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Repetek Nature Reserve

The main road to Mary runs southwestwards from Turkmenabat, across the desert. The only specific attraction along the Lebap segment of this road is the Repetek Nature Reserve and desert research institute, 70km from Turkmenabat. The origins of scientific research here date back to tsarist times and efforts to mitigate the damage wrought by the march of the barchan sand dunes across the tracks of the Transcaspian Railway. The Repetek State Reserve, Turkmenistan's oldest, was established in 1927. UNESCO awarded it the status of an International Biosphere Reserve in 1979.

Saxaul forest in RepetekThe most important habitat in the Repetek Reserve is that offered by the groves of black and white saxauls; stumpy trees, whose twisted branches bear green stems rather than leaves, all the better for water conservation. The roots of the black saxaul probe deep in their search for groundwater: hence the interest of these trees to the tsarist engineers worried about sand on their railway line. In some areas, the excessive cutting-down of saxauls is a problem - its wood is considered by Turkmens as the best with which to fire up a tamdyr or to barbecue kebabs. In spring, these habitats are given a colourful carpet of poppies and other flowers, making this a wonderful time to drive through the area. There are some particularly large and venerable saxauls around the research institute buildings, with nicknames like 'Old Man' and 'Big Knight'.

The reserve headquarters offer faded reminders of the proud research past of this place. Black-and-white photographs on the walls portray Soviet scientists in straw hats and shirtsleeves. There are a couple of photographs of the British naturalist Gerald Durrell visiting Repetek in 1985. The bathroom built to make his wife's visit a little more pleasant is still standing but, like many of the former accommodation and scientific blocks, is in a stage of deep decay. There is a small museum on the site, whose exhibits consist mostly of stuffed animals and pickled reptiles. The reserve rangers delight in describing to you the quantities of poison packed by each of the latter. On reaching a display of the beetles found in the reserve, a ranger recalled that one Soviet-era experiment had involved sending a collection of beetles from around the world into space. 'Only the Repetek beetle returned alive'. The museum also contains a small collection of pottery, a reminder that Repetck, then known as Al-Akhsa, was once a staging point on the Silk Road route across the desert to Amul.

With the approval of the Ministry of Nature Protection, it is possible to stay overnight at Repetek for a few dollars, in one of the very basic guest rooms. This is an atmospheric place, though not a comfortable one at the height of summer.