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Ahal Region: around Ashgabat

Serdar Health Path This is a concrete stepped path which snakes across the northernmost line of hills of the Kopet Dag, immediately to the south of Ashgabat. To get here, take the broad Archabil Shayoly from Berzengi. The health path meets the road where the hills begin. There is a car park.

The Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Eternally Great Park was opened here at the base of the health path in May 2005, and quickly became a favoured place for summer evening strolling for Ashgabat residents opting against the steep slopes of the health path. The park boasts manicured lawns, open-sided pavilions, vast cohorts of street lights and, on selected evenings, an illuminated artificial waterfall. In front of the arched entrance to the park, a stone ball rotates continuously atop a fountain. At the back of this park is a markedly less well-tended park dedicated to Turkmen-Turkish friendship, featuring 12,000 trees brought from Turkey.

The most heavily used part of the health path stretches westwards from here for 8km, ending close to the site of Old Nisa. The path is lined by metal balustrades and frequent lamps, providing a meandering line of light which can be clearly seen at night from planes flying into Ashgabat Airport. At roughly 1km intervals, small golden-domed pavilions provide a place to rest. The health path does not provide the pleasantest of walks - the initial stretch is a steep climb along a concrete stairway to reach the ridge of the hills. But the views from the top are good, down towards Ashgabat beyond large areas newly planted with straight rows of conifers: all part of President Niyazov's scheme to create a green belt around Ashgabat.

The small complex of white marble-faced buildings between the path and Berzengi is the Palace of Orphans, a gift to Turkmenistan from the United Arab Emirates. The palace consists of massive futuristic marble buildings, sporting facilities and its own mosque. The children in this village are educated to be government officials.

The highest point on the health path is marked by a large Turkmen flag. A helipad just beneath this was used by President Niyazov at the opening ceremony. The president flew to the top to greet his ministers and officials, who had made the journey the hard way. There is a much longer stretch of path heading eastwards from Archabil Shayoly, but this is less widely used, and is in a poor state of repair.

Turkmen television frequently extols the health-giving benefits of regular walks along the path. Niyazov held a Cabinet meeting there in March 2003, when he chided his ministers for taking the 8km stretch too slowly. They should be able to do the walk in 90 minutes, he said. It would set them up for a good day at the office.

Nissa & Around - Founded as the capital of the Parthians in the 3rd century BC, in its prime Nissa (admission incl guide 22.80M; 8am-sunset) was reinforced with 43 towers that sheltered the royal palace and a couple of temples. It was surrounded by a thriving commercial city. One ruling dynasty replaced another until the 13th century when he Mongols arrived, laid siege to the city and after 15 days razed it to the ground.

The ridges surrounding the plateau were the fortress walls; the steep, modern approach road follows the route of the original entrance. In the northern part of the city are the remains of a large house built around a courtyard, with wine cellars in nearby buildings. The main complex on the western side includes a large circular chamber thought to have been a Zoroastrian temple. Adjoining it is the partly rebuilt ‘tower’ building. On the far side of the western wall are the ruins of a medieval town, today the village of Bagyr.

Ahal Region - Centred on Ashgabat, which is, however, a separately administered capital territory, Ahal Region is geographically, politically and  historically Turkmenistan's heartland. The region, and the Ahal branch of the locally dominant Tekke tribe, are the source of some of the best-known symbols of Turkmenistan, from the Ahal Tekke horse to the Tekke carpet design.

The piedmont lands between the Kara Kum Desert to the north and the Kopet Dag Mountains to the south were an important locus of early agricultural development, at sites such as Jeitun and Anau. This strip of land, the Ahal Oasis, later marked one of the main routes of the Silk Road. It was in this region, through the capture of the Turkmen stronghold of Geok Depe in 1881, that the Russians were able to consolidate their control over Central Asia. In the Soviet period, the construction of the Kara Kum Canal across the region brought a new phase of agricultural development, focused on cotton. President Niyazov's childhood home lay in this region, in the village of Gypjak, close to Ashgbat.

Ahal Region offers a wealth of interesting archaeological sights. Many of these, such as the Parthian site of Old Nisa, are easy day trips from Ashgabat. There are some superb places of natural beauty too. Some, such as the underground lake at Kow Ata, are straightforward excursions from Ashgabat. Others, such as the valleys and waterfalls around Nohur, require more planning. Close to the northern border of the region, in the depths of the Kara Kum Desert, a burning gas crater close to the settlement of Darvaza is a dramatic symbol of the results of man's interference with nature.