Friday, June 29, 2018

A Rhetoric of Ruins: Darvaza Gas Crater

Beware the reveries of desert travelers. In the same way that some tourists who wander the crowded quarters and narrow alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City may confuse themselves with Christ dragging His cross down the Via Dolorosa, the traveler just back from the undulating sweep of sand dunes and juniper and sedge may be forgiven for boasting some deep and newfound understanding of things heretofore unknown when they stumble, perhaps mad from the heat, into civilization. After a recent trip into Central Asia’s Karakum Desert, I might have fallen prey to that same conceit. For it is here where I visited a place known previously to me only through strange and affecting photographs of a locale, termed a ruin, now transformed into a peculiar tourist site: Turkmenistan’s Darvaza Gas Crater.


Before we visit the crater, let me tell you a little more about the process of getting to this place. Like virtually every visitor to Turkmenistan, I employed an agency that, among other conveniences, secured me the all-important Letter of Invitation. Given the nation’s role as the world’s fourth largest producer of natural gas, Turkmenistan makes enough money from its natural resources to sustain its political leadership without joining fellow Central Asian nations who have gone into the international hospitality business. One local expert assured me that his country admits barely 20,000 tourists a year. [Understandably, the State Committee on Tourism reports higher numbers.]

One senses that the nation would just as soon avoid the hassle of too many strangers skipping across the borders with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, bringing a little hard currency but also the threat of cultural contagion. Turkmenistan appears to have concluded that tourists are simply not worth the hassle. As a result, I was obligated to secure the services of a state-approved guide to enter the country. Indeed, I recall few words uttered more sternly upon my arrival at an international airport than when the officer, after surveying my passport and stamping my newly affixed tourist visa, offered his no-nonsense admonition:

“Welcome to Turkmenistan. Never travel without guide.”

Technically this rule does not apply to visitors who remain in the capital city of Ashgabat. And travelers who manage to score short-term transit-visas may also avoid this stricture altogether. But after nearly 24 hours of omnitopian flow produced by a structural and perceptual bubble of elevators, shuttles, pedways, buses, trains, and airplanes, departing from my previous abode in Finland to enter this marble and gold enclosure of Turkmenistan’s international airport, I was not inclined to quibble.

Exiting the airport, which is shaped like a falcon spreading its wings, I notice more and more the traditional clothing of local folks, particularly the long, colorful caftans and headgear worn by women – often sporting vibrant scarves that cover expansive skull caps to manifest an aristocratic bearing, while also providing insulation from the heat. Some younger women, recent brides, bite down on their scarves while in public, reflecting a pledge to stay silent until given permission by their in-laws. [One should add Turkmen women, stemming from a people whose traditions of pride and bravery recognize no barriers of gender, have no problem learning to speak through clenched teeth]. I also notice that men often wear colorful taqiyahs, or sometimes telpeks (also known by outsiders, not without some derision, as “big furry hats”). And among many women and men in this country, gold-capped teeth are still viewed as a sign of wealth. [Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first post-Soviet president, a dentist before he rose to power, condemned this practice as a threat to personal and national hygiene. Still, some traditions remain stubbornly hard to eradicate.]

One discerns in Turkmenistan an ever-present sense of formality and decorum. Like Ashgabat’s march of cookie-cutter apartments that arouse visions of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, this place is a monument to order. Still, as it does everywhere, the surveillance state leaks with humanity. People here are friendly and easy-going – although the overly enthusiastic smile of an earnest tourist may be met with bemusement, or even scorn. Again, this is a post-Soviet society, which means that unwarranted exuberance is often interpreted as foolishness, or deception. Even so, Turkmens are tolerant of strangers, a practical necessity given this nation’s historical position as a desert oasis. Thus, despite the rare appearance of dedicated taxis, most local folks hitch rides by standing alongside the road, hands stretched downward (though without the “patting the dog” maneuver practiced in other countries), awaiting a car driven by anyone looking to score a few Manats. A quick check of destination, a brief negotiation for price, and folks get where they want to go with minimum hassle.

Perhaps it’s the blazing sun that explains why local folks prefer not to draw unnecessary heat in their public lives. By admittedly playful illustration, I would note that beards are discouraged in Turkmenistan. Given my own stylistic choices, I am happy to report that they are technically allowed, though you can hardly expect to find any worn. President Niyazov condemned them as signs of religious excess against his secular state. Accordingly while most folks here adhere to the Sunni brand of Islam, and quite a few seek their own kind of solace in Russian Orthodoxy, one finds no condemnation for those who practice other faiths. This is, one should remember, the norm across most of the Islamic world; no one would confuse Turkmenistan with Saudi Arabia.

