The Karakum Desert is a vast expanse of arid land located in Central Asia. It is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, covering an area of about 135,000 square miles (350,000 square kilometers), stretching about 500 miles (800 km) from west to east and 300 miles (500 km) from north to south. The desert covers more than 80% of the whole territory of Turkmenistan.


The name “Karakum” is also spelled as “Kara-Kum”, Turkmen “Garagum” or “Gara Gum” which translates to “black sand” in Turkic languages. “Kara” means “dark” or “black”, “kum” means sand. It refers to the shale-rich sand that is commonly found under the sand of most of the desert.

In post-Soviet countries, the Karakum desert is often called in Russian “Karakumy”.


The desert is mainly situated in Turkmenistan, although it stretches into parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as well. According to its geological and natural conditions, the Karakum (Garagum) can be divided into three large parts: Northern or Zaunguz, Central or Lowland, and South-Eastern Karakum.

The Karakum desert on the map of Turkmenistan.
The Karakum desert on the map of Turkmenistan.


The climate in the Karakum Desert is harsh, with scorching hot summers and extremely cold winters. It receives very little rainfall throughout the year, making it a challenging environment for life to thrive. The average temperature in January in the north of the desert is −5°С, in the south 3°С, in July from 28°С to 34°С.

The daily air temperature fluctuations are very high – during the day the temperature in many parts of the desert rises to 50 ° C or more in summer, which makes it one of the hottest deserts in the world. On the ground, warming up is even greater – up to 80 ° C. Precipitation is scarce – from 60 mm per year in the north to 150 mm in the south, and up to 70% of it falls in November – April.


The sands of the Karakum are composed of finely dispersed evaporites and the remains of sedimentary and subordinately metamorphic and volcanic lithic fragments. It is believed that they were brought here by rivers from the mountains in prehistoric times.

Nature Trekking Group des-camp
Dunes at the Karakum dune field


Groundwater in the Karakum Desert are located at a depth of 6-10 meters. There are linzas of fresh water in some areas. In the desert you can find ancient man-made reservoirs on clay sites which was used to collect rainfall. Locals call them “takyrah”.

The northern part of the Karakum desert is more arid. Its natural border is the bed of the ancient river Uzboy. This river is now a mostly dry branch of the Amudarya River. Even in the Middle Ages, it was often filled with water and flowed into the Caspian Sea.

The dry bed of the ancient river Uzboy.
The dry canyon formed by the ancient river Uzboy. Photo by O. Guchgeldiyev.

The Sarykamysh (or Sary-Kamysh) depression is also located there. It was periodically filled with water from the Amu Darya after which a lake formed in it. In the second half of the 20th century, wastewater from farmers fields began to be actively discharged into the depression. Thanks to this the drying lake began to exist as a permanent one.

In the southern part of the desert are the Murghab and Tejen rivers. The rivers take their sources from the Hindu Kush Mountains in the west and empty into the desert to provide irrigation water. All these rivers are fed mainly by snow. There are oases along the Murgab River, the largest of which are the Merv, Iolatan and Pendinsky.

Murghab river in the Mary oasis
Murghab river in the Mary oasis

Tejen River is a seasonal river. Its downstream is lost in the Karakum desert during the winter months, and it flows continuously in the summer. The reason why it is a seasonal river is the melting of the mountain glaciers and snow at the source.

The desert is crossed by the Karakum Canal – the second largest irrigation canal in the world. It delivers water from the Amu Darya and its tributaries to the southern regions of the desert. The construction of the canal took place from 1954 to 1958. It was a very important infrastructure project in the USSR for the development of the region.

The Karakum Canal has a length of 1375 km (900 mi). Its annual discharge capacity 13–20 km³ of water.

The Karakum Canal
The Karakum Canal

Golden Age Lake project

Golden Age Lake is an artificial lake construction project in the Karakum Desert. Man-made reservoir should appear in the Karashor depression. It is also called Altyn Asyr köli locally or Karakum Lake or Turkmen Lake. When completed, the lake will cover 2,000 square kilometers (770 sq mi) with a maximum depth of 70 meters (230 ft) and hold over 130 cubic kilometers (4,600 billion cubic feet) of water. Filling the lake could take 15 years and cost up to $4.5 billion.

