PARADISE EMBOSOMED IN MOUNTAINS
People who know Turkmenistan only by hearsay associate this country with endless sand dunes of the Karakum desert. The desert naturally occupies a significant part of the country's territory. At the same time, mountains are no less important element of the Turkmen landscape. The mineral wealth of the Kopetdag mountain range, its vast valleys hidden between high ridges, its gorges with rivers and waterfalls buried in the shade of trees, its flora and fauna equal the much more famous conservation areas of the world in terms of their diversity and uniqueness.
One of such amazingly beautiful places is called Berkov. It is located in Bakharden district, two hundred kilometers west of Ashgabat. We set off on a two-day trip before sunrise. The first sun rays hit us in the back when we are halfway to the point of destination. To get there, one first needs to drive through the ancient village of Garry Nohur that retained ancient residential architecture. The road winds along Arvaz river, then turns into a very picturesque and narrow gorge of Gosha Archa.
Then, our path runs past the shepherd's camp that is located next to a small man-made lake. Behind the lake, the road turns into serpentine and goes up sharply. A little more driving and we reach a flat surface. We see the bottom of a huge basin surrounded by almost vertical cliffs.
The local landscape is extremely beautiful in spring. Bright emerald grass is interspersed with large patches of red poppy. The palette is enriched with dark green crowns of trees against the background of cold blue-gray rocks. Those who come here for the first time immediately begin drawing comparisons, for some reasons, with the famous meadows of the Swiss Alps, even if they saw them only on photographs or TV. A good camera or an artist's easel would be most appropriate tools to capture these beauties.
The basin's bottom in Berkov is speckled with impassable wild gorges, so the landscape resembles in full the name of the area. The interpretation of this toponym can be found in the Explanatory Dictionary of Geographical Names of Turkmenistan by the famous linguist, Professor Soltansha Ataniyazov. Berkov is translated from Turkmen as a difficult-to-pass mountain valley. If you look at it from the height of the nearest rocks, you will see an amazing panorama: a real Eden surrounded by steep cliffs.
Berkov has been known for long. Dmitry Logofet, a Russian general and an outstanding military orientalist, passed through these places and left a detailed description of them in the course of inspection of the southern borders of the Czarist Russia at the beginning of the last century. More than a century has passed since that time. However, when reading his report, one gets an impression that it was written only yesterday. It seems that time has stopped in these places. The largest number of rare plants of Central Kopetdag listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan is concentrated in these places, like in a botanical storehouse. Legendary academician Nikolai Vavilov visited Berkov shortly after Logofet. He was struck by the abundance of rare plants that he discovered there.
Turkmen Juniper is the dominant plant among the mountain trees. It grows only at an altitude of over eight hundred meters above the sea level. This large coniferous tree is widespread throughout Kopetdag and endemic, that is, it is found only in this region of the world.
Juniper blooms in mid-April, and it throws out a cloud of pollen at the slightest shaking. Its powder particles are collected by locals and used as a substitute for baby powder. Juniper needles are the strongest natural antiseptic. When going on long hikes, experienced tourists put fresh needles in their shoes to prevent fungus. When distilled in industrial conditions, needles produce an essential oil used in perfumery and medicine. Turkmens have a belief that a night spent under a juniper crown cures diseases and fills a person with energy. In the past, splinters cut from juniper were used as incense, and rural healers treated their patients by fumigating them with smoke emitted by juniper branches. Fresh needles, presoaked in water, are also used in cooking a popular Turkmen dish called Tamdyrlama. They are thrown into the fire to let meat soak up the fragrant smoke from burning needles. Cones (berries) of juniper are a favorite seasoning of hunters and tourists, and they are also used as marinade for meat.
In the past, a lot of trees perished because of fires and unreasonable logging. Juniper was burnt to produce charcoal, and wood was used for construction needs, thus damaging the Kopetdag ecosystem. Nowadays, there is no need to use wood for fuel thanks to the gas pipelines reaching even the farthest villages.
Juniper grows very slowly. So, there are many old trees that are of great valuable. A single juniper and groups of several relatively young trees have an unusual appearance. At a certain height, they all without exception have an ideally even lower edge of the crown, as if an unknown gardener trimmed every juniper tree neatly with his scissors. The secret is simple. In fact, this is the goats' doing, as they graze here in large herds, eating up hanging branches as far as they can reach.
There are many long-livers among junipers. A giant juniper, the highest in Central Kopetdag, is one of Berkov's main attractions. It is fifteen meters high with its trunk thickness at the base reaching almost two meters! This giant grows near the entrance to the valley and, of course, impresses visitors with its size. An unusual root coming up to the surface looks like a huge fantastic octopus, spreading its tentacles in different directions. The juniper's roots go far beyond the area of the crown. It is hard to even imagine how many hundreds of years this tree has been standing there, what it has gone through and what events it has seen. It is a living symbol of the Kopetdag forest, and the local nature reserve is tasked to preserve this unique natural monument for future generations. Experts believe that the juniper forest is a water-saving factor in the mountain ecosystem of Turkmenistan, without which other plants of the local flora simply cannot survive.
In the absolute silence of the hollow, a thud sound of the bell is suddenly heard and a black-and-white flock of goats comes out from behind the hill. A flock is normally tended by a boy-shepherd on a donkey with two big dogs accompanying him. They are called Alabai, a Turkmen variety of the Central Asian Shepherd Dog. Such dogs-wolfhounds drive straying goats together in flocks and protect them from predatory animals.
