CASPIAN SEA AREA OF TURKMENISTAN

CASPIAN SEA AREA OF TURKMENISTAN

The Caspian Sea is beautiful blue color. The shoreline however is not so attractive. It is an arid desert covered by grey dust and salt. There are great swaths of undeveloped coastline, where the water is clear and blue and camels can be spotted in the seaside dunes. Pollution is a problem around the oil and gas fields in the southern reaches of the lake.

But don’t be totally turned off. The coast of the Caspian Sea has some nice sandy beaches, warm and clean water for swimming and abundance of specialized flora and fauna. The city of Khazar and Awaza, a suburb of Turkmenbashi, offer water sports and recreation and have health resorts, sanatoriums and “preventoriums: that offer “prophylactic events for “different kinds of pneumonia” that are popular among the vacationers. Among the the coastal tourism recreation centers in the “beautiful subtropical zone of the country” are Sumbar valley with green trees and the famous old oaks in the village Magtymguly is located in Balkan province.

Much of Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas comes from the Caspian Sea region. Oil is found in the Caspian Sea’s Baku fields, which extends from east from Baku and is shared by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Large natural gas reserves in the eastern Caspian Sea are primarily in Turkmenistan's territory. Another significant source of Caspian oil is in Turkmenistan near the coast. By some estimates, Turkmenistan's Galkynysh field may be the world's fourth largest natural gas field.

Building pipelines that bypass the Russian system have been for countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to break free from of Russia’s grip and establish their independence. As it stands now the majority of Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas is exported using Russia’s pipeline system or carried by tanker Baku in Azerbaijan, where there are pipelines across the Caucasus, Turkey and Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, where it can be loaded on tankers for easy delivery to Europe and to the United States.

Turkmenistan has the forth largest natural gas reserves in the world. Much of Turkmenistan’s natural gas is in the eastern Caspian Sea. The United States has lobbied Turkmenistan, so far unsuccessfully, to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russian territory to deliver gas to the outside world. European countries have quietly supported the idea, which would reduce their dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas. There has also been discussion of building an oil or gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Iran to the Persian Gulf. This would greatly facilitate the export of oil to Asia.

Most of the towns in the Caspian Sea area of Turkmenistan are dismal industrial towns. Among these are Chelken, with smelly chemical factories, and Bekdash, with a salt refining plant. Balkanabat (140 kilometers east of Turkmenbashi) is dull, dreary town on the main road and rail line between Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi. There is nothing here, except transportation to Dekhistan. Formerly known as Nebit-Dag, which means "oil mountain", it has been the center of the country's oil industry since the 1930s. The city is located at the foot of the Great Balkan mountain range and has a population of around 120,000.

Turkmenbashi

Turkmenbashi (on the Caspian Sea, 600 kilometers from Ashgabat) is Turkmenistan's largest port and the gateway for the overnight ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan. Named after Turkmenistan’s president, it is sleepy town with 86,000 people, many of the Russians, Armenians and Azeris. Situated below a crescent of mountains, it was established by the Russians as a place to launch their military campaigns in Central Asia. Worth checking out are Museum of regional History, the Moorish-style train station, and the former entrance to the fortress.

Turkmenbashi is one of the largest port in essentially landlocked Central Asia, providing a valuable link with European countries. The surrounding desert landscape looks more like a moon landscape. Most excursions into the mountains and the coastal resort towns begin from this dusty, and even somewhat sleepy town. There are some reasonable place to swim in the town and in Awaza 12 kilometers to the north (see Below) although the best beaches about 50 kilometers to the north. Hikes up into the mountains offer some wonderful views.

The islands on the bay are part of the Hazar State Nature Reserve (Khazaror Turkmenbashi State Reserve), which home to Caspian Sea turtles, seals and 280 species of bird, including flamingos, pelicans and variety of shorebirds. At reserve headquarters there is a small natural history museum (See Below).

Awaza

Awaza (12 kilometers Turkmenbashi city) is a resort in the east of the Caspian Sea that has been earmarked to become the national tourist zone of Turkmenistan. Located on the Caspian Sea, it boasts six top-end hotels and fancy health complexes. The plan calls for 60 hotels of different categories as well as children's health centers and sports, cultural and entertaining centers.

