The Empty City to the Gates of Hell | Jay Tindall

Commentary by Angelachiara Allegretti | Illustration by Armadilly Comics

Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated yet interesting countries in the world. There is a National Holiday dedicated to horses, foreigners can’t correctly pronounce the President’s name, and most of the social media is censored. For all these reasons, and much more, Turkmenistan arouses curiosity, or at least it should.

In the middle of the Karakum Desert, 267 kilometers north of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, near the village of Dervaza, the Door to Hell or Gates of Hell, attracts tourists and onlookers from all over the world.

Erika Fatland, a Norwegian writer, talks about it at the very beginning of her book Sovietistan, a fascinating story of her journey through the five countries of Central Asia. The first chapter is dedicated to Turkmenistan, where she started her journey. The writer describes feeling always being controlled/watched, sensing a strong military presence, and seeing images of the President everywhere. She felt as though she was living in another world.

The name “Gates of Hell” recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, this attraction bares reference to the ecological disaster rather than the narrative poem. In 1971, a group of Soviet geologists believed the location to be an oil field site and began to drill. They founded a natural gas reserve, and large-scale extractions commenced. However, the rig collapsed creating a crater, sixty meters long by twenty meters deep. To avoid the spread of poisonous methane gas, the researchers set the crater on fire hoping it would burn out in a few hours. However, after almost 50 years, the crater is still burning. For this reason, locals renamed the crater “Gates of Hell.

Saparmyrat Nyýazow, Turkmenistan’s first president since it gained independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, decided to clear the village of three hundred and fifty people. The purpose behind this was to spare tourists the sight of the villagers’ poor living conditions.

In 2010, President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov (since 2007) visited the gas crater, ordered authorities to fill it, and find a way to stop the burning. The primary concern was that the spread of gas from the crater could damage the resources of nearby gas reserves. Since then, nothing has changed, and gas continues to escape. 

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