It’s likely you’ve never heard of this country.
Off-the-beaten track doesn’t even cover Turkmenistan, it’s simply a forgotten country that has secretly flourished due to it’s oil and natural gas reserves. Dubbed the Dubai of Central Asia, Ashgabat is a capital city that is lined with pristinely clean streets, huge hotels but with very few guests.
Facts about Turkmenistan:
- Turkmenistan gives every citizen free government-provided electricity, gas & water
- It’s illegal to smoke outside, but inside in fine
- Petrol is crazy cheap, you can fill a tank for approximately £4 ($7)
- It’s the least visited of Central Asia’s stans’, making it an incredibly unique and fascinating destination to explore
For your typical tourist who’s never heard of this place, all they’ll probably imagine that’s here is desert and camels. However for the thrifty traveller you’ll discover the incredible ancient Silk Road and wonderful natural beauty of the Karakum desert.
Where is Turkmenistan?
Before visiting the country people asked me where am I travelling to next? I answered with “Turkmenistan” and immediately got confused looks.
“Is that just Turkey but a specific part?”
Bordering four countries including Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan certainly has a prime position in the world.
Central Asian countries are notorious for getting a visa for. With bureaucratic red tape and invitation letter’s, it can seem like a confusing and awkward hoop-jumping process.
However I had one of the easiest experiences with Turkmenistan. I booked on to a trip and several months before the trip goes ahead you’ll receive an official Letter of Invitation.
Once you have this you’ll need to fill out an application form (For UK visa advice, click here) and get some passport photos done, always the worst part! Thankfully living in London I could easily head to the Embassy which is based near Holland Park, I don’t think they see many tourist visa requests though as they didn’t really know how much to charge me!
Eventually they figured it out and I paid £33 GBP, with a nice beautiful sticker in my passport as a visa!
Alternatively if you can’t make it to an embassy you can apply on arrival in Ashgabat, although you’ll pay much more and this can be a very lengthy process.
Tourism in Turkmenistan
Central Asia used to be off-limits to travellers, until recently many of the stans’ have become more open to accepting tourists mostly due to having dollar signs in their eyes.
To put things into perspective, London welcomes approximately 17 million visitors per year whereas the entire country of Turkmenistan receives only 25,000 tourists, depending on if you accept official figures which are usually over inflated.
One thing’s for sure is it’s unlikely you’ll see another tourist group on your entire trip! Perfect for those tourist hot-spot-phobes like me.
My travel diary
From London I had three viable choices of how to get to Turkmenistan:
- Fly direct with Turkmenistan Airlines
- Fly in-direct via Russia
- Fly in-direct via Turkey
Given that the national airline has only been rated one star for service, I opted to fly via Turkey with British Airways and then onto Ashgabat with Turkish Airlines.
- Day 1
After suffering some pretty bad turbulence from Istanbul to Ashgabat it was a relief when we were finally coming in to land. I started to get the first-time visit nerves.
Would they let me in?
Have I done all my visa checks properly?
Upon the approach you’ll notice all the amazing, huge buildings springing up on the approach to Ashgabat, including the new multi-million pound airport which is under construction. Even though they only recently completed a brand new one!
My first afternoon in the capital was spent acclimatising and discovering what the city had to offer. Be very aware where you take photos, in the Presidential Palace Square there’s hundreds of guards, police and soldiers who will stop you taking photographs and will make you delete them.
Turkmenistan is home to one of the largest mosques in Central Asia, originally built by the French in 2004 the Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque was up until recently the largest but has now lost its crown to Kazakhstan.
- Day 2
After a quick visit to Ashgabat it was time to head out of the capital but not without visiting the Altyn Asyr Bazaar. This sprawling market used to be called Tolkuchka Bazaar and was located in the city centre, but has since been relocated to the outskirts and has been modernised meaning it’s lost some of the charm it once had.
You can quite literally buy anything from traditional Turkmen carpets and rugs to camels and sheep.
Turkmenistan doesn’t have many famous tourist attractions, however local Turkmen are aware of their very own thermal baths called Kow Ata. It’s simply an underground lake in cave which is constantly warm all year-round.
It’s got some pretty steep and battered steps that you’ll need to climb up/down, like with many other developing tourist attractions the facilities leave a lot to be desired and it’s best if you come prepared by already wearing your swimwear!
Horses are one of the few animals that local people don’t eat, they are hugely prized and respected. Akhal-Teke horses can fetch up to £1m so there’s a huge sense of pride in how valuable they are.
Deep within the Kopetdag Mountains we eventually arrived at our homestay for the evening with a local family. This is the perfect way to see how traditional life still flourishes outside the glitzy capital.
After living in London for so long I’m used to noise waking me up, but not fellow travellers snoring or as a fellow traveller encountered a lady milking a cow.
My advice would be to make sure you’ve got a strong nose before entering the long-drop toilet!
- Day 3
Around March 20th every year Turkmen people celebrate the Nowruz festival, a way of welcoming spring in the Persian calendar.
Turkmenistan is not used to tourists, some of the locals are unsure what to do when they see you and still have a Soviet-mentality to pretend you don’t exist. However whilst attending the festival these perceptions appear to be changing with a few people saying hello and asking where we were from which was encouraging to see.
Some of the people I was travelling with even got interviewed on the national Turkmenistan TV channel, but of course they were forced to thank the President for inviting them.
