Many of Turkmenistan's Central Asian cities were main points of trade on the Silk Road, linking Eastern and Western civilizations. Three of its cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A former Soviet state, it is one of the most isolated countries in the world.
One of the world's most isolated and repressive countries, Turkmenistan receives very few visitors, and those who manage to travel to the country will be able to see a society that is still under strict control and supervision.
The country possesses large reserves of oil and natural gas. The capital, Ashgabat, is full of beautifully designed marble buildings, and utilities were free for all citizens until 2019.
While the provinces are a helpful way to break down large Turkmenistan into regional travel areas, there is one geographical region present throughout them all, dominating the country: the brutal desert wasteland that is the Karakum.
|Ahal Province (including Ashgabat) |
The central region of the country, home to the capital.
|Balkan Province |
The western province in the Caspian Basin.
|Dashoguz Province |
Northern Turkmenistan, home to the historic city of Konye-Urgench.
|Lebap Province |
The eastern province, largely empty, along the Amu Darya River and the border with Uzbekistan.
|Mary Province |
Turkmenistan's southeast is a principal destination for travelers to see the ancient Silk Road capital of Merv.
- 1 Ashgabat, the capital (2004: 727,200 inhabitants)
- 2 Balkanabat (formerly Nebit-Dag) (2004: 140,000 inhabitants)
- 3 Daşoguz (formerly Tashauz) (2004: 210,000 inhabitants)
- 4 Mary (2004: 160,000 inhabitants)
- 5 Türkmenabat (2004: 256,000 inhabitants)
- 6 Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), a Caspian port (2004: 86,000 inhabitants)
Historically, most of these towns were oases along the Silk Road.
- Avaza — a multi-billion-dollar construction project near Turkmenbashi aimed at creating a "national touristic zone" of over 60 world-class hotels, shopping, and a new international airport. The government likens the project to Dubai, but there is little foreign investment thus far.
- 1 Darvaza — Probably Turkmenistan's single most famous site, at this spot near the former town of Darvaza, an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas in 1971. The rig collapsed into the cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. It was decided to let the fire burn rather than let the poisonous gas escape into the nearby town. The fire burns to this day and it is popular for its Dantesque atmosphere.
- Pay a visit to Kow Ata underground sulphur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in - unless you're handy with your towel. Kow Ata means Father of the Lakes. The cave is more than 200 m long, 20 m high and at some point more than 50 m wide. The water has a constant temperature of 33 to 37 °C.
- 2 Altin Depe
- 3 Anau (Anew)
- 4 Gonur Depe
- Jeitun — Mesolithic settlement on a sand dune in the Kara Kum desert, 30 km north of Ashgabat
- 5 Merv — with Erk Kala, Giaur Kala, Kyz Kala and Sultan Kala
- Namazga Depe
- 6 Nissa — one of the most important cities of the Parthian Empire, 19 km west of Ashgabat
- Abiverd, medieval city (10th to 18th century)
- Abu Said Mithkene Mausoleum (11th to 15th century)
- Astana-baba, 15 km from Mount Atamurat, country estate of Omar-Kali with mausoleum and mosque
- Dayakhaty, near Turkmenabad, caravan serai (11th century)
- Darganata, medieval city, mausoleum (11th to 15th century)
- Dekhistan, historical area in Western Turkestan, big Mashat cemetery, Shir Kabir Mausoleum (10th century), ruins of Missirian city (10th to 15th cent.)
- Devkesengala, north west of Konye Urgench, fortress, mausoleums,
- Ekedeshik, near Tagtabazar, near the Afghanistan border, about 245 km south of Mary, cave settlement with more than 40 rooms, dating back to the Early Middle Ages, eventually a Buddhist monastery
- 7 Geok-tepe, place of a bloody battle between Turkmen and Russians in 1881,
- Imukshir, near Tara, ancient city, fortifications
- 8 Konye Urgench, remains of the capital of Horezmshah with magnificent architectural monuments,
- Mane Baba Mausoleum, about 40 km south of Tejen in the Khaka region. The mausoleum was built in the 11th and 12th centuries over the grave of the famous Sufi teacher and philosopher Abu Said Maneyi (968-1049). The legend tells that Abu Said met Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) for a conversation that lasted three days. Afer this conversation Abi Said said: 'Ibn Sina knows everything that I see' and Ibn Sina answered: 'Abu Said sees everything that I know'.
- Parau, medieval settlement, Parau-bibi and Parau-ata (12th century)
- Sarakhs, ancient city with the Mausoleum of Abul-Fazi ("Sarakhs-baba" and Yarti-Gummez
- Seyitdzhemaledin Mosque, masterpiece of Muslim architecture (15th century)
- Shakhsenem, medieval settlement, mosque
- Talkhatan-baba, 30 km west of Mary, mausoleum (12th century)
- Tasharvat, 38 km west of Balkanabat, big medieval fortress
- Köpet Dag Nature Reserve in the mountains near Ashgabat
- Syunt Hasarday Nature Reserve in the mountains south of the Ashgabat-Turkmenbashi road,
- Esenguly Nature Reserve on the Caspian Sea near the border to Iran
- Krasnovodsk Nature Reserve on the Caspian Sea south of Turkmenbashi,
- Gaplangyr Nature Reserve in the Karakum Desert.
- Quzilqum Nature Reserve along the Amu Darya on the border to Uzbekistan,
- Amu Darya Nature Reserve along the Amu Darya on the border to Uzbekistan, north of Turkmenabat.