A seven-kilometer-long canal was excavated in the desert around which some restaurants and cafes have been set up. There are plans to build a skyscraper hotel complex in the form of peculiar lighthouse on an artificial island in the shape of a map of Turkmenistan. A huge aqua park with a sliding dome is on the drawing boards. The most ambitious plan calls for the the construction of an indoor ski complex that will cover an area of 20 hectares and house 1200-meter ski slope with three trails under an eight meters sheer dome. The snow depth will be a half meter to one meter. About 120 people can use the ski facility at one time. The original plans called the project to completed in 2020. But so far few people have shown up and it us unclear how far along with the construction they are.

The Telegraph newspaper called Awaza, “the most ill-conceived resort ever built”. Farangis Najibullah and Murat Gurban of Radio Free Europe wrote in 2012: “Just five years ago, Awaza stood as a tiny dacha retreat along the Caspian coast where Turkmen could take refuge from the daily hustle and bustle. But the rustic mud-brick cottages that once dotted the seaside have been swept away and replaced with gleaming, high-rise luxury hotels. Dusty dirt roads have given way to smooth asphalt highways and marble sidewalks. Natural beach surroundings have been sculpted into carefully manicured parks. Behold the transformed Awaza, a luxurious resort town that looms as the centerpiece of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's dreams of building world-class tourism infrastructure in Turkmenistan. Since taking office in 2006, Berdymukhammedov has channeled a reported $1.4 billion into the project, with Awaza accounting for a major slice of the pie. [Source: Farangis Najibullah and Murat Gurban, Radio Free Europe, July 19, 2012]

“But if Awaza was constructed on the adage of, "if you build it they will come," one thing is still missing from the equation -- visitors. During a recent trip to the newly opened resort, an Radio Free Europe reporter did not have to fight off flocks of tourists clambering to vacation in luxury. The resort's eight ritzy hotels, rather, were largely empty. The listed prices appear reasonable by international resort standards. The Kerven Hotel, for example, offers a single-room package that includes a free breakfast, room service, access to tennis courts and a gym, a boat trip, and airport transfer for $50 per person per night. For a couple more dollars, a visitor could enjoy a massage, acupuncture therapy, an Internet connection, and even access to a modern medical center.

“But for domestic tourists like Oraz, who has visited Awaza's beaches for years, the resort prices are too steep. "I can't afford to stay a week in an Awaza hotel with my family of three," says the doctor from Ashgabat. "In addition to hotel prices, there are other fees to pay, like transport and food. So no, Awaza hotels are not for me." Oraz instead opts to stay 20 kilometers away in Turkmenbashi, where he pays a "fraction of Awaza hotel prices" for a private apartment-hotel, and drive to Awaza's beach.Despite excellent facilities, it appears that foreign visitors are not yet thronging to Awaza.

Hazar State Nature Reserve

Hazar State Nature Reserve (in the Turkmenbashi area) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: the site “consists of a group of protected areas on the southeast coast of the Caspian Sea and covers Turkmenbashi, Balkhan, North Cheleken and Mikhailov bays, which range from relatively deep to shallow. They are bordered by sandy and shelly spits and there are several islands, which are overgrown with halophytes and have coastal marshes. The largest of them is Dagada, which is 120 hectares in area. The climate is continental with wide ranges in daily and seasonal temperatures and low precipitation levels (100-120mm a year). The annual average temperature is 15.8°C, the monthly average for July is 28°C, that for January is -4°C; the recorded maximum is +47°C and the recorded minimum is -21°C. The area is frost-free for 240-270 days a year. The prevailing northwesterly winds bring coolness in summer and frosts in winter. Southeasterly winds bring warm air in winter and very hot weather in summer. [Source: Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan, UNESCO]

“Five dominant aquatic plant species at the site - eelgrass, tassel-weed, pondweeds and Arabis - occur on the sandy soils and at depths to 4-5 meters. There is a high diversity of algae (macrophytes) in the bays consisting of green algae (28 species), red algae (11 species) and kelp or brown algae (one species), which accumulate along the coast and at depths to 6m. Hundreds of species of microscopic algae can be found in the plankton and benthos. These are mainly diatoms, cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates and green algae. The site is situated a little to the southeast of Turkmenbashi, a port town with a population of more than 80 000 people. Oil-refining plays a dominant role in the local economy. Transport infrastructure is also well developed. The Hazar State Nature Reserve was previously (1968-1994) known as Krasnovodskiy State Nature Reserve. In 1994 a large island in the Caspian Sea -Ogurchinskiy Sanctuary as included in the Reserve.

