Turkmenistan is a socialist, tightly controlled by the police, isolated country in Central Asia roughly the size of Thailand, inhabited by only 5 million people. Hence, it’s no wonder that traveling to Turkmenistan is an incredibly unique experience. Despite everything, there are a lot of exciting things to do in Turkmenistan you won’t find elsewhere and if you’re wondering what to expect when traveling to Turkmenistan, keep reading; this Turkmenistan travel guide will tell you everything you need to know.
The former Soviet country is home to the biggest archeological site in Central Asia, the former biggest city in the world, the door to hell, the birthplace of the Zoroastrianism, and arguably the strangest capital in the world. It’s also one of only a few countries in the world where petrol is cheaper than water.
Helpful Tips For Finding Things To Do In Turkmenistan
When visiting Ashgabat (the capital) avoid walking alone in the north-eastern part of the city, especially in the late evenings. These areas are notorious for drug trade and violent crimes.
Turkmens are the only people in Central Asia that don’t eat horse meat. In fact, the Ahal Tekke horse breed, which is one of the fastest and strongest in the world, is their national symbol. Today, there are only 2,800 horses of this breed, mostly because the Bolsheviks were slaughtering them for food during the Soviet era.
You can find prostitutes in the Florida Disco on Gorogly Street in Ashgabat but I suggest you stay away from this area. I’ve seen a lot of tourists that were imprisoned, harassed by the police, or even deported just because they were accompanied by a prostitute. Formally, prostitution in Turkmenistan is illegal (even though common).
Since I mentioned it, if you actually are harassed by the police, you will need to find a translator. The Turkmen police officers only understand Turkmen (at least that’s what they’ll claim). It’s very likely that your hotel room is bugged, so be careful what you say when speaking on the phone. Never forget that the big brother is watching.
If you’re traveling to Turkmenistan as an unmarried couple, you won’t be allowed to share a hotel room while homosexuality is illegal in Turkmenistan and punishable by law. Smoking is a big no-no in all public areas, including the streets. However, you can find some restaurants and cafes where smoking is allowed. And last but not least, tourists have to pay a tourist tax of $2 USD per day. You will see this on your hotel bill.
Visa Requirements And Entry Protocols
Before we get to this list of things to do in Turkmenistan, let’s cover the most important thing about visiting this quirky country- the visa. You actually need to have a letter from a tourist agency in order to obtain a visa. And the whole process will take around 6 weeks. Yes, that means you will have to do all the exploring accompanied by a guide. And you have to pay for them and their meals which will cost around $20-$30 per day.
If you come to an agreement with the guide, they can let you roam around Ashgabat and other big cities alone but you’re legally forbidden to travel around Turkmenistan without them, so technically you would be breaking the law. Knowing all this, it’s no wonder that tourism in Turkmenistan is anything but booming and the country is one of the least visited in the world.
City Transit in Ashgabat: The best way to get around the capital are taxis; they are plentiful and affordable.
Bus Rides: Buses in Turkmenistan are cheap and cover most routes you’d want to take.
Rail Travel: Trains are the best way to see most of Turkmenistan and while not super fast, they offer a scenic and laid-back way to travel between major cities.
Domestic Flights: Domestic flights are a offered by Turkmenistan Airlines are on the pricy side but save time (let’s not forget Turkmenistan is a relatively large country).
Renting a Car: If you’re brave enough to tackle local driving habits, renting a car gives you flexibility. Just be prepared for some paperwork.
How’s The Weather In Turkmenistan?
Most of Turkmenistan’s territory consists of the Karakum Desert. Hence, the temperatures in Ashgabat and most other cities in the summer go up to 50° C, making traveling to Turkmenistan very difficult during this time of the year. What makes things even worse is that most Turkmen leave their gas stoves burning 24/7 because, as you may or may not know, Turkmenistan is a country that has an abundance of gas, which is free for all citizens. However, lighters and matches aren’t. Apparently, that’s enough of a reason to have your stove burning all the time.
