Last month my man and I embarked on an adventure that had been on our list for quite some time: exploring unexplored Central Asia. This large area between Europe and Asia consists of five former Soviet countries that are all pretty much undiscovered and off the grid: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Due to time restraints we had to choose which countries we’d pick this time around (obviously we’re already planning our return trip to the region). Since the mystery and magic of the old Silk Road has always attracted me we decided that we would discover Uzbekistan and combine it with closed and unknown Turkmenistan. This post is about our amazing trip through Turkmenistan, land of marble and sand.
And of course the land of former dictatorial president Saparmurat Niyazov (died in 2006), who modestly renamed himself Turkmenbashi – leader of all Turkmen. That’s right. He also wrote a book, the Ruhnama, that consists of advice, spirituality and (his version of) the country’s history. The Ruhnama pretty much has bible status in Turkmenistan. Outside, not so much.
Turkmenbashi’s leadership style can be compared to the Kim family’s self-loving flair we saw in North Korea. I guess there’s a place that gets you a discount when you order multiple massive golden statues of yourself… I might look into that.
“Personally I’m against seeing my pictures and statues on the street. But it’s what the people want.” – Turkmenbashi
Turkmenistan Fun Facts
- It’s the least visited country in Central Asia and the hardest one to get into
- The Turkmen government provides free water, gas and electricity for its citizens
- But according to Human Rights Watch it stays one of the most repressive countries in the world
- In the Freedom House Report only North Korea has a lower score than Turkmenistan
- Turkmenistan adopted the “policy of neutrality”, meaning no interference in international conflicts
- The gold Turkmenbashi statue on top of the Neutrality Arch in Ashgabat used to rotate with the sun
- Turkmenbashi named days and months after his family members
- The country is famous for the best carpets ánd the best horse breed in the world
- Turkmenistan is a landlocked country and it’s almost entirely covered by the Karakum desert
- It has the fourth largest gas reserves in the world
- Water-demanding cotton is the largest crop in dry and hot Turkmenistan
- Thus the man-made Karakum irrigation canal is greatly responsible for the Aral Sea disaster
- Turkmenistan has the largest flagpole in the world
- Capital Ashgabat has the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world
The Best Route
Since we combined Turkmenistan with Uzbekistan we did a big loop starting and ending in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. I strongly recommend taking this route since it will give you a chance to see all the main sights in both countries. There are travel agents out there that do different routes: stay away from them. They will start in Tashkent and end in Ashgabat, meaning your flight ticket is more expensive and you’ll miss the best archeological site at Merv. It makes no sense. From Tashkent we flew to Khiva. We crossed the border into Turkmenistan at the Dashoguz border post, not far from Khiva. From there we visited Konye-Urgench, the Darvaza gas crater in the desert, Turkmenistan’s absurd capital Ashgabat, Merv and then back to the border with Uzbekistan at Farab. Then onwards to Bukhara and by train to Samarkand and from there we took the bullet train back to Tashkent. This is the way to go. Trust me.
We started our Turkmenistan adventure at Konye-Urgench, which translates to Old Urgench. This archeological site once was the center of the Islamic world, dating back to approximately the 4th or 5th century BC. It thrived as the capital of the Khorezm empire until the shah moved the capital to Samarkand in the early 13th century.
As an important city in the region, Konye-Urgench was often in the center of attention of various “fine” men in history. Even though Alexander the Great left the city untouched after his visit, both Genghis Khan and later Timur (also known as Tamerlane – Uzbekistan’s national hero) completely destroyed Konye-Urgench. The city survived – though barely – both attacks but was abandoned after the Amu Darya river changed its course in the 16th century. What is left today are very impressive ruins that are on the UNESCO world heritage list and give you some idea of what Konye-Urgench was like during its glory days.