According to government plans, it is to be filled with a 2,650 kilometers (1,650 mi) network of tributaries. The Dashoguz collector, 432 kilometers long, follows the course of the ancient river Uzboy for about half of its length. The Great Turkmen Sewer begins in the Lebap velayat and is 720 km (450 miles) long. They are used to pump sewage from irrigated cotton fields towards the lake.

Karakum lake project
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov helps dig a pass to allow water to flow from a tributary during the opening ceremony of the man-made Golden Age Lake.


Despite its harsh conditions, the Karakum desert is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, specially adapted to survive in this extreme environment. Some of the notable wildlife species can be found only in the desert.


The flora of the Karakum desert is represented by sandy sedge, sandy acacia, astragalus and saxaul. In spring, most of the desert territory is covered with ephemera and ephemeroids, which dry up normally already in early May. Vegetation is absent only in the zone of dune sands, which occupy about 5% of the desert.

Nature Trekking Karakum Desert
Turkmen choban and his shepherd dogs against the background of saxaul thickets


The fauna in this area, like the flora, does not differ in species diversity due to harsh natural conditions. The world of insects and other arthropods in the Karakum desert is diverse and includes ants, termites, mites, spiders, dung beetles and dark beetles. Typical representatives of local reptiles are lizards, turtles and snakes.

Central Asian gray monitor lizard (lat. Varanus griseus caspius), called "zem-zem" in Turkmenistan
Central Asian gray monitor lizard (lat. Varanus griseus caspius), called “zem-zem” in Turkmenistan

Bird species include alauda, desert sparrows and other species, while rodents include jerboas and ground squirrels. Tolai hare, goitered gazelle, and corsac fox are examples of the mammalian species of the Karakum Desert.

Ground squirrel in the Karakum desert
Ground squirrel in the Karakum desert

Archaeology and history

Archaeologists have found a lot of human remains from the Stone Age in the Karakum desert. The formation of the Great Balkans, a local mountain range, ended in the Holocene epoch. At the end of the Ice Age, the local climate was humid. Where the desert sands are now located, full-flowing rivers flowed.

Despite the harsh arid climate at , the Karakum desert played an important role in the history of the ancient civilizations of the East. Ancient trade routes ran through its territory, the most famous of which is the Silk Road, through which goods from China were delivered to the Middle East and Europe.

Abandoned early medieval fortress in the desert
Abandoned early medieval fortress in the desert

Thanks to the developed irrigation system and wells, agriculture was already possible in ancient times. The Karakum desert is also known as the place where the Turkic tribes originated and launched their first attacks and invasions into Asia Minor (now Turkey) and beyond.

The Karakum Desert has a rich cultural heritage as well. It is home to the ancient city of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once an important center of the Silk Road trade route. The desert also holds archaeological sites, including the ruins of ancient settlements and fortresses, providing insights into the region’s historical significance.

The State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv”
The State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv”

Economy and resources

The Karakum Desert is also known for its significant natural resources. It holds substantial reserves of natural gas, making Turkmenistan one of the world’s leading gas producers. The desert landscape is dotted with drilling platforms and infrastructure related to the gas industry.

Darvaza Gas Crater - The Door To Hell
The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert is a burning natural gas field collapsed into a cavern. It’s a very popular tourist attraction.

Economy & resources

The oasis of Mary and Tejen attracts attention with the cultivation of cotton, melon and watermelon. The region has important deposits of oil, natural gas and sulfur. The Trans-Caspian Railway crosses the Karakum desert.


The Karakum Desert has become a popular tourism destination since Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Republic of Turkmenistan, it became accessible to tourists from all over the world. Natural and historical sights attract thousands of tourists here every year.

Nature Trekking Karakum Desert
Our tourist camp in the desert

Overall, the Karakum Desert is a captivating and challenging environment, offering a unique blend of natural wonders, cultural heritage, and economic resources.