Turkmenistan is a country full of unexplored corners with sights unmatched to anywhere else in world.
Did you know, for example, that Turkmenistan is home to a striking canyon rising out of an otherwise nondescript desert? Yangykala canyon is so little known that not every local person has heard of it, let alone visited it. Wikipedia doesn’t even bother mentioning Yangykala in its list of the world’s canyons. Perhaps the canyon’s remote location is to blame: it is located off a narrow road 170 km from each of Balkanabat and Turkmenbashi, the nearest large settlements. Having previously been used almost exclusively to reach a uranium mine in the area (now closed), the road has seen better days and makes for a bumpy ride through some spectacular wilderness.
For those interested in ancient history, Turkmenistan provides a perfect playground. Formerly lying on the main traverses of Silk Road, the country has accumulated a vast heritage of related artefacts. In the cultural complexes of Merv, Margush, Kunya Urgench and others, history literally lies under one’s feet, most noticeably in the form of colourful clay shards – remnants of countless ceramic vessels used in everyday life of the ancient settlements, when trade was booming and flow of merchant traffic never used to ebb. Many other sites in Turkmenistan contribute to the country’s rich archaeological legacy, including the ancient Parthian city of Old Nisa (UNESCO heritage site since 2007) near Ashgabat and the many fortress ruins in the Dashoguz province.
Pregnant camel poses at entrance to Dekhistan historic site: the few remains of an ancient city in the Misrian valley
TURKMENISTAN: WHAT TO SEE
For many, the primary reason to visit Turkmenistan is to see the Darvaza gas crater – Turkmenistan’s single most famed attraction. It is not uncommon for visitors to see precisely nothing else in the entire country. Such whirlwind visitors usually combine a peek of the crater with a tour of another Central Asian country, often the much better known neighbouring Uzbekistan. Crossing the Uzbek border early, such groups drive to Darvaza, camp near the crater overnight, drive back to the Uzbek border and – bam! – leave the next day. I have even heard stories of day trips to Darvaza from Uzbekistan, involving no overnight stay whatsoever – apparently very popular with travellers galloping through the Stans in the nick of time.
Catching a moment alone by the Darvaza gas crater at dusk: most tourists arrive much later when darkness falls
The above is exactly the opposite of what I would recommend for Turkmenistan. The country has plenty to see and do, and its size means that getting from one corner to another – while hitting the sights of interest along the way – takes a long time. Many attractions, including Yangykala canyon and Dekhistan, lie out on a limb, requiring dedicated day trips from the nearest large city (unless you are camping). Turkmenistan’s size is roughly comparable to that of Spain. Imagine dedicating two weeks to, say, France, popping across the border to Barcelona for one night and then signing off Spain as a “visited” country. It would be unthinkable for Spain, so why do the same in Turkmenistan?
Friends gave me surprised looks when I told them I was travelling to Turkmenistan for 15 days (“what are you going to do there?”). Having gone though, I can put a hand on my heart and say that I could have easily stayed longer. Nearly every part of the country felt like I was missing something and could have squeezed in at least another couple of days. I especially regret not having time to fit in Lebap: the only province of Turkmenistan that I missed, Lebap is famous for the so-called “Dinosaur Plateau”, which is believed to be the world’s largest collection of authentic dinosaur footprints.
Dressed up and with heads covered in respect of a holy site, Turkmen ladies visit the Yusuf Hamadany shrine in Merv
TURKMENISTAN: HOW TO ENTER
All foreigners need a valid visa to enter Turkmenistan. The most popular visa type is tourist visa (duh), allowing entry for up to three weeks. A letter of invitation (LOI) needs first to be obtained from a government licensed travel agency. To receive the LOI, one has to book a tour with the said agency, which comes attached with the services of a licensed guide. I found the paperwork associated with the LOI extremely simple: it consisted of a one-pager with basic personal details and a scanned passport photo. Armed with the LOI, I was able to collect my tourist visa swiftly upon arrival at Ashgabat airport.
Before travelling to Turkmenistan, I heard rumours that every visitor on a tourist visa had to be accompanied by a guide everywhere except Ashgabat. This is only partially true: while a guide is supposed to accompany you during transfers (and often serves as a driver as well), they will certainly not be breathing down your neck everywhere you go (in fact, they probably have seen the sites dozens of times and will be happy to leave you alone). It is perfectly acceptable to walk around a tourist attraction on your own. In addition to Ashgabat, it is fine to get around other large towns (like Mary, Turkmenbashi, Balkanabat, Dashoguz and Turkmenabat) without a guide, on foot or by taxi.
