One of the most picturesque districts of Turkmenistan, the Sumbar Valley runs on an east-west axis close to the border with Iran, taking the waters of the River Sumbar westwards to join the Etrek, and thence to the Caspian. The Kopet Dag Mountains help to protect the Sumbar Valley from the worst of the cold air from the north in the winter, and from the dessicating air from the Kara Kum Desert in summer. The floor of this mountain valley is covered with orchards, and the area is renowned within Turkmenistan for its fruit production, especially of pomegranates.
The Sumbar Valley is reached by turning south off the main Turkmenbashy to Ashgabat road at Serdar. The main town in the valley, Magtymguly, is 75km from the turning. The valley lies in a restricted border zone, for which special permission (request 'Magtymguly') is required. The checkpoint lies 11km to the west of Magtymguly town. Between checkpoint and town is a fascinating 'lunar' landscape of bare, rounded hillocks, corrugated with little dry rivulets.
Named Garrygala until 2004, President Niyazov proposed that the local district and its main town be renamed Magtymguly to honour the 18th-century Turkmen poet who was a native of this area. The small town is full of monuments to and other reminders of the district's famous son, from a statue near the district mayor's office to the name of the main street.
The plant research station is the southernmost of a network established across the Soviet Union by the St Petersburg-based plant research institute known as VIR, which was run by the celebrated plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov came to a sad end during the Stalinist era, when his theories were briefly discredited in favour of those of Stalinist favourite Trofim Lysenco, and he died in Saratov Prison in 1943. But he was rehabilitated in the later Soviet period, and the St Petersburg institute came to bear his name. Its Garrygala station started out life in 1925, for the experimental trialling of a rubber-bearing plant, brought back by Vavilov from one of his plant-gathering expeditions to Mexico. The climate of Garrygala offered one of the closest approximations to that of Mexico found across the Soviet Union. Interest in rubber-bearing plants declined when the Soviet Union started to focus on the production of synthetic rubber, and the Garrygala station changed its attention to other plants, and to the natural flora of the western Kopet Dag.
The station today is attempting to preserve its important collection of subtropical fruit trees, and the gardens surrounding its buildings remain luxuriant. But there is little scientific work being done, and the place, which now falls under the purview of the Turkmen Ministry of Agriculture, seems to be mainly focused on selling saplings, and fruit jam.
Syunt-Hasardag Nature Reserve
Just west of town is the head office of the Syunt-Hasardag Nature Reserve, set up in 1978 to protect the threatened landscapes of the western Kopet Dag. Among the rare flora of this area is the Turkmen mandrake, discovered in 1938 by the research station's scientists on the southern slopes of the hills. The reserve is also home to a few leopard, the subject of a conservation programme organised by the WWF. This features an imaginative scheme to compensate farmers for livestock killed by the leopards, to dissuade the farmers from trying to hunt these rare animals. Entry to the reserve requires the permission of the Ministry of Nature Protection.