A boring landscape? In actual fact Turkmenistan holds some of the most fascinating diversity of landscapes, from moving sand dunes and limestone cliffs, to lush river valleys and mountains created in the Jurassic period, as well as volcanoes, waterfalls, lakes and of course the Caspian Sea. Moreover, it has several nature reserves that are home to some unique threatened species of flora and fauna. Below you will find a description of some of the best known nature reserves, their protected flora and fauna species and other specifics. We have selected those reserves the immediately bordering areas of which are accessible to visitors (all nature reserves in Turkmenistan are protected areas, and not accessible for visitors, other than scientists with approval from the Ministry of Nature Protection).
Kugitang Nature Reserve is located in the south-western slopes of the Koytendag mountains (the Kugitang range), at the south-western extreme of the Gissar range of the Pamir-Alay mountain system. Generally, it lies at elevations of 900-3139m above sea level, which it reaches at Ayrybaba (the highest peak of Turkmenistan). There are a substantial number of water bodies: karst lakes, freshwater springs and hydrogen sulphate wells. Koytendag is famous for its unique caves and other geological features (marble onyx), as well as its archa forest and species of rare plants and animals such as the blind cave loach which inhabits underground lakes in the karstic caves. Kugitang is also famous for its representing the main periods of Earth development, including the illustration of ancient life, significant geological processes in Earth surface forms development, essential geomorphological and physical-geographical particularities of relief. The site is composed of rocks of the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cainozoic Eras rich with ancient fossils of Molluscs, Brachiopods, and dinosaurs – including a dinosaur footprint trail. At the base of the Koytendag Mountains there are igneous rocks, testament to ancient volcanism, as well as tectonic faults and canyons. The unique geological formations of Koytendag cave complex have no equal in Eurasia for the diversity of geological processes that formed them, as well as for the beauty of their geological phenomena.
The Repetek Nature Reserve was founded in 1927 and occupies a territory of more than 35 000 hectares to study unique desert fauna and flora. It is located in the central part of the eastern Karakum. The unique natural ecosystem of Repetek attracted the attention of many scientists and a number of scientific conferences and seminars were held here. The importance of Repetek was recognized by UNESCO and in 1979 Repetek obtained the status of an International Biosphere Reserve. Repetek is a place where we can observe practically all forms of the Karakum’s sandy landscape, which are dune-like, ridge-like, hilly and other possible variations, as well as striking the attention ‘Repetek Sahara’ and groves of white and black saxaul (haloxylon) – a forest without a shade. We call saxaul a tree without leaves. It has leaves, but they are very thin. It helps the saxaul tree to withstand the extremeness of temperature and harsh climate. Repetek is blessed with more than 240 sunny days a year and the temperature of the sandy surface is often 80 degrees Celsius. Turkmen consider saxaul tree the best to make a fire in a tandyr, where they bake the traditional round bread ‘churek’. Other interesting trees in the Repetek are silver acacia, weeping willow. The Repetek Nature Reserve is home to an amazingly diverse array of fauna. There are 300 different species of beetles, 160 species of butterflies, spiders. The venom of the Karakurt spider is 8-9 times stronger than that of cobra and its bite is much more dangerous than scorpion, phalanx and tarantula. The ornithology-fauna consists of more than 160 species of birds and among them are saxaul jay, a golden eagle, owl, falcon, buzzard, kestrel etc. Only in Repetek you can observe four different species of sparrow. Repetek is a kingdom of reptiles. There are 30 species of lizards, 9 species of snakes and tortoises. Among mammals are foxes, gazelles, steppe and dune cats, porcupines, jerboas, ground squirrel, jackals.