That being said, the government allows virtually nothing in the way of public dissent, political opposition, journalistic freedom, or disrespect toward its president. In fact Ashgabat is positively aglow with golden statues commemorating Niyazov, augmented by a growing number of portraits celebrating his successor, the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Instead one finds a multitude of advertisements for the state brand, typically projected on large video displays. On these electronic murals, the president may be shown surrounded by children, cupping his hands upward in piety, or occasionally sitting astride his horse, a symbol of pride among a people famed for their equestrian skills. And, yes, travelers on Turkmenistan’s national airline will find his portrait gracing each cabin, receiving assurance for a safe flight under his watchful eye. In this omnipresent reminder of Niyazov’s legacy and Berdimuhamedow’s benevolence, one gradually leans inward and toward the disciplinary contours of docility, the ever-fine tendrils of reverence, that perpetuate the performance of control.

Statue commemorating Ruhnama,
Saparmurat Niyazov's book of spiritual guidance for the Turkmen people

Beyond the airport, the nation’s surveillance structure expands ever more intricately along physical and digital pathways that connect cameras and other tools of observation nestled among lighting fixtures and inserted throughout other nodes of public life. I would also not be surprised if Turkmenistan has chosen to follow the authoritarian model advanced by China to employ facial recognition devices and algorithmic assessments to mark the movements of every person in the country’s larger cities – or at least hopes to do so in the near future. In the meantime, access to social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram is banned.

As for more surreptitious forms of surveillance, I can offer no specific experience. I would merely presume that all tourists, some surely more than others, receive their portion of special attention by the nation’s security apparatus. Augmenting this diffused brand of panopticism, one grows familiar with the sight of baton-twirling cops in blue uniforms and high-peaked hats who stand on seemingly every major street corner, sometimes chatting amiably with each other but seldom abandoning their alert gaze. Mirroring the eight-pointed star, the ubiquitous mark of the nation woven into carpets, etched along walls, and even used to shape the Turkmenistan’s Wedding Palace, this government does not shirk from its desire to maintain an environment of pleasantly total jurisdiction. The eye of state sees in all directions.

Nonetheless I did not come to Turkmenistan to study its surveillance practices. I simply took them for granted. Like the irksome blinking light found on smoke detectors in hotels around the world, this reality first vexed me before it became a less troubling feature of life. So with a healthy respect for my surveilled status, nodding politely at cops broiling in the heat, I toured the nation’s capital city – a Central Asian version of Las Vegas sprawling with gleaming programmatic architecture – as a cheerful tourist. 

So, yes, in fact and in spirit, I would marvel at the city’s blocks of white apartment buildings that stretch in geometric repetition along the city’s monumental boulevards. Naturally I would delight at the sight of splashing fountains that dance with gaudy excess amid the desert that covers about 80 percent of the country. Led by Murad Arrykov, my guide and translator, I would also tour the ruins of the Old Nissa fortress and visit the Silk Road “Wandering City” of Merv near the city of Mary, a short domestic hop away. And I did come to love those ancient ruins, drawn to the universal desire to trace some passageway between the hyper-present and the distant past. Of course, my trip was centered on that crater in the desert.


Driving north of Turkmenistan’s capital city of Ashgabat on a day that burned hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I figured AC/DC’s Highway to Hell was the right tune for the trip. The Aussies, after all, know something about deserts. The Red Center drive from Alice Springs to Uluru, the chance to barrel past hopping kangaroos and bounding wallabies remains one of the highlights of my life. But I trusted Murad who insisted that Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, that ode to promiscuity and purgatory, the slippery divide between coming and going, was the perfect choice for the moment when we pulled off the main drag, just before the Daşoguz checkpoint, to see the pit.

Hopping over the rocky, rutted pathway toward our destination, we cranked Sally up loud enough to bang our heads, though our 4X4 made plenty of percussion on its own. Our driver, a taciturn dude whose eyes squinted sharply under the blazing blue sky, kept his focus on the road. No “да, да, да” of agreement here; if the driver dug the tune, I would never know. Nearing our destination, Murad pointed out details through the windshield, displaying his mastery of culture, history, archeology, flora, and fauna. Yet from time to time he too adopted the reserved pose of the driver. And I joined his silence. Just a few miles more, we would find what locals supposedly call the Door to Hell. And then, at that moment, Little Richard belted out a line from Long Tall Sally that made perfect sense: “He has the blues but he has a lot of fun.” This, as much as anything, is the mantra for a place that gathers people to reside between pleasure and despair. 

We arrived in late afternoon, after making stops at two nearby craters produced by failed gas mining efforts. One was filled by water; the other was filled with mud. At these initial stops, my guide and driver waited long enough for me to walk their perimeters. Ambling around the second crater, which bubbled and smelled faintly of sulfur, I recall feeling a similar vibe to the process one endures to circle the labyrinth in a cathedral like Chartres. Whether surrounded by fellow travelers or, in this case, alone, I could still sense a long-needed stillness, a reverential silence. Later, tracing our route from crater to crater, though playing a bit with the order of elements, Murad would remind me of a conversation we had the previous day, while visiting Nissa, concerning the Zoroastrian triangle of earth, water, and fire. Despite my tendency to overstate my perceptions of these experiences, I can confirm the existence of a primal, elemental feeling in this place.

