Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million km2, or almost the size of Spain. Neighbouring countries are Iran and Afghanistan to the South, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North. It has a coast on the Caspian Sea, but is otherwise landlocked. Nearly 80% of the country is considered part of the Karakum Desert.
Turkmenistan is one of just two Stalinist countries in existence (the other being North Korea) and the government is in firm control of nearly everything, although, surprisingly, tourism is welcomed as long as you don't discuss politics or the omnipresent police or military. The cult of personality the previous president created for himself is truly amazing and reminders of the Turkmenbashi's legacy are everywhere.
The traditional life of the Turkmen is that of nomadic shepherds, though some have been settled in towns for centuries. The country is known for its fine carpets (one is even featured in its flag) and horses. It is a fairly poor country, that has been isolated from the world. Other than that, billions have been spent on modernization in Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, and many other cities in post Soviet times. And also, the country has extensive oil and gas reserves being developed, with recently opened pipelines to China, Iran, and soon Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan is also the second wealthiest country in Central Asia.
While the provinces are a helpful way to break down large Turkmenistan into regional travel areas, bear in mind that there is one geographical region present throughout them all, dominating the country—the brutal desert wasteland that is the Karakum.
Historically, most of these towns were oases along the Silk Road.
You will need a special permit in order 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 cent. 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.
North Korea may get all the press, but even Kim Il-sung'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 15m 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 have 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 in 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, Berdimuhamedov has continued in the process restoring pensions and old names, while cementing on his own slightly more subdued cult of personality.
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. Recently however, the government has also banned the sale of all tobacco in the country.
The people of Turkmenistan are predominantly Turkmen, 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. According to the 1995 census 77 percent of the population are Turkmen, 9 percent Uzbek and 7 percent Russian.
According to the Ruhmana, 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 cent.) 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 cent. They migrated westwards in the area of the Aral Sea and the Syr Darya Basin in the 10th cent. A clan of the Oghuz, the Seljuks took over Islam, entered Persia in the 11th cent. 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 cent.
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 350,000km².
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.
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.
All nationalities need a visa to enter Turkmenistan. For independent travel, a short transit visa can be obtained, but a full visa may be difficult. Most border guards are young conscripts and a small bribe can ease your entry at the border and roadblocks.
Arranging a tour will make things much easier, as the company can help in getting the Letter of Invitation and visa. Bear in mind that you might well have to be met by a guide, regardless of how you enter Turkmenistan. This can be particularly important, especially if your inward journey is delayed as is possible when entering across the Caspian Sea by boat.
When you enter Turkmenistan your bags usually will be searched with an X-ray machine. You will have to fill a green Entry Travel Pass, an immigration card and a customs declaration. List all your valuables that you bring with you in the customs declaration, make sure that it is stamped and keep a copy with you. You will have to show it again when you leave the country.
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.
It is strongly recommended that you apply for a Turkmenistan visa before travelling to Turkmenistan. It is reported that travellers applying for visa at Ashgabat airport have been detained in the transit area of the airport for several days due to missing documents.
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, phone 391337 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:
Turkmenistan Airlines has direct flights to Ashgabat from Abu Dhabi, Almaty, Amritsar, Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kiev, 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 unfortunately 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.
There is a railway connection to Russia and Iran, but no train crosses the border at any point of the country.
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 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. 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.
Since no public transportation goes across the Turkmen border, to get to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan from Mashhad (Iran), the following option is the most convenient:
Each crossing may require 15 minutes' walk across no-mans land, sometimes sharded taxis are available. There are three crossings from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan:
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 50km 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 60km south of Karabogas the road crosses a bridge over the channel connecting the Caspian Sea with the inland gulf.
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 other destinations. Flights are subsidised, and due to fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around $5 US for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines operates with a new fleet of Boeing 717s, purchased in 2001. Be aware that you might not be able to photograph freely in and around the airport, though this is not unheard of elsewhere.
The Amu Darya is an important inland waterway for Turkmenistan.
At least in Ashgabat, like in much of the former Soviet Union, "taxis" are mostly unofficial - and can be hailed by flagging down a car by the roadside. Haggle, and agree on the destination and price in advance - knowledge of Russian will definitely come in handy. The roads in Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi are in great condition. The road from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat is currently being upgraded to a two lane, dual carriageway.
The usual sensible precautions apply here. If your instincts suggest that something might be not quite right, then it's best to go with your instincts.
