Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Day 182 - The Burning Gates of Hell. (Turkmenistan)

Once we were through the border town of Dashoguz, we faced 300 km of desert before reaching our most anticipated destination on this trip. The flaming gas crater caused by a failed Soviet exploration of Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves in 1971, has been left burning ever since. A 70m wide fiery hole in the ground, it has been suitably dubbed “The Gates of Hell”.

Other than the occasional car speeding past at 140 km/h and an intermittent convoy of Iranian trucks, it was just us, the sand dunes and some ankle high shrubbery all the way to Darvaza. Darvaza is a scattered and very dilapidated village; only a handful of tiny brick constructions strewn along the side of the road. A few partial foundations, shells of buildings and a couple of deserted chimneys were the only indication of what this place used to be. Darvaza was once a functioning and thriving town, but when the exalted President took a drive and found the town, he condemned it and demanded that it be demolished as he did not like how it looked. I wonder whether he has been back since and what he would think of the ghost of a town it has now become.

Just after the not so charming town, there is a road bridge that crosses the railway tracks. The peculiar thing about this is that the road doesn’t in fact join up to the bridge, but rather goes around it, crossing the railway tracks on the ground. The bridge in all its cemented glory, complete with barriers and street lights, is suspended beside the road with no way to drive on or off; a bizarre reflection on the state of Turkmenistan’s progress.

A couple of kilometres down the road from this memorable piece of infrastructure there is a sign pointing to something West of the road, and opposite the sign is a variety of tracks leading towards the sand dunes East of the road. At this point the tracks all lead in vaguely the same direction, so we chose the bit that seemed the best for driving and off we went. We crossed a small ridge that ran parallel to the road, then skidded our way through some sand dunes, and suddenly the tracks weren’t all going the same way and we had to try and guess which one to take. We mistakenly took a left hand fork and got ourselves a little bogged in the sand, right in front of a bizarre red cross made of heavy duty gas valves. We couldn’t decide whether it was a functioning piece of equipment or an odd monument of some kind. We inspected it at great length, had a fiddle, and when it sounded like gas was coming out of a valve that Ben had twisted, we decided to keep moving. 4WD on and we were no longer stuck.

We doubled back and took a different fork which led us East again. A couple of sand dunes later we realised that what we were approaching was some sort of mining field. A man poked his head out from behind a digger and we took the opportunity to ask directions. He knew exactly what we were talking about, and using the sand as a drawing board, gave us quite specific but mostly undiscernible instructions. We gathered that we should go back the way we had come and then either turn left or not turn left.

We turned around and headed back towards the main road, choosing to turn left where the landscape became a bit lunar and we suspected there could be some craters. After a bit of bumpy, but more solid driving, we concluded that this probably wasn’t the way and we should go back to our original track. As we began the u-turn though we spotted a kid on a bike up ahead so we approached him and asked for Darvaza. Again he knew exactly what we were referring to and again we were pointed back the way we had come. This was starting to feel like a wild goose chase. Then the kid offered to take us there if we wanted – of course we wanted! For a fee – darn. We had a quick discussion and decided given we’d already been driving around in circles for an hour and dusk was starting to set in, we should take up the chance of such a service. We pulled out 3 Manat, aware that at just over $1 it’s not really a lot of money, but he’s only a child and he seems to be going that way anyway. Surely he’d be pretty chuffed at the idea of $1 (I would have been when I was 12), and everyone wins. He laughed at our offer and asked for 70 Manat. No thanks.

Back to our original track once again. This time we decided to cross the track, getting a good feeling about a narrow but reasonably well worn path leading between two mounds. Funnily enough this was only 100m or so past the spot where we’d gotten stuck next to the weird gas valve cross over an hour before. We reached the small saddle joining the mounds, and as we descended the other side we were instantaneously struck speechless by the fierce glow emerging from the giant flaming crater that was suddenly visible up ahead.

Completely awestruck, we parked Trevor and ran down the valley towards the flames. Even from 200m away the heat was intense, catching in the wind and throwing itself at us. As we neared the edge of the crater, the enormity of the phenomenon began to become apparent to us. Even at dusk, the haze hovering in the air was thick and the glow immense. This giant crater, 70m in diameter, of which we were the only witnesses at this time, has been on fire for over 40 years. Drawn to the unguarded edge, perfectly aware of the imminent danger, yet strangely immune to the fear, we saw for ourselves the reality in the imagery of the name given the crater – “The Gates of Hell”. One gigantic flame swirled out from the centre of the hole, curling several metres into the air, while smaller flames seeped out from cracks all over the rock walls, blurring in the haze. We watched the burning crater all evening, from dusk to well into the night, continuing to be amazed by the increased intensity of the colour against the night back drop.

Our camping spot that night beats any other that I can possibly think of. The wind was strong, blowing the heat from the fire, along with sand from the desert floor up at us. It made for one of the dustiest and in many ways most uncomfortable evenings we’ve had, but all that was trumped by the sense of elation we all felt from the red glow rising from the earth in front of us. Even our camp stove struggled to stay lit in the gusty wind, and by the time we got around to eating our dinner, it was mainly dirt, mixed together with a bit of dirt. We barely noticed.

Had this man made natural disaster taken place in almost any other country in the world, it would not be the same experience. Most countries would put out the fire, bowing to the international pressure that would surely be placed on a government hosting such an environmental hazard. Many countries would leave it burning simply for the sake of attracting tourism, charging an extortionate entrance fee, littering the place with excessively friendly tour guides and vibrant information boards, and undoubtedly encouraging small business owners to set up shops selling cold drinks and a range of overpriced, tacky souvenirs. Tourism bureaus would probably build some sort of walkway over the top, there might be a photography service available, and of course the basic safety railing that would be required in keeping with safety regulations. Perhaps a clever investor would build some swanky apartment blocks, and it wouldn’t be long until an international hotel chain would set up shop advertising rooms with either “Desert View” or “Burning Gates of Hell View”.

Not only has none of this come to fruition in Turkmenistan, but most incredibly, I cannot stress the awesomeness of being completely alone with this unique scene. I presume that for a vast majority of the time, there’s not a single sole present at the crater. It brings to mind the old adage of whether the tree falling in an empty forest still thuds as it hits the ground.

I could easily write for pages on how unbelievable the scene was.

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