Goodbye to the Gates of Hell: Turkmenistan might extinguish its biggest tourist attraction

The massive crater has been burning for 50 years

Today's expression: Burn off
Explore more: Lesson #442
February 14, 2022:

The Gates of Hell, a huge crater in Turkmenistan that has been burning for 50 years, is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. But now, they are considering extinguishing it. There are a couple theories on how the burning crater originated, but the country cites just one puzzling reason for closing it. Plus, learn “burn off.”

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Goodbye to the Gates of Hell; or, why Turkmenistan is going to extinguish its biggest tourist attraction

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s Jeff and this is Plain English lesson number 442 for February 14, 2022. Happy Valentine’s Day. JR is the producer and he has uploaded this full lesson to PlainEnglish.com/442.

Coming up on today’s lesson: Turkmenistan is a bizarre country nestled between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Its biggest tourist attraction is a huge crater that has been burning—yes, burning—for half a century. But now the country is thinking about extinguishing it. Now, if you didn’t even know that Turkmenistan was even a country until now, don’t worry: we’ll catch you up. The expression we’ll review today is burn off. And we have a quote of the week. Let’s dive in.

Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan’s biggest attraction, may be extinguished

After years of back and forth, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is calling for the “Gates of Hell” to be extinguished. The topic thrust the seventh-least visited country into an unfamiliar position: the center of attention. A lot of people don’t know that Turkmenistan is even a country; even those who know it exists know very little else about it.

I’ll explain. Turkmenistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia located between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It was part of the Soviet Union before its independence in 1991.

About 260 kilometers from the capital, Ashgabat, is the village of Darvaza, home to the Darvaza Crater, otherwise known as the “Gates of Hell.” Essentially , it’s a huge, circular hole in the ground, measuring 69 meters in diameter and it’s 30 meters deep; that is roughly 10 stories. And get this: the crater has been burning for 50 years.

When you look at the hole, you see small fires in a ring around the interior. The fires burn day and night since they’re fueled by a steady release of natural gas. It was given the name “Gates of Hell” because the heat that radiates from it makes visitors feel like they’re standing, well, in a hot and burning place. The origin of this burning crater is as mysterious as the country it’s located in.

According to one theory, the fires started in the 1970s when Soviet scientists were drilling for natural gas. Their equipment accidentally plunged into a sinkhole, causing gas to escape. The scientists decided it would be best to light it up, thinking it would burn off after a few days. Fifty years later, it’s safe to say that wasn’t the case. The gas continues to flow and the fires continue to burn.

The other version, according to National Geographic’s research, was that the crater formed naturally in the late 1960s and was gurgling with gas and mud for quite a few years. The crater wasn’t ignited until the 1980s. It’s not clear because Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union at the time, and records, especially related to energy development, weren’t transparent.

Regardless of how the burning crater formed, Berdymukhamedov’s decision to extinguish the fires is just the latest in a series of reversals. In 2013, there was talk of drilling into the hole to tap into the reserves of gas, a plan that offered some potential economic benefits.

Later, that plan was scrapped in favor of making the “Gates of Hell” a tourist site, a strange choice considering how few tourists there are in Turkmenistan, and how far the crater is from any population center. In 2019, the president was filmed in his off-road truck doing donuts around the crater just to attract attention.

Now, in 2022, the country is considering closing it to “protect locals,” which is bizarre, given there aren’t any locals, at least not within a nine-kilometer radius. Approximately 350 people do live in the rural council of Darvaza, the majority semi-nomadic. But the only nearby village was disbanded in 2004 because the residents were “an unpleasant sight for tourists.”

Is it possible that it would be good for the environment to put out the fires? Even this is not straightforward. Some scientists argue that it might be better for the environment to leave it ignited than to let the gas escape.

So maybe leaving it as a tourist attraction would be the best idea. Pre-pandemic, an average of 14,000 visitors entered the country in a typical year. It’s estimated that 6,000 of them (almost half!) were for the “Gates of Hell.”

Ashgabat, the capital, has a few things going for it. It has made the Guinness Book of World Records for four things: the highest flagpole, the largest fountain complex, the largest indoor Ferris wheel, and the highest density–this is real–the highest density of white marble buildings…and still barely any visitors. Every town in Turkmenistan has a gold statue of the country’s first president.

While the white marble may be beautiful, visitors may experience a little culture shock when they arrive. For example, the former president of Turkmenistan changed the names of the months and days of the week to reference his own life. If you like to grow your hair long, or if you have a beard, you might have a hard time there: young men aren’t allowed to have either long hair or beards.

Black cars and dirty cars are also not allowed. You cannot enter Ashgabat without a car wash! The wide-open roads have hardly any traffic, but it’s only gleaming white cars when they do.

By contrast, the president is often seen driving around in flashy, colorful luxury vehicles. He’s also known to horse race, DJ, and write rap songs…about his horse.

Turkmenistan and the “Gates of Hell” may sound like an interesting visit, but you might want to think twice about going. The country was ranked worst in the world for press freedom in 2019, and Human Rights Watch called it “one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries.” In 2016, Berdymukhamedov changed the constitution to allow him to stay in power forever. If you’re not the president himself, though, all is not marble and gold in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan trivia

What a weird story, what a weird place. If you have a minute, go to Google Maps and search for the Darvaza Crater, D-a-r-v-a-z-a Crater. Then look at the aerial view of the crater and the whole area and you’ll see exactly how remote this place really is. From the looks of things, you can get there driving … but I would make one hundred percent sure that your vehicle is in good working order. I’m guessing they don’t have a lot of good roadside assistance way out there. And the law about dirty cars not being allowed in the capital makes some sense. Look at how much sand is out there in that desert! After a 260-kilometer drive from the Gates of Hell to the capital city, you’ll definitely need a car wash.

A few other facts about Turkmenistan. About six million people live there. The Turkmenistani manat is the official currency; it’s about 4 manat to the U.S. dollar. The economy is energy-based; top exports are gas, petroleum, and fertilizer. The official language is Turkmen; over 90 percent of the population is Muslim; and the most popular sport is soccer.

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Expression: Burn off