- Repetek Nature Reserve in the desert on the road between Mary and Turkmenabat,
- 9 Köýtendag Nature Reserve in the mountains in the south east of the country on the border to Uzbekistan.
You must obtain a special permit to visit a nature reserve, and it will be necessary to apply for it through a travel agent well in advance.
Shrine pilgrimage (ziyarat) and its underlying beliefs have played an important role in islamization of Central Asia as well as in creating and sustaining communal identity up to the present day. Recent research suggests that Musilm "holy men" (Sufi shaykhs) were key players in the conversion to Islam due to their knowledge of Inner Asian pre-Islamic religious traditions and their ability to translate the meaning of Islam to the local population. The prominent position of ancestor worship in Turkmen traditions is shown by the fact that the progenitor of a tribe or community is often ascribed to "islamizers" among the Turkmen. The burial sites of these Muslim founding fathers became a focus of veneration and were accompanied by what is called "Muslim shamanism": ancestral spirits were identified with the companions of the "Saint-progenitor". The communities also accepted saints with outstanding spiritual, intellectual or physical powers. Thus the burial sites of Islamic saints, local rulers, learned scholars, warriors or pre-Islamic figures have become shrines. Turkmen tradition also recognizes six non-Turkmen öwlat groups, which trace their lineage to the first caliphs of Islam, e.g. the progenitor of the öwlat group Ata is Gözli Ata who in the 14th century came from Turkestan, a center of Sufi teaching, in order to carry on his teachings in Western Turkmenistan. The legends describe him as an extremely powerful saint, outdoing other saints in miracle performances and winning large numbers of followers.
- Ak Ishan
- Gözli Ata, about 160 km north of Balkanabat. Gözli Ata ("Father Eye") was a famous Sufi teacher of the 12th century. It is told that he was able to recognize the good and the evil in the soul of all men. He was killed by the Mongols and buried here, next to his wife Bibi Aysulu.
- Ibrahim Sultan
- Ismamut Ata
- Kyrk Giz, in a spectacular canyon in the Köýtendag Nature Reserve
- Kyrk Molla at Konye Urgench
- Malik Baba
- Mohammed Ibn Zaid Mausoleum
- Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum at Konye Urgench
- Parau Bibi Shrine, about halfway between Ashgabat and Balkanabat, about 20 km north west of Gyzylarbat and about 8 km south of the main road, in the village of Paraw. The shrine is set 100 meters up a rocky mountainside overlooking the village and the steppe. It consists of a white mausoleum-like structure, a guest house and a roofed platform where the pilgrims congregate and have meals. According to the legend Paraw Bibi was a beautiful and virtuous maiden. A jealous woman wanted to hand over Paraw Bibi to invaders in exchange for the promise not to attack the village. Paraw Bibi cursed the woman and let her turn into black stone. When the enemy attacked, Paraw Bibi ordered the mountain to split into two parts so that she was able to enter it and to preserve her purity and virtue. The locals built a shrine to Paraw Bibi, as they believed that because of her bravery and refusal to submit she was a true hero blessed by the holy breath of the prophets. It is reported that at least at the end of the Soviet era pilgrims from all over western Turkmenistan visited the shrine, seeking fertility and a cure from insanity.
- Shibly Baba
- Khoja Yusup Baba (Hemedani) is a large complex in southeastern Turkmenistan near Bairam Ali, on the territory of the ancient state of Merv. Khoja Yusuf Hamadani is a well known figure in Islamis history. He is considered as the first in a line of Sufi masters from which the lineages of the most important Sufi orders Naqshbandi and Yasavi are derived, and is described as an exemplary Muslim, pious and unpretentious, devoted to Islamic scholarship and deeply inspired by his work to promote Islam. He died in 1140 and his body was interred at Merv, presumably at the site carrying his name. In the Soviet era the Moseque of Khoja Yusup Baba was declared an official architectural monument and one of the four official mosques in entire Turkmenistan. It is popular belief that two pilgrimages to Khoja Yusup Baba equal one to Mecca. The pilgrims circle the tomb from right to left, surrounding the tomb three times. Most people repeatedly touch the wall of the tomb with both hand and bring their hands to the face. Some even kiss the wall. After they had completed the circling they sit together while the caretaker recites a blessing. When the blessing os finished they give the caretaker offerings of money. In the complex is a well said to contain holy water. Women tie small strips of cloth on the branches of the bushes or trees that line the path leading to the well. These strips signify prayers or wishes to the saint. For the same reason pilgrims set up two old bricks in the form of an upside-sown "V". Miniature imitation cradles made from sticks and cloth are set up by women hoping for the saint's aid in order to become fertile.
- Baba Gambar has several shrines. The best known is in southeastern Turkmenistan, about 120 km south of Mary: it is often considered as an example how a pre-Islamic deity was transformed into an Islamic saint. According to Islamic legend Ganbar was the stableman of Ali and caretaker of his horse Duldul. In Turkmen legends Ganbar is considered as the patron of musicians and creator of the first dutar, the traditional two-string music instrument. According to the legend Ali remarked that Duldul was ill and underfed. When he questioned Gambar, Gambar did not give an answer. Then, Ali saw Gambar playing the dutar to Duldul. When Ali confronted Gambar, Gambar commanded the earth to swallow him and fled underground to Mecca, saying that the two will meet again on judgment day. The site consists of the shrine-mausoleum, a "chile agach" and a tree the leaves of which have the shape of dutar tuning pegs. It is claimed that the tree grew from Gambar's original dutar and that its roots lead to the underground passage through which Gambar fled.