Walk The Gateway to Hell
We’re starting this list of exciting things to do in Turkmenistan with the Darwaza Gas Crater, also known as the Gateway To Hell, a gaping, fiery maw in the heart of the Karakum Desert, burning non-stop since 1971. It all started with a Soviet drilling mishap, where geologists were searching for natural gas and accidentally hit a cavern, creating a sinkhole. Fearing the spread of methane gas, they set it on fire, expecting it to burn out in a few weeks. Fast forward over half a century, and the crater is still ablaze, a testament to human error turned into a spectacular sight.
Visiting the crater is a one-of-a-kind travel experience you won’t find anywhere else on earth. At night, the 70-meter wide crater illuminates the desert with an eerie glow with flames dancing across the crater’s surface, casting shadows that play tricks on your eyes. Here’s a pro tip: visit during the cooler evening hours to fully appreciate the fiery contrast against the dark sky.
This fire crater is what put this country on the map and nowadays, a lot of people are traveling to Turkmenistan just to see it. The Darvaza Gas Crater looks like it came out of a Sci-Fi movie and its nickname “A door to hell” is rather descriptive. I don’t think there’s a door to hell on our planet but if there was, I’m sure it would look like this.
Back in the 1970s, Soviet scientists discovered what they thought was an oil deposit. But when they started drilling they were really surprised when they realized that was actually a gas deposit. The area completely collapsed releasing gas all over the place. Thinking the gas was poisonous, the scientists set the whole place on fire. 50 years down the stretch- that fire is still burning. This is something you can’t see anywhere else in the world and it’s slowly emerging as Turkmenistan’s main tourist attraction.
Visit The Grand Canyon Of Turkmenistan
The Yangykala Canyon is a feast for the eyes with its layers of pink, red, yellow, and cream and locals often refer to it as the Grand Canyon of Turkmenistan. But despite its beauty, the canyon is something of an off-the-beaten-path destination. That means you won’t have to elbow your way through crowds to snap a breathtaking photo. It’s just you, the vast, silent expanse of the canyon, and maybe a curious lizard or two.
Getting there is a bit of a trek – but let’s face it, the best places always are. You’ll drive through the desert, wondering if your GPS is playing a practical joke. And then, bam! The canyon appears, unfolding like a dramatic reveal in a movie. It’s an “Aha!” moment where you realize that, yes, places like this really do exist outside of Instagram.
Swim In An Underground Lake
This list of the best things to do in Turkmenistan couldn’t be complete without the underground lake of Kow-Ata, a subterranean marvel that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into another world. Getting to the lake is an adventure in itself. You’ll descend a seemingly endless staircase (about 240 steps, but who’s counting?), winding your way down into the Earth’s belly with the air getting warmer and warmer as you descend.
And then, there it is: a vast, warm lake nestled in a cavern. The water’s a balmy 36 degrees Celsius year-round, thanks to the underground thermal springs. It’s nature’s own spa, minus the fluffy towels and overpriced facials. The lake is rich in minerals, which are said to have healing properties.
Explore The Vast Sandy Expanse Of Karakum
Karakum Desert is one of the most unique places I ever visited; its unique landscape makes visiting almost feel like like stepping onto another planet. When I came here I was expecting to see nothing but sand dunes, isolated cities, and camel riders. However, I was absolutely shocked when discovering the Repetek Nature Reserve in the middle of the desert. The reserve is home to over 1,500 different species like vegetation of shrubs and thorny plants, invertebrates, and other small animals. All this led to UNESCO making Repetek a Biosphere Preserve back in 1979. Karakum will definitely change the way you feel about deserts and it’s certainly a place worthy of your time.
Try Camel Trekking In The Desert
Camel trekking in Turkmenistan’s desert is the real deal; camels are the 4x4s of the desert. They’re built for this landscape, with their loping gait and built-in sun visors (those long eyelashes aren’t just for show). It’s a unique experience but also a chance to connect with a simpler way of travel, one that’s measured in camel steps rather than miles per hour.
Discover The White Marble City
Ashgabat is a city that looks like someone spilled a giant bucket of white paint and then sprinkled it with glitter, hence the nickname- the White Marble City. The city’s unusual design was an idea of Turkmenistan’s former (quirky) president Saparmurat Niyazov. On a sunny day, which is most days in Ashgabat, the city practically sparkles. You’ll need sunglasses for two reasons: the sun and the blindingly white buildings.
