Turkmenistan is the second-largest state in Central Asia and its most sparsely populated. The country is mostly made up of dry and inhospitable desert, although there are a number of oases dotted along the foothills of the Kopet-Dag Range, as well as the Amu Darya, Tejen and Morghāb Rivers.
Turkmenistan is bordered by Iran to the south, Uzbekistan to the north and east, Kazakhstan to the northwest, Afghanistan to the southeast and the Caspian Sea to the west. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, like other countries, Turkmenistan is independent again and welcomes tourists to a number of unusual attractions. These include the aptly named Gates of Hell, the striking Yangykala Canyon and the grueling Walk of Life.
1. The Gates of Hell, Karakum Desert
Right in the heart of the expansive and hot Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan is a fiery crater that has been burning since 1971. The crater is located close to the tiny village of Darvasa and consists of a 230-ft wide hole and has been burning for more than 40 years. Its more technical name is the Darvasa Gas Crater, but locals have dubbed it “The Gates of Hell,” and the burning glow can be seen from miles around.
During the Soviet era in 1971, a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched through to a massive, underground, natural gas cavern. This caused the ground to collapse and the drilling rig to fall in. As the rig had punctured a pocket of gas, soon poisonous fumes started leaking out at a fast rate.
The Soviets wanted to stop a potential environmental catastrophe and decided to set the gassy hole alight. They believed that within a couple of weeks, it would stop burning. They were wrong. More than 40 years later the hole is still ablaze and it is believed that the drilling rig is still down there somewhere.
While with its name it sounds like a forbidding place to visit, amazingly people do trek out into the desert to view the never-ending flames. Now the Turkmenistan government is hoping The Gates of Hell will become a popular tourist site. They theorize the nearby desert is already a popular wild camping spot, so why not make money on the attraction?
2. Yangykala Canyon, Balkanabat
Few people have visited this startling place, which is one of the most impressive natural attractions of Turkmenistan. Located in the far west, Yangykala Canyon has rarely been seen by Turkmen, let alone tourists.
The canyon is made up of a windblown landscape, featuring colorful and strange formations and canyons. It stretches for around 15 miles over the desert to the Garabogazköl Basin.
In the distant past, the canyon was once underwater and was the floor of an ancient ocean from millions of years in the past. When this ocean dried up, it left a colorful rocky landscape, which has since been eroded by rain and wind. The erosion formed ribbed walls and fascinating formations in shades of reds and yellows, pinks and oranges and startling coral hues.
Yangykala has been compared to the Grand Canyon in America but is very different. It more likely resembles a stark Martian landscape. The canyon is in the far northwest of the country, around 260 miles from Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. 4×4 tours are available to this incredible spot.
3. The Walk of Health, Ashgabat
Located in the Turkmen city of Ashgabat, the Walk of Health is probably one of the most unusual places in the world. Most of this capital city was the brainchild of totalitarian president Saparmurat Niyazov. He is famous for a number of the country’s obscure laws, like the ban on lip-syncing in concerts, dogs and the circus.
Niyazov is also known for a number of strange structures in the city, including the Neutrality Arch. However, what is probably his strangest creation is the Walk of Health. This concrete stairway runs next to the stark Kopet Dag mountains and was built to improve the health of the citizens of the city.
There are actually two walks to choose from. One is a mere 5 miles in length, while the other is 23 miles. Once the Walk of Health was in place, Niyazov ordered all his members of parliament, ministers and civil servants to hike the longer walk once each year. The population of the city was also expected to take an annual stroll on the pathway.
Ironically, Niyazov would watch his staff head out on the walk, but he himself took a helicopter ride to the final stage to greet them on their successfully completed walk. While everyone else was expected to do it, he claimed his heart condition would not allow him to participate. While this might sound unfair, he did, admittedly, die of a heart attack in 2006.
Bear in mind, the longest walk has no shading along the way, so it is actually a health risk, not a Walk of Health. However, the government has given in and started planting trees along the shorter walk.
Take a vacation with a difference next time – head to fascinating Turkmenistan and explore its fascinating landscapes.