The list of places I want to visit to but never will has just increased by one.
I’ve bitched for several years that thanks to failed socialism (but I repeat myself) Jamie and I will never see Angel Falls and the Catatumbo Lightning Fields, both in Venezuela. The political situation is far too unstable and the crime rate is far too high to take the risk.
Now we can add to that list one more wanna-see destination that will soon be off-limits — The Gates of Hell in lovely Turkmenistan.
I read an article that said Turkmenistan is closing The Gates of Hell and then as sort of an afterthought added that the country has no tourism infrastructure. It has nothing for tourists to see nor do. And even if it had things to see and do, it has no roads to get tourists to where they could see and do them.
As a rule of thumb, and I think it’s a reasonably accurate one, countries ending in “stan” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) are generally not considered tourist havens. You’re more likely to find camels and sand fleas and religious fanatics than tourists. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I can’t wait to visit Turkmenistan.” I’ve never seen an ad for the Turkmenistan Bureau of Tourism.
I’m going to assume you are not familiar with The Gates of Hell so please allow me to describe it. It’s a huge crater — a huge flaming crater — out in the middle of the desert, the middle of nowhere, really, in the middle of Turkmenistan. The fire burns 24 hours a day 365 days a year in a cauldron that measures more than 230 feet across and 100 feet deep and it gets a little bigger every year thanks to erosion of the sandy soil that surrounds it. It looks like a place where astronauts might have practiced landing on the moon.
I’m not sure if The Gates of Hell qualifies as a natural wonder. Maybe it can be found on lists of natural wonders but if so, it’s probably appended with an asterisk like Roger Maris’ 1961 home run record.
Here’s what I mean:
It’s a wonder to be sure, but not really a natural one. Back in the late 1960s a team of accident prone Russian petroleum engineers were drilling a natural gas well on the flat plain in which the crater now sits. They accidentally drilled right through the roof of an unknown methane-filled cavern, which collapsed under the weight of all the drilling equipment. Equally accident prone Russian geologists quickly realized that the collapse had begun releasing a reservoir of deadly methane gas into the atmosphere. So some accident prone Russian scientists came up with a brilliant solution — light the damn thing on fire. They did so, assuming that it would burn out in a matter of days. Or maybe weeks. Or maybe months. Unfortunately for the environment, but fortunately for Turkmenistan’s nascent tourism industry, it has now been burning non-stop since that anonymous Russian moron dropped that match into the pit back fifty-one years ago. And it shows no sign of sputtering out anytime soon.
In a land with no spectacular mountains, no remarkable rivers, no Grand Canyon, no Mount Rushmore, and no Las Vegas, the giant burning hole in the ground quickly rose to the top of the list of major tourist attractions. Is there any other country in the world whose greatest tourist attraction began its life as an environmental disaster? It’s as if Alaska decided to promote the Exxon Valdez oil spill as if it were Disneyland.
Unfortunately, the government of Turkmenistan has always been a bit embarrassed about the fact that its greatest environmental disaster is also its most popular tourist attraction. The Turkmen periodically announce that they want to extinguish the fire because that will do more good for the envinonment than the flames will do for tourism.
So Turkmenistan’s president has yet again ordered the government to find a way to snuff out the colossal bowl of flames. According to long-time, even longer-named President Gurbanguly Malikkuliyevich Berdymukhamedov, the fire is having an adverse impact on the environment and affecting the health of people living in the vicinity.
As an aside, “long-time president” is clearly a euphemism for the word “dictator.” All “Stans” have dictators, but as far as we know none of them are named Stan. Not unless Gurbanguly is Turkmeni for Stan.
In case you want to visit The Gates of Hell while it’s still open, the site is located some 160 miles north of the Turkmenistani capital of Ashgabad. Keep going north from there and you’ll soon find yourself at the border with Uzbekistan.
Another delightful country currently suffering from a severe shortage of tourist attractions.