After three and a half hours of banging along rugged terrain, dusty villages, ragged camels, and the occasional highway roamer pointing a hand downward in hopes for a ride, we arrived at the gas crater. The pit, about 230 feet across and more than 60 feet deep, marks a site where 70s-era Soviet geologists hoped to mine natural gas. Despite their best efforts, though, a vapor pocket exploded, wrecking the drilling rig, and collapsing the land into a crater. The immediate economic and human costs were bad enough. Worse still was the potential for poisonous gasses to kill nearby villagers. In response, engineers would eventually decide to set the chasm on fire, hoping that this operation would burn off the dangerous fumes. The plan would supposedly need only a few weeks to work. 

Decades later, the fires still burn.

I must confess that the crater did not impress me at first. In afternoon light, the pit was lit by small flickering bursts of flame that trickled from blackened, flinty surface below. Standing inside the protective rail, I saw gentle waves of heat that rippled like sand dunes, interesting but hardly a spectacle. All at once, I was blown back by a furnace of heat as the wind shifted in my direction. I began to picture the horror that would overcome anyone who might plummet below, caught between life and death just long enough to anticipate a fate they could not hope to avoid. I admit it: I also anticipated how easy it would be to jump to my death, to suffer that horror. The feeling passed, but not the guilt of such dismal musing.

I then lowered my shorts and pissed into the crater.

Since we had set up camp, I had all evening to practice Murad’s advice that I should return again and again to the pit. As the sky darkened and shadows lengthened, I began to notice that the black edges of the crater began to glow, subtly at first and then with an angrier hue. The flames did not change in any actual way, but they appeared to pop more fiercely from their torrents. Then I observed something that I had never seen before, except when studying the change of light through a camera viewfinder. As the spurts of conflagration broke through the surface, I could actually feel the irises of my eyes adjusting, producing a jerking response as vision compensated for rapid shifts from deep red to bright yellow and back again. And here, unlike the Chartres-memory summoned by the mud crater, I did indeed imagine a glimpse of hell – perhaps more closely akin to the "Doomsday Machine" that haunted the heroes, and one guilty survivor, of the eponymous Star Trek episode. Thinking about Commodore Decker piloting a stolen, doomed shuttle into the flaming center of a weapon “right out of hell,” I wondered more gravely what guilt would compel me to contemplate such a leap.

I had come a long way to see this place, to consider these questions, though I could hardly explain why. If Murad and our driver remained awed by the crater, they did not show it. They had completed this drive countless times, usually taking small caravans of tourists into the beautiful, brutal desert. They had learned to negotiate the jagged trail of broken stone with professional detachment. No doubt, they came to tolerate the standard questions posed in places like this, the typical fears and exaggerated responses. And surely, patiently, they waited for their doughy visitors to drift off to sleep in tents while guide and driver opted to rest under the stars (or sleep in the 4X4). This time, aside from some Japanese tourists who had come to rent yurts on the other side of the crater, we were alone. I figured this was as good a time as any to ask Murad his opinion: 
Why do people come here?

As his usual habit, Murad looked me directly in the eyes, forming words from a smile but with a no bullshit demeanor. His reply was poetic, and though memory does not serve to quote him directly, I was moved by his clarity of analysis. First, he said, the crater is unique. There is nothing quite like this place anywhere in the world – a sensible enough hypothesis. Then he paused, gazing solemnly as he chose his next words. At this point, the sun fully dipped below the horizon, setting forth a radiant band of blue and purple. The breeze had begun to pick up and a nearby hill had started to glow with reflected fire. It’s the flames, he concluded. That’s what attracts us all to places like this. And he makes a good point. Since the beginning of all civilization, people have been drawn around the campfire to share the safety of numbers, to tell stories.

Night had fallen and the cavern glowed in searing eruptions of red and orange, not quite belching but rather constantly streaming a hiss of natural gas set aflame. At first we sat on a carpet, offering some protection from the stony ground, an imaginary shield from jumping camel spiders and pinching scarab beetles. But then Murad stood up and took out a mobile phone and launched an astronomy application that employs augmented reality to layer digital constellations over the display. As soothing music rolled out of the device's speakers, he swung around in a wide arc to reveal a network of otherwise invisible lines. Aided by GPS, he could pick out stars and planets with precision that would have mystified the ancient travelers who relied upon celestial objects to chart their own paths across the unforgiving desert.

