Exploring Tourism in Turkmenistan
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Turkmenistan Popular Places to Visit


Lying on the banks of the mighty Amu-Darya, between the Karakum desert and the fertile plains of Uzbekistan, sprawling Turkmenabat sits at a crossroads of cultures. Turkmenistan's second city, Turkmenabat (pop. 200,000) is, however, a sleepier, impoverished distant cousin of Ashgabat rather than an energetic sibling rival to the capital.

On its streets you’ll hear as much Uzbek as Turkmen and will likely be enjoying Uzbek produce, driven across the border a few kilometres to the north. The town itself feels as if it’s in the geographic centre of nowhere, yet after the mind-numbing drive through the desert from either Dashogus or Mary, it’s something of a surprise to find such a large city appear out of the sand.

It has a long history, based around its geographical position as a suitable crossing point of the broad and treacherous Amu Darya. Initially named Amul, it was first settled more than 2,000 years ago, and gradually became a prosperous crossroads for Silk Road routes heading east to China, south to India and north to Khorezm. Amul was razed by the Mongols in 1221, but the city re-emerged, now called Charjou ('Four Channels'), a name you’ll still hear used by the remaining Russian-speaking locals. It fell under the control of the Khanate of Khiva and then the Emirate of Bukhara in the 18th and 19th centuries. The construction of a railway bridge over the Amu Darya in 1886 marked a new stage in the development of the town.

Following the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948, some suggested that the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic be moved to Charjou, as it was less earthquake-prone than Ashgabat, but nothing came of the idea, and the town has slipped into an increasingly provincial existence. By a decree of President Niyazov issued in July 1999, Charjou was renamed Turkmenabat, the city of Turkmens, in order to reflect the 'great ideas of unity and stability of the country ... as well as taking into consideration the wishes of the population of Lebap region'. Many local people still refer to the place as Charjou. In 2009 a new gas pipeline opened here taking Turkmen gas to China, thus ensuring the city’s economic prosperity.

Despite being the second-largest city in the country, there’s nothing much to see or do here, though it’s an obvious stopover on the long journeys to Kugitang Nature Reserve, Mary, Dashogus or Uzbekistan. Like Turkmenistan's other regional capitals, Turkmenabat serves as a base from which to explore its region. The shortage of accommodation options towards the top end of the market, however, makes it less than ideal in fulfilling that function. Its sights, which include a regional museum and the unexcavated ruins of the town of Amul, are by no means unmissable, but Turkmenabat is a friendly place, it not a particularly dynamic one.

Getting There & Away - There are around three flights a day between Turkmenabat and Ashgabat (50M, one hour). The airport is 2km east of the Hotel Turkmenabat. The brand new train station, in the centre of town, has two daily trains to Ashgabat (4.76/7.66M, 12 hours) via Mary (3.61/6.51M, four hours). Outside the station you can catch marshrutki or taxis to Mary (20M per place, 80M per taxi), Ashgabat (60M per place, 240M per taxi) and to Dashogus (600M per taxi). A ride to the Uzbek border will cost 3M per seat, but you may need to bargain hard as starting prices can be much higher. There is another, more formal bus station 9km south of the centre of town, near Dunya Bazaar, but the transportation links from the lot outside the train station are just as good.



The peaceful town of Tagtabazar lies 215km south of Mary on the road to Afghanistan. It is the principal settlement of a small oasis of the Murgab River, close to the Afghan border. A border post signals the restricted zone: you cannot travel beyond here without a permit covering Tagtabazar or Serhetabat districts, as required. On the fringe of the former Russian Empire, it was here that the tsar locked horns with British-backed Afghanistan in one of the salvoes of the Great Game. A brief battle near the town (then called Pandjeh, or Pendi) left more than 800 Afghans dead and Russia hanging onto victory by a thread. That conflict appeared at one stage to be pitching Britain and Russia towards war. The British government was highly nervous of Russian designs on India, following the Russian capture of Merv the previous year. Russia claimed that Panjdeh was now part of their territory, by virtue of their conquest of Merv. Afghanistan, supported by the British, insisted that it was theirs, and set about strengthening its defences. The issue was settled by the advance of Russian troops under General Komarov, who took Panjdeh on 31 March 1885, leaving more than 800 Afghans dead. This action provoked a period of high tension, with much talk of war, but the extent of Russia's frontiers was eventually settled by the work of the Joint Afghan Boundary Commission. The battle ultimately forced Afghanistan and Russia into negotiations that delineated a border. Under the agreed settlement, Russia kept Panjdeh.

The administrative heart of the present-day town is a large roundabout, within which sits a war memorial, shaded by evergreen trees. The district mayor's office and police station abut each other on one side of the roundabout. Behind the latter, on Begnazarova Kochesi, is the Hotel Pendi (12 rooms); 340 21424. It is very basic, has shared facilities, and charges foreigners US$5 a night.