Syunt Hazardag Nature Reserve
The landscape and environmental conditions of the Syunt Hazardag Nature Reserve are typical of the south-western part of the Kopetdag Mountains, which form the north-western edge of the Turkmen-Khorasan mountain system. The Sumbar river (the right-hand branch of the Etrek river) divides the site into northern and southern parts. The right bank is 300-1,900 m in altitude, consisting of wide ridges and canyon-like gorges. In its upper reaches the river valley is narrow with gallery floodplain forests and in some areas there are scattered orchards and small vegetable gardens. The upper river terraces are arid steppe. The climate is arid and subtropical with long, dry summers with temperatures of 35-45°C. Precipitation mainly occurs from November to April, but heavy showers occur occasionally in summer. This area is known as one of the world centers of wild relatives of cultivated plants – subtropical horticulture crops. Wild progenitors of the woody species pomegranate, fig, apple, walnut, pistachio, pear, dog rose, almonds and cherry are widely distributed here. The flora is also rich in wild relatives of cultivated forms of wheat, barley, rye, oats and other important cereals and legumes. All of them are very important as the historic gene pool for crops. This region was identified by Prof. Nikolai Vavilov as one of the seven “Centers of Origin” of cultivated plants (I – South Asian tropical; II- East Asian; III – South West-Asian; IV – Mediterranean; V – Abyssinia; VI – Central American and VII – Indian, or South American). Central Asia is the motherland for soft wheat, bean, pea, fee, hemp, turnip, carrot, garlic, pear, apricot, apple, fig, and others and is important for the in-situ conservation of these species. Their presence, along with other wild crop relatives makes this reserve one of the world’s natural nurseries of horticulture crops. The nature reserve holds globally and near threatened mammals such as the Persian Leopard, Turkestan Lynx, Striped Hyena, Turkmen Wild Goat, Afghan Urial (steppe sheep), Central Asian Otter and Masked Mouse-tailed Dormouse.
Kaplankyr State Nature Reserve
The Kaplankyr Nature Reserve is located on the Kaplankyr Plateau, bordering the Ustyurt Plateau, in the northwestern part of Dashoguz Velayat. It covers some 2822 km² in total. It was established in 1979 for the protection and resurrection of indigenous flora and fauna in this region. The Reserve counts approximately 210 warm days per year, and less than 100 mm rainfall.
26 species of mammals, 147 species of birds, and 918 species of higher plants have been recorded in the Kaplankyr reserve. Protected rare species of animals found in the reserve include the Central Asian gazelle, the Ustyurt mountain sheep, as well as substantial populations of saiga antelopes that migrate here from Karakalpakstan in the winter. Plants include the Khiva thistle, Turkmen tulip, Antonia’s gypsophila, Karelin sand acacia, and 55 other endemic species.
The reserve also incorporates two sanctuaries. The Sarykamysh Sanctuary, which was established in 1980 as a lake-coastal ecosystem for the protection of the beaches of the Sarykamysh Lake, flying-swimming birds, and as lambing place for gazelles. And the Shasenem Sanctuary which was established in 1984 for stony desert preservation and for the breeding and settling of Kulans (brought over here from Badhyz Nature reserve in the 1980s).
Hazar Nature Reserve
The reserve consists of areas on the south-east coast of the Caspian Sea and covers Turkmenbashi, Balkhan, North Cheleken and Mikhailov bays, which range from relatively deep to shallow. They are bordered by sandy and shelly spits and there are several islands, which are overgrown with halophytes and have coastal marshes. The largest of them is Dagada, which is 120 ha in area.
Five dominant aquatic plant species at the site – eelgrass, tassel-weed, pondweeds and Arabis – occur on the sandy soils and at depths to 4-5 m. There is a high diversity of algae (macrophytes) in the bays consisting of green algae (28 species), red algae (11 species) and kelp or brown algae (one species), which accumulate along the coast and at depths to 6m. Hundreds of species of microscopic algae can be found in the plankton and benthos.
The Hazar State Nature Reserve was previously (1968-1994) known as Krasnovodskiy State Nature Reserve. In 1994 a large island in the Caspian Sea – Ogurchinskiy Sanctuary was included in the Reserve. The total area of the Hazar State Nature Reserve is 268 037 ha.
The condition of the site as a wetland and the dynamics of bird numbers depend on processes linked to changes in the level of the Caspian Sea. Over the last 10-15 years the area of the wetland has increased significantly.
The global value of the reserve lies in the fact that its coastal waters and shores are a feeding and staging point during migration, and an over-wintering site for millions of waterfowl and water birds from a whole number of countries from Eurasia and Africa. The Central-Asian and Eastern-African migratory ways merge in the Turkmen part of the Caspian Sea, as a result of which the Reserve has a rich number of migratory and wintering birds.