Roadblocks are in place throughout the country. You will be stopped and asked for your passport and car papers. Although inconvenient, this process won't take too long.
Drive on the right. Minimum age: 17. International permit required. Speed limit: 60km/h in urban areas, 90 to 120km/h on highways. Police may also stop you for no reason. Just be polite and don't pay them a bribe. Radar guns may be used to measure your speed. If caught speeding you should negotiate a price, a few dollars should be fine in most cases.
It is possible to travel by train between some of the major cities in Turkmenistan, but journeys are slow (up to 16 hours from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi) - so unless you have a specific interest, plane travel is the best way to get around the country.
Rail service in Turkmenistan is provided by Turkmendemiryollari (Turkmenistan Zeleznice), Ashgabat, phone 3632 255545, fax 3632 473858. On the principal trains they offer soft and hard accommodation with sleeping and dining cars. Tourist using rail services in Turkmenistan must expect to pay higher charges than local people and to pay tickets in foreign currency. Turkmendemiryollari (Turkmenistan Zeleznice) operates trains from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi and via Mary to Turkmenabat and return.
Around 70% of the people in Turkmenistan speak Turkmen, and 50% speak decent Russian. If you are unable to speak Turkmen, then Russian would be your best bet to communicate. Not everyone has the time, resources, or money to learn Turkmen. However, out of respect, and due to the fact only 50% of the people speak Russian, learning basic Turkmen would be advisable. Turkmen was written in a Cyrillic alphabet during Soviet times and is now written in a Latin alphabet. Uzbek is widely understood in Turkmenistan, due to both languages sharing common Turkic traits. Kazakh is also understood in the country (because of Turkic traits), yet very few Turkmen will understand Kazakh.
Not many Turkmens will have a basic understanding of English, even in the capital city.
The official currency in Turkmenistan is new manat, sometimes denoted by the symbol "m" (ISO code: TMT). It is divided into 100 tenge.
The US dollar is widely accepted, although it should only be accepted in international hotels or at the airport according to regulations. Credit cards are only accepted in big international hotels and banks in the bigger cities. Only Visa credit cards are currently accepted (MasterCard will be introduced in the near future but it's usable only at one single bank 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 USD20.
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.
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; back in the 19th and early 20th century, 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 arbrash, the subtle variation in colour across a rug.
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 Mon to Fri 14:30 to 17:30, Sat 10:00 to 12:00) has to certify that the carpet is not more than 50 years old and may be exported. This costs TMT115 per square metre and can take a few days. In addition carpets exceeding 1.5 square metres are subject to an export duty of TMT400 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. 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 percent 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 spending a lot on these carpets 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 with hand-painted illustrations, and is now rare and extremely expensive (several thousand dollars). A translation (the original French plus English), Carpets of Central Asia edited by J.M.A. Thompson, 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 safe and friendly country as long as a visitor does not discuss politics. Politics remain a very sensitive issue, and it is your responsibility that you do not involve yourself in or speak out against the government, since it is considered a crime. For safety and respect, Do not under any circumstances criticise the President, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since Turkmenbashi's death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state. The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Suparmurat Niyazov is still sold, and still learned in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best not to criticise the former President as well.
Turkmenistan, like any other Central Asian country, is a fairly corrupt country. Corrupt officials and authorities may ask for bribes, and so if you are pulled over for any reason, simply pay the bribe. It is also possible that you will be asked by police for documents. This is rather rare, but this can happen at any time and they have a legal right to do so. You should carry your passport and visa with you, though in practice, it is better to make a colour scan of the first two pages of your passport and your visa before you arrive. Carry the colour copies with you when you're walking around, and keep the original documents in the hotel safe. Also, upon arrival make a copy of your visa page. The scanned documents will almost always suffice. If not, make it clear to the Police that he will have to come to your hotel to see the originals. Nevertheless, policemen will demand a bribe for this. Always be polite with the police, but also be firm. Although rare, police can take visitors/locals to secluded places to beat up people for even more money, so stay alert. Police are the most frequent problem you will always come up across and be warned that they are generally very aggressive, especially during the night, expect some harassment from them. Many hotels, including very good ones, are frequently bugged by the police. Do not sign any documents provided by the police if it is in a language you do not know, as it may be that they may try to rip you off for some more money. Just be polite with them, and just say that you do not understand it.