The main reason to visit Tagtabazar is the Ekedeshik cave settlement in the sandstone hills north of the town. If you happen to be passing through Tagtabazar en route to Afghanistan, it’s worth stopping to see the complex (admission 6M, tours 3M, camera 9M; 9am-5pm), located in the hills north of town. Head west through town along Magtymguly Kochesi. At the western edge of town, head north towards the line of the hills. Two kilometres on, take the track to the right. The track snakes up the hill for another 1.5km to the entrance to the cave settlement. 'Ekedeshik' means 'single entrance', and the ingress in question is sealed with a metal door where a caretaker sells you a ticket.

The place is fascinating, with more than 40 visitable rooms, on two levels. Close to the entrance, the custodian will lift a metal plate from the floor to reveal a steep staircase descending to further, lower, levels, which are in too unsafe a state to be visited. From the entrance, a central barrel-vaulted passage, sloping gently upwards, heads into the hill for some 37m. Off this lead entrances to small rooms on either side. Many of these have circular 'wells' in little adjoining chambers. Cuttings in the walls would have once accommodated candles. One room off the main corridor seems to have had a particularly distinguished occupant or prestigious role, for its entrance is topped by a carved lintel, and its vaulted ceiling bears rectangular carved panels. It may have been used by a chief or priest. Reeds have thoughtfully been laid along the floor of the central corridor, to keep down the dust. And the whole place smells of wee. The curator will show you a staircase to more caverns below, but this section is off-limits. The caves are sometimes locked, so before you go there inquire about the key-holder at the local governor’s office.

Among the first people to map the caves was one Captain F de Laessoe, who included a sketch in an article carried in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society for 1885. De Laessoe's investigations into the caves and ruins at Panjdeh were, however, brought to an early and sudden end by the Russian advance. There is an ongoing debate about the identity of the builders of the caves. Some scholars believe that they were constructed by early Christian communities. Others suggest that the complex might have been a Buddhist monastery. And of course there are many local legends about the place, including rumours ot a subterranean passageway heading into Afghanistan.

There are several smaller cave complexes nearby, including one known as Bashdeshik ('Five Entrances'), but these places, many of which have not been systematically explored, are of more specialist interest.

The caves are 3km north of town and accessible by private car or taxi. There’s no hotel in town though, so you’re best off continuing to either Mary or Herat for the night.


Bronze Age Margiana (gonur)

The Merv Oasis was an important centre for human settlement long before Achaemenian times. A remarkable Bronze Age civilisation existed here, known variously as Margush, meaning 'lowland', or by the Greek name ot Margiana, along the Murgab River in what is called the Margiana Oasis. The greatest of these ancient settlements, currently being excavated around Gonur Depe (Gonur Hill; admission 3M, camera 4M), has stunned the archaeological world for its vast area and complex layout.

It has been gradually uncovered since the early 1970s by Professor Viktor Sarianidi, who heads the Margiana Archaeological Expedition. and still works at the site, continually uncovering new findings.The Bronze Age sites are to be found at or beyond the northern edge of the present-day oasis, in land which is now desert. Climatic change and progressive desertification caused the abandonment of the area, with the result that the ruins of the Bronze Age settlements are well preserved beneath the desert soils. The Margiana sites seem to have had close ties with those at Bactria, in present-day northern Afghanistan. Sarianidi considers Gonur to be one of the great civilisations of the ancient world and while this claim may be disputed, it certainly is a fascinating site. Sarianidi argues that the Bactria-Margiana complex was a major centre of ancient civilisation, and has speculated that Margiana may even have been a birthplace of Zoroastrianism, being at some point the home of the religion’s founder, Zoroaster. The adjacent sites have revealed four fire temples, as well as evidence of a cult based around a drug potion prepared from poppy, hemp and ephedra plants. This potent brew is almost certainly the haoma (soma elixir) used by the magi whom Zoroaster began preaching against in Zoroastrian texts.

What is certain, however, is that Gonur is one of the oldest fire-worshipping civilisations, parallel to the Bactrian cultures in neighbouring Afghanistan. The first agricultural settlements appeared in the area around 7000 BC and developed a strong agriculture. It is believed the city was slowly abandoned during the Bronze Age as the Murgab River changed course, depriving the city of water. The current excavations have been dated back to 3000 BC.

The Bronze Age Margiana sites are all remote, and you will need a guide to get you here. One of the main travel agencies in Ashgabat, can organise a trip to the most worthwhile site for tourist visits, Gonur, which Sarianidi believes to have been the principal settlement. To get here, you need to make for a peasants' association named Turkmenistan, which lies on the northern edge of the oasis, about 50km from Merv. On reaching the village, turn onto a rough track to your right, and then sharp left, so that you skirt around the eastern side of the village. Gonur is some 30km from here, by a track which quickly turns to sand. A 4x4 vehicle is required. The trip from Mary or Bayramaly will take around two hours, each way.

