Natural and Not-so-Natural History
Perhaps no visit to Turkmenistan would be complete without a visit to the Darvaza gas crater. Our approach to the crater was dramatic enough. Lonely, soft sand dunes played host to beautiful sunsets and "nomadic" desert villages filled with scruffy camels and aging yurts (nomadic homes). Old motorcycles and Soviet vehicles dotted the horizon and as darkness descended, they formed silhouettes in the full moonlight. The Darvaza gas crater can be seen for miles on an approach through Turkmenistan's Karakum desert. Like Hell on Earth, its flames rose up from its gut and licked every possible surface with impunity. We walked to the edge to peer in, shielding ourselves from the intense heat and later climbed to a nearby hill for some relief. From there, we sat staring at the gaping, fiery crater for half the night, mesmerized by its flames and its odd beauty.
The Darvaza gas crater appears a natural phenomenon, but owes its origins to human intervention. When the Soviets were exploring the Karakum Desert for gas in the late 1950s, the ground collapsed in several areas and formed several large craters. 30 years later, some genius thought it would be good to burn off the remaining natural gas and lit one of the craters on fire. Today the crater still burns, drawing fuel from the remaining natural gas. Although arguably unnatural, it's still pretty cool. It couldn't have been a more fitting end to our visit to this relatively unknown, remarkably friendly and truly fascinating country known as Turkmenistan.
Published on 3/28/09