The main road from Turkmenbashy to Ashgabat heads around the northern edge of the Turkmenbashy Gulf before commencing its long, arid, southeastwards journey. After 130km, at the village of Jebel, a turning to the southwest leads to the oil-industry town of Hazar.
Six kilometres past Jebel along the Hazar road, a turning to the south takes you to the salt lakes of Mollagara, 4km on. These are narrow lakes occupying the meandering bed of the former Uzboy River, which once acted as a spillway, taking Amu Darya waters accumulated in Sarygamysh Lake more than 500km to the Caspian. The most inviting of the salt lakes here has become a popular swimming spot. Only 24km from Balkanabat, it makes an easy trip out from that town by private car or taxi. There are also occasional buses.
There is a 1,000 manat entrance fee to get to the lakeside. Facilities include a shower block: vital for removing the salt in which you will be caked after a dip. It is possible to sleep overnight here, on one of four tapchans under a corrugated roof. The latter may help to keep off any rain, but will do nothing to protect you against mosquito attack. The overnight charge seems to be only 1,500 manat.
The lake is murky but great fun. In this salty water it is easy to float; much less straightforward to do anything else, as limbs are constantly propelled surface-wards. Groups of Turkmen women chat while lying in the water, still wearing their long dresses. Men cake themselves with lakeside mud, which is considered to have great therapeutic qualities. Families picnic on the banks of the lake. On summer weekends this is an altogether busy and festive place.
Three kilometres back to the north, the Mollagara Sanatorium lies just off of the road, on a patch of upland overlooking the Uzboy Valley below. Treatment here is focused on the medicinal qualities of the local mud and salt water. There is also a new complex, built in 1998, for the treatment of spinal damage. The sanatorium is geared more to 20-day treatment programmes than short-stay visitors. Its grounds are full of odd pieces of sculpture, such as a concrete pavilion resembling a piece of Turkmen female headgear, or possibly half an egg, and topped by an eagle. A plaque records that the pavilion was built in 1979 to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Bulgaria.