The Gonur site is fascinating. The single largest excavation is ot what Sarianidi describes as a palace complex, covering some 10ha and built at the end of the 3rd millennium bc. Avast network of walls have been excavated, like an earthen maze. Sarianidi believes that the palace itself was at the centre of the site, surrounded by administrative buildings, and accessed by a deliberately narrow entrance only 80cm wide. The largest hall in the palace complex, whose mud walls have been recently reconstructed as part of a conservation effort, is known as the throne hall. A stone sceptre was found in one of the two niches here.

Around the palace have been identified a number of structures of apparently Zoroastrian religious use. Thus on the cast side of the complex Sarianidi has identified a fire temple; on the west side a 'temple of sacrifice'. South of the complex, a basin some 100m long and 70m wide is suggested as a possible temple of water. Close to this, excavations in 2004 revealed a room roughly 10m square, containing such treasures as a bronze chariot, which Sarianidi thinks might have been a royal tomb. On the north side of the palace complex, a large open area near which a number of ovens have been excavated is described as the square of communal eating. During the later period of occupation of the site, there seems to have been a growing impoverishment faced by the occupants of Gonur. Areas at the heart of the complex were given over to industrial use, including a large double kiln. Green clay has fossilised onto the stone here like globs of glue.

To the southwest of the palace complex, on slightly higher ground, lies the site of what is described as a temple complex. Evidence such as the round corner towers suggests that this complex is of a later date than the palace site. Seeds embedded in the plaster covering numerous vessels found here included those of hemp, poppy and ephedra, and appear to have been used in the production of a narcotic drink known as haoma, used by the priests. This site was excavated earlier than the palace complex, and is not now as impressive.

A third excavated part of the Gonur site is a large necropolis, to the west of the palace site around the present-day irrigation canal. It seems to have been in use from the end of the 3rd millennium to the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Almost 3,000 burials have been excavated here. Several different types of tombs were identified, from simple pit tombs for the poorest citizens to more elaborate burials for the rich, in which the body was placed in one chamber, the possessions of the deceased next door. Most disquieting were a number of burial pits with round chambers and burnt walls, like ovens. Some of the bones in these showed evidence of diseases, such as osteoporosis. In one of these pits the female occupant was buried upside down.

The excavations are ongoing and during your visit you may have a chance to speak with the archaeologists and inspect the mostrecent findings. There is also significant effort being put into conservation, although the work being done (sealing the ruins with mud bricks) is covering up some of the most photogenic portions of the city. The Royal Palace and necropolis are the most fascinating sites to visit.

Gonur is a two-hour drive from Mary and you’ll need at least two hours there. A 4WD is required and the final 20km of road is little more than a rough track in the dirt. You can organise a trip through any travel agency. Expect to pay 120M to hire a driver, and a further 90M for an in-depth guided tour. There is nowhere in the area to buy food or water, so pack a lunch before setting off.


Dayahatin Caravanserai

This Silk Road caravanserai stands on the ancient route between Amul and Khorezm and dates to around the 12th century (give or take a couple of hundred years), just off the main road 170km to the north of Turkmenabat. To find the place, which is not signposted, turn onto the track heading riverwards a few metres south of the Halkabat checkpoint, marking the entrance to a restricted border zone. A few hundred metres along, turn right where another track crosses yours. You will see the caravansaray in front of you.

Although abandoned around 500 years ago, most of the building stands intact, although in a fairly ruin ous state. Dayahattin is by far the best preserved medieval caravansaray surviving in Turkmenistan. Dating from the 11th or 12th century, it was built to service the trade route between Amul and Khorezm, and probably remained in use until the 16th century. The caravansaray is square in plan, its walls 53m long. Around a central courtyard brick arches lead into a vaulted arcade, off which run various small rooms. The main gate, whose arched roof of fired bricks is still in place, lies on the eastern wall, facing the river. The geometrical patterned decorations in which the bricks have been laid on the external east wall are particularly fine.

Around the caravansaray are degraded outer defensive walls. Pack animals would have overnighted in the area enclosed by these, which now accommodates a small graveyard.

Pick your way through the enormous arched gateway into a central courtyard, surrounded by a vaulted arcade and small cells. Climbing up on the walls you can make out a second earthen wall that surrounded the compound.

Locals refer to the Dayahattin Caravansaray as Bayhattin, 'Rich Woman', and tell a legend about the place that runs roughly as follows. There lived a wealthy merchant, who had a beautiful wife, coveted by a friend of the merchant. The merchant departed on a trading trip, and the friend, seeing his opportunity, made advances to the wife. She was faithful to her     husband, and rejected these. The amorous friend hooked up with an old lady. He secreted himself in a trunk, into which he had bored holes, enabling him to see out. The old lady told the wife that she needed to leave town for a few days, and could she leave the trunk containing her precious belongings in the wife's safe keeping? The wife agreed. The unfriendly friend was thereby able to spy on the object of his affections, noticing as she undressed a mole on her back. After a couple of days the old lady returned, and took back delivery of her trunk. When the merchant returned, his 'friend' reported that his wife had been unfaithful, citing as evidence his knowledge of her mole. The humiliated merchant left immediately, to begin a new life as an itinerant tramp.

