A chasm of unquenchable fire in the heart of Turkmenistan has been spewing methane gas for over four decades. The Darvaza Gas Crater is both a dazzling marvel and major ecological disaster. And with no marketing — not even a sign on the main road — it has become one of this reclusive country’s strangest and most popular tourist attractions.

Opening the Earth

At the height of the Cold War, Moscow sent geologists to this former Russian republic — the southernmost outpost of the Soviet Union — to search for oil. Venturing into the vast Karakum Desert, they set up rigs and plunged deep into the soil. One can only imagine their surprise when the ground collapsed revealing a massive pocket of methane. In an attempt to contain the gas, the drillers decided to burn off the excess through a process called “flaring.” In doing so, they set a fire that’s been burning for more than 40 years.

A burning nation

Often known as the Gateway or Door to Hell, this flaming pit is not, of course, a passage to the underworld. But it burns in a part of Asia that’s known its fair share of evil. The Soviets depleted Turkmenistan’s resources, effectively draining the nearby Aral Sea to water bumper crops of cotton, and siphoning off its gas and oil wealth. These exploitative ways have continued since the country’s independence in 1991, with two successive dictators enriching themselves at the expense of their citizens. The country’s regime is often ranked as one of the world’s most oppressive: its media is heavily controlled and there’s little in the way of democratic freedom.

Signs of life

Sixty-nine metres across and 30 metres deep, the Darvaza Crater is a scorched place to be sure. But last year, Canadian explorer George Kourounis did something daring: on a National Geographic expedition, he donned a protective suit and dropped to the crater’s bottom. The soil samples he brought back included bacteria that exist quite happily at those intense temperatures. Scientists asserted that this might mean life could exist — not in hell, but on other, hotter planets.

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