Turkmenistan Travel Guide: An Inside Look at a Bizarre Nation

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Before we started our Turkmenistan travel, we were told to picture what it would be like if North Korea and Las Vegas got together and had a baby. Take a second to let that soak in.

Sin City meets one of the most private countries in the world? Hard to imagine. No matter how much research we did, we simply could not wrap our heads around how that description could work.

Fast forward. Now that we’ve been to Turkmenistan and back again, we get it.

It is a country that has a deep history and strong story. It is a nation that has been built up, torn down, built up again, torn down and then rebuilt in the eyes of a ‘visionary’ leader. 

It has both natural and ruined wonders to consume but I think the biggest attraction of all is the chance to look behind the curtain. Or at least peek around the edge and gain some personal insight into a very mysterious place. 

I’ll be honest, our entire visit felt like a dream. It was almost like being in an alternate reality. If you’re looking for a unique and bizarre travel experience than Turkmenistan should be at the top of your travel wish list. 

Turkmenistan Travel

How to Travel Around Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a country that has only recently opened to tourism. Before this, it was very hard and near impossible for any travelers to visit the country.

While it is now open and easier than ever before (still not easy) to get a visa to visit Turkmenistan, it is not possible to do so independently. As a foreign visitor, you are required to have your visa hosted by and arrange your entire visit through a government-approved tour operator.

We visited Turkmenistan on the recently introduced Best of Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan tour with G Adventures.  They operate their tour in partnership with an approved local operator.

If you’re considering taking a tour in Turkmenistan, this outline will give you a look into the experience you could have by booking this tour.

Disclosure: This tour was in partnership with G Adventures and was provided to us as part of our involvement as G Adventures Wanderers

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Places to Visit in Turkmenistan Itinerary

Dashoguz - Turkmenistan
Main Square in Dashoguz, Turkmenistan

Dashoguz (1 Day)

Dashoguz was our first stop after crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan. Being the third-largest city in the country, it is modeled after Ashgabat.

This means one thing, white marble everywhere. I still remember, very vividly, how much the entire tone of our trip changed when we crossed the border. Uzbekistan is a warm welcoming place, with a lot going on in the streets. The locals are everywhere, selling their goods and walking the streets.

In stark contrast, Turkmenistan appears almost sterile and there is nobody to be seen. Anywhere.

Dashoguz is more of a waypoint versus a must-visit stop in Turkmenistan. You would only find yourself here if you traveled north from Ashgabat to visit the UNESCO site of Kunya Urgench or crossed the border from Uzbekistan.

That said, there are many beautiful marble buildings to observe when you are there. The city fails in comparison to Ashgabat, but if it is your first stop in Turkmenistan like it was for us then you will find it impressive.

The town also features a huge square that shows off a massive portrait of the president and a towering flag pole. At the center of the square is a massive portrait of the President, looking down over you as if to say, “I am watching you.”

Before you leave town, be sure to pay a visit to the Bai Bazaar. It is open on the weekends and gave us our first interaction with the local people in Dashoguz. Operating like a traditional market, you can find any and everything here including fresh produce, fruit, meat and packaged goods.

Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan Travel
Ruins at Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan

Kunya-Urgench (1 Day)

Once an important stop along the Silk Road, Kunya-Urgench has a rich history of importance. It was once the ancient capital of Northern Khorezm, served as the residence to Khorezm Shah and became the second-largest city after Bukhara.

After 1221, it was known as the ‘heart of Islam’ causing its people to rebel against Genghis Khan. This act led to it being destroyed by the Mongols.

Refusing to give in to its destruction, the city was rebuilt but again destroyed in 1388 by the army of Tamerlane. It remained virtually undiscovered after that until 1831 when the construction of the Khan-Yab canal began.

This history of turmoil and struggle contributes to the poor condition of the site today. Despite this, it is still a fascinating place to visit and we found the best place to interact with local people.

On several occasions during our visit, we were stopped by groups of women, dressed in beautiful traditional clothing, to pose for photos with them.  

The Kunya-Urgench site is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites located within the borders of Turkmenistan.

