The south-western spurs of the mighty Gissar Ridge of the Pamir-Alai mountain system, called Kugitang since time immemorial, have spread out near the eastern borders of Turkmenistan. They are also called Koytendag, meaning impenetrable mountains. The western slopes of this ridge are impassable indeed. They are replete with many gorges with cliffs reaching several hundred meters in height. Koytenderya river takes its source deep in the mountains, providing life-giving water to the fertile valleys.
This region is one of Turkmenistan’s leaders in terms of richness and diversity of natural resources. It boasts the largest deposits of rock and potassium salts, brimstone, gypsum, celestine, polymetals, barite, marble onyx, facing stones and other natural building materials.
In addition, there are a huge number of unique protected sights in Koytendag that need to be preserved. Many of them are of great scientific importance, as reference samples of natural landscape elements.
Mount Ayribaba (3139 meters high) located in Koytendag is the highest point of Turkmenistan. Surrounded by picturesque landscapes of green hills and flowering valleys, this is one of the protected areas of the region that turned into an integral and sustainable ecosystem over a multi-thousand-year history of its development. According to one of the legends, in ancient times, there lived a virtuous old man named Ayri-Baba on the top of the mountain. He served people faithfully. When he passed away, people buried him on the very top of the mountain and named it after him.
There are amazing landscapes that are especially beautiful in winter, when the summit and the approaches to the mountain are covered by a thick blanket of snow, reaching several meters in depth in some places. Only Zeravshan juniper can resist this snowy kingdom. Yet, even this mighty and otherwise tall and branchy tree takes on a bizarre squat shape because of strong winds.
But in spring, there are so many flowers around! It is quite often that bright crocuses and grass moths start blooming on thawed patches already in February, quite close to the top of the mountain. The juniper forests on the slopes of the mountain are home to horned goat, mountain sheep and lynx that are listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan. There are more than 1170 species in the biodiversity of Koytendag, of which plants account for about one thousand species.
The Koytendag State Reserve protects natural monuments, including the Umbar-Dere and Kyrkgyz gorges, the Daray-Dere gorge, the Unabi grove, the Gaynarbaba thermal spring, the old-time plane trees in the village of Koyten, the ancient mulberry in the Khodzhagaravul gorge, the Garlyk karst caves as well as the Dinosaur Plateau. The list of unique sights of the region also features more than 30 archaeological monuments dating back to different historical eras.
The Daray-Dere gorge can be narrow and winding in some places. In other places it widens and brightens up in the sunlight reflected by the sheer cliffs. In spring, this gorge is especially beautiful. One can hear the characteristic song of a stone partridge and see the paradise flycatcher among the wild grapes twining at the foot of the rocks in the thickets of Bukhara almonds and fluffy maples. Huge vultures are on duty over the high mountain ranges. One can also track down the balaban falcon diving for prey and see the snake eagle, kestrel and other rare birds of these high mountains. At an altitude of about three thousand meters, almost at the very top of Ayribaba, the gorge smoothly descends straight into the valley. The most full flowing stream of this mountainous region rushes along the rocky bottom of the gorge.
In the mountains near the village of Khodzhapil, there is a deep gorge called Kyrkgyz (forty girls). The height of the walls of this unique gorge is about 200 meters, and the width of the gorge ranges from 15 to 300 m. Walking several hundred meters along a bubbling spring, one can enter a huge grotto. There is a beautiful legend about this amazing place. It is about forty beautiful girls who used to come to the cool grotto every day to rest and swim in the spring. Once, the village was attacked by enemies. Young mountain dwellers hid from the merciless conquerors in the gorge, but their secret hideout was discovered soon. When invaders almost reached their hideout the girls began to ask heaven for salvation. And a miracle happened. The rocks parted, the girls disappeared into the passage, and the rocks closed behind them. On the banks of the ancient stream, one can still see fossilized fragments, shaped like an ancient water amphora, bowls and primitive troughs for clothes washing. People say that the transparent drops of water flowing down from above are the tears of beautiful virgins.
Local residents have treated this grotto as a holy place since time immemorial. There is a popular belief that anyone visiting the grotto should bring a ribbon or a piece of any cloth with them. A small clod of wet clay is attached to the tip of the ribbon and, having made a wish, a visitor throws it to the ceiling. If the ribbon sticks, a wish will definitely come true. The ceiling of the huge grotto is still decorated with thousands of motley ribbons.
The Dinosaur Plateau is the name of a rather large (200 x 80 m) sloping limestone slab with numerous dinosaur paw prints. This plateau is located near the village of Khodzhapil in the eastern part of Turkmenistan on the border with Uzbekistan. Scientists have counted about one thousand paw prints there. It is one of the largest repositories of dinosaur paw prints in the world. A part of the slope is literally “trodden out” by huge three-toed paws measuring from 20 to 70 cm. Many paw prints are strongly pressed and clearly seen against the gray background of limestone. Scientists believe that the paw prints were left by three types of dinosaurs – megalosaurus, iguanodons and tyrannosaurs – at the end of the Jurassic period.
At that time, there were shallow lagoons with rich vegetation that attracted reptiles. The water evaporated, and the paw prints became petrified. As a result of geological shifts, a section of the ancient coast rose to the altitude of 1,800 meters above the sea level and took its current position on the western slope of the Kugitang ridge.
There are legends about this amazing place. Khodzhapil translates as “Holy Elephants”. Locals say that once a year white elephants appear on the plateau and perform their sacred dance.
