Turkmenistan is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia, and one of the least visited in the world. And out in the far west of this often forgotten country lies a natural attraction that few Turkmen have ever even seen: the Yangykala Canyon, a windblown landscape of colorful canyons and strange formations that stretches some 15 miles across the desert to the Garabogazköl Basin.
Yangykala was once underwater, the floor of an ancient ocean that existed millions of years ago. Once that ocean had dried, it left behind a rocky landscape that was slowly eroded by wind and rain, cutting out cliffs and canyons whose walls are now ribbed like the carcasses of strange stranded sea creatures. And then there are the colors: pinks and oranges, reds and yellows, a spectrum of coral shades that give Yangykala Canyon a distinct look.
It’s sometimes referred to as the “The Grand Canyon of Central Asia,” but the two are very different. Yangykala had no Colorado River to carve its path, so the actual canyon is far less defined than the Grand Canyon. In many places it looks more like a Martian landscape, pockmarked and chaotic—a place where few humans come and where even the camels look almost lost.
Know Before You Go
Yangykala Canyon is located in the far northwest of Turkmenistan, about 260 miles northwest of the capital, Ashgabat. You can arrange a three-day tour to the canyon from Ashgabat, or visit it as a day trip from Balkanabat, which is about a four-hour drive from the canyon. The roads are in poor condition, so you need to go by 4x4. There’s also very little in the way of infrastructure or services along the way, so tours must take extra water and fuel in case of emergencies.
Once you arrive, you’ll likely be taken to a rock formation known as the “Crocodile’s Mouth” from which you’ll have excellent views of the canyon. To fully appreciate the stunning sunset (and sunrise), you can arrange to camp on a plateau above the canyon. Be prepared, however, as it can be extremely windy and very cold at night.