One of the world’s most remarkable man-made attractions is about to close. Don’t rejoice just yet, we’re not talking about Florida’s Walt Disney World. And don’t despair, because Angkor Wat and Christ the Redeemer are very much open.
Deep in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert is the Gateway to Hell.
It’s a vast crater seeping natural gas, where fires have burnt for over 50 years. It’s like walking around the rim of an active volcano, except the Darvaza Gas Crater sinks into the desert beneath your feet. So it really feels like you’re looking into the earth’s fiery core.
Most believe it was created by a failed Soviet gas mining project in the 1970s, or the 1960s. Nobody is too sure and nobody has actually been inside the thing.
Ready to Be the Explorer?
President Berdymukhamedov just ordered it to be closed. So this year might be your last chance to see a gateway to middle earth. Or maybe not, as Elite Voyage’s Marketing Director Stephen Bailey explains:
“I first heard about the Gateway to Hell when President Berdymukhamedov ordered it closed in 2010. I visited Turkmenistan in 2011 and the crater was burning like crazy. It was visible from about 20 kilometres away.
People told me that Mr Berdymukhamedov had instead ordered the closest town to be closed, because he didn’t like it. The dictator couldn’t stop the fire, but he prevented visitors from seeing how the locals lived in Karakum.
His predecessor President Niyazov did much wilder things, including renaming the days of the week and months of the year to the names of his own family members. He made books illegal, except for the Quran and his own autobiography. Answering questions about the autobiography was a prerequisite for passing your driving test. He later changed his own name to Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmen).
Since the breakup of the USSR, Turkmenistan has seen two totalitarian regimes. It’s notoriously difficult to visit. So why would anyone bother?
“The Gateway to Hell is like nothing else I even imagined, nevermind visited” says Stephen. “Photos don’t reflect how vast and hot and bright that thing is. But mostly, Turkmenistan is an opportunity to step inside a country where everything is as surreal as that crater.”
The Old Silk Road runs through Turkmenistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan is a fascinating country of ancient sandstone cities from these trading times, such as Samarkand. Turkmenistan’s main attraction is more recent. Capital city Ashgabat is built almost exclusively from marble. There’s a marble Olympic stadium (that’s never been used), the world’s largest fountain, and countless streets of high-rise marble apartments.
“For all the challenges and restrictions when travelling to Turkmenistan, it is liberating to visit a country that nobody knows anything about. To even dream of a marble city is madness – to walk the streets of Ashgabat is the most extraordinary experience. On many street corners there was also a huge golden statue of one of the two dictators.”
Turkmenistan symbolises the size of our planet. Think like an explorer and there will always be new places to discover, new places absolutely different to everywhere else. The world is big and you will find places to write your own stories, places that people won’t quite believe until you show them the photos.