The merchant's wife used her wealth to construct a glorious caravansaray, which would be able to give refuge to those, like her husband, who wandered the desert. Bricks were brought all the way from Merv for the new construction. By this time, the merchant, pining for his wife, had returned home. But he was still too proud to show himself, and so worked as a humble labourer on his wife's great project. One day the wife recognised her husband, but kept this fact a secret until the building was complete. On that day she held a great feast to mark the inauguration of the splendid new caravansaray, to which all those who had worked on its construction were invited. At the feast the wife told an allegorical tale, designed to demonstrate to her husband the facts of her faithfulness and his friend's trickery. Husband and wife were reunited. According to one more bloodthirsty version of the story, the couple then killed the merchant's erstwhile friend, whose body lies now in the graveyard next to the caravansaray.


Koytendag Mountain And Nature Reserve

This place is home to the highest mountains in Turkmenistan, the deepest lakes, the longest and weird caves and the most majestic natural waterfall in the country. There are curative hydrosulfide springs and the biggest in Central Asia grove of rare Zizyphus trees disinfecting the environment. Moreover, one can walk along the bridge of time as long as one hundred and fifty million years and touch the eternity petrified footprints of dinosaurs that these places count so many as nowhere else in the world. This wonderful land in the south-east of the republic is called Koytendag, which means "deep canyon mountains".

To conserve extraordinary beauties of this area that deserves to have a status of natural monuments the Koytendag State Reserve was set up. In the search for exotic impressions people from all over the country and abroad visit this place. In the future, on the basis of the Reserve a national natural park will be created in the Koytendag Mountains. Preparations are already under way and the Ministry of Nature Protection is developing tourist routes.

The Koytendag charms guests at once. Extraordinariness begins already from its foothills bearing all tones of red color. Soil gets such uncustomary appearance due to exposure of speckled rocks to the surface. A little higher, the Koytendag will spread out a soft carpet of golden from sun herbs. If you go up further, the carpet will become golden green. And then it changes to the saturated emerald color and is adorned with many flowers miniature sky-blue bluebells of medicinal gentian, yellow starlets of windflower, pink primroses. What a true fairy tale of light and paints it is!.

Far away, at the skyline, one can see the Amudarya river, but from here, in the distance of dozens of kilometers, the mighty river looks like a silverfish ribbon. The vast Magdanly plateau is located closer to this place. And the surrounding slopes are covered with sparsely growing juniper trees or archa. These trees don't differ from the ones growing on the Kopetdagh Mountains. They have the magnificent attire of evergreen branches of conifer. They are tall and slender. However, where the wind is strong the powerful archa branches creep along the ground, quaintly curved as if an avant-garde artist has decided to do so.

At the mountain tops, junipers give way to more fragile but, as it turns out, even more enduring honeysuckle. Thorny cushion plants and tender inflorescence of saffron - crocus, which bravely open amidst snow and ice towards the sunrays, embellish the stone placers. The mountain tops themselves are covered with thick snow for half a year or even more. The refulgent majestic mantle on the Koytendag lasts until the hot summer days and slowly yields to the pressing Turkmen sun. It is here, that the highest mountain peak in the country, Beyik Turkmenbashi peak, proudly rises up to the point of 3139 m above the sea level shining with snow-white attire surrounded by wonderful forests.

Having melted away, snows do not disappear completely. Waters of melted snow feed numerous streams that make the Koytendag a green island surrounded by arid plains. A contrast is especially noticeable in the long narrow gorges or dere that have cut up the mountains and where cool and clear streams with melodic tunes flow amidst bushes of sweet-scented mountain mint. There are cases when floods roar here rolling smooth the pointed edges of large boulders into a round pebble and making gorges deeper and more severe.

Each gorge is unique by itself. For instance, in Bulak-dere, long ago hydrophilic fern maidenhair Venus Hair grew out of the cornice of a cliff at the outlet of subsoil waters from which a waterfall falls down. And nowadays, locks of Goddess of Love adorn the cornice from which crystal drops trickle down and the waterfall itself is called "Venus's Hair".

Almost 800 year old mulberry tree Kyzyl-tut-baba embellished with many colored shreds tied up in order the most cherished wishes of visiting travelers could come true welcomes guests in the Hodja-Karaul-dere gorge.

The Umbar-dere's pearl is a 27 m waterfall bearing the same name. To reach it one has to make a long walk along the winding rocky corridor with high vertical walls. The corridor is so narrow that the sky above is seen as a thin stripe and any sound is reflected with a resonant echo. The waterfall is very beautiful. The water falls to the ground with a noise and thousands of splashes form a brilliant water curtain bordered with the thinnest muslin of the smallest drops.

