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Hojakarawul and the Karlyuk Caves

The headquarters of the Kugitang Nature Reserve lie south of Hojapil. Follow the road along the Kugitang River valley, through the village of Koyten and the old lead-mining settlement of Svintsovy Rudmk to the hamlet of Hojakarawul. There is a small and eminently missable museum here, which features a stuffed markhor, a gypsum model of a dinosaur footprint, glass cases offering displays of minerals and fossils and a mock-up of a cave, replete with stalactites and stalagmites. The latter exhibit reflects one of the other great attractions of Kugitang; beneath the limestone hills lie one of the most extensive networks of caves in Central Asia. There are references in ancient Greek texts to caves in these mountains, but the complex was not properly explored until the second half of the 20th century. Given the name Karlyuk, after the closest settlement, an underground network of some 50km of caves has been mapped. Among the more unusual treasures of this subterranean world is the presence in underground lakes of a rare species of sightless fish, the blind cave loach, which is the only fish endemic to Turkmenistan.

The considerable potential of this area for speleological tourism has not yet properly been tapped, but it is possible for the non-specialist visitor to see something of the Karlyuk Caves in the company of experienced guides from the nature reserve. The entrance to the Kapkytan Cave, in the hills to the northeast of Karlyuk, is sealed by a large metal door. This opens to a horizontal shaft, 300m long, cut in Soviet times for the commercial extraction of onyx. At the end of the shaft, the cave network proper: a Kainar Babaseries of passages, huge galleries and cosier caves. There are stalactites and stalagmites, forming sculptures which, in the universal tradition of cave tourism, are given names reflecting their supposed resemblance to characters of mythology, legend and the animal kingdom. Guides will point out Medusa, with her flowing hair, a chamber containing Father Christmas and the Snow Maiden and, with a snigger, various formations suggesting a passing resemblance to human reproductive organs. The Gulshirin Cave, a few kilometres to the north of here, is another to which local guides will sometimes take visitors.

East of Karlyuk, on the southern edge of the Kugitang range, a hydrogen-sulphide-rich spring known as Kainar Baba is a popular local bathing place.