- Hazret(i) Ali is about 12 km southwest of Ashgabat, near the village of Bagir and the archaeological site of Nisa. The small mosque, called "namazga" (hall of prayer), is considered as a place where Ali prayed when he was promoting Islam. Impressions in the rocks are said to have come from Ali's hands and from the hooves of his horse Duldul.
- Khoja Alem Baba is near the town of Kaka, about 130 km south east of Ashgabat. It is an excellent example of a small, local shrine, serving one specific village only due to "öwlat" (clan lineage). The tomb is housed in a clay mausoleum with two chambers, an entrance or sitting area and the tomb chamber proper. Tomb and chamber are decorated with votive offerings and objects connected with Khoja Alem Baba. Sites as Khoja Alem Baba are very common in Turkmenistan. Apparently Turkmen tradition stipulated that each community has an "öwlüya" and by this way has access to the protection provided.
|Currency||Turkmenistan new manat (TMT)|
|Population||6.1 million (2021)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (NEMA 5-15, Schuko, Europlug)|
|Time zone||UTC+05:00, Asia/Ashgabat|
|edit on Wikidata|
North Korea may get all the press, but even the Kim Family's cult of personality fades when compared to the surreal totalitarian state set up by Turkmenistan's former all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15-m-tall golden statue that rotates to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat. The month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after himself, while the month of April and the word "bread" became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of Niyazov's mother. Decrees emanating from Niyazov's palace banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games and golden tooth caps. Through it all, Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great (his official title) pretended to remain modest, once remarking that "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets, but it's what the people want". Niyazov's government also spent billions on renovating the country, shut down libraries and hospitals, and even wrote the Ruhnama, a spiritual book to improve the Turkmen people.
Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death in December 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has slowly peeled back the worst excesses of the Turkmenbashi. The Ruhnama has lost its popularity, and Berdimuhamedov has been restoring pensions and old names. There was still a huge cult of personality surrounding Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who was claimed to be a man of multiple talents. The current country's president, Gurbanguly's son Serdar Berdimuhamedov, continues the authoritarian rule in Turkmenistan but, as reported by independent media, is seen as less powerful figure than his father who's still bearing the title of Arkadag ('The Protector').
One thing of importance to any visitors who smoke cigarettes or cigars: it is forbidden to smoke 'in a public place'. Generally, this means 'outside'. Smoking at any of the bazaars is a definite no-no, as there were two major bazaar fires in 2006–2007. While it bothers non-smokers, those who enjoy tobacco products can enjoy them inside most restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs. A good rule of thumb – if you don't see anyone else smoking, you shouldn't. The government has also banned the sale of all tobacco products in the country.
The people of Turkmenistan are predominantly Turkmen (plural Turkmen or Turkmens), also spelled Turkoman, in both ethnicity and language. Turkmenistan traditionally was home to sizeable Russian and German populations, but they largely emigrated to their mother countries following the break up of the Soviet Union. As of 2012, 86% of the population was ethnically Turkmen, followed by 6% ethnic Uzbek and 5% ethnic Russian.
According to the Ruhnama, the Turkmens originated from Oguz Han and all Oguz people descend from Oguz Han's 24 grandsons. The original homeland of the Oguz tribes was the Ural-Altay region of Central Asia. The Orhun inscriptions (6th century) mentions the "six Oghuz tribal union", referring to the unification of the six Turkic tribes. This was the first written reference to Oghuz, dated to the period of the Göktürk Empire. The Book of Dede Korkut, the historical epic of the Oghuz Turks, was written in the 9th and 10th century. They migrated westwards in the area of the Aral Sea and the Syr Darya Basin in the 10th century. A clan of the Oghuz, the Seljuks took over Islam, entered Persia in the 11th century and founded the Great Seljuk Empire. The name Oghuz is derived from the word 'ok', meaning 'arrow' or 'tribe' and an archer shooting an arrow was shown on the flag of the Seljuk Empire. The term Oghuz was gradually supplanted by the Turks themselves by Türkmen or Turcoman. This process was completed in the 13th century.
The main tribes of the Turkmen are the Tekke (around the oases of Ahal, Tejen and Merv), the Ersari (along the Amu Darya), the Yomud (in the Balkan Region and Khorzem Oasis) and the Goklen in the Southwest.
Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert, with intensive agriculture located in irrigated oases. One-half of its irrigated land is planted with cotton, making it the world's tenth largest producer.
About 80% of Turkmenistan's surface is covered by the biggest desert in Central Asia, the Karakum (Black Sand), which forms together with the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) in Uzbekistan the fourth biggest desert in the world. The Karakum covers about 350,000 km².
The Kopet Dagi Mountains (Many Mountains) in Southern Turkmenistan form the border to Iran. In the Kugitang Mountains in North East Turkmenistan is the highest mountain of the country, the Airbaba (3,117 m). The lowest point of the country is the Akdzhak depression, 80 m below sea level.
The country measures about 1,100 km from west to east and about 650 km from north to south.
