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Ecological & Trekking

Central Karakum Desert & Merv / Margush - Off-Road

7-day desert adventure

Turkmen Children in Central Karakum The Karakum desert blankets 80 percent of the territory of Turkmenistan. With it's incomparable vastness and warm people populating its endless dunes, this desert bears, in every respect, the most characteristic features of Central Asia's vibrant Nomad cultures and stunning natural beauty.
Owing to the complete lack of infrastructure, and our fortunate luck, the only way to explore this remote territory is by 4WD and the heavy trucks. Our 7-day itinerary combines an adventurous four-day off-road and trekking trip to some of the most secluded flat-roof and nomadic settlements in the Central Karakum.

An extension of our desert crossing will take us to the country's most fascinating active archaeological site, Gonur Depe. This 4,000 year-old Zoroastrian capital is mysteriously located in the heart of the Karakum desert and is Central Asia's sole entirely excavated city site, allowing the visitor to stroll through the countless alleyways, fire temples and shrines.

Day 1
Off-road drive to Damla via Erbent Oasis

Yurt construction in Flat roof village From Ashgabat we start our expedition on asphalt road leading north towards Kunya-Urgench. After a 3-hour drive we reach our first big dunes at Erbent Oasis. At the oasis we lunch at a Chaykhana Teahouse before departing on our off-road adventure.
On this first day we will cover 120 km of off-road tracks, passing the flat roof settlements of Kyzyl Takhir and Kurkutli (of some significance during WW2 due to Sulphur production) as well as the Uzboy riverbed. This former riverbed of the Amudarya River divides the different tectonic plates of the northern and southern Karakum and resembles an endless salt-lake collecting a bit of runoff in spring. The vegetation north to the Uzboy is somewhat better off with stony, reddish sand and more fertile grazing grounds, while south of the Uzboy is rich in sizzling sand covered with saksaul and dunes.
With its harsh climate, fine sand and spirited history of the fiercest slave-hunters in Turkestan, the Turkoman warriors, the Karakum ('Black' Desert in the sense of 'Bad' desert!) is considered the most unforgiving desert in Central Asia. Our track for the next 3 days is arduous, only feasible at about 20-30 km/h and only during the morning and evening hours. After crossing the Uzboy we continue onwards to the settlement of Damla where we set up camp amidst the nomadic yurts of the villagers.

Day 2
Off-road drive to Akmolla

After a hearty breakfast, we take some time to explore the Damla. The people in these oases are unique in their hospitable culture, traditions and dress. We will have every opportunity to take part in felting, yurt set-up, observing the preparation of traditional meals as well as expanding your musical talents by learning to play the dutar. Most buildings in the Central Karakum settlements are flat roof and in summer yurts are pitched in front of every house. We continue our off-road drive in the late afternoon on a sweltering plateau cut to pieces by the advancing dunes, only meeting scattered shepherd families at the salt-water wells once every 50 km. After a 4-hour drive we reach the settlements of Akmolla and Murzechirla. In the cooler evening hours we will set up camp and make more new friends with the Yomud tribe.

Day 3
Off-road drive to Tugay Forests

In the morning the more ambitious of us can go for a camel ride towards the banks of the Uzboy - providing that the herds are close-by in order fetch a couple of the riding-camels for the trek. We'll spend the morning joining the locals in their every-day routine- milking the camels, beating and combing the wool and giving water to the animals using unusual "band pumps". The villages are also home to the beautiful Tazy- a very elegant and fast, pure Turkmen hunting dog, as well as the muscular Alabay, used as guard dogs all over Turkmenistan. After a siesta, we continue our drive south in the direction of the Mary Oasis. Our aim on this day is to reach the Tugay savannah of the Mary canals. This variety of vegetation is one of the most distinctive features of the Central Asian countryside and used to stretch the entire way along the Amudarya River. It remains home to many rare species of animals and the endangered Bukharan Deer. Even today the protected leftovers of these savannahs at the Amudarya riverside are decreasing due to over-grazing and flooding in recent years. At Tugay, along the reservoirs and canals of the Mary cotton fields that reach far north into the desert are newly-formed and, because of their difficult accessibility, have incredible wildlife such as wild boars and gazelles. While camping in the Tugay, with some luck, we will have a chance to see some of the wildlife in the evening and early morning hours.

Day 4
Off-road drive to Mary Oasis

Teke Girls KarakumAfter spending the morning wildlife watching, discovering the area, the noon hours will be enjoyed in the shady oasis of the Tugay. From here we continue along the canal south towards the Mary Oasis reaching the Oasis by the evening settling in at the Bairamaly Sanatorium where we will enjoy the simple facilities of this Russian "rest house" washing off the accumulated dust of our 4-day off-road drive. We will unwind with cold drinks, listening to the sounds of the Karakum.

Day 5
Merv & Gonur Depe

In the morning we will have the unforgettable opportunity of visiting the ancient city of Merv. With the magnificent Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar and the Gyz-Gala fortress, two of Islamic Architecture's grandest monuments, Merv is by far Turkmenistan's most recognised heritage site. It impresses with its vast size of over 2,000 ha and comprises of 5 different city-sites from 3 millenniums. With its numerous monuments and shrines from the Muslim period remaining, Merv offers the visitor a glimpse far back in time. The site has recently been included on the UN list of World Heritage monuments. After a short catnap we get back to our vehicle and continue to Gonur Depe, the main site of Zoroastrian Margush or Margiana. Located some 60 km north of Merv, it is the centre of a great 4000-year old fire-worshipping civilisation. Perhaps older than Mesopotamia and known only to a few experts, Margush is famous for it's rare seals and unusual burial practices. The capital temple-city of Togolok is the sole entirely excavated site of this size in Central Asia and the visitor can stroll through its ancient alleyways and shrines littered with shards. We will camp and dine with the international team of archaeologists enjoying the wide-open spaces and the same spectacular stars enjoyed by civilizations thousands of years ago.

Day 6
Gonur Depe, return to Mary

In the morning we will take some time to investigate the Necropolis with burials from various time periods, significant for its style of burial sites that have not been discovered anywhere else in the world. We will also explore the capital-settlement of this unique site before returning to Mary itself staying in a hotel for our final evening on the trip.

Day 7
Road drive to Ashgabat

Band Well in DamlaWe return to Ashgabat by way of a 350 km drive along the asphalt road crossing Tedjen and the Kaakhka region. The latter is located at the foothills of the Eastern Kopetdag mountain range and is loaded with ancient monuments. En route we will rest at the Meane Baba Mausoleum, a monument to the 11th century Sufi teacher of the same name. Distinctive for its remarkable tile-work on the outer walls and the simplistic beauty of its interior, it serves as an important shrine to worshippers and Sufis who come here to pray. We will picnic with the pilgrims for lunch and then continue on via the 18th century fortress of Persian ruler Nedir Shakh. As one of the best remaining fortress ruins in Turkmenistan, Nedir Shakh is astonishing with its precision and magnificent setting. We reach Ashgabat in the late afternoon with the rest of the day left to rest, sit by the pool or explore the city on your own.
© 2001-2010 STANtours December 17, 2001