Thursday, February 11, 2010

Turkmenistan's GREAT salt lake: Mollakara

by Charles Gussow, T-11
As is occasionally apparent, your humble Camel Spit editor was a proud temporary denizen of Balkanabat. Readers will need to forgive this, and other instances of regional boosterism.

Many travelers assume that Balkanabat is not a prime location for aquatic adventure. This is a misconception. Sure, the town is surrounded by high desert and mountains, but that doesn't mean you need to go all the way to Turkmenbashi City and the Caspian Sea to enjoy a day at the beach. Balkanabat is a short taxi or marshrutka (minibus) ride away from Mollakara, a GREAT salt lake, located in the outskirts of Jebel. The saltiness means you become super buoyant as you float around and the high mineral content is believed to have strong health benefits. In fact, after Avaza gets rebuilt, Mollakara is due for a sanatarium upgrade.
Until then, here are some tips for enjoying your trip to Mollakara.

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* Make sure to arrange round trip transportation from and back to downtown Balkanabat. Nothing against Jebel. I hear they have a great chaihana (teahouse). It's just that on a hot August day, it's no fun trying to convince the average taxi driver that you will not pay 10 times the going rate for getting back to Balkanabat when the alternative is a 25km walk through the desert.

* Bring picnic supplies, but keep your eye on your watermelons.
(Background: Turkmenistan has great melons. I'm not making a juvenile double entendre, just stating a fact about Central Asian produce. Rumor has it that in the Soviet era, a Turkmen could bribe himself into a nice hotel room in Moscow by bringing up a couple of melons from the motherland.)
Mollakara is a great place for a picnic, but humans aren't the only ones enjoying the party. There are cows enjoying the lake atmosphere. If there's one thing I know about cows, it's that they will just as soon eat your melons as look at you.

* Best not to shave for a day or two before plunging into the water. Ever hear the phrase, "pouring salt in the wound?" Getting salt in cuts is painful. In fact, it hurts quite badly. Similarly, no matter how persuasive your friends are and no matter how many Zip beers you have enjoyed while waiting to bathe, do not open your eyes under water.

* Bring a beach ball or frisbee, but be prepared to share. Throwing a toy around as you're floating freakishly high in the water is a ton of fun. You're not the only one who will realize this. Launch the ball in the general direction of that group of kids in the corner. They'll probably send it back to you eventually.

* Ladies, gentlemen, let's not get too cuddly. This isn't some shady disco, it's a family area. Also, ladies if you have a long dress that you wouldn't mind bathing in, that wouldn't be amiss. For gender equity, feel free to insist that the men in your group bring along their swimming pants, bathing button down shirt, and aqua tie.

The next time you find yourself in Balkan Welayat, remember that you don't necessarily need to take that 1.5 hour ride to the Caspian Sea when there's a GREAT salt lake a short taxi ride away from the regional capital.

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