The city is a mix of grandiose architecture and quirky monuments. Don’t miss the Independence Monument – it’s like the Eiffel Tower went on a luxury spa retreat and came back bedazzled. Then there’s the Wedding Palace, a building that looks like a giant sci-fi tiara. Getting married here must feel like a royal alien wedding. And let’s not forget the bazaars. Tolkuchka Bazaar is a sensory overload in the best way. It’s a labyrinth of colors, smells, and sounds.
Visit The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa
The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa, nestled near modern-day Ashgabat, was the capital of the Parthian Empire, one of Rome’s largest rivals at the time. The ancient site consists of well-preserved fortresses where you can still make out which one is the royal residence, which one is the temple, and with a bit of creativity, imagine how the fortifications used to look like. And let’s not forget the on-site museum, home to dozens of artifacts that will help you learn more about this often forgotten empire.
Explore The Ancient Version Of New York
We can’t talk about the best things to do in Turkmenistan without mentioning Merv, the once-great city that was one of the major stops on the SIlk Road. Located in the middle of the Silk Road, Merv was arguably the world’s largest city around the 10th century. After the establishment of the Silk Road, the city of Merv was growing at the speed of light until Genghis Kahn’s son slaughtered most of the city’s 600,000 people in 1221. Its glory days are obviously behind it but Merv is still one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkmenistan.
Today, this is the largest archeological site in Central Asia and a place where the empires of Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, and the Soviet Union meet. The whole place just smells of history and it seems like it connects these three, at first sight, completely unrelated empires. If you like history (like me) Merv is one of the best places to visit in Turkmenistan and I warmly recommend you check it out.
Visit Turkmenistan’s Most Beautiful Mosque
Located in Gypjak, just outside Ashgabat, this mosque is another quirky testament to (let’s just say) the former president’s unique creativity. It’s one of the largest mosques in the country with a capacity to welcome over 10,000 people with architecture that can be described as a blend of traditional Islamic design with a Turkmen twist. The first thing that catches your eye is the golden dome dominating the skyline. The minarets are tall and imposing and the interior can be described as lavish, featuring a lot of marble and gold leaf elements with some of the most luxurious chandeliers I’ve ever seen in a mosque.
Discover The Birthplace Of Zoroastrianism
Ride Akhal-Teke: Turkmenistan’s National Treasure
In a country where people have always nurtured relationships with their horses, Akhal-Teke is Turkmenistan’s pride and joy, one of the world’s most ancient and elite horse breeds. the world’s most ancient and elite horse breeds. the world’s most ancient and elite horse breeds. These horses are like the supermodels of the equine world – sleek, shiny, and absurdly elegant. Their coats have this metallic sheen that makes you wonder if they’ve been dabbling in horse highlighters.
The Akhal-Teke’s history is as rich as it gets. They’re the direct descendants of the ancient Scythian warhorses – yeah, these beauties have been strutting their stuff since around 3000 BC. They were the ride of choice for emperors and warriors and, let’s be honest, they probably knew it.
Explore Turkmenbashi’s Legacy
Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi, was the first President of Turkmenistan, and let’s just say, he had a flair for the dramatic in leaving his mark. First, there’s Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, which is practically a monument to Turkmenbashi’s vision. The city is dotted with golden statues and structures dedicated to him – it’s like he was competing for the gold medal in city decorating. The most iconic? The Neutrality Arch, topped with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi that rotates to face the sun. It’s part art, part engineering marvel, and all ego.
But Turkmenbashi’s influence isn’t just in grand structures. He penned the Ruhnama, a book that’s part spiritual guide, part autobiography, and part code of conduct for the Turkmen people. It’s like he fancied himself a mix between a philosopher and a life coach. Then there’s Turkmenbashi’s penchant for renaming things after himself and his family. From months of the year to towns and even a meteorite, nothing was off-limits. It’s like he had a monopoly on the naming rights in Turkmenistan.
Learn The Quirks of Turkmen Culture
Funny enough, according to government sources, Turkmenistan is a crime-free state. This is, obviously not correct but Turkmenistan is a safe country. One of the reasons is the police curfew that doesn’t allow anyone to be out on the streets after 11 PM. And you should respect the curfew too. Trust me, you don’t want to get in trouble with the Turkmen police, one of the most corrupted and notorious units in the world.