Main public holidays
- 1 Jan: New Year
- 21–22 March: Nowruz (Navrouz: Spring festival)
- First Sunday of April: Drop of Water is a Grain of Gold Day
- 27 Apr: Ahalteke Horse Day
- 18 May: State Flag and Constitution Day
- 27 Sep: Independence Day
- 6 Oct: Day of Remembrance (to remember the earthquake of 1948)
- 17 Nov: Student Youth Day
- 30 Nov: Bread Day
- 12 Dec: Day of Neutrality
- Eid al-Fitr (date varies)
- Eid al-Adha (date varies)
- 12 Jan: Remembrance Day (Battle of Geok Depe)
- 9 May: Day of Remembrance of National Heroes of Turkmenistan in the 1941-1945 World War
- 19 May: Day of Revival, Unity, and the Poetry of Magtymguly
- 29 May: Day of the Ministry of Internal Affairs
- Last Sunday of May: Turkmenhaly Bairamy (Carpet Day)
- 27 Jun: Day of Turkmen Workers of Culture and Art
- Third Sunday in July – Galla Bayramy (celebration of the wheat harvest)
- 11 Aug: Border Guards Day
- Day of the Workers in the Oil, Gas, Power, and Geological Industry (Second Saturday in September)
- 30 Sep: Day of the Worker in the Organs of National Security
- 9 Oct: Day of the Navy
- Last Sunday of November: Harvest Festival
- Health Day (First Saturday in November)
- Second Sunday of August: Melon Day
- First Sunday of Dec: Good Neighbourliness Day
- Day of Remembrance of the First President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov
Turkmenistan has a continental climate with long hot summers. Winters are not too cold. The average temperature is 26-34°C in summer and -4°C to 4°C in winter.
However, in northern regions the temperature in winter months can decrease to -20°C.
- The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron, Penguin, 1994
- Daily Life in Turkmenbashy's Golden Age by Sam Tranum
- Joe & Azat by Jesse Lonergan
This is one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit, due in large part to a very strict and confusing visa policy.
Everyone, regardless of their nationality, needs a visa to enter the country. You typically need to submit the following with your visa application:
- A valid passport (with a validity of more than six months)
- A letter of invitation (LOI) that has been certified and authenticated by the State Migration Service
- A copy of the first page of your passport.
One way to obtain a letter of invitation is to join a guided tour. Authorised tour guides can assist with the process.
All applications are vetted in Ashgabat and it normally takes 2–3 weeks to process any kind of Turkmen visa.
Prices for Turkmen visas are reasonable. A single-entry ten-day visa — which is what most people would apply for anyway — costs US$35.
Journalists are not permitted to visit Turkmenistan on a tourist visa.
The World Health Organization recommends vaccinations against diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, polio, rubella, tetanus, typhoid and chickenpox (varicella). In addition, vaccinations against meningitis, rabies and tuberculosis are recommended for long term travellers.
All foreigners entering Turkmenistan have to pay a registration fee of US$12 (2012) and will receive a green entry and departure card. Take particular care of the departure card, as it must be presented when leaving the country.
Foreigners staying for more than 3 days in Turkmenistan must register with IVOR in Ashgabat, Asady köcesi, ☏ 391337 (domestic) or with IVOR branch offices in other towns. You are responsible for registration, even when staying in a hotel. The hotel will give you a confirmation of the accommodation only. This confirmation and the receipt for the registration fee paid when entering the country have to be presented to IVOR. Two photos are required. Registration will be stamped into your passport. You have to give notice to the IVOR in order to be permitted to leave the country. This notice will be stamped into the passport as well. Border controls will check if you have registration and notice to leave stamped into your passport.
Travel permits are required for many border regions. You do not need a travel permit for Ashgabat, Merv, Turkmenabat and Balkanabat. Transit visas allow you to travel along the main roads on your way to the next country on your itinerary. It is, however, absolutely necessary to have a travel permit for the following regions:
- in Western Turkmenistan: for Bekdash, Turkmenbashi, Haza, Dekistan, Yangykala, Gyzletrek, Nokhur and surroundings,
- in Northern Turkmenistan: for the entire region of Dashogus including Konye Urgench, Dargan-Ata and Gazachak,
- in Eastern Turkmenistan: for Farab, Atamurat (Kerki) and surroundings, Köýtendag Nature Reserve, Tagtabazar and Serkhetabat.
Turkmenistan Airlines has direct flights to Ashgabat from Abu Dhabi, Almaty, Amritsar, Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kyiv, London, Minsk, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Look out for the portrait of Sapamurat 'Turkmenbashi' Niyazov at the front of the cabin. The schedules are often less-than-convenient, and there is no website for the airlines with flights listed. It's usually best to visit the webpage of the airport from which you are departing to find the schedule.
Virtually impossible. No official international trains exist and the only train (Moscow-Dushanbe) that transits the country is virtually inaccessible unless you are a Turkmen citizen. Turkmenistan does not issue transit visas "from-then-again-to Uzbekistan" and one would need a standard non-transit visa (Tajiks don't need any papers for transiting Turkmenistan with this train). This train has no official stops on the Turkmen territory but it physically runs via Amudarya.
If you want to enter Turkmenistan with your own car, you need a liability insurance. The green International Insurance Card is not valid in Turkmenistan. In addition you have to pay an additional tax (about US$150) for the government subsidized fuel prices, depending on the distance of your travel in Turkmenistan. This tax has to be paid on the border in US dollars. Be prepared to have long waiting times at border controls. By vehicle, you can get in through Kazakhstan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
The road from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan is in terrible condition. If you don't have an SUV, the drive from Zhanaozen to the border may take up to 3 hours. Traffic is not permitted to cross these borders until further notice; the FCO advises those driving go via routes in Uzbekistan. The drive from the border to Garabogaz may take another 3 hours. Make sure to bring enough supplies since the border post is really isolated. Paperwork may take a long time but everything is very straightforward and people are really friendly and helpful. Very few tourists cross this border.
Visitors holding visas can enter Turkmenistan from all neighbouring countries. Checks at the border usually take one or two hours and maybe even more. Border points are open daily from 09:00 to 18:00.