A curfew prevents people from leaving from 23:00, and this law applies to non-residents as well. Going out will get you arrested. Taking taxis or hiring private drivers may avoid problems, but don't be too dependent on this option, as it is possible it may not save your life.
It is possible to take photographs relatively freely in Turkmenistan. However, you are best advised to exercise caution when photographing anyone in uniform or government buildings. In Ashgabat, there are uniformed police/military on every street corner. Play it safe early on in your visit to give yourself an idea of what is acceptable. There are almost no 'no photo signs'. If you are in doubt ask the next policeman if you are allowed to take a picture.
It should not be necessary for your guide to accompany you if you wish to leave your hotel, and go for a wander. If you are male, try to not walk with a female companion - police may think of this of walking with a prostitute and can simply arrest you.
Most taxis are not regulated by any government licensing agency and drivers are usually private citizens looking to make money. The majority of cars will not have seat belts or other safety devices, and drivers may not have had any formal driver training. For safety reasons, visitors should strongly consider hiring a private car and driver through their travel agency or hotel.
Penalties for breaking the law can be severe. Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohibited, for example homosexuality is punishable by 2 years in prison.
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.
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.
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.
Because of the nation's history (past and current), Turkmen avoid talking politics, and you should too. Turkmens are notoriously xenophobic—not in a hostile way, but in a suspicious and wary way, no doubt a product of having had to stay guarded from any attention from the secret police over the past century. To win friends, it's best to keep opinions to yourself, and let them take the lead in conversation, ideally complemented with a little Russian vodka.
Kristina Paltén, A woman and a runner, took an incredible 1144-mile journey from Turkey to Turkmenistan to fight the prejudice against Muslims currently rampant in Europe and in her home country of Sweden. Although the first kilometer was filled with fear, the kindness of the Iranians she met during her two-month adventure proved her right.
For more about Kristina’s journey, check out Alone Through Iran’s Facebook page. 33 iconic photos of people standing up to injustice
It was a given that I would go to Turkmenistan and something strange would happen.
The main thing I knew about Turkmenistan was that it was often compared to North Korea, which, for me, was a selling point. I wanted to see an authoritarian regime up close, to see if brainwashing and erratic behavior really fooled people. Did the country run on cathartic conversations that took place behind closed doors and a population outwardly smiling and inwardly planning a rebellion?
It turns out those questions are hard to answer on a 5-day visit that I’m supposedly spending transiting between two adjacent countries that share a border. I probably should have seen this coming, along with the fact that most people don’t seem outwardly concerned with parsing the truth from the lies 25 years into an absolute dictatorship. Their everyday concerns seemed more similar to my own — family, friends, money, career — which is not to say that things are all well and good in Turkmenistan, or that the government isn’t as bad as it seems. It is instead more likely a testament to the human ability to adapt, for life to go on, and for what was once unimaginable to eventually seem normal, whether it’s living under a president who renames the days of the week after members of his family, or staying in a hotel run by the secret police.
I did not make reservations for the Secret Police Hotel. I end up there because it is the only place that cops to having vacancies, and also because I am not an artist.
I get dropped off at a hotel with reviews that, for Ashgabat, passed for glowing.
Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan and the country’s second-biggest tourist attraction, after a burning crater that I’d spent a miserable night camping beside.
Tourists come to Ashgabat because it’s rumored to be strange, and it is. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an eccentric dictator named Saparmurat Niyazov seized control of Turkmenistan and started issuing increasingly bizarre edicts. He changed his name to “Father of the Turkmen People” and named a meteorite after himself. He banned lip synching and decreed that a spectacle of music and dancing greet him wherever he went. Like any good self-published author or authoritarian fostering a cult of personality, he forced everyone to read his book.
He also completely rebuilt Ashgabat, which had once been a typical Soviet city, and is now a combination safe space for marble and shrine to Niyazov and his successor, Gurbangaly Berdimuhamedow. Marble buildings proliferate throughout the city, which currently holds the Guinness record for “highest density of white marble-clad buildings.” These are not elegant marble buildings. They are marble buildings for the sake of being marble buildings, with design plans that look like they were lifted from Google images. In between the marble buildings, you can find gold statues of the country’s two presidents, or gold statues of Niyazov’s memoir, or gold statues of indiscernible subjects that might as well be the president.
Back to the hotel. In an unexpectedly chaotic lobby, I’m asking a receptionist for a room.
She stares at me. “Are you an artist?” she asks.
