Walking with dinosaurs in Turkmenistan's 'Jurassic Park'

With fossilised dinosaur tracks (front left and centre) seen in the foreground a group of tourists (back centre) walk on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 1
With fossilised dinosaur tracks (front left and centre) seen in the foreground a group of tourists (back centre) walk on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A group of tourists visit Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A group of tourists visit Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man puts his bare foot on one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man puts his bare foot on one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A matchbox lies near one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A matchbox lies near one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man touches his hand on one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man touches his hand on one of the fossilised dinosaur tracks on Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs in the country's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KOYTENDAG NATIONAL PARK, Turkmenistan (AFP) - Some eight hours dusty drive from the nearest major settlement, tucked into the eastern corner of Turkmenistan and unknown to the outside world until the second half of the last century, lies the "Plateau of the Dinosaurs".

One of the least visited spots in the former Soviet Union, it is the location of one of the most magnificent collections of fossilised dinosaur tracks anywhere on Planet Earth, which only became known to Soviet palaeontologists in the 1950s.

"Steven Spielberg should have shot 'Jurassic Park' here. Here the tracks of the dinosaurs are real and not made by computers," said Mr Aman, 35, an inhabitant of the village of Khodja Pil at the foot of the plateau.

On the plateau, some 2,500 dinosaur tracks have been discovered. Some are 40cm long and 30cm wide, others even bigger, measuring 70cm by 60cm. A dinosaur 5m to 6m tall could take a stride of up to 2m.

The plateau is renowned for having the longest trackways - continuous lines of footprints made as a dinosaur walked or ran - anywhere in the world. In some places they reach up to 200m.

It seems improbable that what is now an arid mountain zone could sustain such life but 150 million years ago when these creatures reigned supreme on Earth, the eco-system was completely different.

"Some 145-150 million years ago, there were lakes and marshes and herds of dinosaurs strode along the banks. There were both vegetarian and carnivorous dinosaurs.

"This sandy marshland quickly silted up and so these prehistoric tracks left their mark forever," said Dr Anatoly Bushmakin, a Turkmen scientist specialising in the plateau.

Still one of the most isolated countries in the world almost two-and-a-half decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan sees only a trickle of tourists and most visitors who make it out to the Plateau of the Dinosaurs are locals.

"It is like the dinosaurs were here just recently and if you go up the mountain you can imagine that they are walking away into the distance," said Ms Gulya, 27, a visitor from the nearest large town of Turkmenabat. "It's amazing how everyone of us can somehow touch eternity," she added.

The Plateau is located deep in Turkmenistan's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Visiting the border region requires a permit. A visitor from the capital Ashgabat on the other side of the country needs to fly to Turkmenabat, then travel south by road some 450km, a bumpy eight-hour journey.

It was only confirmed in the 1950s that dinosaur tracks existed here, although locals have known about them for much longer, even if they were not quite sure of the origin.

The name of the nearby village of Khodja Pil means "Miracle of the Elephants" in Turkmen. Of course elephants have never existed in Turkmenistan but local legend long had it that the tracks were left by elephants taken by Alexander the Great in his campaigns.

"What is so unique about this plateau is that here precise tracks of dinosaurs have been preserved and you can even make out the toes and then follow the track even," said Dr Bushmakin. "Such a huge number of prints has not been found anywhere else on the planet," he added.

For all its remoteness, Turkmen officials have some hope of making the area a major draw. The plateau is located in the heart of the Koytendag National Park which is the location of Turkmenistan's highest mountain (Airybaba at 3,319m) as well as waterfalls, lakes and caves.

"Because of this, the ministry of tourism in Turkmenistan is preparing a dossier to apply for the Koytendag national park to be declared part of Unesco world heritage," said the head of the reserve, Mr Mukhamet Imamov.