There is a myth in the common mindset that the desert is boring and monotonous. Yet, those who have been to the Karakum - one of the largest deserts in the world - know that this is not true. Other than many impressive landscapes, rare flora and fauna, there are many archaeological monuments in the desert, such as the sites of primitive people, shrines of ancient nomad massagetaes and ruins of clay castles - caravanserais of the Silk Road era and tombs of Muslim saints. There are also many natural phenomena in the desert, such as, for example, a gas crater, now called the Lights of the Karakum. Some of them, least known and distant from the popular tourist routes, should be described in detail.
From the airport of the city of Turkmenbashi, we set off into the depths of the desert adjacent to the Gulf of Karabogazgol. The first tens of kilometers along the paved highway present a smooth and boring landscape. Only archaeologists know that this place hides the traces of primitive people who began to develop this part of the coastal lowland in the Mesolithic era, but we will get to that later.
In the meantime, let us have a look from the prospective of geologists at the hills and depressions along our road. In fact, we have entered the geological territory of the Jurassic period that ended 145 million years ago in the history of the Earth. In addition to dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles, there lived mammals, birds and fish that were hardly noticeable against the background of those reptiles. In the depths of water, there lived ammonites - cephalopod mollusks ranging in size from one centimeter to two meters. Their petrified shells formed multi meter layers in sedimentary rocks throughout the desert of the Eastern Caspian region. They are especially visible in canyons of the southern outskirts of the Ustyurt plateau. The flat-topped mountains of Tuarkyr, Akkyr, Ersarybaba and other ridges located there, as well as the Kemal-Uzboy hollow between them and the Chilmamedkum sands are our final destination.
The local plains are not quite even. Here and there, one can see gentle hollows, as well as vast and deep depressions, narrow gorges and gullies. The bottoms of most basins are covered with swampy salt marshes or sands. Having passed the village of Koshoba, the highway turns sharply into the endless hollow, and the surrounding landscape becomes different at once. There is a range of canyons ahead creating an almost Martian landscape owing to the prevalence of red color with yellow and blue hues. Most importantly, there is almost no vegetation.
It is no coincidence that Turkmens call this locality Yangyn-kala, meaning "Burning" or "Fiery Fortress" to be more precise. In the sunset rays, these canyons really seem engulfed in flames.
Not only mountains look very different. Even the sands here are different! Some appeared due to the fragmentation of local rocks, some came from the high mountains of the Pamir through Amu Darya river that once flowed into the Caspian Sea, others accumulated on the bottom of the ancient sea in the form of sea mollusks crushed by waves, and another group is nothing else than massifs of tiny grains of lime and siliceous remains of microorganisms. When the sea disappeared, all of them were polished and carried away by winds over hundreds of kilometers. Such sands come in a variety of colors and shades - from steel gray to yellow-red.
About 15 thousand years ago, the Kemal-Uzboy hollow was a bay of the Caspian Sea. It was the Paleolithic era - the longest in the history of mankind, when people still did not practice agriculture or cattle breeding and did not know how to make pottery. They lived in small groups, ate vegetable food and hunted wild animals. They mainly used upholstered stones and flint, from which they made arrowheads and knives and struck fire with it. Stone and flint tools are all that remains of the era that lasted about two million years, when the evolution was under way, culminating in the emergence of Homo Sapiens.
Traces of the Paleolithic were found only in Balkan province of Turkmenistan. Small flint nuclei (stones with elementary human processing) sparkle in the sand with a dim nacreous shine among pebbles and crushed stone in the stopping places of primitive people. Now, they can be seen only if one takes a closer look and only on foot, not from the car, and only knowing in advance of where these ancient human tools should be looked for. Their best examples are stored in the Turkmenbashi Museum of Local History, the Balkanabat Regional Museum and, of course, the State Museum of Turkmenistan in Ashgabat.
So far, archaeologists have found only a few sites that were excavated in the second half of the last century. Well-known experts worked there, including academicians Boris Piotrovsky, Alexey Okladnikov, professors Pavel Boriskovsky, Vasily Lyubin, Gennady Markov, doctors of historical sciences Hemra Yusupov, Leonid Vishnyatsky and others.
