ArmInfo.Running along the eastern edge of Turkmenistan is the south-western ridge of the Gissar Range of the Pamir-Alay mountain system, named Kugitang since the dawn of time. Another name, Koytendag, means “impassable mountains”. The western slopes of the Range are truly impassable. They are jagged with numerous gorges reminiscent of canyons with several-hundred-meter-high precipices.
The region is one of the richest in Turkmenistan in natural and mineral resources. It boasts large deposits of rock and potassium salt, native sulfur, gypsum, celestine, polymetals, barites, marble onyx, cladding stones, and other building materials.
Turkmenistan’s highest peak, Ayrybaba, is in the Koytendag. It is the area of strikingly beautiful natural scenery, especially in the winter, when the summit and access routes are covered in snow, which can be several meters deep in some places. The Zeravshan juniper is the only plant to survive in this snow-clad terrain. Yet, even this mighty and usually tall, branchy tree takes an unusual trailing form, withstanding strong winds.
In spring, the flower-strewn area is ablaze with color. In February, bright crocuses bloom in thawed patches almost at the summit. Markhors, argalis, and lynx – animals listed in the Red Data Book of Turkmenistan – are found in juniper forests on the mountain slopes. The Koytendag is home to a wealth of wildlife with a total of 1,170 species, of which about 1,000 are plant species.
The Koytendag State Nature Reserve helps to protect natural landmarks: the Umbardere Gorge, Kyrkgyz Gorge, Daraydere Canyon, the Unabi tree (jujube) grove, thermal springs near the foothills of Gaynarbaba, the centuries-old plane trees in the village of Koyten, the age-old mulberry tree in the Khojagaravul Gorge, the Karlyuk Karst Caves, and the Dinosaur Plateau.
Daraydere: The King of Gorges
This narrow gorge winds its way down the mountains like a snake. In some places, it goes wide and turns light thanks to the sunlight reflected from the precipitous cliffs. The canyon is at its most beautiful in the spring. One can hear the stone partridge sing its distinctive song and see the paradise flycatcher amid Virginia creepers, Bukhara almond trees and maple trees growing at the bottom of the mountains. Large vultures, saker falcons, looking for prey, snake eagles, Eurasian kestrels, and other rare birds can be easily spotted above the towering mountain range. At some 3,000 meters, almost near Ayrybaba, the Kugitang Range’s highest peak, the gorge gently descends down to the valley. The deepest stream in this mountainous area runs along its gravel bottom.
In some places, the steep, rocky walls of the gorge are 300 meters high. They are jagged with crevices and riddled with grottos. Native to this area, markhors and argalis make their way to these good hiding spots along barely noticeable trails. These precipitous cliffs also have difficult-to-access grottoes and caves, situated high above the bottom of the gorge. What is there hidden inside the mountains? Future explorers of the wonderful region of deep mountain gorges, caves, crystal-clear springs and green valleys will have to find it out.
Kyrkgyz: The Legend of the Mountainous Area
In the mountains near the village of Khojapil, there is a deep canyon named “Kyrkgyz” (Forty Girls). The unique gorge’s walls are about 200 meters high, and are 15 meters to 300 meters wide. If you walk the gorge along a bubbling spring for several hundred meters, you will find yourself in a large vaulted grotto. There is a beautiful legend about this wonderful place. It says that forty beautiful girls came to the refreshingly cool grotto every day to enjoy a respite and take a swim in the spring. Once, when their village was attacked, the young girls hid themselves in the canyon from the unrelenting foes. Soon after, their hiding place was discovered. The invaders were approaching and the girls started to pray desperately begging to save their lives. Something truly miraculous happened. The rocks opened, the girls went into the passage and then, the rocks closed behind them. The legend has it that the utensils and clothes they left in the grotto turned into stones…
From time immemorial, the locals have regarded this grotto as a sacred site. There is a popular belief that those who come here should bring a ribbon or a strip of fabric. With a small lump of wet clay fixed to one of the ends, they make a wish and toss it onto the ceiling. If the ribbon sticks, the wish will come true. The huge grotto’s celling is still adorned with thousands of multi-colored strips.
There is a traditional rule that should be observed obediently in the sacred grotto: everything what pilgrims bring there – utensils, rugs to sit or lie on, things needed to light a makeshift fire – should be left inside. These age-old traditions have survived until today.
Footprints from Prehistoric Times
The Dinosaur Plateau is a relatively large (200m х 80m) limestone bed which boasts plenty of dinosaur footprints. The site is located nearby the village of Khojapil in the eastern part of Turkmenistan on the border with Uzbekistan. Scientists have counted 2,000-plus footprints there. It is one of the largest repositories of fossilized dinosaur footprints in the world. A small stretch of the Plateau is home to a diverse array of huge three-toed dinosaur footprints ranging from 20 cm to 70 cm. Many of them are clearly visible on the gray limestone background. Scientists believe that the footprints were left by three different types of dinosaurs: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Tyrannosaurus more than 140-145 million years ago in the late Jurassic period. Back then, there were shallow lagoons with lush vegetation that attracted the reptiles. The water evaporated, and the footprints fossilized. The movement of the tectonic plates caused the ancient sea area’s elevation reaching an altitude of 1,800 meters above sea level at an approximately 25-degree angle and it is now located on the western slope of the Kugitang Range. There are legends about this absolutely stunning site. “Khojapil” translates as “holy elephants”. The locals say that white elephants appear on the Plateau once a year to dance their sacred dance. Another legend has it that the footprints were left by the war elephants of Alexander the Great.