The Daray-dere is the widest and longest gorge stretching out 30 km. Bushes of Caucasian Joshua tree, fluffy maple tree, dog-rose and wild grapes that make difficult to traverse provide a reliable shelter for many inhabitants of the Reserve.

The Koytendag is home to argali, Turkistan lynx and other animals listed in the International Red Data Book. The Reserve boasts forty species of mammals alone. Markhoor is especially notable among them. According to beliefs, "markhoor" means "eating snakes". However, its food doesn't differ from the feed of other hoofed animals. Markhoors' appearance is unique the male markhoor's head is crowned by unusual turbinal horns. These animals are perfectly fit to inhabit rocky precipices. Their each step is adjusted and accurate. Otherwise, one wrong step can result in markhoor's falling down into the deep abyss. Its favorite habitat is high in the mountains on the rocky ledges and stone shelves.

The birds of prey hawks, steppe eagles, long-legged buzzards are the most representative among the endemic birds. Feathered creatures with the peace-loving temper including such rare species as brahminy starling and incredibly attractive paradise flycatcher are of particular interest as well. One can meet over two dozens reptile species in the knee-high grass and amongst the scatterings of stones. They are venomous cobras and lebetina vipers, and the awesome in appearance but harmless phrynocephalus mystaceus. The lucky ones can see the biggest of lizard species a monitor lizard.

However, perhaps the weirdest inhabitant of these places is Koytendag blind loach, the miniature fish devoid of eyes and true scales. It is an outstanding specimen of the freaks of evolution. Most likely, long ago a population of its ancestors accidentally got into the expanded system of the subterranean water ponds with developing karsts processes. The vision is useless in complete darkness, thus the rational nature deprived loaches of the ability to see. Perhaps, people would have never known about the wonderful fish if there was know a karsts depression with a lake connected to the underground caves located near the settlement of Karlyuk. It is the habitat of the blind loach inscribed in the Red Data Book of Turkmenistan.

The plant life in Koytendag is peculiar too; tall, dressed into the lace of leafage Joshua trees, huge mulberry trees growing in the gorges, centuries-old plane trees. The hollow in the plane tree bearing the name Uchdogan can easily accommodate a dozen of people. About 2,000 trees grow in the Zizyphus grove which the local people esteem as a holy place. Since the ancient times, Zizyphus (often called as Chinese date palm) has been known for its medicinal properties. As a legend says, once upon a time an old traveler halted there. Feeling sad about little verdure and shade, the old man stroke the stony ground with his stick. A crystal-clear spring welled out then, a miraculous garden appeared, and that magic stick was the first tree in the Zizyphus groove. Since the ancient times, the mealy fruits of this rare deciduous plant have been used to treat heart, kidney, liver and stomach diseases.

The Koytendag Mountains are the southwestern spur of the Hissar mountain ridge, the western (Turkmen) mountainside of which is formed by the upper Jurassic limestone. A number of the limestone caves were discovered there. Some of them stretch out many kilometers; they are the real subterranean labyrinths, wonderful and mysterious. Water, carrying dissolved limestone, like a skilful designer diligently renews the decor of the caves droplet after droplet. Many years will pass till the stony icicles stalactites and rising up towards them stalagmites adorning the underground vaults grow few centimeters. At last they meet turning into the stalagnate columns. This magnificent landscape has been created over many thousand years; it is vulnerable and needs careful treatment.

A number of well-known limestone caves, including Kap-Kutan one of the most beautiful and longest caves in Koytendag, are located in the territory of the Karlyuk Reserve.
"The scientists-speleologists used to examine the luxurious decoration of a cave and its labyrinths without coming out to the surface for several days and sometimes several weeks," Erkin Aralov, an inspector of the Karlyuk Reserve tells.

Indeed, not far from a cavern entrance the torch beams snatch out from the complete darkness the cascades of the stony bowls filled with water or karrs divided with fine crossbars.

We, like the obedient schoolchildren in a museum, are turning our heads trying to discern all the exhibits'. There is something to look at. A weird medusa lies prone on the wall in one of the halls. It is difficult to guess straight away that it is actually a huge stalactite of the quaint shape. There is a "Father Frost's Hall" called so for two stalagmites of the queer shape. One needs no superb fantasy to guess the silhouettes of Father Frost and his granddaughter Snow-girl in the sculptured figures. The "Gothic Hall", as if in the cathedral, is adorned with the tracery colonnades, quaint stone flowers, curtains and water pools'. Only the "Pearly Hall", the walls and floor in which are prodigally incrusted with the calcite formations resembling pearls, can compete with it in the luxury of decor.

The labyrinths are tangled; there are many holes and narrow passages. The "Main Hall" of the cave has dozens of exits - finding of a necessary thing would be impossible without an experienced guide. Furthermore, one must be ready for any surprise. A monster that in fact turns out to be a big lump hides in one of the halls. A "stony heart" a stalactite of the queer shape, showing off its beauty on the ceiling in an underground gallery, seems to be natural.

