This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov hadn’t been seen in weeks. The so-called “rockstar” President of Turkmenistan, a mainstay of state television in the Central Asian republic, disappeared from the public eye almost a month ago, sparking rumours that the 62-year-old had kicked the proverbial bucket. Then, on Sunday, he reappeared: driving a rally car through the Karakum Desert and doing doughnuts at the Gates of Hell—a flaming pit in the middle of the country, otherwise known as Darvaza Crater.
Footage of the dramatic event was beamed out via Watan Habarlary, the Turkmen state broadcaster, as if to dispel the rumours and prove, in spectacular fashion, that the strongman leader wasn't dead. Far from it, in fact: the half-hour segment also showed Berdymukhamedov riding a stallion, hitting the gym, and scoring three strikes in a bowling game while wearing military-style fatigues and a backwards-facing baseball cap.
The authoritarian president—commonly referred to as Arkadag, or “protector”—has previously been filmed shooting targets while riding a bicycle, performing a rap song with his grandson (see below), and giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a puppy (see further below). But not all of his flexing publicity stunts have been successful. In 2013, Berdymukhamedov was thrown from the back of his horse after galloping across the finish line in a national racing event—a major embarrassment for his aides, who tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the video from being leaked.
Rumours of Berdymukhamedov’s death over the past few weeks appear to have begun with a small foreign-based media outlet run by Turkmen regime opponents, according to the ABC, before spreading across a number of Russian-language websites. Turkmenistan's embassy in Moscow denied the report, calling it "not information but pseudo-information". The Turkmen Government meanwhile insisted that Berdymukhamedov was simply on holiday.
It’s not known exactly how the fiery Darvaza Crater came into existence, though it’s said to have formed in 1971, when Soviet geologists looking for oil realised they'd stumbled across a cave of natural gas, and promptly set it alight to avoid the spread of methane. Since then, it is thought to have burned perpetually for nearly half a century.