Darvaza Gas Crater
For many travellers the highlight of a trip to Turkmenistan is the visit to the Darvaza gas crater in the middle of the country’s vast and expansive Karakum desert. The gas crater has been accidentally created by the Soviets in 1971 when they were looking for gas in the Turkmen desert. I guess you could say they found it…
During the gas exploration something went wrong and there was a massive explosion. The Soviets thought it was best to just set the whole damn thing on fire so it would burn out eventually. Okay, so it is 2015 and the crater is still burning like it’s the freaking door to hell. To give you an idea of its size: the crater is 69 metres wide and 30 metres deep. Yeah, its huge. We first drove up to the crater when it was pitch dark and it was extremely bizarre to see this massive fire looming in front of you in the middle of the desert. When you get closer and walk to the edge of the crater the smell of gas is very overwhelming and the heat is simply scorching. It actually feels like you’re freaking Frodo and you have to drop a ring in Mount Doom.
You can’t stay near the edge too long, and you don’t want to either. But we camped a few 100 metres further down in the desert from where we could see and hear the gas crater. Very cool.
Especially since we were the only tourists due to the low season because the summer heat (45+C) is not so attractive to most travellers. So it was just us two, our two drivers, a yurt, two small tents, and a stray dog – in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Totally off the grid. Such an amazing experience.
The drive from Darvaza to Ashgabat takes you straight through the desert and even though the road is paved – it is bad. So, so bad. There’s nothing you can do about it, except hold on tight to make sure you don’t bruise too much. Halfway there we stopped at Yerbent, one of the only little oasis towns that hasn’t been taken back by the desert yet.
Half an hour north of Ashgabat you’ll find the Altyn Asyr bazaar, the largest open air bazaar in Central Asia. It was formerly known as the Tolkuchka bazaar, which supposedly was much more authentic and atmospheric, but the president built this absurdly large market area in 2011 in order to improve hygiene and to provide more shelter.
To be honest, we were a bit disappointed, mainly because it was hyped by various travel agents as a fantastic spot to take pictures and roam around. Let me nuance that a bit. First of all, taking pictures is a no-no – except for the camel market (thank goodness). For some reason taking pictures of locals buying and selling stuff is top secret. Right. And also, we were not allowed to wander on our own or even linger at interesting spots. Just keep that in mind. We liked the Mary bazaar better. It is still impressive though, especially the camel market.
Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat – which translates to “city of love” – is often described as a combo of Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The modern and eclectic city you see today has been built up from the ruins of the 1948 earthquake that had left Ashgabat completely destroyed. Since independence in 1991 the city has been modernized with rapid speed, clearly portraying Turkmenbashi’s love for white and shiny marble. Even the bus stops are made from marble and embellished with gold. If you love over the top kitsch: this is the place for you.
Even though the buildings, the big lanes and the parks are all very impressive, the city has a very odd ghost town vibe to it. It feels like you’re on the set of The Truman Show; its all very surreal and bizarre. I think mostly because there are not that many people around. It just feels abandoned and it made me wonder if there were even people living in all those big marble apartment buildings. We visited two museums and both times someone rushed to turn on the lights as soon as we entered. I guess they are not used to visitors…
We stayed at the Ak Altyn Hotel which has great value for money – and a nice little local restaurant across the street, just behind the circus – but you need to realize that you definitely need a driver in Ashgabat. Wherever you’re based. It’s just too big and expansive. Public transport is present but there are no maps or even signs that state where a bus is going. There are no official taxis and of course you can put up your hand to any car passing by, but since they don’t speak any other English words than “hello”, explaining where you need to go is a challenge. Oh, and it will cost you $10, no matter what you’re destination is. When we figured this out, after being dropped off at the wrong museum on the wrong side of town, we arranged a driver who took us around the city which was the best $40 we spent there. So learn from our mistake and keep the “we’re-independent-travellers” attitude to a low because it will save time, money and a lot of frustration.
Kopet Dag Mountain Area
En route from Ashgabat to Merv you’ll follow the Kopet Dag Mountain range, that marks the border with Iran. You’ll pass fields and fields of cotton, which is the main crop in Turkmenistan. Which is odd, to say the least, since Turkmenistan is 80% desert land and cotton is a water-demanding plant. So Turkmenbashi built the Karakum irrigation canal in order to subtract water from the once vast Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. If you don’t know what happened to the Aral Sea I suggest googling it. Thanks very much Turkmen cotton industry…
Luckily there were also beautiful man-made things on the road from Ashgabat to Merv, such as the ruins of the ancient settlement of Abiverd, and the ruins of the Seyit Jemalettdin mosque.