The Koytendag caves system is very complex. According to scientists, the underground passages and water flows connect caverns, karst holes and lakes into a tangled network. The 59 m deep Kattakol lake is one of the most striking ones. Very seldom, once in dozens of years, absolutely incredible things occur: all of a sudden the boiling up whirlpool evolves and sucks in over the third of the reservoir capacity. However, some time later the Kattakol fills up again.

Weird things are observed in other places too. For instance, the surface of the Lake Hordjun is usually still as if in an aquarium and water is clear. But sometimes, during a rainy season in spring mud rises up from out the karst caverns, leaves and objects apparently coming from the surface emerge. It is still a mystery where they really come from.

A place called Kaynar-baba is very interesting. There are two springs there the Karasu and Aksu. The first feeds a small picturesque lake in the emerald setting of rush, which is a habitat of numerous carp fish and rare mollusks. According to a legend, it was a dwelling place of an old righteous man. It is revered and no one fishes there. The medicinal hydrosulfide source Aksu is also famous among people. Water in it is saturated with many bubbles as if it is boiling. The word "kaynar" itself means "boiling".

The Khodjapil preserve is famous for its Dinosaur Plateau. Khodjapil is translated as "Elephants of a Saint". There existed a belief that many of those large unusual in form footprints spread all over the plateau had been left by fairy tale elephants of an errant khadji, who returned from India with interesting animals. They were also associated with Alexander the Great's elephants. However, in the course of time scientists determined that the footprints belonged to enormous, extinct long ago, reptiles walking in shallow waters 150 million years ago during the Upper Jurassic period when there were no mountains yet. When the sea receded, tracks on soft limestone petrified and were buried in the thickness of sediments. When the powerful mountain forming process began and Koytendag rose up, the tracks were brought to the surface by underground forces.

Because it all happened long ago, it is difficult to guess why dinosaurs liked these places. They left 2.5 thousand footprints preserved till our days. They belong to three earlier unknown species of two-legged reptiles named Turkmenosaurus, Khodjapilsaurus and Hissarosaurus. All of them were phytophagous. Turkmenosaurus and Khodjapilsaurus were three-fingered and Hissarosaurus four-fingered. Turkmenosaurus was the biggest among them. Its footprint's size is 70x65 cm. Most likely, they were as long as 20 m and moved with the help of mighty rear legs. The front ones were much smaller and the reptiles never used them while walking.

An athlete's rock, or Palvan's rock, is another interesting site. A Turkmen palvan is a man with unknown strength, who has no match in wrestling competitions. According to the legend, the Khodjapil athlete was so strong that many bold men who dared to fight with him died in the unequal competition. Therefore, Palvan put a big rock on the road to the village so that anyone who wanted to compete with him had first to prove his strength by lifting the bolder. If he was unable to do that, he would have risked. Nowadays, the big rock that our contemporaries will have no strength to move reminds of big athletes that lived there once.

The gloomy grotto Kyrkgyz, or Forty Girls, is also full of legends. According to one of them, long ago forty wonderful beauties hid in here from merciless enemies until they revealed the mystery of the grotto. The girls appealed to God with a request to turn them into stones so that the enemy couldn't captivate them. Since then, Kyrkgyz has been revered among people. On coming here, visitors usually make a wish and having dipped a piece of ribbon prepared beforehand in moist clay throw it up to the grotto vault. It is believed that if a stripe of cloth adheres to the ceiling, the wish will definitely come true. Many thousands of ribbons in a quaint fringe hang down from the grotto vault reminding of the dreams that came true.

Indeed, after visiting the Koytendag, it is difficult to believe that magic is impossible. So astonishing and bright the nature is here, so many memorable encounters the Land of Deep Canyons harbors for a inquisitive traveler. And throwing up the ribbon to the Kyrkgyz grotto vaults, the visitors wish to return here again and again.


Karakum Desert

The Karakum desert is a sun-scorched expanse of dunes and sparse vegetation in the centre of Turkmenistan. It’s Central Asia’s hottest desert but manages to support a handful of settlements, including the oasis town of Yerbent, 160km north of Ashgabat. A ramshackle collection of homes, battered trucks, yurts and the occasional camel, Jerbent is being slowly consumed by the desert as sands continue to blow off the overgrazed dunes. While it doesn’t look like much, the village does offer a glimpse of rural Turkmen life, and you can watch traditional cooking methods and sit down for tea inside a yurt.

If you have time, money and a sense of adventure, a travel agency can organise 4WD trips further into the desert towards ever more remote villages. As this requires much time, extra fuel and possibly a backup vehicle, you’ll need to request that your guide lists agreed details of your trip on the itinerary. Off-road trips usually require at least two vehicles.

It’s also at the heart of the Karakum desert and draws visitors for the Darvaza Gas Craters, one of Turkmenistan’s most unusual sights. Apparently the result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s, the three craters are artificial. One has been set alight and blazes with an incredible strength that’s visible from miles away. The other two craters contain bubbling mud and water. However, on a visit here in April 2010, President Berdymukhamedov ordered that the burning gas crater be extinguished to enable exploration for gas in the area, so that while at the time of research the crater was still accessible, it’s important to check the latest news with a travel agency in Ashgabat.

