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What to expect on a trip to Turkmenistan

written by Elle Hardy October 3, 2017
Ashgabat

Long touted as ‘North Korea with oil’, this Central Asian country sees five times fewer visitors each year than Kim Jong Un’s secretive nation, but that’s all the more reason to visit Turkmenistan.

The gateway to the Silk Road from the Middle East is distinct from the other ‘Stans’ in culture, history, and landscape, and for sheer craziness, there is nowhere else in the world quite like it.

Why you should go

Think Middle Eastern hospitality – after three shots of vodka. Being well off the tourist trail, you’ll find genuinely curious people, proud to let you in on their fascinating history and traditions, and ply you with the best things in life.

Central Asia has long been the crossroads of empires from the ancient Persians through Genghis Khan, imperial Britain and Russia, and most recently as the southernmost tip of the Soviet Union.

A desert shrine in Turkmenistan

Image by Elle Hardy

When the USSR crumbled in 1991, the five Central Asian states became countries in their own right for the first time, and replaced communism with burgeoning national identities. Turkmenistan soon became known for the bizarre personality cult of the late President Niyazov, who died in 2006, turning the capital Ashgabat into a shrine to himself, including a golden statue that rotated with the sun.

Culture

Turkmen culture is far more than just Niyazov and his successor, current president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, although there’s plenty of propaganda books you can buy to remember them long after you’ve left.

Descendants of nomadic desert tribes, the Turkmen infuse their Islam with animism. You’ll find pilgrims’ shrines dotted all around the country, with locals stopping to worship, leave items for luck, and attend to rituals, like walking around minarets in circles.

Bread is sacred to the Turkmen, so it’s only broken by hand, and never, ever thrown out. Towards Niyazov’s last, maddest days, he even renamed it Gurbansoltan, after his mother.

While there’s lots of regional cuisine, like plov (a delicious Uzbek rice dish), and Russian favourites including caviar from the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan’s speciality is shashlyk, open-coal barbecued meat and vegetables that take on an almost magical deliciousness, washed down, of course, with beer and vodka.

A man grills shashlyk over an open flame in Turkmenistan

Image by Elle Hardy

What to expect

With such an unusual history, be prepared for a few wild travel moments. The border crossing is an experience in itself, and the guards will almost certainly go through your luggage – my friend and I even found ourselves having to mime the role of the contraceptive pill, and let the guards play with our iPhones and show them  photos of life back home.

In a repressive political climate, it won’t come as much of a surprise that the police can be sensitive about photography, particularly around government buildings in Ashgabat. Your best bet it is to ask your guide, but if you’re alone or feeling cheeky, be discrete, and if stopped (police will usually whistle), be prepared to show them your camera and offer to delete offending snaps. Local women may also be adverse to having their photograph taken, so always ask first.

As a female traveller in a culturally conservative place, take the usual precautions like not walking alone at night, but the only trouble you’re likely to encounter is a bit of staring.

READ MORE: WANT TO KNOW WHAT OVERLAND TRAVEL LOOKS LIKE? THIS. 

Where to go:

Ashgabat

The capital, which means city of love, is an oasis of some five million square metres of white marble. Grand government buildings lacquered with gold are visible around the city, as well as monuments to leaders and the nation’s beloved Akhal-Teke horse.

If that’s not absurd enough for you, there’s a park featuring a giant Ruhnama, the rambling book of commandments written by Niyazov that was once the centrepiece of the education system. The city also hosts a statue of Lenin from Soviet times, placed upon a large, carpeted plinth.

Ashgabat is the place for more standard tourist activities too,  home to the country’s best museums, showcasing arts and artifacts, as well as numerous bazaars where you can buy carpets, souvenirs, and fresh food (stone fruit and nuts are a must).

Darvaza gas crater

The Gateway to Hell in Darvaza

Image by Elle Hardy

Almost 80% of the country is desert, meaning summers are baking and it’s fairly warm all year round. No place is hotter than Darvaza’s gas crater, the fire pit in the middle of the Karakum desert, otherwise known as ‘the gateway to hell’.

In the 1970s, a gas drilling project went wrong and created a fire that has never gone out. Spectacular in the dark, the surrounding desert provides a perfect camping ground for a night of photography under sparkling skies.

Konye-Urgench

The Konye-Urgench mosque in Turkmenistan

Image by Elle Hardy

The heritage-listed ancient town is a stark contrast to Ashgabat’s futuristic architecture. Featuring two minarets, one dating back to the 1300s, an ancient mosque and mausoleum, it is an open-air museum to past empires, and you’ll see many Turkmen making their pilgrimage there from across the country.

Finally…

President Berdimukhamedov has made some tentative steps towards opening up the country, but as a tourist, it remains a curious contradiction of a closed yet highly welcoming society. If you’ve picked up any Russian in your travels, most people will understand it, but knowing a few words in Turkmen will really impress. Salam (hello) and sahg-bol-ung (thank you) is a sure way to make new friends in one of the most fascinating places you’ll ever visit.

Inspired? Ready to see what all the fuss is about? Explore incredible Turkmenistan with Intrepid. 

Feature image by Elle Hardy. 

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11 comments

Rodney B March 12, 2020 - 9:33 am

I plan to travel on an 18 day Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan tour in May 2020, roughly how much US$ should I plan to spend daily to cover food costs?

Reply
Intrepid Travel March 12, 2020 - 1:31 pm

Hi Rodney,

Fun trip!! We recommend budgeting around $10USD for each meal not included in the itinerary 🙂

Cheers,
Emily at Intrepid Travel

Reply
Tori January 22, 2020 - 6:25 pm

My daughter and I are will go on our first trip to Turkmenistan this spring. I read your blog and look forward to my trip! I hope we enjoy this travel. very impressed with the photo Darvaza gas crater.
Thanks.

Reply
Patricia Pagenel August 11, 2019 - 7:11 pm

Turkmenistan is one of these places you have to visit to believe it. It’s incredible to see the history going back to the Silk Road in places like Merv, and camping by the Gates of Hell in Darvaza gas crater was a memorable experience. Of course, the border crossing entering the country was one-of-a-kind, as we spent over two hours there before being able to enter the country.

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Gail Fewson April 16, 2019 - 7:53 pm

Definitely going there next year.

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Merran Grace Cooper March 6, 2019 - 8:03 pm

I am a doctor- should i write that on my visa or not? thank you

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Peter LeVine January 24, 2019 - 3:19 am

Hello Elle,
I read and appreciate your interesting comments on Turkmenistan. My daughter is a young journalist who would like to visit Turkmenistan as a tourist with me. Will she be automatically rejected for a tourist visa if she indicates she is a journalist? She would not ever write about Turkmenistan and would be on vacation. Thank you.

Reply
Intrepid Travel January 24, 2019 - 10:01 am

Hi Peter,
That’s a tricky one… She won’t necessarily be automatically rejected for stating her profession, however she may be placed under more scrutiny than someone who works in a different industry. If she has previously held another profession or is currently studying, she might like to consider another option in that field.

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Agness of Etramping February 27, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Turkmenistan seems like a very versatile and charming place to explore, Elle! I have learned so much about this place from your post and I am happy to know that I can enjoy the people’s hospitality when being there. Would you consider Turkmenistan as a good budget travel destination?

Reply
Turkmenistan travel agency January 18, 2018 - 3:53 pm

I visited Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is the best place I have ever seen and is worth looking if anyone travels to Turkmenistan. Its truly a city of love

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rick be October 3, 2017 - 3:22 pm

I traveled with a Turkmenistani couple recently & they were delightful. Maybe it’s worth a look.

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