Etrek & Esenguly
The Etrek River, which flows westwards into the Caspian, marks for a long stretch Turkmenistan's southern border with Iran. The two district capitals of Etrek and Esenguly lie in restricted border zones of little touristic interest, and the only real reason to come this way is to cross into Iran via the Gudurolum checkpoint, which lies just over 20km southwest of Etrek.
The 19th-century Hungarian traveller Arminius Vambery wrote that a Persian curse ran 'may you be driven to Etrek!' Today the place once associated in Persian minds with slavery at the hands of the local Turkmen tribes has a more peaceful existence, its dry subtropical climate helping it to serve as the centre of Turkmenistan's olive industry. Many of the houses here, and across the districts of Etrek and Esenguly, are built in a distinctive style, their walls of irregular flat stones cemented together like crazy paving. Some houses have one signature stone, cut to a careful design, such as a heart. On a few older buildings this stone is a five-pointed red star.
The town of Esenguly, near the Caspian coast, is one of several littoral settlements noted for its wooden houses standing on brick pillars, these 'stilts' offering protection from marine inundation. A carpet factory sits just off the main square. The latter is covered, not with gravel but with myriad tiny shells.