The underground lake of Kow-Ata, conveniently located in the middle of nowhere (but on the Ashgabat – Balkanabat road) has been billed by local tour operators and travel writers alike as a magical underground lair, a holy and mysterious thermal spa; a swimming experience like nowhere else on earth.
Is it really like that?
Or does it smell like pee?
Visiting the underground lake
Well, it definitely smells like pee, and it is unclear if this is due to the sulfuric gases that keep the water at a constant temperature of 30-something degrees Celsius, or because of actual pee. It does raise the question:
How does the water get changed?
It seemed very stagnant when we visited, and not as clear as it says in the Lonely Planet.
On a spring day in early June, it was busy at the lake (pond is a better word for it – it’s not very big). Turkmen moms and dads splash around with their kids in the water, obviously not bothered by the astronomical entry fee of 40 manat (15$).
The concrete staircase as well as the changing rooms, coupled with a bunch of freewheeling kids, it all feels quite dirty and suspicious when you’re standing in your swim shorts.
Maybe I’m exaggerating here.
One interesting upside to the cave however, is that it holds the largest colony of bats in Central Asia. You will not see them though – they are sleeping.
I am definitely not a fan of Kow-Ata. Bathing in an underground thermal spa when it’s 45 degrees outside is just not that great, especially when there are better (and cheaper!) places to spend your money and time on the way to Ashgabat, like Nokhur, Nissa and the Kipchak Mosque.
Maybe it’s different in the winter. You will probably have more chance of hanging out there by yourself.
Anyway, that’s just me, and not everyone agrees – see this Twitter rebuttal from Stephen Lioy:
— Stephen Lioy (@slioy) July 27, 2013
One final note: visiting the lake, you might see a Turkmen wedding as we did. It’s an interesting sight: a horde of people suddenly invades, starts making music, dancing and devouring the snacks on offer, only to leave about 10 minutes later, stuffing the bride back in the car (she only just made it out of her white Mercedes, hunched under a 10kg headdress) sufficiently blessed by the holiness of the place, and en route to the next one.
Have you visited Kow-Ata? What did you think?