I tell her I’m not.
She shakes her head. “If you’re not an artist, you can’t stay here.”
Perplexed, I head to the next-best hotel in the Lonely Planet. This time, I’m prepared.
“Hello,” I say. “I’d like a room, and I’m an artist.”
But this hotel is full, as is the next one, and the one after that, which has a travel agency inside the lobby.
“Do you know why all of the hotels are full?” I ask the woman working there.
She looks confused. “They’re full?” She offers to go check something. She’s gone for a long time. When she comes back, she seems surprised to still find me waiting. “I don’t know,” she tells me.
I am somewhat starting to panic. What if I can’t find a hotel? I’d like to think of myself as the kind of person who could, in an emergency, hole up in a bus station for the evening, but that seems like a risky move in an authoritarian state, and also that would mean forgoing my night creams.
Two university students I stop on the street for directions seem to pick up on my distress. They also speak passable English. When I tell them my story, they insist on accompanying me to the next hotel, and also because this is Central Asia, carrying my suitcase.
“It rolls,” I protest, and while they do acquiesce to rolling it, they don’t budge on not letting me roll it.
Like all male students in Turkmenistan, the boys are dressed in plain black suits affixed with some kind of pin. The girls, in contrast, wear floor-length dresses of a vibrant green, traditional hats, and two long braids. I ask the boys why their English is so good.
“The Russians are stealing all of our jobs,” one says, shaking his head. “For the future, we must speak English.”
This job-stealing claim seems curious, given that I’ve seen exactly zero ethnic Russians in the prosperous capital, and that all of the government ministers pictured on various walls and buildings appear to be Turkmen men. But I remember that I am helpless and homeless, so I say nothing.
The next hotel is full too. So is the next, and, at this point, I beg the boys to go back to whatever they were doing before I inadvertently suckered them into escorting an ill-prepared foreigner to various disinterested hotels, but they refuse.
“You don’t understand,” one says. “I think most people here… they won’t even know how to deal with foreigners.”
I will later come to the conclusion that he was right. The requirements for foreigners staying in Turkmen hotels are so byzantine and needlessly time-consuming that some of places I first visited might have pretended to be full, or reserved exclusively for artists, to avoid the headache. To stay at a hotel, the hotel has to give me paperwork, which I need to bring to a specific branch of a specific bank, where I need to change the total charge for my stay into local currency, which the bank needs to confirm via endless stamps on that paperwork, which I can then bring back to the hotel to begin the process of checking in.
The one place that admits to having vacancies is the MKD hotel. This is perhaps because one of the students insists on calling ahead from a dead-end hotel and asking for a room without specifying that it’s for me. If I knew my Soviet history, I would know that the MKD was a Soviet secret police force. But because I don’t, I’m only confused when I noticed that everyone who passes through the lobby is wearing a full police uniform.
I will later speculate that the hotel is operated by the MKD to raise funds, the way some police forces hold bake sales. But for now, I am merely confused when I open the door to my room and find a police officer scrubbing the toilet.
He finishes and leaves, allowing me to look around the space, which is billed as deluxe suite. It comes with a living room, bedroom, and bathroom, which is helpful, because I’m sharing my room with an entire colony of cockroaches.
Not eager to spend much time getting to know my new roommates, I head out to explore the city.
It’s illegal to take photographs in public in Ashgabat, so when I see something I want to take a picture of, I discreetly open my iPhone camera and place the phone to my ear like I’m taking a call. I attempt to hold the phone perpendicular to the ground and press the volume buttons on the side, which snaps the shutter. This is my small act of rebellion, and I perform it with as much bravado as a person slinking into a department store to use the bathroom. Most of my photos come out severely tilted, or obscured by strands of my hair.
The city feels like it was designed and built for a population that never materialized. The wide sidewalks and marble underground passageways are mostly empty. The marble highrises appear minimally inhabited. The only people reliably found on the street are police officers, who are everywhere, guarding what often seems like nothing. There’s a pair posted up at the entrance to a square not far from my hotel, and they tell me I can’t walk through. It’s closed, they tell me, for rehearsals for an upcoming military parade.
I smile. “That’s interesting,” I say. “Can I see it?”
We chat for a few minutes, and then they concede that I can walk through if I do it “quickly,” and I’m congratulating myself on once again skirting the rules when one of the officers tells me he wants to take me on a date tonight and asks for my phone number.
