Kov Ata cave
One of the acclaimed wonders of Turkmenistan
and one that most organized trips tend to include. So what is it and why is it dark? Well, a huge cave, some 60 metres (200 feet) underground with a subterranean lake that you can swim in (in medicinal thermal waters) in the damp dark while bats circle overhead … sounds dark and gothic? Sure does.
Unfortunately, the appeal to scores of visitors, beginning in Soviet
times and continuing to this day, has apparently done some damage, especially to the once enormous bat colony. Only comparatively few remain today. The waters are said to be less clean and healthy today too. But still. Unless fear of dark caverns – or worries about contributing to the damage done by visiting – puts you off, then it's still quite an experience.
The descent is via paved and well-maintained steps, so that bit isn't all too adventurous, if a little strenuous afterwards – you still have to climb back up the 276 steps. But the darkness, only punctured by the hole in the cave's ceiling and a few artificial lights along the path, plus the option of going for a dip in the lake at the bottom of the cave, and possibly the added bonus of seeing some bats, makes for a kind-of dark tourism experience. It's typically offered as part of package trips or can be arranged fairly easily as an excursion from Ashgabat
When I visited the place in November 2010, however, I saw no bats at all – and only two people I spoke to claimed to have spotted any. So the bat element seems to have diminished to the point of insignificance. What I did see lots of, in contrast, were pigeons … and their droppings. It was also quite busy with humans. Apart from the group that I was travelling with, there were several further tourists, mostly from other ex-Soviet countries.
A sign outside states (in Turkmen, Russian and rather dodgy English) that people with heart diseases and/or high blood pressure should not visit, and that in any case you're not supposed to stay in the warm water (ca. 35 degrees Celsius) for more than 20 minutes, and should spend no longer than 45 minutes in the cave in total. Why all that is so is not made entirely clear. Maybe it's to do with the sulphurous fumes. The stink is not that bad, though. Nor does your body (or your swimsuit) stink badly of sulphur afterwards – in contrast to the extremely sulphurous bathing experience at Viti crater lake
The cave is "administered" by the Ministry of Health and Sport and is said to be open daily between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Foreigners who just turn up are charged 20 USD admission, but if you go with a tour organizer it's a bit less (or may be included in the tour price).
about 60 miles (105 km) west of Ashgabat
near the village of Bakharden
Google maps locator: roughly at [38.73,56.80