Interestingly, I have heard that travelling by rail on a tourist visa unaccompanied is also possible: a traveller could board a train in one location, travel alone, and be met by a guide upon arrival in the second location. I haven’t heard of the same for intercity buses, but understand that it may be subject to discussion. As a private chauffeured car adds significantly to the tour cost, do pre-discuss any ideas and preferences with your travel agency of choice – you might be surprised how much flexibility could actually be allowed.
Hiring a car individually is not possible in Turkmenistan. Bringing your own vehicle (car, campervan, bicycle, etc.) on a tourist visa is possible, but you will still need to book a tour: your travel agency will then allocate a car to accompany you in convoy. Depending on your plans, it may be easier to park your own vehicle in Ashgabat and explore parts of the country in the car provided by the tour company, before exiting again on your wheels.
View over Kopetdag mountains from the top station of the Ashgabat cable car: the white structure in the distance is the Ashgabat TV tower
A transit visa provides far greater flexibility of travel in Turkmenistan. It does not require booking a tour or obtaining an LOI. However, it comes with two major restrictions: the length of stay is limited to 5 days (not nearly enough to see Turkmenistan) and you really need to be transiting: arriving from one neighbouring country and departing to another, each time overland. Transiting this way through Ashgabat airport does not qualify for a transit visa.
A transit visa is perfect if you are on a world tour, travelling in your own vehicle and ticking off as many countries as possible en-route. I personally saw several people travelling through the country in this way (usually on their way between Iran and Uzbekistan). However, I have heard that a transit visa has been very difficult to obtain for some years, with a lot of paperwork involved and a high rejection rate.
Schoolgirls we met near Ruhubelent in Dashoguz province – they gladly posed for us before admitting they were late to school and rushing off
TURKMENISTAN: HOW TO GET AROUND
Most visitors to Turkmenistan arrive at Ashgabat airport on tourist visas and travel in chauffeured 4WDs provided by their tour companies. Given the country’s size, most tours involve at least one domestic flight (and often more: I did three). The sole domestic carrier is state owned Turkmenistan Airlines, which connect Ashgabat with regional centres of Turkmenbashi, Balkanabat, Dashoguz, Mary and Turkmenabat. There are some flights connecting the regional centres directly, without routing via the capital: I haven’t been able to find timetables online, but remember seeing a flight scheduled to Dashoguz from Turkmenbashi.
Booking flights directly is not possible and is normally taken care of by the tour company. Tickets are not unreasonably priced (I assume they are at least partially regulated). My tickets cost $87 on the Turkmenbashi-Ashgabat leg, $63 for Mary-Ashgabat and $69 for Dashoguz-Ashgabat, and locals likely pay less. Travelling by air is inexpensive for enough locals to fill flights: all three domestic flights I took were full of locals. You will notice that every airport in Turkmenistan is named “international” (“halkara” in Turkmen), but only Ashgabat has true international flights. Ambitions!
Ashgabat International Airport had a complete makeover for the Asian Games 2017, at a whopping cost of $2.3 billion
As already mentioned, travelling a part of the journey on overland public transport is possible in Turkmenistan. There are scheduled rail services with Turkmenistan Railways, serving the west (Balkanabat-Turkmenbashi and venturing down to Etrek on the Iranian border), east (Mary-Turkmenabat-Amudarya and curiously branching down to Serhetabat near the Afghan border) and north (Darvaza/Ichoguz-Dashoguz). In the Soviet times, there used to be cross-border rail services (Ashgabat to Moscow apparently used to take 5 days!), but these days there are none. See a current timetable (in Russian) here and a useful article on rail travel in Turkmenistan here.
There are scheduled buses serving major towns. Given the vast stretches of desert occupying most of the country (traversing which is only possible on a 4WD), Ashgabat serves as the sole hub for bus travel. A glitzy new bus terminal opened just outside Ashgabat in 2014; like the airports, it claims to be “international”, but does not serve any foreign destinations. It has a website listing (fairly standard) scheduled routes and even offering online booking (which I haven’t tested). Buses are famed for being much faster and less prone to delays compared to trains.