I’m instantly terrified. I don’t dare give him a fake number, because, in a police state, it seems like a bad idea to romantically reject the police. I scribble my real number on a piece of paper and scurry away, resolving not to answer my phone for the duration of my stay, but it turns out there’s no need — he never calls, an outcome I’m not sure is more or less desirable: being romantically rejected by the police in a police state.
Oddities abound. I find a park being built, not by construction workers, but by students. I pass countless statues of angry looking men holding swords, which I keep mistaking for actual people and jumping. I pass a square closed for a changing of the guards, which I’m bizarrely allowed to walked through, and as I do, one of the less disciplined guards breaks from his goose-stepping to stop and stare at me.
One night, I end up in a lively restaurant filled with Turkish expats, who apparently make up a good portion of the labor force in Turkmenistan. (The two countries share similar languages and cultures, and their governments sporadically push for closer ties.) I’m the only woman in the room, with the exception of the waitresses, who are all wearing fully transparent shirts. A bookish young guy in glasses at the table next to me strikes up a conversation in English, and I ask him, delicately, about the nature of the relationship between the clientele and the women working here.
He picks up on my meaning and laughs. “No, no,” he protests. “Turkish men, we can’t talk to women here. It’s forbidden to… go on a date. Unless you’re married.”
At 10:45, he turns to me again. I’ve finished my dinner, but have stayed at my table, reading a book in a room full of drunk people, because this seems preferable to reading my book in a hotel room full of cockroaches.
“Are you driving home?” he asks me.
I shake my head.
“You should go now then,” he says. “The curfew starts at 11.”
“What?!?!” I say.
Yes, he explains, people aren’t allowed out on the streets after 11.
“How can you live here?” I ask.
He shrugs. “It’s not so bad. The work is pretty good.”
Sightseeing in Ashgabat is less about seeing things that are beautiful or educational or historically important, and more about visiting things that are weird. I walk through a deserted park to visit a monument that looks like a giant toilet plunger. I go inside an empty, gold-plated mall shaped like a pyramid. At a nearby supermarket, I ride the country’s sole set of escalators. I walk around the ritzy central district, with chrome traffic lights and streetlamp that look like they’re made of marble. I encounter one set of automatic doors, at the Sofitel, and they’re so unimaginably slow and clunky I wonder if they’re the original model. In a taxi one day, I pass the biggest construction project I’ve ever seen. It looks like an airport, train station, Olympic stadium, and superhighway–all in one. It’s almost like Ashgabat lost a bid to host the Olympics, and then decided to build all the infrastructure anyway. I walk by women in traditional Turkmen dress, hand-washing a bus stop.
At first, I’m try to strike up conversations with everyone I meet, looking for hints of dissidence. I chat up taxi drivers, the woman who works at my hotel’s front desk, people in convenience stores and restaurants. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, people seem most interested in talking about the things people anywhere would — their lives and jobs and families. They ask the same questions about my marital status and womb output. I begin to worry that I’d fetishized their oppression, that I’d seen intrigue and interest in what is, I’m coming to realize, a depressing reality. The city is full of marble, but most of the residents seem far from rich. Their grasp on the outside world seems tenuous.
For the first time in my life, I feel isolated. It’s kind of like loneliness, but more, and different. I go days without a real conversation. When a taxi driver learns that I don’t have children, he tries to explain the mechanics of human reproduction. When I ask the front-desk woman for a restaurant recommendation, she looks at me like I’ve asked her to explain string theory, and then shakes her head and tells me she doesn’t know any. There’s only one place in the entire country where I can access the Internet, and the connection is slow, and most sites are blocked.
I spend days inside my own head, snapping out of it only when two men try to kidnap me in a car one evening. The fallout forces me to push past the cultural and communication barrier, and I start opening up to everyone. I end up having to call an ex-boyfriend to help translate, and at the end of the night, the front-desk woman, with whom I’ve probably had more conversations with anyone else in the past few days, turns to me.
“Ilya is very worried about you,” she says.
“I know,” I sigh, and then I find myself blurting out, “Before, he was my boyfriend, and I think he still loves me.”
“Do you have children?” she asks in what I don’t recognize as an attempt to change the topic. Instead, I mistake it for a conservative woman with two grown children’s bid for girl talk.
