Ashgabat is the somewhat surreal and strange capital of Turkmenistan, a city in the deserts of Central Asia that gleams bright white in the fierce sunlight – given the extraordinary quantity of marble used to construct public buildings.
This is a city carved from marble, where wide yet unnervingly empty streets are lined by grand, elegant buildings topped with golden facades.
It’s a monument to the rule of Turkmenistan’s leaders, but it’s a city that few get to see because Turkmenistan is one of the least visited countries in the world when it comes to tourism.
If you have an interest in the bizarre sights of this post-Soviet world, then the capital of Turkmenistan should be high on your list when it comes to the Stans, and to help you travel there, here’s our guide to visiting Ashgabat.
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Ashgabat: The White Marble City Capital of Turkmenistan
Table of Contents
How to Travel to Ashgabat
Turkmenistan is an incredibly isolated state, both politically and geographically, and for that reason, it’s a country that only a few thousand tourists visit each year.
Visas are notoriously difficult and time-consuming to procure, but far from impossible, while travel restrictions for those that make it here ensure that the opportunities for independent travel are unfortunately limited.
The only way to secure a tourist visa is to join a tour, and the simplest way to get in is to have a company arrange your visas and travel. If you don’t want to be part of a group, then you can also arrange private tours.
The only way to travel semi-independently is to arrange a transit visa, but these are often denied for no reason and require you to be traveling overland from one country to the next.
These visas are generally limited to just five days but would give you enough time to see the best of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
If you have a tour, you can fly into Ashgabat’s airport, as there are limited international connections, while you can also travel overland from Uzbekistan or from Iran.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can even try to catch the Caspian Sea Ferry from Baku to the port of Turkmenbashi, then travel overland to Ashgabat.
Best Time to Visit Ashgabat
Ashgabat has a desert-like climate, and that means the summers are brutally hot while in winter the temperatures can drop well below freezing.
It’s best to avoid the height of summer, between May and September when the weather is unbearably hot, and the sun is intense. Temperatures regularly rise above 40 degrees Celsius in summer.
It’s also best to avoid the height of winter, between November and March, leaving you spring and autumn to travel to Turkmenistan when the weather is at its most pleasant.
What to Expect in Ashgabat
By all accounts, Ashgabat is a bizarre city to visit in comparison to your average tourist destination, and even if you have experience traveling through Central Asia and the post-Soviet world, the city will still surprise you with its surreal atmosphere.
Turkmenistan is often compared to North Korea, but while both states see few visitors and are politically estranged from the rest of the world, the capital of Turkmenistan is a much glitzier and glamorous affair than Pyongyang, because this is not a poor city in the slightest.
This is essentially a police state, and in Ashgabat, you need to be aware of where you are going and what you are photographing, as there are restrictions in many places that might not be obvious at first.
You will also notice that the ruling President is everywhere, with monuments and portraits all over the city. He even has months of the year named in his honor. Be careful not to criticize, or worst of all, insult the President.
Our Top Recommended Tours including Ashgabat:
- G Adventures Best of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
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- Tashkent to Ashgabat Tour
Best Things to do in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
A great place to begin your journey through the capital of Turkmenistan is at Independence Square. Formerly known in the Soviet days as Karl Marx Square, this central Plaza is where you can find some of the city’s grandest buildings.
It’s the perfect place to get a feel for the extravagant grandeur of Ashgabat’s architecture.
Here you can find many government buildings, but most significant of all, is the President’s Palace, or Oguzkhan Palace. This is where Turkmenistan’s ruler, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov lives.
Turkmenistan is visibly proud of their independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and at Independence Park, you can find the imposing Independence Monument.
This tall monument is meant to represent traditional Turkmen lifestyles, including their nomadic tents and yurts, while around the complex you can find statues dedicated to national heroes. The Independence Monument is lit up in dazzling shades of pink and purple at night time.
Ashgabat National Museum of History
To learn more about Turkmenistan’s history, then head to the Ashgabat National Museum of History in the capital of Turkmenistan.
The museum houses hundreds of thousands of exhibits arrayed across several floors, including archaeological and historic finds which have been collected from important sites across the country.
While the objects on display are marvelous examples of Turkmenistan’s unique and diverse past, just remember when you are being guided around that history in this part of the world tends to be one-sided.
Turkmen Carpet Museum
Turkmenistan is famed for its long history of carpet making, and when you are in Ashgabat, you can visit the Turkmen Carpet Museum to learn more about the traditions.
If you’re into carpets, then the capital of Turkmenistan is perhaps the best place in the world to visit, because in the museum you can find a staggering collection of Turkmen carpets numbering well into the thousands.
Many of the elegant carpets were woven hundreds of years ago, with the oldest dating back to the medieval period. It’s a unique collection, and one of the best things to do in Ashgabat.