- Take a bus to Quchan: every 2 hours from 06:30. Cost: 8000 rial. Duration: 2hr 30min.
- From Quchan, take a private taxi to Bajgiran (village at the border). Cost: 60,000 rial for 2, or less if you can. Duration: about 1hr.
- At Bajgiran, go to the border (opening time: 07:30-15:30 Iran time). Crossing the border can take up to 2 hours. Turkmen police will ask for an entry tax of USD10 (per person) + USD2 of bank fees (per group), to be paid in US dollars only.
- In the Turkmenistan side, take a taxi to Ashgabat, which can cost up to USD15 per person. Duration: about 1 hr.
Each crossing may require 15 minutes' walk across no-mans land, sometimes shared taxis are available. There are three crossings from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan:
- Farab from Bukhara: Take a taxi from Bukhara to the border (USD8) or a shared taxi to Uzbek Olot (Qarakul) and then a taxi to the border. From the border it is about 45 km to Turkmenabat. A taxi should cost about USD5 and a seat in a shared taxi less than USD1.
- Dashgous from Khiva or Urgench: Take a taxi from Khiva or Urgench to the border for about USD10 and another one on the Turkmenistan side from the border to Dashgous for about USD1.
- Khojeli from Nukus in Karalpakstan: Take a taxi for the 30 minutes' drive from Nukus to the border for about USD10 or public transport from Khojeli for about USD1 and a taxi for the 10 minutes' drive to Konye Urgench for about USD1.
It is two hours' drive from Zhanaozen to the Turkmenistan border and another 40 minutes drive from the border on a dirt road to the city of Karabogas (formerly Bekdash). The last 50 km on each side of the border is a very bad dirt road. (approx. USD100 private car or KZT10,000 per person shared). From Karabogas there is a good road to Turkmenbashi with fine views on the Caspian Sea. About 60 km south of Karabogas the road crosses a bridge over the channel connecting the Caspian Sea with the inland gulf. The border is closed to traffic until further notice.
- See also: Ferries in the Caspian Sea
Several popular travel guides discuss travelling by “ferry” across the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the port of Turkmenbashy in western Turkmenistan. Some people have faced problems attempting to travel to Turkmenistan by boat. Travellers should be aware that these “ferries” are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. Passengers are generally not provided food or water on these ships, and sleeping and sanitary facilities are likely to be rudimentary. Travellers should be aware that ships arriving at the port of Turkmenbashy often wait days offshore for outgoing ships to vacate the dock to allow incoming ships to disembark. Some people have spent more than a week offshore while their ship awaited permission to enter the port, and they have run out of stores of food and water, or had their Turkmen visas expire before they could be used. For this and other reasons travellers, especially those who plan to enter Turkmenistan by boat, are discouraged from using transit visas to enter Turkmenistan.
Internal flights are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines which flies daily between Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi, Dashoguz and a couple of other destinations. Flights are subsidised, and due to fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around USD5 for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines operates with a fleet of Boeing 717s, purchased in 2001. You might not be able to photograph freely in and around the airport, though this is not unheard of elsewhere.
Turkmenistan has at least one daily train between major cities in the country. Timetable here[dead link]. Journeys are slow but heavily subsidized (a few USD in the 1st sleeping class to anywhere in the country). Tickets can't be bought online and trains fill up fast so be sure to get one in advance. Train classes are typical for the ex-Soviet Union but most of the Soviet trains have been replaced with modern Chinese air-conditioned cars.
Rail service in Turkmenistan is provided by Turkmendemiryollari (Turkmenistan railways), Ashgabat, phone 3632 255545, fax 3632 473858. On the principal trains they offer soft and hard accommodation with sleeping and dining cars.
Turkmenistan has a well-developed intercity bus network, with regular services connecting most of the major cities and towns in the country.
You can typically book bus tickets at the bus station or through a travel agency. Some bus companies also offer online ticket booking, so you may want to check their websites to see if this is an option.
The Amu Darya is an important inland waterway for Turkmenistan.
The traffic culture in this country is markedly different from that of the West and poses a significant risk to both motorists and pedestrians. Traffic rules are routinely ignored, and speeding is commonplace. Moreover, real crossings are virtually nonexistent, making it challenging to navigate the roads safely. Cars may be in poor condition or lack essential safety features such as seat belts.
In urban areas, only the main streets are usually illuminated, while roads outside of large cities are in poor condition, making driving particularly hazardous at night. Safety checkpoints in towns and cities often cause traffic to slow down, further adding to the challenges of getting around.
In Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi, taxis are largely informal, and hailing a car by the roadside is the norm. If you plan to take a taxi, be sure to negotiate the destination and price in advance, preferably with knowledge of Russian. While the roads in these cities are in excellent condition; the road from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat is undergoing significant upgrades in 2014, to a two-lane, divided highway.
It is advisable to exercise caution when driving in this country, and if your instincts suggest that something is not quite right, it is best to err on the side of caution. Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, and motorists are frequently asked to present their passports and car papers, which can be inconvenient but is a routine part of travel here.
When driving, remember to keep to the right side of the road, adhere to the speed limit, and carry an international permit. Minimum age is 17. Speed limit is 60 km/h in urban areas, 90 to 120 km/h on highways. Police officers may stop you without reason, but it is important to remain polite and not pay bribes. Radar guns may also be used to measure your speed, and if caught speeding, it is possible to negotiate a small fine in most cases.
The official language of the country is Turkmen. Turkmen is closely related to Azerbaijani and Turkish, sharing varying degrees of mutual intelligibility with each of those languages. If you're a native speaker of one of those languages or know enough to communicate in either, picking up Turkmen should be easy.