“No,” I say, “and I think Ilya wants to marry me, and have children, but I really love to travel…” I trail off because I’m out of vocabulary, but I’m desperate to keep going. It’s been days, I realized, since I had a real conversation, since my thoughts and fears and feelings were on anything but an endless loop in my head. I want to tell her every secret I’ve ever had, every feeling, every doubt.
She looks mortified. “I think, you are a teacher, so you love children!” she replies. Then she politely but firmly turns back to something at her desk.
I trudge back up the stairs to my room. In the hallway, I see an MKV officer, sweeping the floor.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
The second edition of the bestselling Far Flung Places guide to Turkmenistan, with increased coverage of all major cities, and updated listings. Turkmenistan, a country once closed to visitors during its time as a Soviet republic, is now attracting more intrepid tourists. Beautiful ancient Silk Road cities contrast with striking marble-clad modern architecture. Mix in unconventional leaders, an overwhelming choice in types of vodka, and a massive gas crater burning in the middle of the desert. There is a lot to see and enjoy in this unusual central Asian destination. Detailed information of the cities and attractions with maps and invaluable contact information. Learn how to travel around and find the best places to visit, stay and eat.
In 2004, Sam Tranum moved to Turkmenistan, an isolated, totalitarian petrostate bordering Iran and Afghanistan, to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That same year, the Economist magazine predicted his new home would be the worst place in the world to live, despite the fact that its leader, known as Turkmenbashy, insisted that his country was experiencing a Golden Age. This is the story of Tranum's nearly two years in Turkmenistan, dodging secret police, exploring ancient Silk Road cities, covertly teaching classes on democracy and human rights, and learning to appreciate fermented camel's milk.
Turkmenistan is a remarkable country with beautiful and rarely visited ancient ruins from the Silk Road. Highlights include the ancient city of Merv, once the largest city on earth, the striking ruins of Gurganj, the marble and gold of modern Ashgabat, and the unique experience of the ever-burning desert gas field, the ‘Gate of Hell’. The rulers behave eccentrically; building gold statues of themselves, renaming bread after a Presidents’ mother, banning beards, gold teeth, facebook and lip-synching. Far Flung Places Guides provide an insight into the key places to visit, with historical context, travel tips and humor. Simon Proudman is a recognised travel writer and blogger, author of the popular travel site www.farflungplaces.net He is an historian with a travel addiction, who loves to explore exotic and offbeat locations, discover local food and drink beer.
hese three countries, bordering on Afghanistan, Iran, and China, have proved to be remarkably stable in a very volatile part of the world. They constitute the heart of Central Asia; a bit difficult to reach, but definitely suitable for adventure travel. Turkmenistan occupies one side of the sheet, and the other two smaller countries share the other side at a better scale. Turkmenistan stretches from the Caspian Sea to a major river (the Amuder) that forms its eastern boundary with Uzbekistan and its border with Afghanistan. An inset map of the capital just north of the Iranian border, Ashgabat, is included. The other side concentrates on the mountainous western Himalayan peaks, which are largely unexplored by outsiders. This is a region of trekking trails rather than highways, although the fabled Great Silk Road goes right through the middle of the map, from Kashgar in China to equally fabled Tashkent. Branches also go to Konduz, in Afghanistan, and to Dushanbe, while the northern route is shown as well (the Silk Road having several alternative routes). This side is still showing signs of the Soviet era, with Russian names occasionally appearing. No doubt, these are being changed over time. This is a very interesting map, of an of-the-beaten-track part of the world. It reflects the best information we have, but will improve over the next decade as more information becomes available.
Includes a 1:35000 map of Ashgabat.
