Turkmenistan is a socialist, tightly controlled by the police, 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, Turkmenistan a country with a rich history and a surprisingly interesting destination. 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.
The bad part about traveling to Turkmenistan is that outside of Ashgabat, you need to have a travel guide. In fact, you 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 agree 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.
A few things you should know before traveling to 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).
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.
Tourists have to pay a tourist tax of $2 USD per day. You will see this on your hotel bill.
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.
Is Turkmenistan safe for tourists?
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.
No travel zones in Turkmenistan
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.
Be careful with the ‘Cargo Ferries’
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 Azerbaijan 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.
With that being said, let me show you what are some of the best places to visit in Turkmenistan!
Ashgabat, a capital like no other
When visiting Ashgabat, have in mind that internet is almost non-existent in Turkmenistan and heavily controlled by the government. There are only a handful of internet cafes in the capital with a horrific connection, if I may add. On top of that, pictures of the president are everywhere just to remind you that the big brother is watching.
The forgotten city of Merv
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.
The Door to Hell
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.
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.
Another amazing place to check out when visiting Turkmenistan is the Kow Ata Underground Lake, located in the Bakharden Cave, east from Ashgabad. It’s a sulfur lake which means that the water is naturally heated and the temperature is around 35°C. The lake also includes 37 other chemical elements and many people believe that coming here a few times can help you cure or at least ease pretty much any disease or condition. To add to this amazing experience, once you get out of the lake you can lay down on a colorful Central-Asian style carpet and have some black tea and freshly grilled shashlik.
Would you ever consider traveling to Turkmenistan? What do you think about this country? Did you like our Turkmenistan travel guide? Was this article enough to inspire you to visit Turkmenistan? Let us know in the comments!