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Sand dunes at Sarykamysh lake
© A. Amanov

Gaplangyr Nature Reserve

The water meets the desert at an enchanting nature reserve where you can see both glistening lakes and dramatic dry gorges.

This pristine reserve in the north of Turkmenistan is impressive not just for the desert landscapes it presents, but for its other prominent feature – lakes! In particular, Gaplangyr Nature Reserve is home to Lake Sarykamysh, one of the largest bodies of water in the deserts of Central Asia. The contrast between the glittering blue of the lake and the vast yellow of the desert is a remarkable sight.

The considerable number of plants around the lake, along with the natural reservoirs of fish, attract a lot of wildlife, making this a fantastic place for birdwatching. There are both resident and migratory birds here, and some excellent examples of wetland and predatory species. In particular, keep your eyes (and maybe binoculars) out for kestrels, marsh harriers, steppe eagles, and even the rare pink and Dalmatian pelicans and gulls.

An Egyptian vulture on a cliff of the Gaplangyr plateau – © A. Amanov
An Egyptian vulture on a cliff of the Gaplangyr plateau – © A. Amanov

The more arid parts of Gaplangyr Nature Reserve are dominated by stony and clay deserts, with some sections of rolling sand dunes. One of the main reasons for establishing the reserve in 1979 was the conservation of threatened animals, including gazelles, honey badgers, and Ustyirt argali. Those populations have grown over the years and you are likely to spot some of them if you're travelling through the right parts of the park.

One of the most spectacular parts of the reserve is Mergen Ishan gorge, which cuts through the landscape for about six kilometres. It can reach up to 70 metres wide and up to 35 metres high, demonstrating the power of the ancient Amudarya river that carved it centuries ago. The bottom of the gorge is overgrown with shrub vegetation and there are many birds and small animals that live here.

A gecko, one of many reptiles in the reserve – © A. Amanov
A gecko, one of many reptiles in the reserve – © A. Amanov

As you arrive at Gaplangyr Nature Reserve, pop into the visitor centre where you can visit a small museum to see some of the herbarium collection, with about 1000 sheets on display. There is also a group of enclosures where some of the important animal species from the reserve are kept for visitors to see.