What a World

A Fiery Pit Rages in the Turkmenistan Desert

Nina Strochlic on the man-made inferno in Central Asia that locals have dubbed the “Door to Hell.”

In the middle of Turkmenistan’s expansive desert lies a site that’s the stuff of legends. It’s a place a mythical villain might be condemned to serve out a lifetime exile. Or perhaps the scene of an alien landing. Or, maybe, a sign of the coming apocalypse. If you travel to the center of the vast Karakum Desert, you will find a massive fiery crater that has burned continuously for decades.

In 1971, a team of Soviet scientists was drilling at the site when their rig collapsed into a cavernous pocket of natural gas. Concerned that the hole would release poisonous methane gases, the geologists set it on fire, expecting the fuel would burn out in a few days.

Now, nearly a half-century later, the 200-foot-wide by 70-foot-deep cavern continues to burn, emitting a glow that can be seen for miles at night—along with a reportedly thick stench of sulfur. At some point, locals began referring to the fiery crater as the “Door to Hell” or the “Gates of Hell,” a mythological reference that quickly caught on.

The drama of the inextinguishable fire is heightened by its surroundings: a vast, empty, gas-rich landscape. Around 80 percent of the Central Asian country is comprised of the Karakum, or Black Sand, Desert. The nearest village to the giant bonfire, Darvaza, was once home to an estimated 350 tribal Turkmens, but has since been mostly abandoned due to government orders. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, is more than 160 miles away.

Three years ago, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow allegedly inspected the site and pledged it would be filled in, but nothing has been done to carry out those orders, and the pit continues to burn. Turkmenistan isn’t the friendliest country for tourism, and a Lonely Planet forum thread from earlier this summer showed the difficulty of visiting the crater without joining an organized tour. It’s also worth noting that Turkmenistan has been named by Human Rights Watch as “one of the world’s most repressive” countries.

But curious visitors continue to seek out the spectacular site that burns without any sign of fading. “If you ever wanted to know what hell looked like, it looks like this,” one unbelieving visitor attested.