Turkmenistan: A Destination Guide

The deserts lands of Turkmenistan is one of the most off-the-beaten path destinations in the world. In fact Turkmenistan is the seventh least visited countries in the world!

Turkmenistan is notorious for once being ruled by one of the most eccentric and bizarre dictators the world has ever seen. It’s capital is full of gleaming marble buildings, many fountains and a scattering of weird and wonderful monuments. It’s also home to one of the oldest oasis cities along the Silk Road and is well known for being one of the most difficult visas to obtain. Travelling in Turkmenistan is a truly remarkable experience!

An enclosed ferris wheel is just one of the strange buildings in the capital of Turkmenisatn

An enclosed ferris wheel is just one of the strange buildings in the capital of Turkmenisatn

I was fortunate enough to be able to secure a transit visa for Turkmenistan and I spent a handful of days travelling across this reclusive country on my way from Uzbekistan to Iran in October 2014.

This is my destination guide and overview of my time there together with a few tips for traveling in this little visited country.

Where Is Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan shares borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, and also has a coastline on the Caspian Sea.

turkmenistan-location-map
turkmenistan-map

Turkmenistan’s Past

Turkmenistan was once part of the USSR. From 1985 to 2006 the country was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi (which translates to ‘leader of the Turkmen’) as he preferred to be called.

Turkmenbashi was notorious for being one of the most eccentric and bizarre dictators the world has ever seen. He was particularly famous for developing a personality cult complete with rotating gold statues of himself through to renaming the months of the year in honour of his family, and even more wacky decrees!

Gold statues of Turkmenistan's leader make for an unusual sight

Gold statues of Turkmenistan’s leader make for an unusual sight

Turkmenistan’s Travel Highlights

  • Ashgabat – This is far and away the weirdest city I have ever visited in all of my travels!! Imagine huge hulking white marble buildings next to more huge white marble buildings lining pristine streets of perfectly manicured gardens and beautiful fountains. The streets are wide, clean and empty of people. Except for the occasional policeman who’s sole duty appears to be to loudly blow his whistle, cross his arms in a large cross and yell ‘no photo’ at the random tourist who has made it into this bizarre country. This is the centre of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and it is seriously strange. To read more about Ashgabat head to my post here or check out my photographic journey here.
Central Ashgabat is full of gleaming white marble buildings topped with gold domes!

Central Ashgabat is full of gleaming white marble buildings topped with gold domes!

And plenty of fountains too!

And plenty of fountains too!

Empty streets and weird buildings are the norm in Ashgabat. That weird round building to the left is an enclosed ferris wheel!

Empty streets and weird buildings are the norm in Ashgabat. That weird round building to the left is an enclosed ferris wheel!

  • Merv – once known as the Queen of the World, was one of the great Islamic cities of the ancient world comparable to Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. It was also the oldest and most preserved of the oasis cities along the Silk Road. Today it stands in barely discernible ruins. Want to know more? Check out my post about Merv here.
The ruins of ancient Merv

The ruins of ancient Merv

  • Darvaza Gas Crater – Also known as the Gates to Hell is a natural gas field in DerwezeTurkmenistan, that collapsed into an underground cavern in 1971, becoming a natural gas crater. Geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of deadly methane gas, and it has been burning continuously since then! To see it burning bright at night in the desert is a sight to behold but it is also pretty tricky to visit requiring a driver to be enlisted to drive you out into the desert to see this insane sight. As a solo female traveller I was dubious as to the safety of driving into the desert in the night with just me and a driver so I sadly skipped this sight. To read more and see some cool pics of this strange site check out the awesome Very Hungry Nomad’s blog here.

Practicalities

Below are a few tips I picked up from my travels in Turkmenistan.

  • Visas – Everyone needs a tourist visa to visit Turkmenistan and in order to obtain one you must be accompanied by an accredited guide the entire length of your stay. The only other option is to apply for a transit visa. Transit Visa Details: – Usually issued for a maximum of five days for set dates. Meaning you must enter and exit on the specific dates selected by you and subsequently printed on your visa. You must enter and exit by specific border posts again selected by you and detailed on your visa. To apply you also need proof of visas for the bordering countries you will enter and exit from.
  • Money – It’s not that easy to access cash in Turkmenistan. I highly recommend travellers bring US dollars.
  • Where to Stay – In Mary, close to Merv, I stayed at Hotel Yrsgal for USD50 a night including breakfast. My room was a simple, smallish but functional room with my own bathroom. The staff surprisingly spoke some basic English and the hotel is close to the train station and where shared taxis leave for Ashgabat. In Ashgabat I stayed at Hotel Dayhan, a pretty average hotel which didn’t include breakfast and where the water alternated between freezing cold or scalding hot. One night cost USD40.
  • Getting Around – I travelled to Ashgabat from Mary by shared taxi and it cost 45 manat. It took approx three and a half hours and I was dropped on the outskirts of the city where I had to take another taxi to my hotel. Train is another option but is generally slower than shared taxis.
  • Border Crossings – I found the border crossing into and out of Turkmenistan to be a disorganised, chaotic affair. So be prepared for quite a few locals, lots of different lines for who knows what reason, and confusion to reign supreme! Stay calm and it will all resolve itself somehow in the end. To read about my experience entering Turkmenistan click here and to find out my experience leaving Turkmenistan click here.
  • Female Travellers I travelled in Turkmenistan as a solo female and believe Turkmenistan is a safe country for other solo female travellers provided a few precautions are kept in mind. I recommend modest clothes for female travellers as this is still a conservative, traditional type of country. There are very few other travellers in Turkmenistan so be prepared to not see any other foreigners, or very few, in your travels in Turkmenistan.

For more useful tips and helpful information I recommend http://caravanistan.com

So there it is! My travel destination guide for Turkmenistan. I hope you find it helpful.

Have you been to Turkmenistan? Do you have some helpful tips to share?

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