The fire crater is of course the most impressive, and it’s best seen at night, when the blazing inferno can only be compared to the gates of hell. There is a naturally sheltered camping place behind the small hill, just south of the crater. Getting to the crater is an off-road ride and drivers frequently get lost or get stuck in the dunes. There is no one around to give directions, so make sure you go with somebody who knows the way. If you intend to walk from the road, think twice. While the walk only takes two hours through the dunes, you’ll have to spend the night here, as finding your way back to the road without the reference of a huge burning crater is very hard. Even in daylight you may get lost – it’s much better to pay for a tour. There are no hotels in the area, but most of the chaikhanas that line the main road just north of the turn-off to the crater offer beds for the night, provide meals and even sell petrol. As there are no signposts for either the turn-off or the chaikhanas, the landmark to look for is where the train line crosses the main road. If coming from Ashgabat, the turn-off for the crater is about 1km before the railway line, and the chaikhanas are a few kilometres afterwards. If you plan to camp at the crater, make sure you sleep a good distance back from its edges, as breathing in the gas all night long can make you very ill.

All buses and marshrutkas heading from Ashgabat to both Konye-Urgench and Dashogus go through Jerbent and pass nearby the Darvaza Gas Craters on the main road.


Western Turkmenistan

The westernmost region of Turkmenistan has a feel quite unlike the rest of the country. The reach of the Kara Kum Canal extends only to a small area in the eastern part of Balkan Region, which largely lacks the irrigated cotton and wheat fields typical of rural Turkmenistan further east. Camels amble across arid dunesc derricks and 'nodding donkeys' testify to the role of the heart of Turkmenistan's oil industry. The main port, Turkmenbashy, was the point of departure for the tsarist Russian conquest of Transcaspia, and the town still houses a substantial ethnic Russian minority. The major Turkmen tribe of this region, the Yomud, is associated with a distinctive carpet design, displaying an anchor motif appropriate for a littoral tribe, and an energetic dance step involving much flailing of arms and deep chanting.

There is much of tourist interest in Balkan Region. The waters of the Caspian offer an obvious lure in the heat of the Turkmen summer, and Turkmenbashy, together with the adjacent village of Awaza, is being developed as a domestic tourist destination. Inland, worthwhile attractions include the remote ruins of the Silk Road site of Dekhistan, the orchards of the Sumbar Valley, the shrine pilgrimage site of Parau Bibi and the magnificent polychrome canyon of Yangykala. The region is the birthplace of Magtumguly, Turkmenistan's greatest poet, and the final resting place of the 26 Baku Commissars, icons of the Soviet era.

Generally the region is characterised by a vast, featureless landscape that is wonderfully Central Asian. This region of haunting moonscapes, ruined cities and minority tribes such as the mountain-dwelling Nokhurians is often raced through on the way between Ashgabat and the boat to Azerbaijan, though for those with time and inclination, it’s possible to see some of the country’s best natural phenomena including the Kopet Dag mountains, the Yangykala Canyon, and the ruins of Dekhistan.



The southern flank of the Khorezm Oasis, to the south of Dashoguz, is an agricultural area with several interesting monuments. The district was named Tagta ('Wooden Plank') until 2002, when President Niyazov, visiting Dashoguz, asked local officials whether any of them could tell him why the district bore such an unusual name. All kept silent, and Niyazov therefore proposed renaming the place in honour of the legendary Turkmen hero Georogly, since 'it is quite possible that Georogly's roots came from Tagta's soil'.

The district capital of Georogly itself is a quiet agricultural town. When heading out of town to the east, take a glance at the Soviet monument depicting a rocket zooming off into the cosmos between two elderly tractors. The monument honours the local organisation providing agricultural machinery to the rural communities. The road east heads towards the Uzbek border. Some 10km beyond Georogly town, a turn to the right is marked with a sign for the Balysh Ovezov Peasants' Association. After 7km you reach the ruins of the fortress of Bedirkent, its ridges of earth topped with substantial chunks of mud-brick walls. Bedirkent was the headquarters of Juneid Khan, a Turkmen ruler of the early 20th century who attempted to resist the Bolsheviks.

Aksaray DingAn interesting monument lies some 6km north of the road running eastwards to the Uzbek border, close to the Peasants' Association of Aksaray. This is Aksaray Ding, a highly unusual fired-brick structure. A passageway runs through a stepped base. On top of this stands a tower, roughly square in form, with arched entrances on each of its sides. A cylindrical drum on top of the tower supports a double dome, though the latter is now badly damaged. Archaeologists believe that the building dates from the 11th or 12th century. The overall form of the ensemble vaguely resembles a kejebe, the traditional elaborate saddle structure, placed on a camel, in which the Turkmen bride would travel to her wedding. This has given rise to a local legend that the building was the work of a rich man, whose beloved daughter died young. One night she came to her father in a dream, and asked him to build a kejebe over her grave, since she had not been given the opportunity to ride to her wedding when she had been alive. More probably the building was the elaborate entrance to a rural estate or even a forgotten town.