The Umbar-Dere gorge is located southeast of the village of Khodzhapil, not far from the world famous natural monument – the Dinosaur Plateau. The waterfall with the same name is considered a true decoration of the gorge. A cascade of clear water rushes down from the height of 25–30 meters.
Local beliefs endow the waters of Umbar-Dere with miraculous powers. There are many legends about this gorge. According to one of them, there lived a blind old man in this area in ancient times. Being blind since birth, he nevertheless knew perfectly well every corner of the gorge and looked after a small flock. His name was Umbar. On one of the hot summer days, the shepherd drove his flock to the water spring. He sat down to rest in the cool shade of the age-old plane tree, took a handful of water from the waterfall, washed his face and his blind eyes, and then, in despair, turned to God with a prayer. Heaven heeded the shepherd’s sincere prayer, and a miracle happened – the shepherd recovered his sight.
Nowadays, pilgrims and tourists keep coming to the sacred Umbar-Dere waterfall. The view of the stream of water rushing down from a dizzying height is mesmerizing to the eye, as if echoing the truth of an age-old legend.
The Unabi tree grove growing near the village of Koyten is one of Kugitang’s remarkable sights. The villagers regard this grove as a sacred place and call it Chilon-Ata. According to a legend that has survived to this day, a holy man traveling the world decided to rest. The traveler stopped at a spring and found no shade nearby. Then, he drove his staff into the ground and the staff got leaves. Soon, a shady grove grew up near the spring, and the spring acquired healing properties.
Naturally, as any fairy tale, this legend has some truth. Indeed, the Unabi tree can reproduce both by seeds and vegetatively. So, if you plant at least one tree under favorable conditions, a whole grove will grow there in a couple of years. By the way, this grove continues spreading out in Koyten to this day.
Unabi has been famous for its healing properties since ancient times. In China, the tree’s homeland, its fruits are used as a means of strengthening the overall muscle tone of the body. The grove has a special microclimate. It keeps cool even in the summer heat thanks to the dense crowns of trees that are almost sun proof. There are two springs in the center of the grove. One has crystal clear water, and the other has water with hydrogen sulfide.
Lake Gaynarbaba is the concentration of unsolved mysteries and real wonders that won it wide popularity. It is located near the village of Garlyk, at the foot of the Koytendag spurs. The water temperature of the spring feeding the lake remains unchanged – 22 degrees Celsius. The healing properties of Gaynarbaba can be explained by the significant share of useful minerals and microelements in the chemical composition of its water, including hydrogen sulfide. According to experts, this water is extremely effective for treatment of neurological, skin and a number of other diseases.
Thermal spring water comes out to the surface of the earth together with gases and a lot of foam. This is probably why the reservoir was named Gaynarbaba (Gaynar means “boiling”).
Not far from the source, there is the cult burial of Saint Gaynar Baba. Numerous pilgrims come here to worship his relics. People cherish the memory of Gaynar Baba’s good deeds. According to the legend, he perfectly mastered the art of healing ailments and restored to health many people and brought joy of life to them. In his treatment, he used water from the nearby water spring.
On the western slope of Koytendag, there is a small gorge named Tutly-Dere, in which an old mulberry tree grows. This mighty tree is about 650 years old. It is hard to believe that mulberries can be so huge. The dimensions of the long-liver are striking: the trunk girth is 10 meters, its height is 12 meters, and the crown size is over 20 meters. Colorful pieces of fabric are hung on the branches of the tree. This mulberry is believed to be a sacred tree, so pilgrims visiting the gorge traditionally leave a piece of their clothes or a handkerchief on the tree.
All Koytendag’s gorges are quite deep. Tutly-Dere is no exception. The steep walls of the gorge reach from 50 to 160 meters in height. In winter, they protect the gorge inhabitants from cold winds. A waterfall reminding an ear of wheat makes noise in the narrowest part of the gorge. Crystal clear water flows from five water sources, merging into a single stream. There was established Khodzhagaravul State Wildlife Reserve to protect the nature of this unique gorge.
Words are not enough to describe the beauty of the Kugitang caves, such as Kap-Kotan, Khoshimeyuk, Gulshirin, Tashurek, Vertical and other karst formations. There are about a dozen large natural caves, pristine creations of nature. There one can see gypsum and calcite stalactites, inflorescences of gypsum crystals, incrustations in the form of bunches of grapes, anthodites – stone flowers, anemolites – fancifully curved crystals in the form of palm leaves.
The 56-km long Kap-Kotan cave is the largest of the many karst caves in Kugitang! The entrance to the cave is located at the beginning of a small gorge. One cannot but note the splendor of the natural decoration of the cave! There is a diversity of marble onyx – both light and dark. The dark brown onyx with a rare decorative pattern is especially beautiful. This onyx gives a silky pearlescent shine on its chips. At the end of the cave, it turns into spotted-banded color.
The Khoshimeyuk (House of Treasures) cave was one of the first to be discovered on the western slope of Kugitang. It is more than 3 km long. It is located northeast of the Garlyk village. In some halls of the cave, snow-white gypsum forms shapeless heaps, “icebergs”, or figurines that resemble animals.
Among the natural caves of Kugitang the Gulshirin cave is of particular beauty, surpassing all other caves in the region by its decoration. There are many large halls with the vaults reaching 50 meters in height, and the walls are decorated with gypsum drip formations reminiscent of crystal chandeliers, chrysanthemums and other figures. One can see solidified stone “waterfalls”, multi-tiered columns, “curtains” and “flags” of marble onyx descending from the ceiling.
All the unique caves of Kugitang are under state protection. This reserve is part of the Kugitang State Reserve.