Minibuses (better known in the region as “marshrutkas”) and shared taxis are an even faster way for intercity travel in Turkmenistan, yet are still relatively inexpensive. They could be a good option for transit visa holders. Tourist visa holders will most likely not be able to use such transport.
Locals visit holy sites (like this mausoleum in Kunya Urgench) on weekends, traditionally circling around them three times
An interesting way to arrive into Turkmenistan is aboard a ferry connecting Azerbaijan’s capital Baku and the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi. This route is reported to be unreliable, with fluctuating timetables and uncertain journey times. I haven’t travelled in this way but heard stories of travellers getting stuck aboard the ferry moored offshore in Turkmenbashi for days due to weather conditions on the Caspian Sea. Some travellers’ Turkmenistan visas are known to have expired because of the delay, so use this option with caution (check this forum for the latest information).
TURKMENISTAN: REBUTTING SOME MYTHS
YOUR GUIDE WON’T BE FOLLOWING YOU
As mentioned above, at least one popular belief about Turkmenistan is not true: you do not need to be accompanied by a guide wherever you go. Only tourist visa holders in overland transit theoretically have to be accompanied (see above for more), but this does not apply to transfers by rail.
ITINERARY IS THE LAW (BUT ONLY JUST)
Another rumour I have heard is that one’s itinerary is set in stone once agreed with the tour company and communicated to the authorities. It is true that you generally have to follow your approved itinerary, but, in reality, no-one goes into detail checking. There are checkpoints along all roads and documents may be checked randomly; but those are there for other reasons, not tracking down the (few) tourists the country receives. I personally received only a single cursory check.
In reality, my daytime itinerary was fairly flexible and I was able to shift things around quite a lot, as long as overnight locations (hotels) stayed intact. The hotels receive reservations from tour companies in advance and presumably do all of the cross-checking when you arrive there.
Sunset at Ysmamyt Ata pilgrimage site – I was meant to visit during the day but shuffled my itinerary around to reach at sunset
THERE WAS INTERNET (BUT NOT SO MUCH THE PHONE NETWORK)
Before arriving in Turkmenistan, I had been warned about poor availability of internet. In reality, internet was much better than I expected: there was free or symbolically priced ($1 per day) Wi-Fi in Ashgabat and Mary hotels, which meant that I had Wi-Fi access for half of my spell in Turkmenistan. The Dashoguz hotel had overpriced Wi-Fi ($5 per day), the Awaza hotel claimed to have Wi-Fi which had “unfortunately broken down” (I personally think there was none working, ever, like most things in Awaza) and the Balkanabat hotel claimed or had none. As expected, neither the basic homestay in Nokhur nor the campsite in Darvaza had internet access – it would be crazy to expect otherwise.
It is true that many social media websites and apps are blocked in Turkmenistan. The list includes Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and WhatsApp (I didn’t check others). I was able to access all blocked websites via VPN, which I recommend securing in advance if social media is important to you. Locals with internet access have ways of accessing blocked sites, but prefer using permitted alternative sites for fear of repercussions, which can be severe. Miraculously, the Russian social network site Odnoklassniki is allowed and used eagerly by Turkmenistan’s population. I have also heard from locals that a new alternative for every social networking site or app usually opens soon after one has been blocked.
There was certainly no phone network of any kind near the underground lake of Kow-Ata, 60m below ground
The oddest thing about Turkmenistan was the sudden shutdown of phone network (to foreign SIMs) literally a day after the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games 2017 had ended. I was using my UK SIM (already quite useless as roaming didn’t work) for texting and occasional work calls, when the phone connection suddenly went, leaving me with a phone good only for taking selfies. It was like the authorities had purposefully thrown away all pretence of openness after foreign athletes had gone home and no longer needed to be impressed.
TURKMENISTAN: NOT ANOTHER NORTH KOREA
All of that leads me to my final point. Bloggers have likened Turkmenistan to North Korea to distraction. While I agree that the two countries share certain statistical similarities (non-existent freedom of press being the prime example) and visual aspects (overblown architecture of their capital cities), I honestly do not think that the comparison is deserved.
