An ominous gas crater that has beenburning in a Turkmen desert for more than 40 years is a perfect site for boosting tourism in the country, local officials and academics say. The man-made pit, known as "the Door to Hell," earlier faced backfill.
Tourism may not be the strongest side of the Central Asian republic's economy, as only around 10,000 visitors come to Turkmenistan yearly, according to official stats - most of them from Iran, Germany and the US. However, local tourism officials say they found a promising tourist attraction - and it is really hot.
Amid the arid Karakum desert, covering most of the country and known for its extreme temperature changes, one can find a huge sinister-looking pit known as Derweze or Darvaza - commonly referred to by the locals as "the Door to Hell."
The pit is filled by what seems to be a hellish fire, but is in fact an enormous blaze of natural gas coming from under the ground. No one is really sure, when the fire in the 60-meter wide, 20-meter deep crater may go out, but it is known for certain that it was started after a drilling accident in 1971.
The ground at the site collapsed when Soviet geologists were exploring a natural gas field - one of the many reserves in the gas-rich country, which used to be a Soviet republic. Fortunately, no one was injured in the incident, but fearing that poisonous gas fumes may pose a danger for the local population and animals, the geologists decided to set them on fire, thinking they will soon burn out.
The guys apparently miscalculated - and the gas is still burning, creating a surreal otherworldly scene.
In 2010, the Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov decided that Derweze has burned enough, ordering the crater to be filled up or somehow isolated.
Four years later, however, Turkmen officials have seemingly found a better use for the infernal pit.
"The burning crater... is attracting more and more interest every year, especially among foreign tourists," an official on Turkmenistan's state committee on tourism was quoted as saying by AFP.
Moreover, it is a nice attraction for eco-tourists and researchers visiting the newly-formed 90,000-hectar nature reserve in the Karakum desert, Turkmen academics believe.
"Landmarks such as the burning crater are hugely interesting both to people who love to travel and to researchers in various areas," Ovez Kurbanov of the National Institute of Deserts, Flora and Fauna, told the agency.
"Our main task is to create an attractive image of Turkmenistan as a tourism destination,"he added.
Those visiting Derweze, however, experience mixed feelings about the site.
"Foreign tourists who visit the burning crater feel mixed emotions - awe at the sight but also at the profligacy of the Turkmen people, who have simply let the gas burn for so many years," a Turkmen travel agency employee Begli Atayev told AFP.
Others, like a 34-year-old local Gozel Yazkulieva say that the site "takes your breath away."
"You immediately think of your sins and feel like praying," Yazkulieva said.
Thus far, getting to the crater located some 270 kilometers from the capital Ashgabat has been no easy task, but those seeking extreme thrills can hire a guide to get right to the spot. YouTube is filling up with videos of the site, which many observers film from the brink of the pit, ignoring the possibility it might collapse. Meanwhile, bloggers' reviews of Derweze claim that "nothing that falls in [the crater] makes it out alive."
Being still relatively unknown, the site even caused some embarrassment for Russia's Channel One, which last February aired it in the aftermath of Chelyabinsk meteorite's fall, tricked by some YouTube user.
Surprisingly, the Turkmen "Door to Hell" is not the only man-made fire that has been burning on for years, not even the record-longest. In Pennsylvania, US, a coal mine fire that has been ablaze since at least May 1962 has forced whole towns to be deserted and leveled. The fire started in the borough of Centralia presumably from burning trash and has since expanded. All attempts to contain the huge underground blaze have so far failed.