Much of the country is covered by the sparsely inhabited desert known as the Kara Kum ("Black Sands'), and the main population centres are dotted around the edge of Turkmenistan, particularly the piedmont oases at the foot of the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south, the Amu Darya River valley in the east and the Khorezm Oasis in the north. The west of the country abuts the Caspian.
The climate is a severe continental one. Between December and February, temperatures frequently fall below freezing while, at the height of summer, temperatures above 40C are common, and 50C not unknown. There is very little rainfall during the summer months, and overall annual rainfall is low: a tiny 80mm in parts of the north of the country, rising to 300mm or so in the mountains in the south.
With 80% of Turkmenistan's territory desert, the flora and fauna of Turkmenistan is focused strongly around species able to withstand arid conditions. The desert ecosystems of the Kara Kum are varied, including expanses of barkhan sand dunes, the fiat clay desert known as takyr, and large stretches dominated by the gnarled saxaul trees. The mountain ecosystems of the Kopet Dag and Kugitang ranges include the pistachio savannahs of Badkyz and, above around 1,000m, landscapes dominated by juniper. River valley environments include the remarkable salt-resistant tugay forests of the Amu Darya (see page 190). In spring, the deserts and hillsides of Turkmenistan, moistened by the winter rains and snows and warmed by the sun, briefly erupt into colour, as ephemeral and other flowering plants put on a wonderful display. The brilliant reds of the poppies and tulips turn uneventful landscapes into scenes to inspire any artist.
Among the wildlife of Turkmenistan, two species of hoofed mammals, protected in the country's nature reserves, have become almost symbols of the country. The goitred gazelle or jieran, the name deriving from its enlarged larynx, and the Central Asian wild ass, known as kulan, are both found in large herds. Badkyz Nature Reserve is a particularly good place to see both, as well as herds of the Transcaspian urial, a wild sheep. Other rare mammals include the Bukhara deer of the tugay forests and small populations of leopard in the Kopet Dag Mountains. You are highly unlikely to see either. The Turan tiger and Asiatic cheetah are both now extinct in Turkmenistan. One large hoofed mammal you will have little problem in encountering in Turkmenistan is the cameli domesticated single-humped dromedaries, which are kept for their wool, milk and meat. Ambling in front of oil derricks in the Balkan Region, or the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, these creatures add a certain exoticism to many a tourist photo taken in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen deserts are home to large rodent populations, which survive the harsh conditions by spending much of their time underground, where temperatures are milder and more equable. Amongst the most common species are ground squirrels, known as susliks; great gerbils, much larger than the creatures common as pets in Western households; and the nocturnal jerboas, with huge eyes and long hind legs. The holes made by burrowing rodents cover many desert slopes. The desert nights also accommodate porcupines, foxes and striped hyenas. The rodents form a major food source for the many birds of prey, which include eagles, buzzards, falcons and vultures, and which are often to be seen gliding above the desert terrain. Hunting with falcons is also popular, and is carried out both by local Turkmen clubs and hunting parties from the Gulf states.
Turkmenistan has a fearsome collection of reptiles, including several species of highly poisonous snakes, among them Central Asian cobras and saw-scaled vipers. Among the lizards, the desert monitor, known as zemzen, is the giant, reaching a length of up to 1.8m, and a weight of 2.5kg. This almost prehistoric-looking creature delivers both a fierce bite and a painful blow with its tail, but is traditionally regarded as a welcome neighbour by nomadic Turkmen families because it keeps down the snake population.
Among the domesticated animals, two distinctive Turkmen species of dogs deserve mention. You may well come across the large Central Asian sheepdog known as alabai, whose ears and tail are traditionally docked to make the animals less vulnerable in fights. Turkmens also believe that cutting the ears down improves the animals" hearing. Alabais are resilient to large temperature variations and modest in their food needs. While they can be highly affectionate, be wary of approaching any alabai guarding a flock. Much less common is the tazy, a lean and alert hunting dog of the borzoi family, Tazys are often used in conjunction with falcons for hunting.