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Badkyz Nature Reserve

Covering almost 90,000ha of remote terrain to the northwest of Serhetabat, at the eastern-edge of the Kopet Dag Mountains, Badkyz is one of the most attractive natural environments in Turkmenistan. Most of the reserve comprises an undulating plateau, covered in its western part with the largest area of pistachio trees in Central Asia. The pistachios have short trunks, from which a crown of branches radiate out. Some of the pistachios in the reserve are 700 years old, but there are recently planted groves too, easily distinguished by the regular lines of trees. In spring, the abundance of flowers, including poppies and red and yellow tulips, makes this upland a beautiful sight.

At the southern edge of this plateau, a great sandstone escarpment looks out across the saline depression of Eroulanduz. The name means 'The Land Eaten by Salt'. It is a rift valley some 25km long and around 10km wide. Its flat floor is occupied by a series of salt flats, which turn to saline lakes in winter. These are abutted by scattered small cone-shaped hills, the remnants of ancient volcanoes. The salt lakes provide a temporary home for such species as pelicans and cranes. From the top of the escarpment, the valley floor of Eroulanduz makes a stunning view. At the eastern end of Eroulanduz, a V-shaped gorge topped with sheer cliffs runs for 18km into the upland. Up to 400m in height, and not more than a kilometre across, this pink-walled canyon, known as Gyzyljar, offers another dramatic panorama. The entrances to ancient cave settlements can be identified high up in the sheer walls of the canyon. One small two-roomed cave is more accessible and, with a guide, can be clambered down to carefully without specialist equipment.

The nature reserve was established here in 1941, primarily to provide a protected area for the local herds of the Central Asian wild ass, or kulan. This has proved broadly successful, and a large increase in the population of kulan here has allowed the use of Badkyz stocks to populate other reserves across Turkmenistan. The reserve also hosts large populations of goitred gazelle (jieran) and of the Transcaspian urial, a curly-horned wild sheep.

Admission to Badkyz requires special permits both as a frontier zone and a nature reserve. A US$15 fee is charged for entry to the reserve. Various other fees may also be levied, including a potentially swingeing photography charge of US$2 per shot. The reserve has three very basic guesthouses, at the ranger posts of Agarcheshme, Pynhancheshme and Gyzyljar, for which the overnight accommodation charge is around US$5. The main routes into the reserve are either south from Serakhs, or west, from the main road running between Mary and Serhetabat. The post of Agarcheshme sits amid pistachio groves, around 90km south of Serakhs. The road is tarmac for the first 40km, but a track thereafter. Gyzyljar, closer to the eastern side of the reserve, is reached by turning westwards onto a track off the Serhetabat road, 50km south of the turning to Tagtabazar. Gyzyljar is 78km from this turning. The headquarters of the nature reserve 561 21224) lie well outside its boundaries, in Serhetabat.