One of the best things to do in Ashgabat is to visit the Gypjak Mosque, a grand place of worship which is found a few kilometers outside of the city center.
The Gypjak Mosque is every bit as opulent as the rest of the city because the Mosque was built by President Niyazov to serve as his place of burial. It was completed in 2004, and the president died and was interred here two years later in his own lavish mausoleum.
The Mosque itself can hold 10,000 worshippers, but in a country that worships its presidents as much as any religion, it’s questionable if this is an Islamic Mosque or a shrine to their past leader.
While much has changed in the capital of Turkmenistan since independence from the Soviet Union, and while the city has been completely redesigned and changed since the 1990s, in one small park in Ashgabat you can find one of the few remaining legacies of the communist era.
Hidden away, there’s still a statue of Lenin standing proudly on an enormous platform. It’s one of the few statues of Lenin remaining in Central Asia and one of the few physical reminders of the past in Ashgabat.
Parthian Settlement of Nisa
Just outside of the capital of Turkmenistan, you can visit one of the most impressive historical sites in the country. 18 kilometers from Ashgabat lies the ancient city of Nisa.
This was a Parthian settlement, founded by the ancestors of modern Iranians around 200 BC.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was formerly a huge trading hub in more ancient times, but a devastating earthquake leveled Nisa around 100 BC.
The ruins have been excavated, and today you can explore the remnants of this once powerful city that now lies covered in sand in the deserts of Turkmenistan. The Parthian Settlement of Nisa is truly one of the best places to visit when you are in Ashgabat.
Turkmenbashi Gifts Museum
For an extreme look at the opulence of the former president, Niyazov, then head to the unusual Turkmenbashi Gifts Museum.
During his rule – which lasted almost twenty years, from the communist era, through to 2006 – the president of Turkmenistan amassed a huge array of gifts from other leaders, dictators and nations around the world.
These range from tea sets to golden fighter jets and the fortune inside the museum is both a marvel and an eye-opener.
Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center
Back in the capital of Turkmenistan, if you are looking to stare in awe or bemusement at more works of lavish architecture and spending of public funds, then head to the Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center.
Opened in 2012, this is a building that is meant to represent the glory of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, and it cost a fortune to design and construct.
The building stands almost 100 meters tall, and bizarrely, a Ferris wheel was built on top of the building. The president is known for collecting Guinness World Records, and true to course, the Ferris wheel was built to claim yet another.
This is the tallest Ferris wheel within an enclosed space in the world, making it a truly unique addition to an already surreal capital city.
Ak Öýi (White Building), “The World’s Largest Yurt
Just outside of Ashgabat is the world’s largest yurt. This traditional yurt stands 35 meters high and is 70 meters in diameter. Just like most buildings and structures in and around Ashgabat the yurt is an architectural wonder.
The white yurt is a symbol of a nomadic culture that runs deep in Turkmenistan. Within this three-story, there is a cafe, offices, and VIP apartments as well as a large auditorium with 3,000 seats.
Its inside is designed with traditional carpet patterns and decorative elements of ancient yurts in Turkmenistan.
The Ak Oyi yurt stands on a social and cultural facility where national and international celebrations are performed. It combines modern achievements with the original tradition of Turkmen architecture.
Night Tour of the City
The vincent white marble city of Ashgabat lights at night, this is a complete change from the endless strips of large white marble buildings that take up endless city blocks in the daylight.
It will seem like a whole new world driving down the main strip looking at the buildings all lit up at night.
These buildings are lit up to showcase what they are.
Many visitors to Ashgabat compare the light-up buildings to the Las Vagas strip at night, but as a PG showcase out of a Packman game.
Turkmenistan’s top-notch Olympic complex
The Ashgabat Olympic Complex is one of the most state-of-the-art complexes in the world. It cost 5 billion US dollars to build and is over the top.
This ultimate sports complex was designed and built to provide not only the finest sporting venues but also showcase it.
It has a first-class broadcast and media facilities. All sporting advents are streamed across the nation. But just like many places in Ashgabat, it is locked up from the public to see.
This complex is amazing to see at night, it is lit up over the top like most buildings in Ashgabat.
The Russian Bazaar or Gulistan
The Russian Bazaar is another top thing to do in Ashgabat. Wander through the aisles and stalls where you can sample Ashgabat’s world-famous caviar, candied melon, cakes, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
Compared to many bazaars in Central Asia this one is not very impressive but it will give you a look into local life. Keep in mind when visiting the Russian Bazaar, you should sake to take any photos.
Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque – Azadi Mosque
Built right in the middle of the city among old Soviet buildings is the Ertugrul Gazi Mosque. This mosque is one of the most beautiful Muslim mosques in Turkmenistan.