Russian is widely spoken in Turkmenistan due to its history as part of the Soviet Union, and serves as the language of "inter-ethic" communication. Turkmen state press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.
Uzbek is widely understood in Turkmenistan, due to both languages sharing common Turkic traits. Ethnic Russians and Uzbeks each number about a quarter of a million, and most of those are native speakers of Russian or Uzbek.
Kazakh is also understood in the country (because of Turkic traits), but to a much more limited extent.
English is not widely understood in Turkmenistan, even though it is increasingly becoming a popular foreign language. Thus, it's recommended to have some solid Russian or Turkmen skills should you choose to travel independently.
Turkmen Carpet Museum (Ashgabat). An enormous collection including many antique carpets, some in designs that are no longer made, and the world's largest handmade carpet at 14x21m.
Ancient cities, once major centers of trade and culture:
- Horse trekking with Akhal Teke horses: Orexca [dead link] offers a 12 day Turkem Akhalteke Horse Ride Wonders of the Karakum Desert with transfer from Ashgabar to Geokdepe Stud Farm, ride through the North East of the Karakum Desert to Tummekli, to the nomadic villages of Chyria, Gurrukly, Hakysh Gongurajy, Orazsahet and to the Geokdepe Reservoir.
- Hiking in the Köýtendag Nature Reserve (travel permit required) or in the mountains around Nokhur.
- Adventure tour and camel trek in the Kara Kum Desert. Stantours offers a 14-day off-road and camel tour through Eastern Turkmenistan with a drive from Ashgabat to the Yangykala Canyon, visiting Gozel Ata, camel treks in the Eastern Karabogaz basin and Kaplankyr National Park, and visiting Karashor salt lake, Sarakamysh lake and Yabgysu Canyon.
- Turkmenistan in 3 days: if you are short of time, you can visit the most important sites in a few days: day 1 arrival in Ashgabat, day 2 flight to Dashoguz, and visit Konye Urgench, return flight from Dashoguz to Ashgabat in the same evening, overnight in Ashgabat, day 3 morning flight to Mary, visit of Merv, return flight to Ashgabat in the same evening, overnight in Ashgabat, day 4 Ashgabat, sightseeing, day 5 departure from Ashgabat.
Exchange rates for Turkmenistani Manat
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The official currency in Turkmenistan is the new manat, sometimes denoted by the symbol "m" (ISO code: TMT). It is divided into 100 tenge.
Coins in Turkmenistan come in denominations of 1-, 2-, 5-, 10-, 20 and 50 tenge and 1 and 2 manat. Banknotes in Turkmenistan come in denominations of 1-, 5-, 10-, 20-, 50 and 100 manat.
The U.S. dollar is widely accepted, although it should only be accepted in international hotels or at the airport according to regulations. You will be asked to pay with dollars in hotels, certain tourist sights and for your tour operator. Be sure to take lots of US$1 bills for small purchases.
You cannot exchange manat outside of Turkmenistan, so only exchange what you intend to use, as it is impossible to exchange manat back into dollars or other foreign currencies inside Turkmenistan.
There is a black market for currency in Turkmenistan. The black market rate was 18.5 manat to US$1 in Nov 2022. Black market exchanges can be found at the Gulistan market (Russian Bazaar) in Ashgabat. The black market exchangers, however, know many tricks for scamming travelers.
Credit cards are only accepted in big international hotels and banks in the bigger cities. Visa credit cards are the most useful. MasterCard is accepted at one bank in Ashgabat, and at the ATM in the Hotel Grand Turkmen and the Ak Altyn Hotel in Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan is the most expensive country in Central Asia. Expect to pay US$30 for a basic double room. A more comfortable option is around US$60. A street snack is US$1 to US$3. A meal in a good restaurant in Ashgabat costs about US$20. A "tourism tax" of US$2 per day was introduced in August 2017; expect it to be added to your hotel bill.
The bazaars are the heart of every town in Turkmenistan. Bazaars are usually open daily 08:00-20:00 including Sundays. Large markets, like the Tolkuchka Bazaar in the outskirts of Ashgabat are open two or three mornings per week only. Bazaars outside Ashgabat will be closed at daylight hours during the cotton harvest season in autumn. Government shops are closed on Sundays and at lunch time.
Why not add to your own despotic library by adding Turkmenbashi's self-penned Ruhnama book, exploring his views on what it means to be a Turkmen. Surprisingly, this is a fairly sensible read.
- See also: Carpets#Turkmen rugs
Turkoman rugs are famous, tending towards rich reds with geometric patterns. Some traditional patterns are unique to each tribe, and an expert can generally identify the tribe from the shape of the medallion-like pattern elements called guls. However, it is fairly common to find a mixture; when a weaver from one tribe marries into a different tribe, she may use elements from both in her creations.
Sometimes Turkoman rugs are called "Bokhara" rugs because Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan was a centre for their trade. Turkmenistan is not the only source of Turkoman rugs; Uzbekistan and northern areas of both Iran and Afghanistan have some Turkoman people. Other Afghan rugs are heavily influenced by Turkoman design and Turkoman designs are often copied in India and Pakistan; dealers may also call those rugs "Bokhara" but, while some of them are fine rugs, in general they are neither as high quality nor as valuable as real Turkoman rugs.
Today, wool is often coloured with synthetic and not with natural dyes; at one time this was a problem because early synthetic dyes were of low quality. Today, it is much less of an issue but some collectors still prefer natural dyes, mainly because they give better arbrush, the subtle variation in colour across a rug.
