Trans Eurasia travel

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Swimming experience

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy [Jonathan Maslow]

... About ninety kilometers out of Ashkhabad, the road took a bend through the rocky foothills of the Kopet-Dag. We left the car in a parking area at the foot of a five-thousand-foot escarpment, which veered dizzily up at a 55 degree or 60 degree angle from the flat edge of the desert. The towering hills were mantled in bright spring green, not to be confused with watered lawns or rain-soaked greenswards. Boulders protruded boldly in the afternoon sun. If ever there was a more natural boundary between two cultures than this one between Turkmenistan and Iran, it must be the infinite spaces between other inhabited planets. Yet what appeared topographically as a dramatic divorce on the surface turned out to be a mysterious geologic liaison under the earth.

"You would like to swim?" asked Sasha.

"Very much so. Where?"

"You will sec."

The Bulgarian nodded knowingly. We entered the large mouth of a cave. Just outside someone was selling entry tickets, but we went right in. Inside we descended flight after flight of steep concrete steps, down and down into the dank, warm bowels of the Earth. Immense, garish lights glared down from high wooden stanchions. The stairs went on for what seemed like miles. Day and night vaporized. At the bottom, however, several thousand feet below the surface of the Earth, was not hell, as one might have expected, but a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch: fifty Soviets in bathing suits desporting themselves in a huge underground pool of slightly steamy water. This ballroom was lit up like a prison yard by a single stationary searchlight.

I took off my clothes, put a safety pin over the fly of my boxer shorts for decorum's sake, and dove in. The water was too warm to be really refreshing, but it felt cleansing, and thankfully tasted more like minerals than bat guano. It was hard to distinguish the color, but it wasn't clear. I swam to the far end of the pool, where the underground lake ebbed into a narrower but level passage of the cave, and turned around to admire the vastness of the place. The bulbous white figures of the bathers, backlit by the scary yellow light, showed that most of them were probably Russians. They seemed pale and flabby to American eyes.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the lighting, I started looking for bats on the ceiling or gallery, which actually started at water level on all sides of the oblong pool and ran up to about fifty feet at the highest point. All schist. Just then I recognized Guvanch Djumaev's round brown torso and thin, sharp nose. He was bathing near some rocks at the edge with Alexei and some others. Alexei looked uncomfortable as a swimming spelunker, but Guvanch resembled a happy porpoise. I swam over, and we paddled together toward the dark outer edge of the pool. What a strange and unexpected pleasure, I told him, to swim in an underground lake, buried inside a mountain.

"The cave is called in Turkmen 'Kou-Ata,' " Guvanch said. "It means 'the father of caves.' The sulphur-lime water is thought to have healing powers. If you follow the lake all the way down the passageway, it will come out in Iran, three kilometers away."

Having grown up near the ocean, I am a good swimmer, so 1 decided to swim to Iran. I wanted to see if there was a barbed wire fence across the border line. But as I swam out of the searchlight, I discovered I couldn't follow the twists and turns in the dark. What il the border wasn't marked at all? Why would it be, a thousand feet underground? What if I got lost? What would I do if I came out in Iran in my boxer shorts? Having swum out to the point where resolution gave way to prudence, I turned back. Still, returning toward the light I could see the roof of the gallery better. There were bats aplenty on the ledges, all hanging upside down and twittering softly among themselves. Also, I now saw, swallows building nests. Later I learned the cave had once supported the largest bat colony in the USSR, but that must have been before they built the concrete steps and turned the father of caves into the natatorium from hell.