Its rich decoration is showcased inside and out. The Azad Mosque is a practicing Mosque and is the largest one in Ashgabat.
Ashgabat Cable Car
To get some of the best views of Ashgabat you must take a ride on the Ashgabat cable car. The view of the mountains surrounding the city is worth the journey.
The cable car can be hot in the middle of the day so we suggest visiting it in the early morning or late afternoon. There are a few shops at the top of the cable car where you will actually see other people but 9 times out of 10, the shops are not open.
One of the most interesting things about the Ashgabat cable car is that at the top you are on the border with Iran, and the Iran soldiers are based on the mountainside above the restaurant.
If you talk to anyone from Turkmenistan they will tell you the Neutrality Arch is one of the world’s most magnificent structures and it is one of the symbols of modern Turkmenistan.
This white-marbled moment is one of the tallest monuments in Turkmenistan standing at 95 meters. Supposedly there’s a coffee shop on the second floor where visitors can get a panoramic view of the city while sipping their beverage of choice.
On top of that, there’s an upper skybox but just like everything in Turkmenistan, It’s not open for the public to view.
Inside the monument, there is a museum of Neutrality devoted to the history of Turkmenistan. The Neutrality Arch is surrounded by a great green garden with amazing fountains.
Kow Ata Underground Lake
If you are looking to escape the heat and see a natural wonder, you must head out of the city for an hour and a half to the 235-foot lake located 200 feet underground.
This lake has warm waters that contain a high amount of salts and minerals, which gives off a sulfur smell. The Kow Ata Underground Lake is the closest thing Turkmenistan has to a thermal spa.
The Kow Ata Underground lake isn’t just a great swimming spot it is also home to the largest known colony of bats in Central Asia.
Akhal Teke Stud Farm
One of the most unexpected but most magical moments we had in Turkmenistan was visiting a local Akhal Teke Stud Farm. This local living moment allowed us to interact with a family that raises these majestic horses.
The Akhal Teke is one of the rarest breeds of horses in the world. There are 3,000 worldwide and many of them are in Turkmenistan, however, the ones that are gifted go to people like Queen Elizabeth.
The Akhal breed is one of Turkmenistan’s gems, a colt can cost as much as $500,00 USD.
Largest Flag Pole
When you are visiting Ashgabat you must stand beneath the world’s 5th largest flag pole that powered by two jet engines. Yes, just like everything else in Ashgabat even its flag poles are over the top.
This flag will fly perfectly no matter what, with no wind and even in the rain, this flag will be flying. It’s twin jet engines push air up to the tip of the poll for the perfect flag whip.
Day Trips You Can Not Miss From Ashgabat
Ashgabat is a pretty interesting city however if you want to see some of the best things that Turkmenistan has to offer you must hit the ancient silk road and explore outside the city.
Below are the top day trips you can not miss from Ashgabat.
Keep in mind it is not an easy place to just book a day tour. Everything must be arranged before arriving.
The Darvaza Gas Crater is why most people come to Turkmenistan. There’s no other feeling like it in the world standing next to the gates of hell as flames shoot out of the earth. It is truly out of this world.
The Darvaza Gas Crater is 3 and a half hours from Ashgabat and is impressive at night. That is why many tour operators offer an overnight option, that allows you to camp right next to the burning pit.
Not many people have ever heard of or let alone visited this natural wonder located in northwest Turkmenistan. The Yangykal Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.
This colorful landscape stretches 15 miles across the desert to the Garabogazkol Basion where there is strange formations and cliffs that are cut out of the rocky landscape. Enjoy amazing views from the “Crocodile’s Moth” overlooking the whole canyon or sit and watch the stunning sunset.
Yangykala Canyon is located 260 miles northwest of Ashgabat. Tours range from a three-day trip from Ashgabat or a day trip from Balkanabat.
A visit to Kunya-Urgench a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must for anyone who is a history lover. This ancient city was once the capital of Northern Khorezm and once was the second largest city after Bukhara.
Its ruins date back to the 11th – 16th centuries. Walk among the ancient gates of caravanserai or stand at the base of its impressive 60m high minaret. These monuments are amazing achievements in architecture and craftsmanships whose influence reached all the way to Iran and Afghanistan.
One of the largest cities in the world, before it was destroyed by a Mongol horde, was the ancient city of Merv. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is among the most impressive and complex archaeological sites on Earth.
Merv was a sought-after city and a geographic prize from Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Greeks that includes Alexander the Great. The sheer size of the city and its ruins makes it one of the most impressive sites you can visit along the Silk Road.
Things you should know about Ashgabat before visiting
Turkmenistan is one of those fascinating places where travelers come to experience something different. Visiting the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, is strange and it conjures up endless questions about the country.
Below are some facts about Ashgabbbat Turkmenistan that every traveler should know before visiting.
