Exotic Cities, Part Thirteen: Darvaza, Turkmenistan
September 4, 2009
Take me from the land of Oz,
Take me far away because
I want to get back to Darvaza,
Yes, I want to get back to Darvaza,
Remember that one? The Atomic Bananas, 1957. If you were ever a mental patient in Toledo, you heard it a lot. Now you can’t find it anywhere — not even on eBay.
In her book Gurgling Brooks (Bobbs-Merrill, 1929), world traveler Myrna McDougal describes her travels through central Asia, including her visit to Darvaza, in the Kara-Kum Desert of what is now Turkmenistan: “From a distance, the Pillars of Gthoth rose majestically, framing the setting sun, which cast vivid beams of orange light across the flanks of the Schlegpeh Mountains. Overhead, great bats and eagles looped gracefully above the copper-red sands. The call of the hyena could be heard in all directions. And the faint aroma of boxwood and fox grass drifted like a dream over our camp. Our bearers (native Ayumyalas) told us their legends of how the world was created in this place, making it the center of the universe. The water in the oasis, they claimed, could give a camel great strength and give a human being visions of Paradise.”
Okay, so we know the water is really good. Throughout Turkmenistan, a popular saying is “he drinks the water at Darvaza,” which explains why a person is acting weird or stoned.
To the locals, the place is always referred to as Darvaza Oasis, because historically, that’s what it is. It has always been a resting place for merchants from all over central Asia, carrying a wide variety of goods. Caravans carried beans, rice, mushrooms, yogurt, potash, copper, marble, exotic birds, and umiak eye-glaze murder monkeys from Qarshi to Balkanabat; cedar, incense, dates, gourds, pineapples, girdles, hoses, paint, and gangster art retro pudding sponges from Herat to Novvy Uzen; chalk, gemstones, ladies’ shoes, cosmetics, tubes, nails, springs, farina, and prison cockle subsonic bitchamooga from Uyuk to Qum; animal skins, candles, whips, lard, fireworks, shower curtains, board games, cheese, and harridan space zomba fruit gungles from Jamnagar to Sosnovka; lingerie, cigars, goat meat, kitchen utensils, patio furniture, iodine, tree bark, and marsupial smash hammerhead screaming skulls from Yarkand to Gurgan; and rum, party hats, office supplies, starch, glue, musical instruments, whale oil, carpets, peppers, ropes, dildoes, doilies, pumpkins, and gorgaleptic urine bipolar disorder winkies from Patchogue to Syosset.
But to the modern world, Darvaza was an unknown town of no particular interest — until 1971, when a gateway to hell was opened! An oil and gas company drilling for natural gas accidentally punched into a gas-filled cavern. They decided to empty it by burning off the gas, believing it to be no more than a superficial pocket. The result was an explosion. The ground collapsed, leaving a crater 60 meters across, which has been burning ever since!
“Of course, it’s not really a gateway to hell,” explains Hotel Manager Amanda Hyndman of the Excelsior Darvaza. “But it’s a great tag line for publicity. It’s the only tourist attraction in the country outside of the capital. There’d be no hotel here without the crater of fire.” The Excelsior offers a good view of the crater, which is about two miles away. Of course, local people are so used to it, they scarcely look at it any more, even though much of the town owes its livelihood to it.
Why has no one tried to put out the fire after all these years? According to Hyndman, it could theoretically be put out. “You’d have to bring up a bunch of bulldozers from the capital, but it’s a long trip on a bad road. And people here don’t particularly want to put it out.” But what about the effect on the environment? “What environment?” says Hyndman. “This is a bleeping desert.”
Tourists are generally led out on foot in the daytime. They’ll stand around the crater while the tour guide gives a talk, and then after a half hour or so, they leave. It’s more impressive at night, but if you go then, you’ll find yourself stepping among a profusion of big, ugly spiders. They’re harmless but gross.
Local businesses exploit the crater as a theme: Gates of Hell Ice Cream Shop, Fire Crater Cinema, Hellgate Massage Parlor, Crater Gas Station, Hellfire Donuts, and Kemal’s Crater of Fire Kebabs (which serves extremely spicy goat kebabs). The local high school calls its sports teams the Fireflies. (Unfortunately, they have no one else to play against, because Darvaza is so remote.) And all up and down the main street, you will find a predictable assortment of souvenirs, including post cards, videos, DVD’s, and t-shirts that say “My friends went to Darvaza, and all they brought back was this lousy t-shirt,” along with a picture of the fiery crater.
According to geologists, the fire could burn itself out at any time or go on burning indefinitely, so the government of Turkmenistan is reluctant either to spend the money to put it out or to invest heavily in the development of Darvaza as a tourist attraction. Some people are in favor of diversifying the economy; others worry that if the fire goes out, any money invested will be wasted.