The Police have the right and power to stop and search you on the street at any time. If that happens to you, stay calm and don’t let them put their hands in your pocket in the process. You don’t want to end up a victim of drug-planting in one of the last police states in Central Asia. Also, if you’re sending a postcard, government agents will probably check what you wrote before they actually send it out. Keep that in mind.
There are several regions that have been declared as restricted areas and traveling to these parts of Turkmenistan is quite difficult. These are the areas surrounding the Caspian Coast, the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan and the Dashoguz region. If you still want to go to one or more of these restricted areas while visiting Turkmenistan, you need to obtain a special permit from the government. Keep in mind that Turkmenistan Airlines will not even let you board a flight to one of these regions if you don’t have that permit. The whole process of getting the permit takes at least 10 days.
Sample Local Cuisine
Can this list of the best things to do in Turkmenistan be complete without trying some of the tastiest dishes of local cuisine? Turkmenistan is famous for its meat-based dishes and stews, dumplings, breads, and pilaf varieties which are to an extent similar to other Central Asian cuisines but distinct enough to make sampling Turkmen food one of the most unique experiences you’ll come across in this part of the world.
Try Water Sports On The Caspian Sea
Next on our list of the most exciting things to do in Turkmenistan, we have trying water sports on the Caspian Sea. As far as water sports go, the Caspian has something in store for everyone. Fancy some adrenaline? Try jet skiing. More of a chill-seeker? Kayaking offers a peaceful way to explore, with the bonus of arm muscles you’ll be proud of. For the classic sea experience, there’s always swimming and let’s not forget kitesurfing; the Caspian breezes are perfect for it.
Take A Ferry But Be Careful
If you’re browsing the internet or going through guidebooks, you’ll probably come across the ferries that travel around Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast. They enter the port in Western Turkmenistan from either Iran or some of Azerbaijan’s coastal cities and represent one of the most infamous parts of tourism in Turkmenistan.
These ‘ferries’ are in fact cargo ships that take passengers if they have enough space. The main issue if you would like to go on this adventure is the fact that you might not have enough food and water to make the trip. Don’t even get me started about the toilet and sleeping facilities. The worst part of the journey is that when ships reach the port, they often wait at least a week for a vacant dock because everything goes so ‘fast’ in Turkmenistan. Hence, I’ve met some travelers that had their Turkmen visa expire while they were waiting in the ferry with (very) limited resources of food and water.
Experience Turkmenistan’s Diverse Landscapes
In this section, we’ll quickly cover some of the best things to do in Turkmenistan when it comes to hiking and camping
For hiking enthusiasts, the Kopet Dag range offers a plethora of trekking routes paths weaving through rugged terrain and offering some of the most beautiful views in Turkmenistan.
Then there’s the Yangykala Canyon for people looking to get off-the-beaten-path, and experience a sense of exploration and discovery.
As for camping, the Awaza region along the Caspian Sea coast offers spots where you can pitch your tent and fall asleep to the sound of waves.
If you’re looking for something more rugged, head into the Karakum Desert. Camping here is like starring in your own desert-survival show, minus the camera crew.
Get A Taste Of Local Folklore
If you’re looking for a place to experience traditional Turkmen music and dances, you should definitely plan a visit to the Magtymguly National Music and Drama Theatre in Ashgabat. The theater often features performances of performers dressed in colorful, traditional attire, dancing to music produced by traditional Turkmen instruments like dilli tuyduk (shepherd’s horn), gargi tuyduk (flute), dutar (stringed, plucked instrument) and the gidjak (stringed, bowed instrument).
Visiting the Carpet Museum
Last but not least, we conclude this list of things to do in Turkmenistan with the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat. Turkmen carpets are sought-after across the world because of their unique traditional design and incredibly vibrant colors and patterns. However, they’re also usually very expensive and let’s be honest, might not be the best fit for you (their traditional design isn’t the best fit for the average modern home). So, if you just want to take a look at some of the most impressive specimens, the Carpet Museum is a great choice.
Would you ever consider traveling to Turkmenistan? What do you think about this country? Did you like this list of exciting things to do in Turkmenistan? Was this article enough to inspire you to visit Turkmenistan? Let us know in the comments!