Standing in the middle of an absolutely flat plain, one sees the horizon stretching for just 2-3 kilometers. However, a truly boundless space spreading 80-90 kilometers opens up from the cliff that tourists nicknamed "Crocodile Jaws"! Looking to the north, one sees the surface of the Gulf of Karabogazgol shining in the sun and the Bolshoy Balkhan ridge stretching in the south. The panorama of such open spaces is breathtaking. Yet, the most unusual lies below, at the depth of about one hundred meters, where the ancient seabed with standalone islands and wrinkles of reefs lies. These are isolated hills that survived the endlessly long geological processes. Their steep slopes consist of multi-colored horizontal layers of limestone, white gypsum layers and vertical creases-cavities.
In this case, the expression "constant dripping wears away the stone" should be understood literally. The erosive power of water along with the devastating power of winds at Yangyn-kala are seen quite clearly. The empty rocks and boulders look especially unusual! They were simply weathered. There remained only a seemingly fragile shell or massive frames of hard rocks hanging over the abyss, looking like those "crocodile jaws" mentioned above. Famous Russian geologist Nikolai Andrusov used to hide from the sun under one of these stone awnings, when, carried away by collecting the samples, he dropped behind his detachment during a trip to Transcaspian back in 1887. "The crest of Tuarkyr impressed me," the academician recalled many years later in his memoirs. "It beautifully exposed the sloping Jurassic strata with wonderful ammonites."
The significance of this region for the interpretation of the history of planet Earth was discovered at the beginning of the last century by Andrusov's colleague and peer, professor at the University of Jena Johannes Walter, who visited this place at the head of the German paleontological expedition. Indeed, ammonites in such large numbers and so well preserved can be found in no other corner of Turkmenistan.
In his time, the famous paleontologist, academician Kurban Amanniyazov dedicated a separate monograph to them. He described 52 types of ammonites of the Upper Jurassic deposits of Tuarkyr, singling out 4 families and 6 species. They lived in the ancient Tethys Ocean, one of the remains of which is the Caspian basin. Back in the fifties of the last century, this data helped the scientist to develop a detailed diagram of the geological stratigraphy of Balkan province for exploration of oil and gas deposits.
What is another feature of this desert? This is absolute silence. Neither chirping of birds nor the sound of trees, nor the murmur of water can be heard. Only the wind howls in the ears, if you climb any hill. Local inhabitants - hares, snakes, turtles, lizards, hedgehogs, rodents and a variety of insects are also soundless. It is almost impossible to see local predators who are active in the night, such as wolves, striped hyenas, honey badgers, lonely caracals, manuls and sand cats. The number of fast-footed saiga antelopes, old-timers of South Ustyurt, is rapidly decreasing. Gazelles have completely disappeared but we were lucky to see a herd of wild horses!
The necropolis of Gezli-ata, located in a basin near motley mountains, is the most visited site in this region. These mountains look like a layer cake consisting of red-brown Jurassic marls with different shades, resting for millions of years on a chalky layer of sandstone. There are two recently built mausoleums in the center of the necropolis. They mark the burial places of Sufi sheikh Hasan-ata, who lived in the 14th century, known by the nickname of Gezli-ata (Seer Father), and his wife Aksil-mama (stress on the last letter), daughter of the Kazakh bai. Gezli-ata got his nickname for his extraordinary ability to foresee events. For six centuries, his grave has been a place of pilgrimage for the Turkmens and Kazakhs living in the Caspian region, and the great Magtymguly repeatedly mentioned his name in his poems, turning to him for spiritual support.
