A man squats alongside the “Door to Hell”, or “Darvaza”, a crater of artificial origin


© Thomas Linkel / Laif

In Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert, 250 kilometres north of the capital, Ashgabat, lies a crater of over 60 metres in diameter that has been burning continuously for decades. Commonly known as the “Door to Hell”, the name of the Darvaza crater is derived from the Persian for “gate” ( هزاورد). Some local people believe that it opened up in the 1960s, but the most common theories date its formation to 1971, when Soviet geologists apparently carried out drilling in the area in search of oil. Because of the formation the ground, when drilling began, a huge sinkhole opened up, from which issued not oil but natural gas. Given the lack of interest in natural gas at the time, along with the difficulties the collapse placed in the way of extraction, the Soviet team decided to burn off the fumes rather than risk the methane endangering the environment and the nearby village of Derweze (now abandoned). They estimated that the fire would die out in a few weeks.
Fifty years later, the crater is still burning and is one of the most spectacular examples of gas flaring in the world. The government of Turkmenistan has considered plugging the crater on various occasions but, every year, the “Door to Hell” and other nearby sinkholes attract thousands of tourists from around the world. This has also put on hold the idea of extracting natural gas in the area. The country of Turkmenistan has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, located mainly near its borders with Iran and Uzbekistan. Gas accounts for over 80% of the nation’s export income, with China being virtually the sole recipient. Though this makes Turkmenistan one of the fastest growing economies in the world, economic inequality is actually on the rise.

Riccardo Agostinelli