Trans Eurasia travel

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High in the Kopet Dag Mountains, the village of Nohur and the neighbouring settlements occupying the terraced sides of the upland valleys are quite unlike other parts of Turkmenistan. Wedged into the mountains just a few kilometres from Iran, this village offers a unique opportunity to hike in the hills and soak up some rural life. Nokhur was once a byword among Soviet Turkmen for everything rural and backwards. Thanks to their isolation, Nokhuris have retained unique traditions and a particular dialect of Turkmen. They claim ancestry from Alexander the Great’s army and prefer to marry among themselves rather than introduce new genes to the tribe.

The local Nohurli tribe retains conservative traditions protected by the remoteness of its settlements, and has a reputation for religious piety, hard work, and in-breeding. Claiming descent from the army of Alexander the Great, Nohurlis will show you a stone in the village said to bear a footprint of Alexander's horse. The porches of Nohur houses are indeed supported by wooden columns which recall the Ionic style. But the inspiration here perhaps draws less from Hellenism than from the horns of the local sheep. Combining fascinating villages, beautiful scenery, and excellent opportunities for guided trekking, Nohur repays a visit of several days.

Nohur is reached by a road heading south into the mountains from the village of Archman. A 4x4 is required, though the route can become all but impassable after heavy rains. Since 2004, visits to the Nohur area have required a special border zone permit, to be applied for when you request your letter of invitation for Turkmenistan. The border checkpoint lies 12km south of Archman. Nohur itself is another 10km further on, and up, at an altitude of around 1,000m.

There is one tourist complex in this area. The Chandybil Tourist Centre lies at 1,450m, midway between Nohur and the next village of Garawul, though off of the main track between the two villages. It offers 12 rooms, sleeping either two or four people in small cottages, with en-suite shower rooms and central heating. There are also five yurts, named after each of the regions of Turkmenistan. There are good opportunities for camping, and travel agencies may also be able to arrange a homestay in one of the villages in the area.

What to see - There are two sights in this fascinating village. One is the town’s cemetery, where each grave is protected by the huge horns of the mountain goats that locals consider sacred - indeed many houses in the village have a goat’s skull hanging on a stick outside to ward off evil spirits. You should not enter the cemetery, as it’s for locals only, although photography is perfectly acceptable.

Just beyond is the pilgrimage site of Kyz Bibi. A fat-trunked plane tree, surrounded by a small metal fence, is covered with small scraps of cloth representing wishes. From here, a flight of concrete steps leads up to a tiny cave, just a few centimetres across, in the side of the hill. The cave is surrounded by more pieces of material, some of which have been fashioned into tiny cribs, suggesting the nature of the wishes made here. The site is one of several in Turkmenistan dedicated to Kyz Bibi: the legends surrounding this female figure of great purity usually involve her being swallowed up by the mountainside to protect her from either heathen invaders or an unwanted marriage. Qyz Bibi was the pre-Islamic patroness of women and the goddess of fertility. She is believed to dwell in the cave (the entrance of which is just 30cm to 40cm in diameter) at the end of a winding pathway that passes a huge, ancient tree where pilgrims tie colourful material in the hopes of conceiving a child.

Beyond Nohur, the villages of Garawul and Konyegummez stand in fine upland settings. Unlike settlements of lowland Turkmenistan, whose houses focus inwards around family courtyards, the buildings here look out, with large glass-panelled verandas facing south, to capture the warming sunlight in this frequently chilly environment. Among the natural attractions around which to base walks is the Khur-Khuri Waterfall, 5km from the Chandybil Tourist Centre, below which lies an attractive tree-filled gorge. The Ai Dere Canyon, 7km from Chandybil, is punctuated with small waterfalls, some of which offer fine bathing opportunities in their plunge pools. The stream at the base of this canyon is a tributary of the Sumbar River, its waters making a long westward journey to the Caspian. Abandoned water-mills in the Ai Dere Canyon are evidence that this valley once supported a thriving rural population.

There are four impressive waterfalls in the mountains beyond Nokhur, all of which can be visited by hiring a UAZ 4WD in Nokhur (ask your guide to ask around for you). The routes are fairly arduous, but great fun for day-tripping and taking in the impressive scenery. There is a daily bus from Tekke Bazaar in Ashgabat to Nokhur (3M, two hours).