This is a journey through one of two remaining Stalinist nations in the world: Turkmenistan. The other is North Korea. Both countries compete for the lowest international ranking in terms of human rights for their people. Turkmenistan is a tribal nation that fell into the grip of the Soviet Union in the 1920's and following collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, joined other Soviet satellites in securing independence. It was a time when committed senior communists quickly converted to capitalism and competed in a made scramble for power. Today, it is a country moulded by the idiosyncratic views of its first President-for-Life who established a Personality Cult to consolidate his power and an iron fist to maintain that power. He was a President who issued a range of bizarre edicts including naming months of the year after his family, closing all the hospitals outside of the capital, banning gold teeth and expecting children to spend more time in the fields rather than at school.His successor seems no less enamoured with the governance model established by his predecessor and the attendance at rallies devoted to eulogising the President are virtually compulsory.The capital, Ashgabat, appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the most 'marbled city in the world' and the country is populated with numerous golden statues and tributes to the President, past and present. One presidential statue of gold rotated so that it continuously faced the sun. The marble and the monuments are funded by large reserves of oil and gas. The Karakum Desert occupies 80 per cent of the country and population centres are clustered around the limited sources of water which are under constant threat.We visit ancient sites and visit the several oases fed by rivers originating in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Our journey takes us along the Amu Darya, the principal river in Central Asia and the source of the Karakum Canal, the longest, navigable canal in the world, providing precious water to numerous locations throughout the country. Crossing the border to Iran, we enter one of the worlds few religious theocratic regimes where the Supreme Leader speaks directly to God and to question his message is a form of blasphemy, which can attract the penalty of death.But it is also a country where the people are amongst the most hospitable to travellers and they do not necessarily accept the wisdom of the clerics as a guide to their future or as a measure of their past.We visit a number of religious sites and learn more about Zoroastrianism, the religion that preceded Christianity by 500 years and Islam by over a thousand years.We learn about the martyrs, those who died during the Iran-Iraq War to defend the clerics and sustain their power who, in turn, were able to organise ready access to Paradise for their supreme sacrifice.We visit a number of locations in the east of the country including the Kalutes and the hottest place on earth with temperatures of over 70 degrees centigrade.We experience the qanats, the unique and ancient model for moving water underground for vast distances allowing desert villages to flourish and caravanseries to operate in support of ancient travellers.We move to the north and the Caspian Coast and visit the Castles of the Assassins and experience the differences between the southern deserts and the fertile lands and unique settlements along the coast.This is a journey of contrasts. Contrasts in geography and the interaction between the people and those who govern them. Contrasts between what those who govern believe and what those who are governed believe.
Turkmenistan is one of the few countries of any size left on the globe which is not the subject of a dedicated travel guide in English (major competitors cover Central Asia as a region). Yet, lying as it does at the heart of the Silk Road route, it is a historically and culturally rich land. Travelers can gain insight into the heritage with the clear itineraries supplied of the major archaeological sites of Merv and Konye Urgench and coverage of Turkmen pilgrimage shrines. For travelers looking to explore further afield, this guide spans the whole country comprehensively, including little-known sites such as the Yangakala canyon and the flaming crater at Darvaza. Turkmenistan is currently one of the safest countries in the Central Asia region, particularly where personal safety is concerned.Features include:>Information catering to all travelers: businesspeople, volunteer workers, archaeologists, and intrepid adventurers>Silk Road archaeological treasures, ex-Soviet era relics, and post-independence monuments>Horse trekking, how to buy Turkmen carpets, and other activities>Paperwork, visas, and how to surmount red tape
The decision to travel is your responsibility. You are also responsible for your personal safety abroad. The purpose of this Travel Advice is to provide up-to-date information to enable you to make well-informed decisions.
Heightened tensions throughout the region, together with increased threats globally from terrorism, may put you at risk. Maintain a high level of caution at all times.
Violent crime is low. However, mugging and pickpocketing do occur. Acts of banditry occur in remote areas. Remain vigilant and ensure that your personal belongings, passports, and other travel documents are secure. Do not travel alone and avoid showing signs of affluence.
Demonstrations occur and have the potential to suddenly turn violent. They can lead to significant disruptions to traffic and public transportation. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media.
Women should not travel alone in Turkmenistan. Consult our publication entitled Her Own Way: A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide for travel safety information specifically aimed at Canadian women.
Exercise caution on intercity roads, as driving standards are poor. Rural roads are often in disrepair and not lit. Animals frequently wander onto the road. Random traffic police checks are routine.
Do not travel or use public transportation after dark.
Use only officially marked taxis and pre-negotiate the fare. Avoid shared taxis.
Avoid travel by train, as service is slow and crime is prevalent. If travel by train is necessary, store your personal belongings in a safe place and do not leave the compartment unattended. Ensure that your door is secured from the inside.
Consult our Transportation Safety page in order to verify if national airlines meet safety standards.
You may encounter difficulties and processing delays in obtaining official permission to travel outside Ashgabat. Areas bordering Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, including the city of Dashoguz and areas of the Caspian coast are restricted zones. Travel to these areas is forbidden without prior permission from the government of Turkmenistan.