In its golden times ancient Marv-i-shahjahan, which translates to “Merv – Queen of the World”, was a bustling city on the Silk Road that could easily compete with other massive Islamic cities in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Over the course of a few centuries, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, Merv has been built and rebuilt by various rulers leaving it a very large area that is only to be discovered with your own transport. Its ruins – also thanks to the fine gentleman called Genghis Khan – are spread across a pretty big territory, so walking is seriously not an option.
The oldest part of Merv is the Erk Kala, a circle shaped “citadel fort” that you can climb (although pretty steep) and will give you an awesome view of the area.
Other interesting sites are the Great Kyz Kala, which is currently under construction, and the Little Kyz Kala not far behind it that you can climb.
My favourite site, however, was the Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum, which has been brought back to its former glory. As was the case during our entire Turkmenistan adventure, we were the only tourists around which highly contributes to the off the grid exploring experience.
Spend the night before your visit in Mary, a sleepy provincial town not too far from Merv. We actually liked Mary, especially the local bazaar. We stayed at the Margush Hotel, which is the only sort of decent hotel in the region. But then again, if you’re expecting 5* luxury (like some of the snobs on Tripadvisor) just don’t come to Turkmenistan in the first place.
Know Before You Go
Yes, it is the hardest country in Central Asia to get into but if you apply for a visa before you leave it will be fine. You can also get a five day transit visa if you stay in the country for a shorter trip but you have to enter and exit from a neighbouring country. Just like in most former Soviet countries you need to have a LOI (letter of invitation) to apply for a visa. And in Turkmenistan you also have to have a guide present during your stay outside of Ashgabat (this can also be your driver). In other words, travelling on the go on your own is not really an option.
Even though Turkmenistan slowly opened up its borders to foreigners, they still want to keep tabs on your every move. You also have to register with the government every 3 days at the hotel you’re staying in – just like in the rest of the region. We have very good experiences with local travel agent Owadan, that our Dutch agent Dim Sum used for the arrangements in Turkmenistan. Here are some other tips that will come in handy if you’re planning a trip to Turkmenistan.
- The manat is the local currency – though US dollars are gladly accepted – and there is a fixed exchange rate: $1 is 3.25 manat
- There is no way of getting cash at an ATM or bank, so bring enough US dollars for the duration of your trip
- Always stay calm and friendly at the border crossing, no matter how long the wait (tying a memory foam neck pillow to your bag definitely seemed to be an ice breaker for us – all the border officials wanted to check it out)
- Since English is not spoken outside the largest Ashgabat hotels it is HIGHLY recommended to learn a few basic Russian words
- Like most former Soviet states Turkmenistan is really paranoid about taking pictures of public buildings, it’s strictly forbidden (although it’s unclear what falls under that category), I still can’t get why: like they have the state secrets written on the outside walls…
- People are extremely friendly and especially younger folks will come up to you to shake hands and take pictures with you
- The food is not good (an understatement) so bring vitamins and some protein bars from home
- Keep in mind that it is a Muslim country, although a bit more relaxed (thanks to Russian vodka I guess), but please dress modestly out of respect
- And also be respectful to the Turkmen culture and beliefs in general – whatever you might think of it – if you’re going to be a Western snobbish a-hole, don’t travel to these kind of countries
I guess I would suggest going to Turkmenistan first if you also have plans to travel to North Korea, because I somehow think that we would have been slightly more overwhelmed by all the weirdness if we hadn’t already seen North Korea. Another reason we chose to go to Central Asia is because of the brutal wreckage that has been going on in Syria and Iraq, leaving the most beautiful ancient structures in complete ruins. In Central Asia there is still enough left to see, ánd they’ve been rebuilding a lot in the past decades. All in all Turkmenistan is a very unique and beautiful country and if you’re at all interested in Islamic culture and architecture, the old Silk Road or off the grid weirdness I highly recommend going there. Stay tuned for our Uzbekistan trip report!
Lots of love,