Little is known about the life of the legendary seer. He was originally from Khorezm, educated at the Sufi school of Khodzha Ahmed Yasavi in the city of Turkestan (medieval Yasa). He began to preach in the steppes between the Aral Sea and the Volga river, converting pagan pastoralists living in those parts to Islam. "There, he most likely married the Kazakh woman, Aksil," ethnographer Sergey Demidov said. "Then he moved to the Caspian Turkmens, where he found a conducive environment for his Sufi activities that he was looking for. He had three sons - Nur-ata, Omar-ata and Ibrahim (Yvyk-ata). Their descendants formed one of six Turkmen groups named "ata" who were considered saints."
There exists many legends associated with Gozli-ata. One of them describes how he turned away the magic arrow fired by an enemy at the great Sheikh Khodzha Ahmed. Others give an account of how he saved travelers who strayed from the road and got lost in the desert, how he turned sour milk (ayran) into butter and, naturally, acted as a seer. He also practiced ritual dances - the so-called loud Zikr (Dzhahr) that became an element of the healing practice of the Porkhan shamans, and eventually turned into the most famous Turkmen folk dance "Gushtdepdi".
It is not surprising that the place of burial of Gezli-ata has attracted many pilgrims for centuries, who continue coming there from far abroad. Several hotel buildings, a small mosque and facilities for memorial meals - sadaka - have been built for them.
There is another shrine - Kemal-ata - 30 kilometers east of Gezli-ata. Yet, there is no direct road to it. One has to make a great detour to pass an impassable stretch of the relief. We have finally reached our destination. A ritual complex has been recently built here, including a domed mausoleum and houses for pilgrims. Kemal-ata has also a second name - Gaitarmysh-ata, referring to the fact that, according to popular beliefs, it wards off all kinds of visible and invisible, known and unknown troubles and misfortunes from people and protects them from evil. He is considered a direct descendant of Nur-ata, the eldest son of Gezli-ata.
Something extraordinary opens below, right behind the outskirts of the shrine. There is a river oozing drop by drop from the rocky shore that extends many kilometers deep into the Kemal-Uzboy hollow and gets lost in the salt marsh. Camels and sheep come to the watering place during the day, and wild animals come at night. Hundreds of boulders lie along a deep channel with water murmuring in tugai thickets, sticking out almost half of the vertical wall of the right bank. They stretch in large clusters along a rocky slope, remotely resembling a herd of sheep that stopped by for rest. According to one legend, they are sheep that saint Kemal-ata turned into stones so that the enemy that was ravaging this land would not eat them. And another legend says that these were balls with which hero Ersary Baba, an even more famous character in the local pantheon of saints, smashed the enemy. Well, in fact, they are just regular small concretions compared with those that can be found further to the east.
Those are the most amazing concretions in this region, located in the narrow three-kilometer stretch of plateau near the modern village of Gekdere, in the place called Sakar-yol, 50 kilometers from Kemal-ata. Other than regular lime-sandy balls of different diameters, there stand two and even three-tier fossils, twice as tall as the human stature, looking like gigantic snowmen. There is a site called Gek-Ekush nearby, in the same area, where spherical carbonate concretions reach two meters in diameter, while smaller balls adhering to them resemble the bulging eyes of giant frogs. According to geologists, these bizarre creations of the sea are over 60 million years old, when our planet was at the end of the Cretaceous that replaced the Jurassic. It is hard to even imagine the age of these natural sculptures!
Such spherical mineral aggregates are not uncommon in the world. They can be found on all continents in porous sedimentary rocks. Japanese scientists were able to ascertain the process of their formation. In short, the point is that some dead sea creatures (for example, a mollusk shell) would became a core that would be quickly coated with layers of calcium carbonate. Crystallization would continue, and the body would grow up. Then, the sea would recede or roll these boulders out to the shore, and their growth would stop on the shore. This is how science explains it. As for the many generations of people that lived in these places, the mysterious rounded stones awakened their imagination and gave rise to legends. It is no accident that the Kemal-ata shrine appeared near the hollow in which a whole scattering of concretions created a unique landscape.
This is how evidence of the early history of our planet came together in this part of the desert. This evidence also tells us about the first steps of mankind on the path to civilization and the comparatively young medieval culture of Turkmens and Kazakhs who regarded mountains and stones of this region as an important part of their spiritual life.