Recent televised remarks have revealed that Turkmenistan's leader wants to finally seal the "Gates of Hell" that have burnt continually in the country's Karakum desert for five decades.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov encouraged officials to "find a solution to extinguish the fire" in a January 8 appearance on Turkmenistan's state TV station, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The infamous fire, officially known as the Darvaza Crater, will be extinguished for a variety of reasons, including severe impacts on local residents' health, the wasting of vital natural gas resources, and environmental damage.
The renowned gates are a massive hole in the desert that is approximately 230 feet (70 meters) in width and at least 65 feet (20 meters) in depth. According to AFP, excavation of the pit began in 1971 during a Soviet drilling effort to extract gas. (Turkmenistan is a former Soviet country).
The ground beneath the drill rig collapsed, causing the rig to fall into a natural gas cavern. As toxic methane gas spilled into the atmosphere, scientists decided to set fire to the crater, anticipating that the gas would only burn for a few weeks.
According to AFP, the Gates of Hell are still burning fifty years later, and have even become one of Turkmenistan's biggest tourist spots. President Berdymukhamedov released a video of himself driving through the desert near the hole in a rally car in 2019, giving the flaming crater a boost in internet notoriety.
Turkmenistan's tourism industry is still relatively small. Before the pandemic, the number of yearly international tourists was believed to be in the low tens of thousands.
In 2006, a new, modern airport with a huge bird-shaped terminal opened in Ashgabat. The project cost $2.3 billion and aimed to raise Turkmenistan's international prominence.
According to Vice.com, Turkmenistan has the world's fourth-largest known resource of natural gas, and the country's economy is heavily reliant on gas exports.
Natural gas is one of the country's main sources of revenue in Central Asia.
President Berdymukhamedov earlier directed scientists to close the Gates of Hell in 2010, but such attempts proved futile.
Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan's president since 2006, is well-known for his love of gold and marble architecture. The autocratic leader has been on a building frenzy, focused particularly on Ashgabat, the capital city, with massive new government buildings, monuments, and other architectural marvels.
There is still no set date for sealing the Darvaza Crater or putting out the fire.