Some 54km east of the Bereket turning, 19km west of the town of Serdar, a turning to the south is signposted for Parau Bibi. The asphalt road heads towards the Kopet Dag Mountains. Passing after 6km through the village of Parau, the road then crosses the site of the medieval settlement of Ferava. This started out as a fortress, lying between Khorasan and Dekhistan, but was enlarged somewhat under the Seljuks, when it became a notable Silk Route staging post, covering an area of around 35ha. A square-based but now roofless mausoleum, known as Parau Ata, is the main structure standing at the town site.
But the building of most interest lies on the steep hillside to the south. This is the Mausoleum of Parau Bibi, which dates perhaps to the 11th century. It is now one of the most important centres of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan.
A legend surrounding the place, similar to the tales governing several other mountain shrines across Turkmenistan, is that Parau Bibi was a maiden of great virtue living in the area. During a time of enemy siege, Parau Bibi prayed that the mountain would open up and swallow her, lest she be carried off by the barbarian tribes. The mountain heard her pleas and accordingly engulfed her in the nick of time. Locals later honoured her selfless act by creating a fertility shrine on the spot.
At the base of the hillside stands a large complex comprising a guesthouse, an area for meals and a large car park. There is also a war memorial here, topped by an artillery piece. A flight of concrete steps leads up to the whitewashed mausoleum. On the way up, pilgrims walk three times anticlockwise around various natural features, including a clump of trees and a large rock, considered to be sacred places associated with the legend of Parau Bibi. The small white tomb, built from a cave in the cliffs, contains offerings such as model cribs, indicating the desire of the pilgrim. It is located at the top of a staircase 269 steps high, which you trudge up with other devotees.
In one corner of the mausoleum is a small cave: it is believed that this is the spot at which Parau Bibi entered the mountainside. Immediately to the left of the mausoleum, steps lead down to a little side room. This contains a large collection of hair-related objects, including mirrors, combs and hair-grips. Female pilgrims often brush their hair in this chamber, since it is believed that Parau Bibi herself often visits this place to comb hers.
The mystical surrounds are enhanced by the steppe behind you, stretching endlessly into the distance. Nearby, on the hillside, you can spot holes in the ground, delineating the underground karyz (irrigation canals). A century ago there were more than 500 such canals in Turkmenistan, but only 10 remain today.
If it’s late it’s possible to spend the night under the pilgrim tents, although it does stay busy most of the night, so don’t expect to get much sleep.