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Turkmenistan: National Treasure Under Threat

Legendary underground lake is reportedly being polluted by Turkmen soldiers with nowhere else to bathe.
By IWPR staff

One of Turkmenistan’s greatest natural treasures - an underground lake credited with healing properties - is under threat from soldiers who are using it as a bathhouse.

The lake, in the Kov-Ata cave near the village of Garagan in the southern Akhal region, has long been a tourist attraction, a point of national pride and a feature of local legend.

But visitors claim that soldiers from the impoverished Turkmen army, who are working on agricultural projects nearby, are turning it into a polluted, soapy mess by washing themselves and their clothes there.

The Kov-Ata cave - one of the largest of many so-called karst caves found in the Kopetdag mountain system, each of which took millions of years to form - was declared a nature reserve during Soviet times.

The cave used to have the densest population of bats in the whole of the former Soviet Union, and its waters – which maintain a steady 35 degrees centigrade all year round and contain hydrogen sulphide, chlorine, carbon dioxide, bromine, aluminum, iron and 24 other naturally-occurring chemicals - have long been thought of as having healing properties.

The underground lake’s reputation as a medicinal spring has spread well beyond Turkmenistan’s borders and has also been cemented in local legend. Ashir-aga, an elder of the Garagan village, explained, “Those who have lived here for a very long time speak of a legend dating back to the days of the Parthian kings, which tells how fatally-wounded rebel slaves were healed at the Kov-Ata lake.”

The Kov-Ata cave is one of 17 monuments designated by the Turkmen authorities as a national tourist attraction, and has been a great draw for foreign and domestic visitors for many years.

But even during Soviet times it lacked the necessary infrastructure to cope with tourism, and was badly maintained. Lately the situation has deteriorated markedly, culminating in the pollution spread by the soldiers, whose presence has also driven away the bat colony.

One Ashgabat businessman was mortified when he took some German colleagues to see what they had heard was a national treasure, “Imagine my embarrassment when, after covering 100 kilometres in the heat from Ashgabat and going 60 metres below ground, we discovered a huge stinking puddle covered with a soapy film. There was trash and empty boxes of laundry detergent scattered all over the place.

“When we left, we saw two trucks full of dirty, skinny - and, by all indications, hungry - soldiers who had arrived to bathe in this unique reservoir. I couldn’t explain anything to my business partners and kept silent all the way back.”

Jeren, who works for a private tourism company, also attested to the damage that has been done.

“In recent times, we try not to take foreign tourists to the Kov-Ata cave, as it is now extremely filthy there,” he said.

“It’s such a pity, as many tourists arrive in Turkmenistan having heard about this unique site and its medicinal properties. How to explain to them that now, instead of a health boost, one can now easily catch cholera there?

“If only the government would invest in this unique monument, it could become the site of an authentic tourism boom and would earn considerable profits for the state.”

The Turkmen defence ministry refused to comment on allegations that its personnel have polluted the site, in spite of IWPR’s repeated attempts to contact a spokesperson.

But one senior army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that members of the under-resourced Turkmen forces probably had no other choice than to bathe in the lake.

“The majority of soldiers who are working on agricultural tasks of various kinds are billeted far away from any military bases,” he said. “The commanders don’t worry about how to feed their soldiers, where to bathe them, and where the uniforms should be washed. That’s up to us - the junior commanding officers.

“I personally envy the officer whose soldiers work near Kov-Ata. My soldiers get to bathe once every week - in a ditch.”

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