Thursday, 4 October 2012
Day 183 – Kow Ata (Turkmenistan)
After seeing “The Gates of Hell”, we were pretty content that Turkmenistan was already worth it. Tempted to spend the entirety of our 5 day transit visa at Darvaza, we resisted andmoved towards Ashgabat in search of Kow Ata - a natural thermal lake buried deep inside a cave 100km West of the capital.
Despite the fact that no maps of Turkmenistan seem to have been drawn in at least the last five years, we found the location easily enough, and pulled up in the car park surrounded by kebab stall owners lighting the fires for their barbeques. We approached the signposted entrance, not exactly sure what we were going to, and were very sceptical when a man with a bum bag asked us for 40 Manat ($14) each. We’ve become very cautious about unauthorised civilians deciding to charge an ambiguous entry fee, but when we asked to see a ticket he was able to show a fairly official looking ticket book with the price clearly marked. He even was so kind as to point out that this ticket was for foreigners and his other ticket book was for locals. These ones also had the price clearly marked, the difference being that it was 3 Manat ($1) for them. How’s that for some dual pricing! This, we were soon to find out, was a trend that would continue throughout Turkmenistan.
Though insulting, 40 Manat is not actually an insane amount of money, and we had already made the trip, so we decided to bite the bullet and pay the price of being a tourist in a country that does not want tourists. We weren’t sure about male/female segregation and were prepared for the fact that that could be an issue, but the man with the bum bag looked at us a bit strangely when we asked, and assured us it was no problem.
We got our swimming gear out the car, stored our tickets, and using the slippery and ever so uneven steps, descended the 55m into the heart of the cave. The only lighting was a few naked globes suspended above the intermittent hand railing. It got more and more slippery as we approached the lake, and we felt the thermal heat encroaching on us as we descended.
There were quite a few other people in the lake when we got to it. Most of them were fairly boisterous young men who were quite taken with yelling and splashing. Given we were there from about 4:00 – 6:00 pm, we thought it could be a matter of knocking off work and going for a swim. At 3 Manat they can probably afford to. It seemed like a surprisingly “cool” place for youngsters to hang out.
A couple of young families with children came and went, and several women came for a swim. The strange thing about the women was that some swam fully clothed in modest dresses and trousers, while others wore particularly revealing and suggestive bikinis, or simply just their underwear. I felt quite out of place in my one-piece swimming costume; an uncomfortable middle ground.
The lake itself was a pond of shimmering blue at the base of the cave. The stink of sulphur was invasive, yet strangely enticing and the stagnant heat was suffocating. Once immersed in the water, the warmth took over our bodies, intoxicatingly refreshing and cleansing. Despite the irritating splashing and shouting from our young male companions, it was a beautiful place to relax.
The main part of the pool was vaguely circular, under a high ceiling, and lit by the fluorescent globes at the bottom of the stairs. Extending 75m into the cave though, this wasn’t all there was to see. We swam away from the people and the lights towards where a narrow opening in the stone walls led to another pool, and past that, the rest of the 75m of water. A couple of the more vocal of our fellow swimmers called out to us, crossing their arms in front of their chests in the international sign for “no”. Not sure whether they were just being rude or whether there actually was some reason that we shouldn’t go there, we decided to play it safe and resumed position on a conveniently placed bench-shaped rock that we took a liking to. When a couple of other men went the way we’d wanted to, and we could see them perched in the next opening, we decided it was probably fine and we’d take the risk. We’re still not sure why they were telling us not to go there, but we made it to a nice big perching rock where we hung out for as long as we could bear. The heat and the smell of sulphur became even more intense the deeper we got, and it wasn’t long until we felt the need to return to the main section of water.
When we felt that we were suitably restored and had most importantly had gotten our 40 Manat worth, we used the damp changing cubicles and began the ascent back to the cave entrance. Still moist and sticky from the humidity and sulphur, the climb back up those stairs was exhausting. We hadn’t quite realised on the way down, but some of the individual steps were as tall as my knees. As we emerged from the depths of the cave, the cool air from outside hit us. By the time we got to the top we were huffing and puffing quite considerably and very glad for the kebab stalls and their cold drinks.