert, which covers 80% of Turkmenistan, lies the small village of Derweze. In the Turkmen language, “Derweze” means “The Gate,” but the village is also called Darvaza by the Russians who controlled the country when it was part of the Soviet Union.
The Gates Labeled "The Door To Hell" From Space
Back in 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling for gas about four miles northeast of Derweze when they punched into an enormous natural gas cavern. The ground collapsed, and the entire rig was swallowed up. It is unknown whether any lives were lost, but great plumes of poisonous methane gas filled the air. The geologists decided the safest thing to do would be to ignite the poisonous fumes, so they tossed a grenade into the crater and waited for it to burn itself out in a few days. It's been burning ever since in a crater 60 meters wide and 20 meters deep; the heat at the edge of the crater is intense. The locals have dubbed it the “Gates of Hell” and, at night, that's what it looks like-- or the pit of Mount Doom where Frodo said goodbye to his ring finger.
The 350 inhabitants of Derweze, Turkmen of the Teke tribe who still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, find themselves hosting one of Turkmenistan's few tourist attractions, drawing adventurers from all over the world. The whole area sits atop a natural gas field, and the locals sometimes entertain their visitors by tossing lit cigarettes on the ground creating bursts of flames. There are also two other similar craters in the area, but they aren't aflame because their gas pressure is weak and won't sustain burning.
Kurbanguly "The Patron" Shows Who's Boss
The Patron Dentist
Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov visited the flaming pit in 2010 and declared that it must be put out so as not to hinder the development of nearby gas fields. Turkmenistan, a nation of some 5.5 million people, reportedly has the fourth-largest natural gas deposits in the world and is eager to develop them. Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by profession and called “The Patron,” runs one of the world's most repressive regimes, but, despite his edict, the Gates of Hell continue to burn.
A Closer Look Inside the Gates of Hell
Descending Into the Gates of Hell
In 2013, Canadian explorer George Kourounis, after 18 months of preparation, became the first person to descend into the burning Gates of Hell (and live to tell about it). Partnering with National Geographic to determine if life could exist under such conditions (people have to shield their faces from the heat when approaching the edge) George descended in a fire suit equipped with its own air supply. The noise from the flames, he said, sounds like a jet engine. Samples taken from the bottom of the crater did in fact harbor bacteria surviving in the high temperatures there, showing that life, though primitive, may exist in harsher environments than previously thought.
Panning the Gates of Hell
Questions & Answers
© 2011 David Hunt