Darvaza Gas Crater - Turkmenistan Travel
Staring into the Darvaza Gas Crater

Darvaza (2 Days)

The Darvaza Gas Crater, affectionately known by the locals as the door to hell, is the number one tourist attraction in Turkmenistan. It is a sight to behold and one of the coolest things we’ve ever laid our eyes on.

In 1971, a group of Soviet geologists came to the Karakum Desert, not far from the village of Darvaza. They were intent on tapping into a cavern that was rumored to contain natural gas.

After setting their equipment and starting to drill, the earth beneath gave way and collapsed. This single event resulted in a massive crater that not only consumed the drilling equipment but opened a large gas hole.

Fearing that the hole would release toxic gas into the air, the Soviets decided to light the crater on fire to burn off the gas. What was assumed would only burn for a few days continues to burn to this day. That is a long time for the earth to be leaking gas.

In 2004, the President of Turkmenistan issued an order to relocate the village of Darvaza for safety reasons. Since it has served as the main tourist attraction in the country.

People who are traversing the Silk Road have stopped at the Darvaza Gas Crater, setting up temporary camps before moving on to other parts of the country. Today, one of the government-owned tour companies has installed a permanent yurt camp, that offers travelers a bit more comfort during their visit.

We stayed at this yurt camp and were impressed with the facilities. The camp features showers, bathrooms, running water and concrete pad flooring in the yurts.

They also provided cots, sleeping bags, and pillows. Our stay included meals and I can say without hesitation that enjoying a Turkmeni BBQ meal while watching the sunset over the crater will be a memory that lasts the rest of our lifetimes.

Ashgabat - Turkmenistan Travel
Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat (2-3 Days)

If ever there was a city that commanded a presence, it would be Ashgabat. We may have thought Dashoguz was strange but Ashgabat takes the cake. I have never in my life seen a city with less life. The comparisons that people give it to Pyongyang are warranted. 

All around you are opulent, massive, grandeur buildings constructed in white marble. Beautiful fountains are full of clear running water. Bright green cedar trees lining every boulevard and park walkway. But, no people. 

Our time in Ashgabat was spent sightseeing, literally driving around to the monuments, getting out, learning about them, taking some photos and then getting back in to move on. During this time we saw only military guards, who are on guard outside every major monument and cleaning women. 

Shaking the bizarre is difficult, but I have to say that it does heighten the curiosity and I found myself at full attention during our entire visit. 

At night, the entire city is lit up with fluorescent lights in every neon color you can imagine. From our hotel, which was perched atop a hill overlooking the downtown area, it was hard to not feel like we were in Las Vegas. 

Our hotel even changed colors, if you stayed long enough to look, it transformed from red to green, to blue, to purple, to pink, to yellow and so on. Very strange, but it did have a certain beauty about it. 

Akhal Teke Stud Farm - Turkmenistan
Akhal Teke Stud Farm

Tours in Ashgabat You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • City Tour of Ashgabat: To get a better understanding of the city, or at least try to, be sure to take a city tour. The standard tours will take you to the downtown area to visit the Neutrality Arch, World’s Largest Indoor Ferris Wheel, Ertugrul Gazi Mosque, Independence Park, Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque and several other buildings. 
  • Night Lights Tour: You simply cannot visit Ashgabat without taking a tour at night once all the lights come on. Driving through the downtown is akin to visiting the Vegas Strip, with the lights shining and reflecting off the bright marble buildings. The city is best viewed from above, so be sure that you ask your driver to bring you to the Wedding Palace, where you can cross the street and see all of Ashgabat in its nighttime glory.
  • Akhal Teke Stud Farm: You simply cannot visit Turkmenistan without paying a visit to an Akhal Teke Stud Farm outside of Ashgabat. The Turkmen people are devoted to this breed, which is unique to the country. You will find pictures of this horse on everything including stamps, emblems, signs, currency and even the visa. Besides visiting Darvaza, this was my favorite activity in Turkmenistan. In visiting the farm, we were introduced to the family that operates it. We met the men that train the stallions for exhibition and were even introduced to their prized stallions. They showed us horses, baked us fresh bread from a traditional Turkmen oven and educated about this special breed of horse during our visit. It was the highlight of my trip. 
  • Nisa: Another one of Turkmenistan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nisa is not to be missed when in Ashgabat. Located just outside the city, the remains are surprisingly intact from the city that was constructed with mud and straw. The site is fascinating and the man that oversees the site is animated and full of information. We enjoyed learning the history and wandering through the still standing corridors. Hard to believe it once served as a supported city to the capital. 
Nisa - Turkmenistan
Nisa UNESCO World Heritage Site

