In the middle of the Karakum Desert lies one of the strangest places in the world. The desert wind whistles, the crater glows for miles at night, a hauntingly fascinating spectacle. “You can smell the gate of hell from afar, it smells like gas,” says Tarvisio pharmacist Carlo Spaliviero: “Methane has been burning here for 50 years.” One of his research trips took the passionate photographer to Turkmenistan. Following in the footsteps of his great compatriot Marco Polo, whose 700th death anniversary is this year and is commemorated with numerous events throughout Italy, the Tarvisian has traveled to almost every country on the ancient Silk Road in recent years – almost, because Afghanistan is gone. “The political situation is very dangerous.”
How the door to hell came about is not completely clear. “One theory is that Soviet geologists drilled for oil here in 1971. The platform, which they had mistakenly erected over a large gas bubble near the surface, collapsed. The scientists managed to save themselves, the equipment fell into a crater 70 meters in diameter and 30 meters deep and since then the methane has been escaping”, says Spaliviero: “To avoid negative and harmful consequences for the health of the environment, the gas was lit, in the mistaken belief that it would soon burn out.” According to another theory, the Gates of Hell were created by a mudflow in the 1960s and were only lit in the 1980s. “The information about the crater is contradictory,” says Spaliviero: “All the documents about the antecedents date back to the Soviet era and are still top secret.”
Danger to the climate
A year ago, then head of state Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow announced that he would put out the fire. Meanwhile, his son Serdar took over as successor in the autocratically governed country. Last May, the US Special Representative for Climate Change, John Kerry, contacted the new president and promised support in cleaning up gas leaks across the country. Turkmenistan has the fourth largest natural gas field in the world, but colossal methane leaks are hugely damaging the environment and endangering climate goals. But a fire at hell's gate doesn't seem to be a solution, because research shows that moving from burning to releasing methane leads to even more problems and promotes huge gas emissions.
On the other hand, Hell's Gate has become a tourist hotspot, attracting adventurers from all over the world. The desert state, which borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea, doesn't have much else to offer in terms of tourism. “The capital Ashgabat, about 270 kilometers away, is interesting,” says Spaliviero: “There is no eastern old town, as all the old buildings were destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1948. But much has been built since independence in 1991 and people in cities are having a much better economic situation than those who live in the countryside. In addition to the magnificent landscapes, the ruins of Merw are also fascinating.” The economy is mainly based on the cultivation of cotton and melons. “People’s burned faces are a testament to their hard work.” It remains to be seen whether the sea of flames at the gates of hell will not be renewed so quickly for tourist reasons. Recently, helipads, roads and parking lots have been built, tour operators have set up camps and there are even modern bathrooms.