“The total area of the Hazar State Nature Reserve is 2,680.37 square kilometers hectares and consists of: 1) Hazar State Nature Reserve (2,610.37 square kilometers) featuring: 1.1 Hazar section (1,913.37 square kilometers); 1.2) Esenguly section (697 square kilometers): 2. Ogurchinskiy State Sanctuary (70 square kilometers). The global value of the reserve lies in the fact that its coastal waters and shores are a feeding and staging point during migration, and an over-wintering site for millions of waterfowl and water birds from a whole number of countries from Eurasia and Africa. The Central-Asian and Eastern-African migratory ways merge in the Turkmen part of the Caspian Sea, as a result of which the Reserve has a rich number of migratory and wintering birds.

“The site qualifies as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is located on one of the most important migratory flyways for waterbirds breeding in western Siberia, Kazakhstan and other regions of Central Asia, and provides a valuable stopover and wintering site. In the 20th Century it was estimated that about 5 million-8 million waterbirds passed along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea on migration, and up to 800,000 birds wintered in the proposed site. Between 1971 and 2005, the numbers of waterfowl (geese, swans, ducks and Common Coot) recorded at the site were: in November from 22 409 to 568 530 (average 171 785); in January from 47 654 to 688 471 (average 215 088). The number of migratory and wintering birds fluctuates from year to year.

“The dominant species are Common Coot Fulica atra (as many as 48 000), Common Teal Anas crecca (up to 27 000), Mallard A. platyrhynchos (up to 21 000), Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina (up to 50 000), Common Pochard Aythya ferina (up to 33 000), Tufted Duck A. fuligula (up to 20 000) and in some years, also Mute Swan Cygnus olor and Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus. More than 25 000 Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus can occur on migration and in winter. A total of 296 species has been recorded, including 138 waterbird species.

“Several endemic and rare (listed in the IUCN Red List, see threat status in brackets) species occur in the proposed site including Caspian Seal Pusa caspica (EN), Caspian Lamprey Caspiomyzon wagneri (NT), Fringebarbel Sturgeon Acipenser nudiventris (EN; TmRDB), Stellate Sturgeon Acipenser stellatus (EN), Russian Sturgeon Acipenser gueldenstaedtii (EN), and European Sturgeon Huso huso (EN). Beloribitsa Stenodus leucichthys (EX in the wild).”

Dehistan-Mishrian

Dehistan (30 kilometers east of the Caspian Sea, 140 kilometers south of Balkanabat, 280 kilometers southeast of Turkmenbashi, 560 kilometers west from Ashgabat) is a ruined Silk Road city that was at its height in the 11th century, survived the Mongol invasion and thrived until 15th century when an ecological disaster cut off its supplies of water and made the city into a ghost town. There isn’t much left except for mud-brick foundations and the remains of a minaret. About seven kilometers away is a cemetery with some ruined mausoleums and Turkmenistan’s oldest mosque.

Dehistan-Mishrian was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Dehistan/Mishrian was the principal city of Western Turkmenistan from the 10th to the 14th centuries. Located on a major caravan route from Gurgan in northern Iran to Khorezm, its finest buildings were constructed by the Khorezmshahs. Major surviving monuments include parts of a minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004/5 and another built 200 years later, which formed part of the mosque of Muhammad Khorezmshah: this still has a superbly decorated portal, 18 meters. high. The city was strongly fortified with a double row of walls and occupied c. 2 square kilometers: it declined and was abandoned in the 1 5th century. [Source: Ministry of Culture, Government of Republic of Turkmenistan UNESCO]

“Seven kilometers to the north is the Meshat/Meskhet cemetery, where in the nineteenth century some 20 mausolea were preserved. Of these 5 still survive, including the important mosque/mausoleum Shir Kabir with an elaborately decorated mihrab of carved and coloured stucco. In addition to the medieval city and cemetery, there are also important sites from the third millennium BC.”