And then, fueled no doubt by a fulsome meal of chicken, lamb, tomatoes, and eggplant, and four cans of Turkmen Zip beer, Murad and I began reciting bits and pieces of Homer’s Iliad to each other. Murad began by asking if I had seen Troy, Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 epic starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector. We both share an affinity for movies, so, despite the middling nature of the film, I could affirm I had indeed seen it. “I like Hector,” Murad stated. “He died, but he died as a man.” I had to agree. While the Trojans are cast as antagonists to those fractious seafaring heroes who would later be called “Greeks,” I hoped that I too could face my fate with the courage mustered by Hector. 

Gradually our conversation turned to Homer’s original tale, which features gods who meddle in the affairs of human beings. I recalled how the poets sang of the tricks that Athena played upon Hector, using her supernatural powers to give the Achilles an unfair advantage. Hector, in noble contrast, stood alone, knowing that he would be slain this day. But, Murad emphasized, the Trojan hero would perish as a man. In turns, we recalled how Achilles heaved his spear at Hector who, by now, could rely only on his sword. Impaled and near death, Hector begged the wrathful Achilles not to spare his life but rather to spare the indignity of his body being ravaged by dogs. At this moment, Murad and I exclaimed in unison, “But he wouldn’t do it!” Then and now, I share my guide’s respect for Hector, but that is not quite the point. Like the Trojans who heretofore had awaited the coming of the Greeks where “a thousand camp-fires gleamed upon the plain,” we too sought ways to reckon with forces and powers beyond our control. There together, drinking and talking, we could imagine ourselves like those heroes who gathered under the stars to share stories of men and gods, lit only by firelight.

Ours was a convivial party, even adding one more fellow for awhile, a young skinny fellow crossing nearby in search of his friends. Speaking not in Russian but in Turkmen, the guy apologized for his intrusion and asked us to share some water. We naturally shared a friendly portion and wished him well as returned to his path. Anyone who lives here knows the necessary ethic of such an act, and it felt good to share these moments. Yet ultimately I had come to the desert to stand a few moments alone. So I began to trudge up the hill that rose behind us for a God’s eye view of the crater. Under a nearly full moon, the valley was bathed in soft light. Still, I added an extra coat of protection with the beam of my phone’s lamp that rendered the ruts and rocks more navigable. I made my steps carefully, with the reverence one might imagine when climbing the stone steps of Teotihuacan toward the sun. At last I reached the summit and turned to face the panorama above and below. 

The small party of Japanese tourists were snapping pictures of the crater, posing with arms outstretched pointing toward the flame. Next to that yawning chasm of burning gas, buffeted by occasional gusts of wind that could char a person with frightening heat, they traced confident circles and laughed. This, I think, is something of that desert reverie that I mentioned earlier, that feeling that one comes to know in a place like this, and a giddy power to impose upon those forces that constrain us, that belittle us, that frighten us. I wonder if each of us who visit Turkmenistan’s Darvaza Gas Crater, and places like it, come to find a power to gaze into the abyss of our mortality and face it, perhaps even to inscribe upon it some markings of permanence. In this manner our stories, photographs, our etchings, our graffiti become totems of our power to confront the inevitability of ruin with a certainty that, no matter how ephemeral, bolsters our abilities to endure questions beyond answer.


These are the sorts of stories I hope to tell in my book, tentatively titled A Rhetoric of Ruins. I want to understand more thoroughly why people come to places like this – not to ancient structures suspended in a state of arrested decay such as those found in Angkor, Cambodia; Khajuraho, India; or the Acropolis in Greece, but rather to modern ruins: a more contemporary constellation of places such as industrial accident-sites, Soviet-era showplace relics, abandoned Olympic stadiums, economic ghost towns, and the like – those abandoned and sometimes fascinatingly repurposed locales that call forth ambivalence, despair, or even the guilty pleasure associated with the term “ruin porn." I hope to read those remnants that provide a medium through which we may interpret, resist, and potentially transform our encounters with late-modernity. In future iterations of this essay, I will trace more rigorously the intellectual underpinnings of my project. But for now I conclude this note, a first tentative draft, with thanks to Murad and our various drivers during a five-day visit, and hopes that I will return to Turkmenistan one day, to better understand this country’s ambivalence about tourism, to study its bold and increasingly sophisticated surveillance mechanisms, and, of course, to savor once more the strange and guilty pleasures of the Darvaza Gas Crater.


Jenny Wood said...

Awesome article and photos! Such an interesting place!

David said...

A fascinating and moving story, Andy. Metaphor really is master, isn't it? I look forward to your book.

Vienna said...

I admire the sense of unironic reverence with which you approach experiences like these, trying to tap into some deeper part of the human experience, making lifelong memories and widening the worldview of your readers. Your experience really encapsulates the concept of l'appel du vide, or call to the void, which has recently fascinated me. Thanks for sharing your surreal, breathtaking journey!