Continuing on the road south beyond Shirvan Kala, you immediately cross the Deryalyk Collector, a deep channel which takes run-off water from the irrigated fields to the Sarygamysh Lake. Turn right at the crossroads reached after another couple of kilometres, to join the road heading lakewards. A checkpoint signals the Druzhba ('Friendship') Collector, another channel taking irrigation waters to the lake. Druzhba is crossed by means of a nervousness-inducing bridge of metal pipes. This channel also marks the end of the area under irrigation: from here, the pot-holed road draws a straight line across a wide expanse of arid scrub. Some 65 apparently unending kilometres from the crossroads at which you joined the road, take the signposted turning to the right towards the shrine pilgrimage site of Ibrahim Sultan, which lies 7km to the north, close to the village of Bent.

The Ibrahim Sultan site has a stunning geographical location. Three recently reconstructed domed mausolea stand at the top of the 25m escarpment of the Butentau Heights, the path up to which is flanked by a metal fence. The caretaker described Ibrahim Sultan as a holy man from far Arabia, who came here to help the local people. The mausolea, and adjacent tombs, are said to mark the graves of Ibrahim Sultan and various members of his family and followers. A square-based signal tower stands nearby. In the graveyard behind the mausolea are tombs labelled with the names of such figures as 'Imam Hussein', as well as one huge cloth-covered grave, perhaps 20m in length. This, said the caretaker, was the grave of one Shilgiz Baba who was, he added, very tall. At the bottom of the escarpment, an enclosure of stones several metres long is said to mark the burial place of Shilgiz Baba's lower right leg.

A little brick bowl to the side of one of the tombs contains some sheep vertebrae. The caretaker explained that these should be tossed five times. Every time one of the vertebrae landed 'upright' during the course of those five throws, the greater would be the good fortune bestowed upon the thrower. At the base of the escarpment, a complex of buildings includes accommodation for visiting pilgrims both indoors and in a yurt. They are happy to put up tourists, and, camping aside, there are no other accommodation options in the area.

Butentau Cave Settlement

Drive eastwards from the guesthouse at Ibrahim Sultan, along an earth track at the base of the escarpment. After 5km, you will see about two-thirds of the way up the escarpment a line of artificial caves, cut into the soft limestone. The Butentau Cave Settlement extends for some 2km northeastwards. Several hundred caves have been identified, probably occupied in early medieval times. Cave settlements have also been uncovered in several other escarpments in the region. The caves cannot be reached without climbing equipment, with a few possible exceptions where there have been rock falls, which may be accessible through a hard scramble, depending on your fitness and perception of risk.

Ak Kala

A few hundred metres in front of the Butentau Cave Settlement stand the mud-brick walls of Ak Kala, once the late medieval town of Adak. The walls are roughly square in plan, with five semi-circular towers along each side and a round tower at each corner. There is a walled rectangular 'suburban' space on the north side of the settlement. The proximity of the three very different attractions of Ibrahim Sultan, the Butentau caves and Ak Kala make the Butentau area a worthwhile destination for an excursion, overnighting at Ibrahim Sultan, into a little-known area of Turkmenistan.



Around 28km from Dashoguz, you pass through a gate into Boldumsaz District, this gate too offering you a cheery English-language 'welcome'. Two kilometres further on, to the north of the road and clearly visible from it, the fortress of Boldumsaz makes a square plateau, standing proud above the surrounding fields. Some historians identify this place with the medieval town of Nyzvar, though this attribution is disputed. Destroyed by the Mongols, the place was later resettled, now known by its present name, which scholars believe to mean 'Fortress in a Marshy Place'.

A local legend offers a more colourful explanation of how the fortress received its name. A khan of Khiva determined to build the tallest and most beautiful minaret in the world (different versions of the legend place this at Khiva or Konye-Urgench). The khan engaged a fine architect to build it. The minaret duly took shape, the architect remaining at the top of this growing structure day and night as he toiled on his masterpiece. The khan, however, was not a nice man, and decided that, on completion of the minaret, he would have the architect killed, so that he would be unable to build so beautiful a structure for anyone else. The architect's assistant overheard the khan's plotting, and etched a message of warning to the architect on a brick. The resourceful architect sent down for the materials he needed to fashion a pair of wings and, on completion of the minaret, flew from the top to evade the khan's men. The architect landed at this fortress, exclaiming as he touched the ground: 'Safe and sound!' The name 'Boldumsaz' is apparently an approximation of the latter expression in Turkmen, and the fortress has been so named ever since. Locals say that an owl seen flying over the ruins of the fortress in the evening is the architect's ghost.