The Karakum desert occupies most of the territory of Turkmenistan — about 90 percent. Where did such giant masses of sand come from? It may sound surprising, but …a river served as a source of it. Over dozens of millions of years of slow work the indomitable, willful Amudarya River gathered and brought here the tiny pieces of rocks from heights of the Pamir Mountains. The bed of the ancient Uzboy River passes through these vast sandy expanses of the Karakum desert as a narrow, blue broken stripe.
Coming down from the spurs of the Roof of the World and reaching the plains, the Amudarya, which also called Pandj in the mountains, bursts into the territory of Turkmenistan with its mighty, wide and turbid stream. Free from the captivity of rocky gorges, it changes its course here sharply turning the flow from the west to the north. The place of the river's turn in the times immemorial had become a location of the birth of a new stream — the Uzboy. In different places it had different names: the Kelif Uzboy, the Unguz Uzboy, the Sarykamysh Uzboy, depending on where its intricate route lay; but it is one and the same stream, which the Amudarya River gave birth to. Frequently, the Uzboy was called Amudarya.
Indeed, the fate of this river is fanciful, winding and tragic in the direct sense... The Uzboy waters used to flow into an ocean that washed the rocky shores of the Pamir, the Kopetdag and the Great Balhan mountains. The findings of large petrified sea shells, urchins, and scatterings of sharks' teeth on the territory of Turkmenistan prove the existence of the ocean. Subsequently, the tectonic processes and the expulsions of water changed the environment: the ocean gradually disappeared, and so did the large part of the sea, which the Caspian Sea reminds of.
However, the Pamirs' eternal snows and large glaciers, through the Amudarya River, went on to feed the Uzboy, which flowed into the Caspian Sea with melt water. Obeying the might of the mountainous flash floods, the river changed its course many times, rushing in one or the other directions and forming numerous branches.
During one of such flash floods, the river stopped flowing into the Caspian Sea and turned its stream to the north till the Khorezm state. It filled the giant Sarykamysh depression and, having become beneficial for these places, flowed to the south. Watering the vast expanses, the Uzboy returned to the former course and started again flowing into the Caspian Sea.
According to scholars, humans started to settle on the lands along the course of the Uzboy in the V century BC. The river banks witnessed many historic events. The troops of King Cyrus II crossed it during his march on the Massagetae. During the war of Alexander the Great with the Persian ruler, King Darius, the tribe of Aderbics, part of the Massagetae, sent 40 thousand infantrymen and 2 thousand horsemen to the camp of Darius the Great at the Babylon. It is evidence of the large population living on the banks of the Uzboy. The numberless hordes of Genghis Khan and the cavalries of the Iron Lame Man, Tamerlane, also crossed these places.
To protect their territory from the enemy, to control the water and trade routes the inhabitants of the Uzboy built fortification structures. One of such edifices is the stone-built Parthian Fortress — Igde Bibi-kala, the remains of which can be seen 180 km to the north-east of Serdar town.
The time passed. The Uzboy flowed to the Caspian Sea. Cities and towns emerged on the bank of the river, lands were intensively reclaimed, the water consumption for agriculture, construction and living needs increased. Everything seemed to go well. However, to predict the fate of the river is as difficult as to foresee the fate of a human being.
The time cannot be stopped, because no one has power upon it, but it cannot be said about water, because it is dependent on the time. With the lapse of time, due to different reasons, the resources of the Pamirs, which supplied water for the river, became depleted: the precipitation decreased, the snow cover of the mountains reduced, small glaciers disappeared and the large ones shrank in size. The Amudarya had no much water to fill the bed of the Uzboy any more.
That is why the river started to languish and to die. In 1720, Peter the Great, based on the results of expedition by Bekovich—Cherkasskiy, who had explored the Caspian region, submitted to the Paris Academy of Sciences new maps of the Aral and Caspian basins, in which the Amudarya did not flow into the Caspian Sea any more.
With the drying out of the Uzboy, the population started to leave this territory. Some went to the east to live on the banks of the Amudarya, the others settled in the foothills of the Kopetdag Mountains, closer to the mountain streams. Nowadays, only a few villages exist on the banks of the Uzboy. There is the preserved moisture in some parts of the bed, but it is salty and is formed due to the nourishment of subsoil waters.
Though the running water had left the river, it gave birth to several unique water reservoirs. They are two lakes located next to each other. One of them is salty, and the second one — the Yaskha Lake — is full of fresh water. The groves of trees and bushes grow around the lake. There is a lot of fish in Yaskha, and the inhabitants of settlements in neighborhood frequently come here for fishing. From the underground fresh-water lens the drinking water is pumped by the 150 km conduit to the residents of Balkanabat city, the capital of the oil region of Turkmenistan.
One can observe an unusual thing in other places of the Uzboy riverbed. Very often, small reservoirs consist of two parts — salty and fresh water. In winter, when the sun rises, wild animals and birds come to the small reservoirs to drink water. At this time, the salty layer, due to its heaviness, lies beneath serving as a "cushion" for the fresh water. As soon as it becomes warmer, all the water under the effect of temperature becomes salty.
The salty Mollakara Lake is, perhaps, the most remarkable site of the Uzboy. Nowadays, the Mollakara is the recreation center of world importance. The medicinal mud-baths and water saturated with mineral salts representing almost the whole Periodic Table of Chemical Elements makes this resort unique in nature. Diseases of the muscular-skeletal apparatus, peripheral nervous system, skin and gynecological diseases, male and female infertility are successfully cured here. The mineral-saturated water is so dense that it keeps people on its surface. The surprising thing is that it is enough to dig a small pit one meter off the shore and in a minute it will be filled with fresh water. One would not believe the river is dead forever. It reminds of itself by the striking puzzle of salty and fresh water as the light-and-shade game.
People living in the areas where once the Uzboy flowed proudly call themselves "kumli", i.e. inhabitants of deserts. They had settled here in the times when the Uzboy was a full-flowing river and don't want to leave these places.
The river disappeared, but the life continues. The Kumli are occupied with animal husbandry — breed sheep and camels. They extract water from deep wells, build stone and wattle and daub houses, but many of them prefer to live in yurts, the importance of which is difficult to overestimate in conditions of the hot climate and the nomadic life of stockbreeders. The desert inhabitants also deal with hunting, a trade as old as the world. They have country roads paved from one well to the other, and only special vehicles can help them out. So, the banks of the ancient Uzboy are filled with the welcoming roaring of modern off-road trucks and jeeps. And only the former river keeps silence.
Photo by the author