This fiery pit has been burning since the 1970s when Turkmenistan was still under Soviet rule. In the distant past, the Karakum Desert was an obscure corner of the Silk Road, but its modern economy is much more robust, thanks to rich deposits of oil and gas. Although there is some dispute about the origin of the crater, the most common explanation states that in 1971, a drilling rig broke into a giant underground gas chamber, which collapsed, taking the rig with it. That initial breakthrough caused other areas to crumble, eventually making a crater 70m wide and 20m deep.
The only people in the area live in a tiny community of 350 camel herders and rug makers called Darvaza.
History is full of long and legendary highways but none – frankly – come close to the Silk Road. It’s not just the magnitude (at least 4,000 miles, in more than 40 countries) but the mythic potency of the project. The world was cleft into east and west in the Middle Ages.
But long before, the Silk Road – which has existed in one form or another since the fourth century BC – breached any such divide. While trade was its raison d’être – Chinese silk, of course, but also salt, sugar, spices, ivory, jade, fur and other luxury goods – the road forged deep social, cultural and religious links between disparate peoples.
The Silk Road was not a road, but a network. The central caravan tract followed the Great Wall, climbed the Pamir Mountains into Afghanistan, and crossed to the Levant. Along the way were spurs branching off to river ports, caravanserai, oases, markets and pilgrimage centres. Journeys demanded meticulous preparation: the Silk Road and its tributaries cut through some of the harshest, highest, wildest places on Earth.