The westernmost region of Turkmenistan has a feel quite unlike the rest of the country. The reach of the Kara Kum Canal extends only to a small area in the eastern part of Balkan Region, which largely lacks the irrigated cotton and wheat fields typical of rural Turkmenistan further east. Camels amble across arid dunesc derricks and 'nodding donkeys' testify to the role of the heart of Turkmenistan's oil industry. The main port, Turkmenbashy, was the point of departure for the tsarist Russian conquest of Transcaspia, and the town still houses a substantial ethnic Russian minority. The major Turkmen tribe of this region, the Yomud, is associated with a distinctive carpet design, displaying an anchor motif appropriate for a littoral tribe, and an energetic dance step involving much flailing of arms and deep chanting.
There is much of tourist interest in Balkan Region. The waters of the Caspian offer an obvious lure in the heat of the Turkmen summer, and Turkmenbashy, together with the adjacent village of Awaza, is being developed as a domestic tourist destination. Inland, worthwhile attractions include the remote ruins of the Silk Road site of Dekhistan, the orchards of the Sumbar Valley, the shrine pilgrimage site of Parau Bibi and the magnificent polychrome canyon of Yangykala. The region is the birthplace of Magtumguly, Turkmenistan's greatest poet, and the final resting place of the 26 Baku Commissars, icons of the Soviet era.
Generally the region is characterised by a vast, featureless landscape that is wonderfully Central Asian. This region of haunting moonscapes, ruined cities and minority tribes such as the mountain-dwelling Nokhurians is often raced through on the way between Ashgabat and the boat to Azerbaijan, though for those with time and inclination, it’s possible to see some of the country’s best natural phenomena including the Kopet Dag mountains, the Yangykala Canyon, and the ruins of Dekhistan.