Is Ashgabat Safe? Ashgabat is safe for travelers to visit. There is little to no crimes against tourist. The main crimes are fraud, bribery, and institutional corruption.
Is there a curfew in Ashgabat? Yes, there is an 11 PM mandatory curfew in Ashgabat.
You can’t take many photos: This is true, almost all of the locations in Ashgabat you are not allowed to take photos of since they are government buildings. It is always best to respect their rules, no traveler wants to end up in jail in Turkmenistan just for that Instagram shot.
Exchanging Money in Ashgabat: Exchanging money in Ashgabat is done best in the local market. Here you will get the best exchange rate. You can always exchange money with your tour guide or at your hotel but you will not get the best rate. Keep in mind they only take US dollars and it is near impossible to get your money re-exchanged if you have too much.
Just getting a taxi is not so easy: Getting a taxi can be hard for tourist, there is tourist only taxis and local taxis. The local taxies are not allowed to drive around the tourist.
Oil and natural gas fuels everything: Turkmenistan is the world’s sixth-largest reserves of natural gas resources. Turkmenistan has huge gas and oil resources.
There are plenty of amazing restaurants if you can find them. Ashgabat has all kinds of great restaurants that serve everything under the sun however they are difficult to find since there are no outside signs. Since it is difficult to explore on your own you probably will be going to a tourist restaurant with your guide.
What are the people like in Turkmenistan? The people of Turkmenistan are among some of the friendliest people in the world. They greet visitors with open hands and they get excited to meet travelers from all around the world.
Do I need to visit Turkmenistan on a tour? All foreigners are required to have a letter of invitation from a tour operator or sponsor to enter Turkmenistan.
Do I need a visa to visit Turkmenistan? All foreigners are required to have a visa to enter Turkmenistan.
How controlled are visitors in Turkmenistan? Visitors are not allowed to go explore on their own, you must be with your hosted guide at all times.
There are endless and unusual laws in Turkmenistan. There is no opera allowed in Turkmenistan. No smoking allowed in public and no gold teeth or spandex allowed to just name a few of the unusual laws in Turkmenistan.
What’s the deal with all the Marble buildings in Ashgabat? Ashgabat has the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, it is mandatory for all new buildings to be built in white marble.
How many world records does the city of Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) hold? Turkmenistan holds 10 Guinness World Records.
Almost all buildings in Ashgabat are built to look like something. It is a mandatory rule that every building build must respect what it is.
Why don’t you see people in the city of Ashgabat? The people of Ashgabat stay indoors and many live and work within the same building. So that is why you do not see many people out on the streets.
Your car must be clean before entering Ashgabat. All cars entering Ashgabat must be clean or they can receive a fine.
Same-sex relationships are forbidden: This is true if you a caught you will be sent to a reform camp. This also goes for travelers, same-sex relationships are strictly forbidden.
How many visitors does Ashgabat see in a year? Turkmenistan is number 7 on the list of least visited countries in the world, receiving only 7,000 visitors per year.
Some medications are not permitted in Turkmenistan: This is true, it is best to check with your tour operator on what meds are allowed in Turkmenistan. They will check everything once you enter and if you are carrying some meds that are not allowed you may be denied entry.
Drones are not permitted in Turkmenistan: Drones are not allowed in Turkmenistan, don’t be that traveler who sneaks it in. There are rules and regulations for reasons, they just do not hand out fines. If you get caught with a drone you will spend some time in jail. They searched everything we carryed just to make sure we did not have a drone.
Can you drink in Ashgabat Turkmenistan? Yes, there are some great local bars in Ashgabat where you can drink. Drinking on the streets or in public is not permitted.
There are jobs for women and there are jobs for men: This is true, we saw this first hand. There are women’s only jobs and there are men’s only jobs.
There are mandatory public gatherings. The government arranges mandatory public gatherings to support its country. These gatherings are 100% mandatory and everyone must go.
Less than 3% of people will experience things. This is true, many of the residents of Turkmenistan are not allowed to visit many of the sights within their own country.
Is there Wifi in Turkmenistan? Yes, there is Wifi but it is limited and very slow. You will be lucky to be able to load emails or basic websites but do not plan on being able to surf Facebook or Instagram.
Is there Facebook in Turkmenistan? There is no Facebook or Instagram in Turkmenistan.
Final Thoughts About Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
We have visited some strange places in our travels and I have to say that Ashgabat is up there as one of the stranges places in the world. From the moment we pulled into the city it gave off a questioning vibe that had us asking why so many times.
Many of those questions just fueled other questions and to tell you the truth, our travel guide would not answer.
I’m going to end this with a comment that our guide told us that will stick with me when I think of Ashgabat. He said, ‘when humans fall and the next race finds Ashgabat, they will be impressed at this amazing city made out of marble.’
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