Elsewhere in Turkmenistan, other towns want to have a crater of fire, too. Geologists say similar gas deposits could exist. But the government is afraid of scam artists showing up. (Like this: “For twenty thousand dollars, I’ll give you a crater of fire like Darvaza. I know where to dig.”) I know some Vancouver stock promoters who would jump on that opportunity!
Some environmental busybodies from France showed up at Darvaza and made a fuss about the fire polluting the environment, and they were going to make a complaint to the U.N. They disappeared mysteriously and have never been heard or seen since. (Never get up other people’s noses when you’re in the middle of a desert, okay?)
A few celebrities have visited Darvaza, which always excites the locals. Brad Pitt got stoned and tried to piss in the crater and almost fell in, but he was saved in the nick of time by a baker’s helper, who was following him. Pitt swore the boy to secrecy about the incident.
David Beckham was here to try his luck at Turkmen foot-and-elbow fighting, a martial art peculiar to Turkmenistan. There’s a big vacant lot behind the Crater Gas Sation, and young men go there for some foot-and-elbow fighting when they’re bored. Really skinny guys seem to have an advantage in this sport. Beckham was invited to take on the local champ, who was built like a bean pole, and after allowing the boy to score some points, he knocked him out cold. Beckham wasn’t sure if the crowd was going to turn on him or not, but after a few seconds of shocked silence, the onlookers cheered. So now David Beckham is unofficially the foot-and-elbow fighting champion of Darvaza, Turkmenistan. (In a lot of Muslim countries, they probably would have cut his head off.)
Paris Hilton was also in Darvaza to obtain a purebred Turkmen Alabai dog. Muslims generally don’t like dogs, but the Alabai is greatly admired in Turkmenistan because it is very good at killing snakes, Communists, and homosexuals. Hilton found one she liked and took it home with her. (And don’t get any ideas. Unless you’re as rich and well-connected as she is, getting a purebred Alabai in the U.S. is next to impossible.)
Tourism in Darvaza has been growing gradually, and the increased revenue has led to a few improvements at least. The bus station has been modernized to include two flush toilets and air-conditioning. The main street has been paved, and parking meters have been installed (although they are generally used to tie donkeys and camels). An outdoor tennis court has been built (wrong dimensions), as well as a go-cart track and mini-golf. And the Turkmenistan government has built a new prison to house the worst criminals in the country. It has a courtyard with a guillotine and a public seating area for the viewing of executions.
Foreign capital is cautiously dipping its toes into Darvaza to take advantage of its cheap labor. Chinese companies are now manufacturing silly putty, pet toys, guns, and glow-in-the-dark shoelaces for the central Asian market. And Tata Motors intends to set up a factory to build a three-wheeled car called the Firebug. It will be rugged enough for bad roads, and it will get 50 miles a gallon on any fuel, including cooking grease. And if it tips over, one person can set it back up.
There is no official local civil authority or police force in Darvaza. Instead, the local mullah, Mohammed Orospu Cocugu, who is blind, and his four retarded sons keep the peace as they see fit. They’ve got their own system, and it works, and you can’t criticize it, otherwise you’re an ethnocentric bigot.
Darvaza High School offers the only correspondence course for shepherds in the entire world. It is recognized for academic credits in the Province of Ontario, and student aid is available to immigrants with long, unpronounceable names.
And another highly visible public work is planned for Darvaza, in case the crater of fire should go out. Architect Bayram Shamuradov has been commissioned by the government to erect a 100-foot-tall “Spider Tower.” It will have blinking green lights at night, and visitors will be able to climb to the top and take pictures of the desert (or whatever). It will be built entirely from scrap metal scavenged from abandoned gas wells.
Darvaza now has a sister city, and you’ll never guess where! No, it’s not in the U.S., or in Canada either. It’s in Australia! The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia, is Darvaza’s sister city. Coober Pedy is the opal capital of the world. Most of its residents live underground. And from the air, it looks just like Darvaza! Mayor Steve Baines is delighted with the arrangement. “They’re in a desert, and we’re in a desert. They have ugly spiders, and so do we. So it’s a perfect match!” Baines still gets confused between Turkey and Turkmenistan, but that’s okay. He’s just thrilled that I would give his town international recognition on my blog page. He would also like me to explain to everyone that he is not that seriously into cross-dressing (“just once in a while at a party to get a laugh,” he insists).
Amanda Hyndman says the Excelsior is pretty desperate for business since natural gas prices fell off a cliff (the hotel gets half its business from the oil and gas industry), so tourists can expect stupidly cheap deals. By September, the worst of the heat is over, and by December, there are almost no spiders.
Recommended vaccinations: Binswanger’s Disease, vesicular stomatitis, choroideremia.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com