Back in the 19th and early 20th century, some merchants bleached these rugs, removing the red colour, before export and called the result Golden Bokhara. Apparently this fit better into the colour schemes of their US and European buyers. Many collectors of Turkoman carpets scorn these rugs, both because the colour scheme is inauthentic and because the bleach often damaged the wool. However, they are still produced and newer ones are not bleached but woven with the "golden" colour scheme.
You need an export permission for carpets purchased in a bazaar or private shop. The Expert Commission on the back of the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat (phone 398879 and 398887, opening hours M-F 14:30-17:30, Sa 10:00-12:00) has to certify that the carpet is not more than 50 years old and may be exported. This costs 115 manat per square metre and can take a few days. In addition carpets exceeding 1.5 square metres are subject to an export duty of 400 manat per square metre payable in USD at the official rate of exchange at customs on departure.
Some carpet factories are run by the state owned company Turkmenhaly[dead link]. If you buy a carpet in a state shop, the export fees normally are included in the price, although customs will charge a commission fee of 0.2 per cent of the price of the carpet.
For an accessible (still in print and sanely priced) guide to these carpets, look for books by the California collector Dr. Murray Eiland. If you intend on spending a lot, and especially if you are interested in older carpets, it may be worth looking deeper. The classic book on Turkoman rugs is Tappiseries de l'Asie Centrale by AA Bogolyubov, who was Tsarist governor of Turkmenistan, published in Russian and French in St. Petersburg in 1905. It was a limited edition and is now rare and extremely expensive (several thousand U.S. dollars). If you are passing through London, the British Museum has a copy and will let visitors browse through it. A translation (the original French plus English), Carpets of Central Asia (ISBN 978-0903580052), was published in Britain in the 1960s; it is no longer in print but can be found in libraries. On the used market, it is both much easier to find and far less expensive than the original.
Expect distinctly average Russian cuisine in restaurants. As in Uzbekistan, plov and more central Asian-type fare can be found in markets. If you can find it, try sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, sometimes prepared in a tempura style.
Meals often start with a soup, as chorba, a meat and vegetable soup. Another national dish is plov, rice with mutton, onions, carrots, spices, raisins, peas or quinces. Manty are steamed dumplings filled with lamb. Ku'urma is lamb, cooked in its own fat. Ichlekli is a meat and onion pie and gutap is a pie filled with meat, potatoes, spinach and pumpkin.
Look out for a range of Turkmenbashi labeled vodka, which can be washed down with the range of Russian Baltika brand beer. It can be harder to find local beers in outlets catering to foreigners, but Berk is well worth asking for; Zip, on the other hand, is awful.
Tea is excellent and readily available.
Best to err on the side of caution, and stick with bottled water. As in Russia, you may want to specify byehz gah-zah (literally, 'without gas' or 'still; plain') if you do not like fizzy water. Borjomi mineral water from Georgia is available in Ashgabat's shops.
Local people prefer to drink gok chai (green tea), often with dried fruits or herbs, as mint.
Turkmenistan is a very safe country, largely because the government severely punishes crime. Turkmenistan is an authoritarian dictatorship and has one of the worst human rights records in the world. You need to watch what you say and do, always. As the saying goes, "If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all."
- See also: Corruption and bribery
Corruption is a huge problem in Turkmenistan. According to Transparency International, Turkmenistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Given how the police earn very low salaries, it's not uncommon for them to target people for bribes. As a foreigner, you may be seen as a "walking wallet" to them. Should you be stopped for any reason, do not argue or fight back, even if you've not done anything wrong; simply pay the bribe and be on your way.
In Turkmenistan, the police do not exist to help you, they only exist to bully you. They enjoy strong patronage from the government and regularly abuse their powers. Do not trust them under any circumstances.
Turkmen law enforcement authorities are generally very touchy and aggressive, and it's very common to be rudely treated by them. In the event a police officer misbehaves with you, do not feel tempted to fight back or argue with them, because you do not want to pick a fight with the wrong person in a country far away from home.
In accordance with the law, you are required to have an identification document on you at all times, and the police have the legal right to ask you for it. If they ask you for it, just give it to them. Not doing so can result in trouble with the authorities. Also, you have the legal right to ask them to present their identification.
Do not, under any circumstances, photograph law enforcement personnel without their consent; the authorities consider it as espionage and you can expect to be interrogated for doing so.
Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do not take pictures of anything of strategic importance (government buildings, airports, etc), or else you could be detained by the authorities.
Driving by the majority of Turkmens is wild and reckless. Speeding, reckless passing, and failure to obey traffic laws are common, as is driving under the influence. Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence.
Most taxi services are not regulated and the vast majority of taxis do not have seat belts or other safety devices. For safety reasons, visitors should strongly consider hiring a private car and driver through their travel agency or hotel.
Police checkpoints and roadblocks are common. Do not be scared or intimidated; just be firm and polite when you run into a police checkpoint.
Relationships with the Turkmens
The Turkmen authorities do not take too kindly to foreign men mingling with Turkmen women.
During the Niyazov years, foreign nationals wanting to marry Turkmen women had to pay a fee of at least $50,000 to the Turkmen government.
Other things to watch out for
- Your guide does not have to accompany you if you want to leave your hotel and go for a walk. If you are a man, try not to walk with a female companion (if it is not your wife or girlfriend) — the police may think that this is a walk with a prostitute, and may simply arrest you. In Turkmenistan, both prostitutes and clients are severely punished.