Healing Water of the Umbardere Waterfall
The Umbardere Gorge is situated to the south-east of the village of Khojapil, nearby the world-famous natural landmark, the Dinosaur Plateau. The namesake waterfall is a crowning glory of the canyon. Its crystal-clear water cascades to a 25-30 meters drop.
Local people attribute healing powers to the water in the fall. The story runs that a blind old man lived there in days gone by. Although born blind, he knew every corner of the Gorge perfectly well and herded a small flock. His name was Umbar. Once, when the shepherd drove his flock to the waterfall and sat under the shade of the old-century plane tree to rest. Then, he scooped up some water in his cupped hands from the cascading waterfall, washed his face and his blind eyes, and desperately prayed to God. The shepherd’s sincere prayer was heard and by a miracle he recovered his sight. Nowadays, pilgrims and tourists flock to the holy destination. Pouring down from a considerable height, the Umbardere Waterfall is a truly breathtaking and amazing sight. It seems to prove the ancient legend true.
The Grove at the foot of the Mountains
One of the Kugitang’s natural monuments – a reserve, deeply revered by people and steeped in beautiful legend – is the Unabi tree (jujube) grove, growing near the village of Koyten. The gorge is sacred to the locals, who call it “Chilonata”. According to the legend that has survived to this day, a holy man, who traveled around the world, decided to stop over and rest in that place. The traveler came up to the spring, but there was no tree. Then, he thrust his walking stick into the ground and leaves appeared on it. Before too long, a grove of shady trees appeared nearby and the spring became renowned for its healing properties. They say, when the trees grew, they turned towards Mecca.
Of course, like all fairytales, the legend has an element of truth. It is true that the Unabi tree can be grown from seeds or cuttings. With only one tree planted, there will be a grove in a few years. By the way, the Grove in the Koytendag continues to expand.
The Unabi tree has been known for its healing properties for centuries. It is native to China, where its fruits are used as an invigorant. The Grove has a special microclimate. Even in sweltering summer months, it is cool under the trees as the sun’s rays can barely penetrate through them. There are two springs in the heart of the Grove: the crystal-clear natural spring and the thermal spring that contains elevated concentrations of hydrogen sulfide.
The Gaynarbaba Lake and Its Health-Giving Water
The Gaynarbaba Lake holds some unsolved mysteries and is full of true wonders, which have made it widely popular. It is situated not far from the village of Garlyk at the bottom of the Koytendag. The water temperature in the spring that feeds the lake is +22 C and it never changes. Specialists have ascertained that the Gaynarbaba Lake has its origin in aquifers in the Jurassic and Cretaceous strata.
The spring is located in the Garlyk State Reserve and is the only natural habitat in our country for Melanoides Kainarensis, an endemic mollusc species, listed in the Red Data Book of Turkmenistan.
Thanks to the high amount of minerals and microelements, including hydrogen sulfide, in the water, it has healing powers. According to experts, the spring water is highly effective in treating skin and nervous, and some other diseases.
The thermal spring gushes out of the ground with accompanying gases producing plenty of foam. Perhaps, this is why the spring got its name “Gaynarbaba” (“gaynar” means “boiling”).
Gaynarbaba’s burial place is not far from the spring. Many pilgrims come here to pay homage to the holy man (pir). His good deeds live on in folk memory. They say, Gaynarbaba cured many people of their illnesses and helped them to fully recover and be happy again. He used the water from the nearby spring to heal them.
The Magnificence of Underground Labyrinths
The caverns in the Gaurdak-Kugitang Region truly captivate with their unique beauty. There are some ten large undergrounds – the marvels of nature. Among them are the Kap-Kutan, Hoshmoyuk, Gulshirin, Dashyurek, Vertical Caves and other karst formations. They boast gypsum and calcite stalactites, druses of gypsum crystals, dripstones shaped like buds, crust, grape clusters, anthodites – cave flowers, and anemolites – intricately curved palm leaf-shaped crystals.
The Kap-Kutan Cave is the largest karst cavity in the Kugitang. It stretches for 56 kilometers! It is one of the longest cave systems in the world. Outside the cave mouth, there is a small gorge. The cave’s dripstone formations are really magnificent! It features diverse types of marble onyx, ranging in color from light to dark. Marked with rare patterns, dark brown onyx is strikingly beautiful. It has silky and pearly gloss. Towards the end of the cave it becomes spotted or striped and concentric zonal in cross-section.
One of the first caves discovered on the Kugitang’s western slope was the Hoshmoyuk Cave (The Jewel House), stretching for more than 3 kilometers. It is located to the north-east of the settlement of Karlyuk. Stalactites in this cave have growths or curves resembling a goose’s foot – anemolites. The growth of crystals is wind controlled. In some chambers snow-white gypsum has caused shapeless formations resembling icebergs, and sometimes dinosaurs, elephants and birds.
The Gulshirin Cave stands out from the rest of the natural undergrounds in the Kugitang with its unique beauty and excels all the other caves in the area as the most richly decorated. It has many large chambers, which are 50 meters high. Its walls are adorned with impressive gypsum dripstones: anthodites and helictites shaped like crystal chandeliers, chrysanthemums, etc. Owing to high moisture, the cave floor in some chambers is densely covered with stone flowers, radial fibrous needle-like crystals growing from brownish-gray gypsum fibers. Some chambers and galleries look like a thick jungle of gypsum stalactites and stalagmites. It is a vast underground realm full of gigantic snow-white gypsum crystals resembling frozen waterfalls, multi-layered “Gothic” columns, and marble onyx draperies with a curtain-like and flag-like appearance hanging from the ceiling.
The unique caves in the Kugitang are now protected by the state. The karst cave reserve established here is a part of the Kugitang State Nature Reserve.