The site qualifies as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is located on one of the most important migratory flyways for water birds breeding in western Siberia, Kazakhstan and other regions of Central Asia, and provides a valuable stopover and wintering site.
In the 20th Century it was estimated that about 5 000 000-8 000 000 water birds passed along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea on migration, and up to 800 000 birds wintered in the site. Between 1971 and 2005, the numbers of waterfowl (geese, swans, ducks and Common Coot) were recorded at the site. The dominant species are Common Coot (as many as 48 000), Common Teal (up to 27 000), Mallard (up to 21 000), Red-crested Pochard (up to 50 000), Common Pochard (up to 33 000), Tufted Duck (up to 20 000) and in some years, also Mute Swan and Whooper Swan. More than 25 000 Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) can occur on migration and in winter. A total of 296 species has been recorded, including 138 water bird species.
Several endemic and rare (listed in the IUCN Red List, see threat status in brackets) species occur in the site including the Caspian seal and several sturgeons.
The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth by area, variously classed as the world’s largest lake or a full-fledged sea. Like the Black Sea, it is a remnant of the ancient Parathetys Sea. It became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago due to a tectonic uplift and a fall in sea levels. Over 130 rivers provide inflow to the Caspian, with the Volga and Ural Rivers being the largest. It has a salinity of approximately 1.2 %, about one third of most seawater. The only outflow of water is through condensation. The water level is currently measured to be 28 meters below sea level. Several salt marshes can be found along the coastline, such as the Karabogaz Gulf and lakes such as at Mollagara in Turkmenistan. Numerous kinds of sturgeons (for caviar), trout, white fish and the Caspian seal call the Caspian home.
To experience the natural beauty of some of the regions mentioned here, you will need to use four-wheel drive transport, be prepared to eat basic meals, stay in tents or basic housing conditions, and spend considerable time traveling on arduous dirt roads and mountain tracks. Furthermore, permits to access the reserves will have to be requested months in advance, and are not always granted.
Its area is nearly 350.000 sq. km, which is about 79 per cent of Turkmenistan’s territory. The desert is bordered in the north-west by the Ustyurt plateau, on the north- east by the Amu-Darya, on the south by the Murghab River oasis and on the west it nearly reaches the Caspian Sea. The Karakum desert is divided into three parts: Low (Central), Zunguz (Northern) and Southeast. The desert is rich not only in oil and gas but other mineral resources as well. A wide range of grey mounts dominate the landscape along the boundaries of the Zunguz Karakum. Those mounts hold deposits of sulphur. From the outside they are covered with a flint crust.
The landscape of the Karakum is very interesting. Only part of its territory is covered with sand. In the east there are ‘barkhans’ – mounts of loose sand of 15 to 35 m high. There are flat areas of broad expanses (takyrs) of clay soil. In contrast to sands ‘takyrs’ can keep moisture created by rains on a level of 25-30 m deep. However, in May moister reserves in the takyrs finish. So, ‘takyrs’ are called lifeless. Nothing is growing on it. The sand can keep winter moister and spring rains on the level of one meter deep. Desert acacia and poplar, white and black saksaul are growing in such areas. There are also ‘shors’, similar to above but encrusted with salt and relieved by solanaceae along their borders. A typical feature of the Karakum is a number of “old beds”, which may have been either channels of tributaries of the Oxus and other rivers, or depressions which contained salt lakes. Shifting dunes offer a continually changing desert landscape.
Spring in the Karakum Desert is fantastic – it doesn’t look like a desert at this time of a year. For more than two weeks it is covered with green, pink, yellow and red ‘carpets’ of different flowers – bright red poppies, gipecuum, sandy sedge, the bushes of astragalus and kandym.
This desert was recorded in many ancient chronicles, Two thousand years ago Herodotus wrote about it. Desert life was quite different in those times. But some things didn’t change: up to today the desert is still the grazing ground for herds of sheep, goats and camels, and generously provides people with karakul pelts, wool, meat and camel’s milk.
If you are interested in such an authentic and rewarding experience, Rysgally Yupek Yol can suggest several 4-wheel drive tour extensions to your original program. We have listed some of them in the Highlights section of this website. Contact us directly for more options.