- Day 4
Day 4 of my trip was where I had my faith in humanity restored, after leaving Ashgabat and heading towards Mary in the East of the country I had an experience that I’ll never forget.
Approximately 10 miles away from the Iranian border is the remains of a 15th Century fortress, made all the more creepy by the fact it was misty and muddy due to the overnight rain. After exploring the site it was time to head back towards the main road, until our bus broke down.
Our driver tried several times to fix the problem but with no luck, after sitting by the side of the road for over an hour a local Soviet-style battered bus drove by and the driver stopped to see if he could help. Not only that, all the locals got off and started talking to us and before we knew it they had put mats out on the grass and a conveyer-belt of food started appearing including meat, fruit and dips and a Turkmen picnic was born.
It was absolutely amazing, they were willing to share their food with us and no one complained that we were holding them up. They were simply happy to meet us and wanted to find out why we were visiting their country.
A memory that will stay with me and a true travelling first for me.
- Day 5
Turkmenistan is mostly made up of a vast desert called the Karakum, meaning black sand, if you get lost here you will die. Although in my experience people or camels seemed to keep appearing out of no-where!
After driving for several hours our driver hit a mound too hard and we lost our bumper, the locals found it rather amusing that we were driving with it on top of our roof! We eventually made it to the Margush Bronze Age capital of Gonur Depe, a walled-city that is currently being excavated and was home to one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world.
They recently discovered a burial ground for dogs, according to our guide when someone was dying a dog would sit and stare at them until they died then they would eat them. Dogs were treated like humans and their burial plots prove this theory.
After discovering one of the fascinating ancient sites of the area it was time to move on to see another, just outside Mary is the UNESCO World Heritage site called Merv.
One of the most important sites along the Silk Road it was once of the largest cities in the world, fought over by Arabs, Mongols, Uzbeks and Turks. Merv is spread out over a vast area and you’ll need a driver to be able to see the whole site, it amazed me to see that even in an UNESCO site people were going about their daily lives with sheep and camels and due to the roads going straight through the site people can drive around quite freely.
- Day 6
What do tourists get up to when they have no internet? They play travel games and get drunk! So after a really fun evening unfortunately the morning came all too quickly and early for my liking, still drunk and with the hangover from hell I had to leave my hotel at 7am to board a Turkmenistan Airlines flight back to Ashgabat.
I imagined it would be an old Russian-style plane but it was a fairly modern Boeing jet which was comfortable enough, unless you’re tall and have long legs.
The most famous site you’ll see of Turkmenistan is most likely to be of the Darvaza (sometimes called Deweze) gas crater a.k.a the Door to Hell. It’s a natural gas field, although originally in the 1970’s Soviet engineers believed there was oil underneath this part of the desert and began drilling.
When their rig collapsed and a crater appeared the poisonous/odourless gases started pouring out killing local livestock and farmers so they had no choice but to set fire to it. Thinking it would only be for a number of months it’s shocking to think that after 40 years it’s still burning and showing no signs of dying out.
The President has threatened many times to fill the crater in and siphon off the gas but as yet this hasn’t happened. Make sure you’re not just one of those tourists who comes for 20 minutes and then drives back to Ashgabat, stay overnight and camp in the desert!
Like with many other tourist attractions, some visitors don’t really care about what they are seeing or the affects they might have on others visiting in the future. Do everyone a favour and don’t throw rubbish into the crater! It’s not big, it’s not clever and it makes you look like a complete fool quite frankly.
- Day 7
After a cold and windy night in a tent it’s nice to head over to the crater for some warmth and simply just to sit and stare in awe and amazement.
The Door to Hell is located 3-4 hours north of Ashgabat, the main road is pretty good in comparison to some of the other Turkmenistan roads, however for the last part you will need an off-road vehicle.
Once back in Ashgabat I had a free afternoon to go explore or relax. I chose to see the Russian market located near our hotel, it’s a melting pot of food, groceries, clothes and souvenirs.
This was officially the last day of the tour, although I’d booked my flights wrong coming back and had an extra day to explore.
- Day 8
Ashgabat is a city that is changing rapidly, any part of it’s Soviet past is being torn down and replaced by huge white marble and futurist buildings. For me this was strange as every other former Soviet republic I’ve been to has clung on to their past, but Turkmenistan is striving forward to remove any trace of it’s past with Russia.
I’d heard about a theme park in the capital and wanted to check it out, it was fairly easy to walk there which was great. It’s called World of Turkmenbashi Tales (after the dear leader, naturally) and is Turkmenistan’s version of Disney World.
Be prepared to sorely disappointed, many rides are closed or have probably never opened, staff look so depressed that they want to kill themselves and given that the project was only completed in 2006 the decay make it look about 50 years old!
For only 3 Manat (Just under $1) it’s not hard to see why it doesn’t make money. The entry fee includes 4 rides, if you can find any open. The one roller coaster was thankfully open, however if the ride is full and a local man is waiting to get on, a woman will be required to vacate her seat!
- Day 9
Time to leave Turkmenistan and head back to London. Make sure if you have some Turkmenistan Manat left over you exchange it before you get to the airport as the exchange office refused, sadly I had to hand over money to a guy in the airport who gave me a very poor exchange rate.
Travel to Turkmenistan
Fancy following in my footsteps? I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer budget travel to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.