One of the most forlorn places on Earth. Even by Turkmenistan
’s standards it's way off the beaten track – in the empty north-western-most corner of the country, east of the coastline of the Caspian Sea, just south of the border with Kazakhstan
Garabogazköl is a salt lagoon, at ca. 7000 square miles or 11,265 km2
it's in fact the world's largest such lagoon. It is also one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, even beating the much smaller but more famously super-briny Dead Sea
. And it's at least as deadly an environment. Corpses of dead animals that dared to get too close to Garabogazköl are allegedly a common sight along the lagoon's shores.
There is a narrow water inlet from the Caspian Sea, roughly one-third up the narrow ridge of land that separates the two bodies of water. In the 1980s this was closed off owing to concerns that too much water was flowing out of the diminishing Caspian. Thus Garabogazköl temporarily became a proper salt lake
. But then this lake itself began to dry out dramatically, until it was practically just a gigantic salt pan (cf. Uyuni
). This caused additional environmental problems from salt dust being blown over the lands and polluting the surrounding landscape (similar to the much worse environmental disaster of the Aral Sea
). So the barrier was breached again in the early 1990s and water has reclaimed the depression since. But it's still very shallow and extremely salty.
Salt has long been mined here too, today especially at Garabogaz (formerly called Bekdash), just north of the ridge separating Garabogazköl from the Caspian. Here minerals such as sodium sulphate are mined. But a bit further away from the actual lagoon near Guwlymayak to the south nearer the Caspian coast salt of the edible variety is mined as well. The latter mining operations are quite a sight: railway tracks are laid out across the large salt beds, stretching to the horizon. On these tracks, rusting old machinery scrapes the salt off the surface. When a stretch of salt pan has been mined, the railway tracks are simply pushed sideways along the slushy, briny salt surface to a new location a bit further on – i.e. the tracks are not fixed to the "ground". It's a strange, otherworldly sight, reminiscent of some post-apocalyptic science fiction film.
The area around Garabogazköl, which is also spelled 'Kara-Bogaz-gol' or any kind of variation like that, is extremely remote and difficult to get to. Travelling there also requires a special permit. It's near impossible to visit it as an independent traveller, and if so then only at great cost and with much bureaucratic hassle. Only very few tour operators offer a short visit to Guwlymayak as part of special adventure packages.
The closest place to Garabogazköl that one can get to on regular tourist itineraries of Turkmenistan
tends to be the city of Turkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk in Soviet
times (yes, it was renamed after the Turkmenbashy
, the country's deceased eccentric autocrat).This is a port city on the coast south of Garabogazköl, and opposite Baku
on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.
Near Turkmenbashy town there's a Japanese POW
cemetery (en route to the airport) that provides an additional dark element. Japanese? Yes: at the end of WWII
, the Soviets captured Japanese
soldiers in Manchuria and some of these POWs ended up in this forlorn spot. Here they not only had to perform hard labour, building roads and railways, but apparently also suffered from truly deadly homesickness – according to legend and the graveyard's monument. This monument was erected in 1995 and stands on a mound accordingly (and aptly) named "homesickness hill".
- the photo at the top was taken from a plane coming back from India as we were passing Garabogazköl ... it was late in the evening, so you only get a very faint indication of the outline of the lake and some of the salt flats -