The peaceful town of Tagtabazar lies 215km south of Mary on the road to Afghanistan. It is the principal settlement of a small oasis of the Murgab River, close to the Afghan border. A border post signals the restricted zone: you cannot travel beyond here without a permit covering Tagtabazar or Serhetabat districts, as required. On the fringe of the former Russian Empire, it was here that the tsar locked horns with British-backed Afghanistan in one of the salvoes of the Great Game. A brief battle near the town (then called Pandjeh, or Pendi) left more than 800 Afghans dead and Russia hanging onto victory by a thread. That conflict appeared at one stage to be pitching Britain and Russia towards war. The British government was highly nervous of Russian designs on India, following the Russian capture of Merv the previous year. Russia claimed that Panjdeh was now part of their territory, by virtue of their conquest of Merv. Afghanistan, supported by the British, insisted that it was theirs, and set about strengthening its defences. The issue was settled by the advance of Russian troops under General Komarov, who took Panjdeh on 31 March 1885, leaving more than 800 Afghans dead. This action provoked a period of high tension, with much talk of war, but the extent of Russia's frontiers was eventually settled by the work of the Joint Afghan Boundary Commission. The battle ultimately forced Afghanistan and Russia into negotiations that delineated a border. Under the agreed settlement, Russia kept Panjdeh.
The administrative heart of the present-day town is a large roundabout, within which sits a war memorial, shaded by evergreen trees. The district mayor's office and police station abut each other on one side of the roundabout. Behind the latter, on Begnazarova Kochesi, is the Hotel Pendi (12 rooms); 340 21424. It is very basic, has shared facilities, and charges foreigners US$5 a night.
The main reason to visit Tagtabazar is the Ekedeshik cave settlement in the sandstone hills north of the town. If you happen to be passing through Tagtabazar en route to Afghanistan, it’s worth stopping to see the complex (admission 6M, tours 3M, camera 9M; 9am-5pm), located in the hills north of town. Head west through town along Magtymguly Kochesi. At the western edge of town, head north towards the line of the hills. Two kilometres on, take the track to the right. The track snakes up the hill for another 1.5km to the entrance to the cave settlement. 'Ekedeshik' means 'single entrance', and the ingress in question is sealed with a metal door where a caretaker sells you a ticket.
The place is fascinating, with more than 40 visitable rooms, on two levels. Close to the entrance, the custodian will lift a metal plate from the floor to reveal a steep staircase descending to further, lower, levels, which are in too unsafe a state to be visited. From the entrance, a central barrel-vaulted passage, sloping gently upwards, heads into the hill for some 37m. Off this lead entrances to small rooms on either side. Many of these have circular 'wells' in little adjoining chambers. Cuttings in the walls would have once accommodated candles. One room off the main corridor seems to have had a particularly distinguished occupant or prestigious role, for its entrance is topped by a carved lintel, and its vaulted ceiling bears rectangular carved panels. It may have been used by a chief or priest. Reeds have thoughtfully been laid along the floor of the central corridor, to keep down the dust. And the whole place smells of wee. The curator will show you a staircase to more caverns below, but this section is off-limits. The caves are sometimes locked, so before you go there inquire about the key-holder at the local governor’s office.
Among the first people to map the caves was one Captain F de Laessoe, who included a sketch in an article carried in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society for 1885. De Laessoe's investigations into the caves and ruins at Panjdeh were, however, brought to an early and sudden end by the Russian advance. There is an ongoing debate about the identity of the builders of the caves. Some scholars believe that they were constructed by early Christian communities. Others suggest that the complex might have been a Buddhist monastery. And of course there are many local legends about the place, including rumours ot a subterranean passageway heading into Afghanistan.
There are several smaller cave complexes nearby, including one known as Bashdeshik ('Five Entrances'), but these places, many of which have not been systematically explored, are of more specialist interest.
The caves are 3km north of town and accessible by private car or taxi. There’s no hotel in town though, so you’re best off continuing to either Mary or Herat for the night.