History of Dehistan-Mishrian

Looking at the smooth, barren plain of the Misrian plateau, which is part of the Southeast Caspian Sea, it is difficult to imagine that once it was the blooming, fertile oasis. But when viewed from the above, in the light of rays of the rising sun, on the relief of this area there will be clearly seen traces of ancient irrigation: channels' beds, squares of irrigated fields, where, according to researchers, a variety of crops - from wheat to rice - were grown. The researchers have already gathered sufficient evidence proving that the lands of Dehistan were used for about three thousand years. But it was not a continuous process: there were times when the fields were abandoned, and centuries later cultivated again. [Source: State Committee for Tourism of Turkmenistan]

Archaeologists have identified three historical periods of existence of this oasis. The earliest one is the Bronze Age (2nd millennium B.C.) that continues until the end of antiquity, that is, before the fall of the Parthian state, when this territory was called Hyrcania. The second epoch is associated with the state of the Sassanids and covers the 3rd-7th centuries A.D. It was a time when various pastoral tribes, including the ancient Turks settled here. The remains of their settlements in the form of huge slipped down barrows can be found even now in the spaces of the Misrian plateau. And, finally, the third era - from the 8th to 14th century - left the most impressive traces. The numerous ruins of medieval Dehistan remind one of what the urbanized area was like before the water sources that had fed it ran dry.

The caravan route from Khorezm to Persia along the Amudarya River's ancient bed - Uzboy, which flowed into the Caspian Sea, ran through Dehistan. The medieval Arab historian, Al-Makdisi, mentioned twenty-four Dehistan settlements, but archaeologists have discovered about forty of them with some of them not yielding to medieval cities by their size. The highly developed fortification, artistic merits, performance technique and the number of monumental sites of Dehistan put this provincial area on a par with such recognized centers of ancient cultures as Merv, Gurganj, Samarkand. Moreover, unlike the cities of Khorasan with its predominantly raw structures, burnt brick was widely used not only in public buildings, but also in dwellings of citizens while erecting the walls about thousand years ago. According to art critics, acquaintance even with the limited number of Mashad-Misrian monuments shows that Dehistan's architecture, as a major historical and cultural district with the rich past, undoubtedly had its own distinctive appearance, peculiarities and style.

Dehistan-Mishrian Archaeological Site

The settlement of Mashad-Misrian is the largest monument of medieval Dehistan. According to Arabic manuscripts that have reached our times, the capital city of Misrian was also called Dehistan since the 9th century. Its central part surrounded with a double defense wall with semicircular towers and a moat occupies about 2 square kilometers. It is the classic fortification, to which the extensive suburban area (rabad) consisting of artisan quarters, where one can still see many remains of pottery shops and foundations of several mosques and caravanserais, adjoined from four sides. [Source: State Committee for Tourism of Turkmenistan]

Gardens and parks and the marketplace were located in the southern rabad, and the traces of the dense residential buildings are seen in the western part. The eastern and southern rabads were most densely populated. There ran irrigation canals and the main canal, which provided the town with water. There was also a madrasah, the only known in Turkmenistan, which dates back to the pre-Mongol period. The abundance of earthenware products with ornamental and scenic painting is the distinctive feature of archaeological finds in Dehistan. Bronze pots, lamps and other metal products with artistic treatment, and a number of glass articles were also found here.

Improvements made in the city demonstrate the high level of development of Dehistan's urban culture. There were found the water supply and sewerage systems, bathhouses, brick-paved roads. This city had a boom period under the rule of Khorezm shahs, then suffered from the Mongols, but soon revived again and was finally deserted by the inhabitants about six centuries ago. From its architecture there remained the ruins of only a few impressive buildings having a considerable artistic value today as the vivid examples of Islamic culture. First, it is a mosque of Mohammed II, Shah of Khorezm, and two minarets next to it. There are also several medieval mausoleums in the ancient cemetery seven kilometers away from the settlement. Standing on a high platform, the funeral mosque Mashad-ata with the magnificent décor of very fine work dating from the 9th-10thcenturies stands out among them. This truly unique monument often called Shir-Kabir, along with the Samanids' Mausoleum in Bukhara built in the same period, marks the beginning of the classical period in the architecture of the whole Central Asia.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Turkmenistan tourism sites, Turkmenistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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