Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - Grotto of Forty Girls

[Continued from May 23 travel in previous post]

We unloaded our luggage on the train platform in Kelif. We greeted the reception line of holy men and young ladies, and then saw the performance. Although Turkmenbat is the larger city, there was a lot more enthusiasm and grandeur to the Kelif welcome ceremony. There were three song numbers, and at least two separate dance segments. 

Welcome reception at Kelif.
We went back to grab our luggage, and then were put in crisp white SUVs (VWs, I think, and each one with a picture of the Turmenistan coat of arms and the President affixed to the windshield) for our 2hr. police-escorted drive to the Lebaptorusm State Recreation Centre in the village of Koyten. There was some amazing geology exposed on the unpaved route, make more vivid by the numerous red paleosols.
Amazing geology!
We arrived at the Recreation Centre around 10pm. We greeted the reception line and dropped our luggage in our rooms. The rooms were great (no smoking!); they remind me of the "Chicken Coops" housing on the grounds of the Museum of Northern Arizona [great accommodation!]. We were treated to another feast of local fare, as well as the Turkmenistan national vodka, poured into small one oz. glasses from a ceramic teapot. I do not drink hard liquor, but I let the strong spirit sit in my throat with each sip, hopefully killing whatever bug might be lingering. If anything I'm sure it helped me sleep. Rich and I turned in right away - our international friends wanted us to join them for some more "clear tea", but I was barely hanging on as it was. We had an early day tomorrow.

May 24th - First Official Field Trip Part 1 - Grotto of Forty Girls

One thing we found out about the village of Koyten is that it has a village-wide call to prayer at 4:15am. It's a deep, echoey, sing-songy number that continues for about a minute. I can see why they would want to start the day early; it is lovely and cool in the morning. The birds also kick into high gear after the morning call. I woke and showered around 6:30am. Today is the day we head to the Kotendag track site, as well as the Kyrk gyz (Forty Girls) Grotto, the waterfall in the Umbar canyon, and visit a capitve-native animal breeding facility near the Umbar canyon. Canyon ecosystems, new exciting birds, dinosaur tracks, and baby animals await us!

We boarded a what looked like a hybrid between a white transport truck and a Monster Truck. The wheels on these vehicles are huge! Now this is a field transport!

The Paintmixer.

Locusts were quite common, and a great source of food for the local birds!
Our entourage was equally large: two grey-green versions of our transport vehicle, a medical truck, and what I assume were several press vehicles. The box-area of the truck had large windows and padded bus-like seats. The engine started with a growl and we started rolling. After five minutes on the bus we knew we were, quite literally, in for a bumpy ride: the bus (or "The Paintmixer", given how my insides were feeling) had the same suspension as the PRPRC's Argo (none). Regardless, the windows were large so we had a great view of the landscape. Several canyons and washouts tempted me (and I'm sure my other palaeo colleagues) with their exposed bedding surfaces, but there was no stopping; we had a long way to travel and a lot to see today.

We arrived at the mouth of the grotto entrance, and I could already tell I was going to be in for a day of fantastic birding. I figured I should get my fill of birds in the morning, since I'd be too busy at the track site in the afternoon for viewing avian theropods. It would be bad form for one of the paleontologist to be staring at the sky and the bushes with binoculars while tripping on the dinosaur tracks. My binoculars were my birding badge, and the fellows from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Mark, Chris, and Geoff) took the time to point out all the interesting birds they spotted. Rock Nuthatches, several species of swift, Crag Martin, Booted Eagles, Common Kestrals, Red-Billed Choughs, Rooks, Blue Thrushes...forget jewelry for Christmas: I want international birding guides!

We hike the canyon bed for the Grotto of Forty Girls (Kryk Gyz). The temperature in the canyon is cool and refreshing compared to the 30 C baking heat of the exposed desert. Even so, I was glad for my CamelPak. As we were starting we could see the refreshment table being set up for our return. Even if I had no water on me there was no way our hosts would let me expire from thirst.

Signage for the "Forty Girls Grotto". The five symbols below the picture are the symbols of the five provinces of Turkmenistan.

Panoramic picture of the canyon entrance.
Wild poppies add splashes of color to the arid landscape.
The Grotto was ready for our arrival. The little wood stove was burning and the green tea was hot and ready for anyone who sat on the benches. 

Prayer cloths - colored cloth secured to the ceiling by Grotto mud.

The Grotto stove was ready with hot green tea for all visitors.
I was pulled aside for a girls only photo with Svetlana (Russian geologist) and the grotto hostess: the Grotto is apparently sacred to women, and there women's prayers are heard. This Strange Woman doesn't subscribe to any particular religious system, but this did not stop me from adding my prayer cairn for the continuation of the Museum Project in Tumbler Ridge to the dozens of monuments to hope and belief. Cloth is also a common prayer item in this region. The Grotto was festooned with colorful cloths suspended from the ceiling with red Grotto mud.

My prayer cairn for the success of the Museum Project.
We left the canyon and boarded "The Paintmixer" to head to our next destination: the Koytendag Track Site. Stay tuned for the continuation of our first official day of field trips!


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