Other Places to Visit in Turkmenistan

  • Merv: The last of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we regret not being able to visit this site work. The photos we have seen of Merv are very impressive. The site was high on our list but once we reached Ashgabat, we realized we didn’t have enough USD to make the trip work while we were there. Word to the wise, bring more money than you think you need. 
  • Yangykala Canyon: This is another site I came across in my research of Turkmenistan before visiting. The photos show me that the canyon resembles the same topography of the Grand Canyon. In talking with other travelers that have been to the country, it is recommended to visit. That said, it is incredibly remote and located in the far Western part of Turkmenistan, so I would take some careful coordination with your tour company to pull off. 

Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan

Is Turkmenistan Safe?

Turkmenistan is a very unique place and despite things being considerably different than anything we have ever experienced in our travels, we never felt unsafe during our visit.

Visitors are held close and required to be accompanied by a tour guide during their visit. I find it hard-pressed to believe that you could get into any trouble unless you went looking for it. Which we do not recommend.

Most of the cities felt abandoned during our visit. When we were out touring, we saw maybe a dozen people on the streets during our entire visit to the country. Even the mosques were empty.

There is a strong military presence, especially in Ashgabat, near the major monuments. A couple of times we walked from our hotel to a nearby restaurant we never encountered another person.

The few people that we did encounter at various bazaars, stores and restaurants were intrigued with us and very friendly.

Karakum Desert Turkmenistan
Camel Crossing in the Karakum Desert

How to get to Turkmenistan

For as closed off as Turkmenistan may seem, it is easy to fly in and out of the country. Both Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi offer several flights per day to Europe, often connecting through Azerbaijan on major airlines like Lufthansa.

Flying back to the USA from Ashgabat after our visit, we connected in Azerbaijan before landing in Frankfurt and then onto Chicago.

Once in Turkmenistan, it is possible to fly between the major cities although flights are limited. Once you are in-country, you’ll spend your time touring by car between sites and cities.

It is also possible to enter Turkmenistan by land from Uzbekistan as we did. After leaving Khiva, we drove to the border to cross at Dashoguz.

Our visa arrangements were made in advance by G Adventures and the process was surprisingly smooth. That said, it was time-consuming and a bit bureaucratic.

Turkmenistan Visa

Turkmenistan Visa

Obtaining a visa to visit Turkmenistan is a process but generally pretty easy. Once you book your tour, the company will then act as your sponsor.

They will gather all of the necessary information from you to apply for your visa from the government.  Once processed, the government will issue an official letter of invitation to your tour operator.

With this document, you can arrive in Turkmenistan and obtain a visa. The cost of the visa is paid for when you arrive in-country. The fee is ever fluctuating and dependent on the country of your passport.

As US citizens, our visa cost was $75 plus a small processing fee, totaling $79 each. The visa is placed into the passport and you are then required to undergo a luggage search and questioning before being permitted to enter Turkmenistan.

The country has very strict laws about medication, particularly prescription drugs. Nothing that is not labeled is permitted and will be confiscated. They also have an extensive banned list, which your tour operator can provide to you before travel.

Drones are also banned within the country. We were all questioned and searched for drones when we crossed the border overland.

Karakum Desert craters - Turkmenistan
Visiting the Mud Crater in the Karakum Desert

Best time to visit Turkmenistan

Unlike the other Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan is best experienced in what we know as the typical shoulder season.

Since Turkmenistan is mostly desert, the summer, which is the most popular time to visit most of the other ‘stan’ countries along the Silk Road, is extremely hot.

In contrast, winter is downright cold. This makes the shoulder season the perfect temperature for exploring this fascinating country. No matter when you go, don’t expect any crowds. We only saw one other group of tourists during our visit.