In fact, my on-the-ground experience in the two countries could not have been further apart. Having been to both countries and having observed life in another “closed” non-democracy as a child, I would not put Turkmenistan in the same basket as North Korea at all. In North Korea, I had to arrive on an organised tour, was constantly followed around by a guide, was not permitted to walk around on my own anywhere (I couldn’t even cross a street in front of the hotel), could not alter my itinerary, had to forget about attempting a one-to-one conversation with a local and had to watch what I was saying (a casual mention of a “labour camp” earned me a warning glare from my guide).
Although toned down significantly after his death, the images of Turkmenbashi (ex-president Saparmurat Niyazov) still abound
In Turkmenistan, none of this was true. Granted, the lack of phone network did remind me of North Korea (the difference being the internet) and the screenings of the President’s sessions from the Cabinet of Ministers on TV were extremely Kim-Jung-Un-esque (officials did nothing else but scribble down in notebooks while the President spoke). On the whole, except for photography restrictions on government buildings, I did not feel constrained or watched in Turkmenistan. If anything, the journey reminded me of my travels in the neighbouring Iran and Uzbekistan rather than North Korea.
Travel agency: I used Travel Notoria to arrange the LOI, and can recommend them unreservedly. The team is led by Artik Gubaev, who proved very responsive and helpful throughout my planning and LOI application stages. All three drivers / guides I had were fantastic: Serdar on the Awaza route and in Ashgabat, Murad in Mary and Ishan in Darvaza and Dashoguz.
Entry requirements: Refer above and to Lonely Planet for the latest developments on the Turkmenistan entry requirements.
Currency matters: Arrive with enough USD to last you for the trip! Like Uzbekistan did until recently, Turkmenistan uses two exchange rates for major foreign currencies. The official rate for USD is half the black market rate (3.5 vs. 7 Turkmen manat for $1), but changing money on the black market can be tricky. In fact, unless you have good connections, I wouldn’t recommend it at all: if, God forbid, you are caught, you may be fined 100-fold the amount exchanged and possibly imprisoned (I have heard a sentence of 8 years quoted). You can also get your guide and tour company in major trouble. Most locals have established connections on the black market and manage their transactions behind closed doors. Money changers may not even deal with you if they don’t know you.
As a tip, do not use EUR: I was able to exchange EUR trouble-free, but the currency does not have the leverage of the dollar, with many locals assuming the currencies have the same value. There are ATMs (dispensing cash at the official rate), but they don’t always work.
Travel costs: I travelled in Turkmenistan with my husband and partner in crime. We paid $1,750 each for a 15-day private tour including all transfers, hotels, guiding and breakfast. The visa cost us an additional $129 each. We also spent about $300 each in personal expenses, not really looking for ways to save yet not exactly bathing in luxury. While the trip was more expensive than what we’re used to, it was not outrageous. Cost could be further reduced by skipping peripheral sights (like Dekhistan and Margush, though I don’t recommend it) and using lower range hotels (which will probably look perfectly decent to most backpackers).
Alcohol: Alcohol is popular and easily accessible in Turkmenistan, with the exception of some traditional restaurants. Of the two national beer brands, I preferred “Zip” over “Berk”. I do not recommend the wine (Turkmenistan only produces the dessert variety), but local brandy is excellent. During the Asian Games, alcohol was banned – possibly to create a certain image of the country – but I was able to “obtain” beer in all restaurants I went. Served in disguise (teapots and Coke bottles), it was slightly more expensive. Thankfully, with the Games finished, you will not need to worry about it.
Sneaking in an illegal “Berk” in the countryside not far from Ashgabat, where things seemed a lot more relaxed
TURKMENISTAN: OTHER TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNTS
- Wonderful article by Daniel and Audrey of Uncornered Market rebutting some more myths about Turkmenistan (very interesting as they visited in 2007 – and travelled aboard a Caspian ferry): Reflections: Expectations and Delivery in Turkmenistan.
- A far less positive account of Turkmenistan by another travelling couple, Goats On The Road, who arrived on a transit visa and absolutely hated their experience (an interesting read nevertheless): Our (Mis)Adventures In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
- An article on pros and cons of booking a private tour in Turkmenistan by Katie Aune who travelled to all 15 ex-Soviet republics a few years ago (she is unfortunately no longer blogging): The Pros & Cons of Booking a Private Tour in Turkmenistan.