You might have looked through some itineraries of Turkmenistan Tours, not just with Young Pioneer Tours but also with other companies, and seen Kow Ata mentioned. It probably won’t have really meant anything to you and usually comes with a little description. Something simple along the lines of ‘enjoy Turkmenistan’s deepest underground lake, steaming hot all year round’. Sometimes mention might be made of it hosting the biggest bat colony in Central Asia, otherwise, it will advertise the fact it’s an underground mineral hot springs. That still really doesn’t give you any idea what’s in store, and everyone’s always surprised when they first arrive.
Sure, it’s a deep underground cave, but almost everyone travelling with us to Turkmenistan will have been to caves much deeper, much larger and much more impressive. Most people love swimming in hot springs, but one can swim in hot springs all over the world, and usually don’t have to climb hundreds of stairs afterwards, only to be confronted with the Turkmen heat upon exiting the Kow Ata cave, so it’s also not the most refreshing experience either. The facilities also leave a lot to be desired, with no showers or change rooms and toilets one will usually give a miss.
What makes Kow Ata special is seeing locals letting their hair down, lying around in their swimwear, people drinking beers and eating shashliks (meat kebabs). More often than not you’ll see some local wedding celebrations as well. In Turkmenistan, it’s very common for newly married couples and their guests to drive around to local popular spots, of which Kow Ata is one. They’ll pull up their cars, get the music going and start dancing and taking photos. It seems like some sort of flash mob to any outside observer, but it’s very common practice in this part of the world, and most of the time a surprise tourist is more than welcome to join them for a dance.
When you’re in Ashgabat, the local women will be wearing their traditional dresses, while most men will be in a suit of some description. People from Turkmenistan are usually quite formally dressed for work. Walking around the streets you’re also unlikely to have any random interactions with locals as they busily rush off to their next appointment. However at Kow Ata, those interactions are a dime a dozen, it being very common to be invited over to share a piece of meat or a shot of vodka with a family or group of friends who are enjoying whatever reason it is that they’re not working.
That’s what makes Kow Ata a special place, a place where people genuinely relax, genuinely just be themselves and don’t worry about whether they’re breaking some bizarre law or if they’re being appropriate. It’s the type of Central Asian experience one usually associates with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. That’s why we go there, not for the hot springs but for the people, the unique experience.