ibn-Fadlan's Gates
of Hell & Turkmenistan's
Darvaza Gas Crater

Literary Central Asia // Ahmad ibn-Fadlan's 10th-century visit travels in the deserts of modern Turkmenistan.

…it was nothing other than the gates of the lowest hell opening towards us.

— Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ‘Account of the Land of the Turks...’ (10th century)

In the 10th-century, the Arab traveller Ahmad ibn-Fadlan visited the deserts surrounding the city of Urgench, proclaiming it to be none other than the gates of the lowest hell. Little could he have known that the lands beneath him contained vast deposits of natural gas,.which when exposed to the air above and set aflame, have the potential to burn like the deepest inferno of hell.

Over a thousand years later, Soviet gas explorers found exactly this when their drilling rig accidentally collapsed the ground surrounding a pocket of such gas near the town of Darvaza.The escaping gas, subsequently set aflame, burns until this day, making for one of the most captivating and surreal places on earth.

Visiting the Darvaza Gas Crater is in the least a full-body sensory experience. As you approach the crater, the air becomes heavy with a smell of a giant kerosene campfire and a sudden change of direction of the desert winds can cover you with an invisible blanket of heat. Staring directly into the flames from the crater rim and be mesmerized by the swirling flames. For Lord of the Rings fans, this is the closest you will ever come to meeting the gaze of Lord Sauron's eye.

Like Mordor, one does not simply walk to Darvaza. The gas crater is located deep in Turkmenistan's Kara-Kum desert approximately four hours by car north of the capital city Ashgabat. Koryo Tours' yearly Turkmenistan tours visit the Darvaza Gas Crater in May and October. Join us as we camp near the crater for good fellowship (of the ring), great Turkmen barbecue (not cooked over the crater), and an overall unforgettable experience.

The Pyongyang Review of Books (PYRB) is a modest literary review of books. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores and beyond. Ibn-Fadlan's travel accounts around the 10th-century world have been translated into English and available from Penguin Books (see here).

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