The whole flock goes for daytime milking to Yayla, a summer residence of shepherds, where they carry out seasonal works. A small house with a flat roof stands in the territory of Yayla. As in the old days, it was built of clay, stone and wood. Next to it stand several pens for livestock made of wild stone, as well as vegetable gardens, an orchard and a big artificial lake that feeds from a local spring. A large rural family lives and works here temporarily. They herd their goats in the mountains and milk them together at a certain time. They make butter and cheese of curative goat's milk according to ancient recipes. Stuffed in a goat pelt, it acquires a unique rough taste with the aroma of some unknown herbs. In his spare time, when the flock is resting, a shepherd occupies himself with collecting medicinal plants.
Both the house, the orchard and the man-made lake blend so organically with the environment that one recalls the pastoral paintings by European romantics. Rare tourists visiting these parts of the country are treated to warm goat's milk and almost ripe cheese. One should only thank them and go further. The road is long and difficult. At the end of the journey, it is time to set up a bivouac and rest. We set up tents among juniper trees and cook an unpretentious dinner. The night creeps in unnoticed. The huge starry sky seems quite close. At such moments, you don't want to talk about anything but just to remain silent, looking at the stars. Finally, everyone calmed down and fell asleep slowly. Tomorrow will be an interesting day.
The morning is quite cool. While the camp is sleeping, you need to pick dry wood for the fire. I light a campfire and my companions wake up while water starts boiling. It is a pleasure to drink smoke-filled tea with herbal supplements, which, by the way, have been collected right in this place. We finish simple breakfast and prepare for a hike. We make sure that our flasks are filled with water, as we are expected to cover a long distance through several gorges, where no SUV can pass. Our equipment includes a backpack, binoculars, a penknife and an alpenstock, or a simple long and sturdy stick that helps a lot in climbing and descending.
It is not prudent to walk in large groups in the mountains. The more people you have the more noise they make, and this is not advisable if you want to film the animal world. Two people would be the ideal option, one will also do, but the second one should always stay close, because mountains are insidious and a careless step can always result in a fall or an injury, and in such situations one cannot do alone. You must walk carefully and as quietly as possible, and then you may be lucky enough to see rare wild animals - the true masters of these mountains.
Kopetdag's fauna is extremely diverse, and Berkov is a place where it is represented in full. Leopard is on top of the ecological chain. Turkmens call this animal a snow leopard or Aladjagaplan. This graceful predator is a very careful and cunning hunter. It is almost impossible to see this predator in the daytime, as it hunts only at dusk and early in the morning. In the afternoon, the beast hides in secluded places, but he is invisibly present throughout our journey. Traces of his cautious paws can be seen on the ground; sometimes we see the trees with vertical scratches on their bark. A leopard sharpens his claws and marks his territory this way. In these mountains, we must behave very carefully, because we are in his realm. The predator hunts on porcupines, wild boars, bezoar goats and mountain sheep - Argali.
Leopard hunting has been banned in Turkmenistan since 1972. It is listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan as a rare endangered species. Ashgabat naturalist-photographer Sergey Yelagin managed to decoy a leopard in a photo trap a few years ago. Such a picture is a great success and not every nature lover is so lucky. However, each such picture requires tens of kilometers of hiking, knowledge of habits, traces and secret paths of the predator.
Descending into one of the gorges, I suddenly heard a faint rustle - the eyes of an amazing little creature looked at me from a chasm. This was a stone marten. She is nocturnal and almost impossible to see, let alone photograph during the day. I was lucky and I took a few shots. Apparently, she had a hatch nearby and, like any mother, could not abandon her children. A marten has a beautiful dark brown fur. That is why his animal was hunted in the past. Nowadays, it is also listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan. A marten is omnivorous. She eats the seeds of juniper, as well as small birds. In addition, she is a big sweet tooth. Raisins, hawthorn, figs and wild rose has long been in her menu. In the old days, hunters used them to set traps for martens.
Kopetdag's flora is also of great interest to local historians. The bulk of plants are medicinal. In Berkov, you can find a huge variety of mountain flowers. Iris with its violet-blue color stands out among them. It grows in whole colonies on the slopes of the mountains. Orchis, a rare flower of the orchid family, hides in the grass near the springs. This flower is listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan. In folk medicine, a decoction of its root is used to cure liver diseases, stomach ulcers and dysentery.
It is in Berkov that a rare plant called Fritillaria Raddeana or Alan in Turkmen can be found in large quantities. In the past, starch was extracted from its bulbs that was added to flour to bake flat cakes. They should be eaten with sour milk.
Walking slightly higher, we meet another rare medicinal plant - Stachys Lavandulifolia (Tilkichay) on the stony slopes. Turkmens used an infusion of the plant's inflorescences to cure stomach cramps, while a decoction of herbs was used as an analeptic before childbirth. Crushed Tilkichay was applied on ulcers and wounds. In the past, folk healers (Tebibs) brewed the flowers of Stachys as a remedy for heart diseases, especially heart neurosis.
A day has passed. It brought us a variety of new impressions, and it is now time to go home. Leaving our temporary bivouac, we carefully extinguish the fire. Having checked that coals in the fire went completely cold, we cover them with soil. No packages, broken glassware and plastic containers should be left after a tourist trip. We are all responsible for keeping our native land clean and tidy, because it depends on each of us if the surrounding landscape pleases the eye or we turn away from unpleasant sights of garbage dumps poisoning the nature. Saying goodbye to the eternal mountains, we return to the city with the hope of coming back more than once.