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Kugitang Nature Reserve

Straddling the Uzbek border in the far southeast of Turkmenistan, the Kugitang ridge of the Pamir-Alai mountain range presents one of the most attractive natural environments in the country. Kugitang is the most impressive and pristine of Turkmenistan’s nature reserves. Set up in 1986 to protect the Kugitang mountain range and its unique ecosystem, and in particular the rare markhor mountain goat (whose name comes from Persian (Kugitang means, roughly, 'Difficult-to-Cross Mountains'). Its extent includes the country’s highest peak, Airybaba (3137m), several huge canyons, rich forests, mountain streams, caves and the unique Dinosaur Plateau. Airybaba summit was known under this name until September 2004, when the Turkmen parliament adopted a resolution renaming it 'Turkmenbashy the Great Peak'. Close to the plateau, outside the village of Hojapil, is the Kyrk Gyz (Forty Girl) Cave. The cave, located in a spectacular canyon, contains an unmarked tomb. On the ceiling of the cave you can see bits of mud from which dangle strips of cloth; according to local tradition, a wish is granted if the pilgrim can fling the mud pie and cloth to the ceiling and make it stick. Several rare species are found here, including the spiral-horned markhor goat, and the Bukhara urial, a mountain sheep.

Visiting one of the Karlyuk Caves is also an incredible experience. The limestone caves are considered the most extensive network of caves in Central Asia. They have been known since ancient times, having been mentioned in Greek texts, but the Soviets were the first to fully explore and exploit the caves; it was during their rule that onyx was harvested from the caves. The caves are also home to the blind cave loach, a sightless fish.

As the caves have not been readied for the tourist masses, only the Kapkytan Cave is accessible for visitors. Walking deep into the caves with one of the park rangers is both spooky and exciting, with some astonishing stalactites and stalagmites. Some of these natural wonders have been named by locals according to their form, including Medusa, a maiden and others of more phallic nature. You’ll need to organise a trip here through a travel agent who can get you a permit to visit and provide a driver. The main Turkmen travel companies are experienced in putting together short breaks to Kugitang: given that a visit to the area requires both the appropriate restricted zone permit and the approval of the Ministry of Nature Protection, this is not a straightforward destination to visit independently. Accommodation is usually in a homestay with rangers or at a newly built hotel. Expect to pay US$40 per person per night for full board.

The termination of scheduled flights in 2004 to the airports of both Atamurat and Magdanly, the two main towns in the region, has made Kugitang a substantially more difficult place to reach of late. The drive from Turkmenabat, through Atamurat, should take around six hours.