A breakdown by weather looks like this:

  • March to June: You can expect clear skies, sunshine and warm temperatures during the day. Nighttime temps can feel cold, especially in the desert. Combined, this makes the most optimum travel time and, in my opinion, is the best time to visit Turkmenistan. We traveled through both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan during June.
  • July & August: This period is the height of summer and with it, you can expect to experience some extreme heat. It can be too hot to be out during the middle of the day, so consider that if you plan to visit during these months. Temperatures in Ashgabat will easily top 105°F (40°C).
  • September to November: The peak heat from summer has passed but you’ll still be warm. It’s a great alternative to the other months and I would say the second-best time option for visiting Turkmenistan.
Neutrality Arch - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Woman street cleaner in Ashgabat

Political Situation

Turkmenistan is the second most controlled country in the world behind North Korea. There are many restrictions in place for the residents and tourists alike.

You must understand this before your visit to ensure you don’t offend anyone or get into trouble during your visit.

Expect to see widespread use of propaganda that paints the country as the most perfect place in the world to live. Photos of the president can be seen on every street corner and inside every establishment.

When we turned on the TV, we were only able to find programs that showed the happy vibes of life in Turkmenistan. Programs featured public festivals and achievements of the nation for all to see.

While it can be tempting to quiz your guide nonstop about the situation in the country, remember that they live there and believe in what they have been told. It is important to maintain this perspective.

In our experience, the people we came in contact with were friendly but very reserved. They know they are being monitored and are hesitant to say or do anything that might reflect poorly on them.

You will never hear them talking badly about their country and often give the outward impression that they are holding back.

We encountered this a lot in our travels through China. It can be frustrating to know that they want to be candid, but with respect it is best not to pry. The last thing you want is to put them in a position that could jeopardize them.

Turkmenistan Transportation
Our tour bus in Ashgabat – for seven people!

Taking Taxis in Turkmenistan

As independent travel in Turkmenistan is off-limits, don’t expect to be able to hail a cab. If you wish to go somewhere in your ‘spare time’, you will need to arrange a private car with the company that is hosting you in the country.

That said, you will likely not be given the option to travel anywhere on your own. There were two instances where we walked to a restaurant that was close to our hotel without our guide. Both times were stopped by the hotel staff and questioned.

I do not doubt in my mind that they called ahead to the restaurant to ensure that we arrived there, stayed only there and then returned to the hotel.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Gorgeous and clean fountains in Ashgabat

Getting Money in Turkmenistan

The local currency in Turkmenistan is the Minat and the value of it is not currently stabilized. This means that the official rate listed on the exchange market is not the one that is widely used in the country.

A lucrative black market exists for exchanging currency and it is wise to do your homework in advance or ask around to multiple sources that are not your tour agency, to figure out what the going rate is during your visit.

The best rate is obtained at the bazaars and can be upwards of three times the official exchange rate.

Your tour operator will also be able to exchange money for you, but keep in mind that the rate will be better than the official rate yet worse than the bazaar. They build in a cut.

ATM’s do not exist in Turkmenistan, nor does an official currency exchange place. It is also not possible to use credit cards, anywhere within the country. Not even with the in-country tour companies.

You need to bring plenty of US dollars only. In our experience, booking extra tours and add ons once in destination required US dollars only. The companies would not take Minat due to the widely varying exchange rates at which it is obtained.

The exact opposite, all restaurants require payment in Minat. So you have to operate with both currencies when you are there. Plan and make sure you have more than enough USD currency for your stay.

food inTurkmenistan
First meal in Turkmenistan

Food in Turkmenistan

Nobody is writing home about the cuisine in Turkmenistan but in all honesty, we thought it was decent. At times it was simple, sure, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to the food in other countries in Central Asia.

On par with the rest of the Silk Road, Turkmen people enjoy meat-centric dishes and salads. In both Dashoguz and Ashgabat, many restaurants served varied cuisine from other Central Asian countries and it was always possible to get pasta or pizza. As weird as that sounds.

Smaller towns and camping areas were more basic, serving soup, rice, meat and a variety of salads. Beer is everywhere too.

Bazaar in Turkmenistan
Bai Bazaar stall in Dashoguz

Language

The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen and is spoken by 72% of the population within the country. Russian is the next widely spoken language by around 12% of the population.