- Turkmenistan is perhaps the hottest country in the post-Soviet space. There is a sharp, dry, subtropical-inland climate, that is, palm trees do not grow, but in summer it is extremely hot and dry. Winter is cold and windy, and in spring and autumn it is cloudy and rainy. In summer, from May to September, Turkmenistan is even hotter than in neighboring Uzbekistan, but slightly cooler than in Iran. In June, July and August, the temperature in cities can approach +50 degrees Celsius, which is why there are very few people on the streets during the day. The locals try to do all their business in the morning or in the evening, when it's not so hot. Severe gales and dust storms often occur (a dry and hot wind called the "Afghan wind" is active here).
- When talking to ordinary citizens, not to mention civil servants, be extremely careful in your statements about the ruling regime, politics and the current socio-economic situation in the country. There are a lot of Turkmen security officers disguised in civilian clothes, who are primarily interested in foreigners. They also analyze the current mood among the people. You can acquire the status of a political criminal. Rights and freedoms are not respected in the country. Turkmen security officers are especially vigilant towards journalists and bloggers.
- It is better not to go outside after 22:00, as you may be accused of violating the curfew, which is often announced without notice. Turkmen security officers and security forces in general are obsessed with espionage. Even at night there are a lot of police patrols.
- Turkmenistan borders Afghanistan from the southeast through steppe hills. Try not to approach the border zone both with Afghanistan and with other neighbors, since the danger comes not from imaginary Afghan militants, but from Turkmen border guards and security officers, who, seeing a foreigner in this zone, will definitely detain you.
- In Turkmenistan, even voluntary homosexual relations between men are still a criminal offense and can be punishable by imprisonment from 2 to 20 years. If this is relevant to you, try not to advertise your orientation at all.
- Since most of the country is occupied by deserts and steppes, it is very likely that you will encounter snakes and scorpions. There are many poisonous ones among them. Be careful when walking off the roads.
Medical supply does not correspond to American or European standards. Bring the medicines you need for your personal use with you, as they will be unavailable outside of Ashgabat. A travel insurance covering hospital care and an emergency flight to your home country is strictly recommended.
Vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and B are recommended. A vaccination against typhus is also recommended in case you stay in poor hygienic conditions, and a course of 3 vaccinations against rabies is recommended for long term stays and frequent contact with animals or if you are not able to get to a clinic to be treated within 18 hours of being bitten.
Avoid drinking tap water. Tap water in Turkmenistan is known to contain traces of toxic metals, and this can cause long-term health problems.
Fruits and vegetables should be peeled before consumption. Avoid dairy products as they are not pasteurized.
The Turkmens in general are friendly and hospitable, sometimes even to a fault.
Saving face is an important cornerstone of Turkmen culture, so try to be prudent and careful with what you say; Turkmens are sensitive to being beckoned directly.
Although the country may have wonderful photo opportunities, do not photograph or record people without their permission. Also, taking photographs of anything of strategic importance may be met with suspicion and you can quickly land in legal hot water.
Although Turkmenistan is a Muslim (but secular) country, most people hold secular, liberal views (but this does not apply to tolerance of LGBT people and freedom of speech outside the family). They are not as devout as their neighbors, for example. Alcohol consumption is normal for most men.
Turkmens, as a rule, do not participate in public displays of affection, as this is considered disrespectful. Holding hands and hugging in public is also tacitly prohibited.
Things to avoid
- Do not criticise the president and/or the government. Criticism of the government is not tolerated, and this carries heavy penalties. You can very easily make many Turkmens uncomfortable and a comment heard by the wrong person will land you in serious trouble with the authorities.
- When entering someone's home, always take off your shoes. Not doing so is considered impolite.
- Never show up to someone's home empty handed. A small gift would suffice. Very expensive gifts will be viewed with suspicion.
- When visiting someone's house you will usually be offered bread. Be sure to use both of your hands to eat it. Refusing this would reflect poorly on your hosts.
- Turkmens (especially women) believe in omens very much and are extremely superstitious. Whistling is unacceptable in every Turkmen house. It is commonly believed that whistling will make the owner of the house poor. Turkmens on certain days do not wash, do not cut their nails, do not clean, and abstain from multiple other seemingly common actions, and expect the same from guests. For example, stand right on the doorstep or cleaning the house after dark is considered a bad act.
Although Turkmenistan is in dire need of qualified and simply skilled workers, Turkmenistan has extremely strict immigration laws, and it is impossible for a foreigner to get a work permit, with rare exceptions, if you are an employee of a lucky company that miraculously concluded an agreement with the government of Turkmenistan on the construction or maintenance of some building, construction or industrial facility. Here, foreigners are not welcome to move to work at the state level, primarily because of the country's isolationist policy and fear of imaginary spies, and not because the state wants to protect the country's jobs from foreigners for its citizens.
Turkmenistan is, by design, one of the most expensive and difficult places in which to communicate.
Turkmenistan has only one mobile phone provider: TM Cell.
Internet services are heavily monitored and censored in Turkmenistan. In addition, the internet is characterised by a few other features: it is very expensive (normally 5$/hour), slow and unreliable. Major hotels have access to Wi-Fi. Other places do not.
Access to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is blocked, as is access to messaging services like Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Furthermore, you cannot access many news sites, including Russian news sites.
Even blogging about Turkmenistan can restrict your internet privileges. Always assume that the Ministry of Industry and Communication is watching your every move online. If you are not comfortable with them violating your privacy, it would be better to not connect at all.
Attempting to use a VPN will not yield any results; the Turkmen government has managed to find their way around it.