Outside of the tourism industry, English is not widely spoken. That said, there were plenty of instances where local people attempted to engage with us.

Sign language is universal, so don’t be shy even if you don’t speak Turkmen or Russian.

Ashgabat Turkmenistan
Ashgabat by night

Internet & Data

During your time in Turkmenistan, you should plan to be completely offline. Don’t be fooled by the offering of WIFI that you will find in most hotels and restaurants throughout the country.

You may be able to connect but everything you would want to use is blocked. All social apps including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter are blocked. Skype and most email services are also blocked.

Oddly enough, I was able to access the CNN app on my phone and it was not censored. People in our group attempted to use a VPN but it was not possible. They were never allowed to connect with it.

We also saw the odd stall in the bazaars that offered cell phone data service. One person that was traveling in our group attempted to make a purchase but when our tour guide caught wind of it, he strongly advised against it. 

That should tell you everything. I wouldn’t plan on purchasing a SIM card during your visit as it could compromise your phone. 

Keep in mind that everything in Turkmenistan is highly monitored. Anything you do once connected to a WIFI point or activate a SIM card will be monitored and tracked.

Turkmenistan Travel

Taking Photos in Turkmenistan

Photography and filming is a bit of a touchy subject while in Turkmenistan. While it is fine for you to have your camera and photograph the many unique, strange and beautiful things you will see during your visit, keep in mind that there are many restrictions.

Anything you see that is government-related is strictly off-limits to photography and film. Photographing military guards is also a big no-no.

When wandering the bazaars, do not shoot photos at will. If you wish to take a photo, you need to ask permission from any of the people in the photo. Most of the time they are happy to pose for a photo or allow you to photography their stalls.

Sneaking photos isn’t wise nor something we encourage. People were watching out for each other and we had one instance in our group where someone asked to photograph something, got permission but offended someone that was walking by at the time.

They had to show the person the photo to ensure that they hadn’t captured them in it. With tour guides and booked experiences, there were no issues taking photos with people in them.

In terms of carrying equipment around, we felt safe. Nobody looked twice at our gear and we walked around all of the cities with it around us.

Russian Bazaar, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Shopping at Russian Bazaar in Ashgabat

Shopping in Turkmenistan

Shopping is limited compared to, say, Uzbekistan. There is little opportunity to purchase locally made goods.

We stopped at a couple of bazaars during our tour and these were our only shopping options. As these markets serve the locals, there was everything imaginable on offer.

Each one had a section for tourist type trinkets, but they were mostly made up of practical things and produce.

A couple of things that should be on your list are locally made bracelets and Turkmen hats. You can also purchase baseball caps that say Turkmenistan on them and small novelty flags.

In Ashgabat, be sure to try the fresh caviar. Turkmenistan is the world’s largest exporter of this expensive hors d’oeuvre, and you can both try and purchase it from the bazaar here.

Water Crater, Karakum desert, Turkmenistan
Water Crater in the Karakum Desert

Turkmenistan Travel Budget

Due to the regulation and requirement that you hire a guide for the duration of your time in Turkmenistan, travel here is not cheap.

Tours and transportation are on par with Western prices. Restaurants are on the cheaper side, although some of the higher-end ones we were brought to were more costly.

You should expect to pay in the neighborhood of $2000 or more US dollars for a 4-day visit that includes Ashgabat and Darvaza. To add in Dashoguz, Kunya Urgench, Merv and/or Turkmenbashi you can expect to pay more.

That said, all of your transportation, accommodation and major entry fees will be included in that price. Meals, souvenirs and tips are not included.

In places like Kunya Urgench, Nissa and Merv, you can expect to also pay camera fees. The cost varies depending on still or video. This can be paid in Minat or USD. 

 


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Turkmenistan Travel Guide: An Inside Look at a Bizarre Nation



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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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1 thought on “Turkmenistan Travel Guide: An Inside Look at a Bizarre Nation”

  1. What a great article! We’re currently dreaming of going to Turkmenistan again – we’ve been there before and we love, love love it! Here’s to hoping for a better 2021 with loads of travel plans and new experiences! – Cecilie

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