The Embassy of Canada in Ankara, Turkey, has consular responsibility for Turkmenistan. Entry visa policies and procedures restrict Canadian officials' access to Turkmenistan, significantly limiting the ability of the Canadian government to provide prompt consular assistance in this country, even in emergencies. Register with the Embassy of Canada in Ankara or contact the Emergency Watch and Response Centre at 613-996-8885.
Police and military officials are prevalent throughout Turkmenistan. Carry a photocopy of your passport, the original, or other photo-identification at all times, as officials frequently request proof of identity. Leave a photocopy of your passport with a relative or a friend at home.
Foreigners are often subjected to questioning and car and home searches. Some have been detained.
Curfews may be imposed and areas may be cordoned off upon short notice. The violation of a curfew can result in immediate deportation and a ban against returning to Turkmenistan for five years.
Tourist facilities are limited, especially outside Ashgabat. Many goods and services are not available.
Dial 01 for the fire department, 02 for the police and 03 for an ambulance.
Be sure that your routine vaccines are up-to-date regardless of your travel destination.
You may be at risk for these vaccine-preventable diseases while travelling in this country. Talk to your travel health provider about which ones are right for you.
Hepatitis A is a disease of the liver spread by contaminated food or water. All those travelling to regions with a risk of hepatitis A infection should get vaccinated.
Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver spread through blood or other bodily fluids. Travellers who may be exposed (e.g., through sexual contact, medical treatment or occupational exposure) should get vaccinated.
Seasonal influenza occurs worldwide. The flu season usually runs from November to April in the northern hemisphere, between April and October in the southern hemisphere and year round in the tropics. Influenza (flu) is caused by a virus spread from person to person when they cough or sneeze or through personal contact with unwashed hands. Get the flu shot.
Measles occurs worldwide but is a common disease in developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. Measles is a highly contagious disease. Be sure your vaccination against measles is up-to-date regardless of the travel destination.
There is a risk of polio in this country. Be sure that your vaccination against polio is up-to-date.
Rabies is a disease that attacks the central nervous system spread to humans through a bite, scratch or lick from a rabid animal. Vaccination should be considered for travellers going to areas where rabies exists and who have a high risk of exposure (i.e., close contact with animals, occupational risk, and children).
Typhoid is a bacterial infection spread by contaminated food or water. Risk is higher among travellers going to rural areas, visiting friends and relatives, or with weakened immune systems. Travellers visiting regions with typhoid risk, especially those exposed to places with poor sanitation should consider getting vaccinated.
Yellow fever is a disease caused by the bite of an infected mosquito.
Travellers get vaccinated either because it is required to enter a country or because it is recommended for their protection.
|* It is important to note that country entry requirements may not reflect your risk of yellow fever at your destination. It is recommended that you contact the nearest diplomatic or consular office of the destination(s) you will be visiting to verify any additional entry requirements.|
|Country Entry Requirement*|
Travellers to any destination in the world can develop travellers' diarrhea from consuming contaminated water or food.
In some areas in Central Asia, food and water can also carry diseases like hepatitis A and typhoid. Practise safe food and water precautions while travelling in Central Asia. Remember: Boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it!
Travellers are advised to take precautions against bites.
There is no risk of malaria in this country.
Travellers are cautioned to avoid contact with animals, including dogs, snakes, rodents, birds, and bats. Certain infections found in Central Asia, like rabies, can be shared between humans and animals.
The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the traveller. The traveller is also responsible for his or her own personal safety.
You are subject to local laws. Consult our Arrest and Detention page for more information.
An international driving permit is recommended.
Penalties for possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs are strict. Convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and heavy fines.
Drinking and driving is strictly forbidden. Drivers may be fined or jailed if any amount of alcohol is detected.
Homosexual activity is illegal. Individuals convicted of this offence may receive a jail sentence.
Avoid publicly discussing politics or criticizing the country’s previous leader, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Avoid minority religious gatherings, whose participants have been the target of police raids, arbitrary arrests and beatings.
Photography of military installations, police stations, airports, government buildings and other sensitive sites may result in a penalty. Seek permission from local authorities before taking photographs.
Dual citizenship is not legally recognized, which may limit the ability of Canadian officials to provide consular services. You should travel using your Canadian passport and present yourself as Canadian to foreign authorities at all times.
Canadians with Turkmen citizenship may be subject to national obligations, such as taxes. Check your status with the Embassy of the Republic of Turkmenistan in Washington D.C. prior to departure.
Consult our publication entitled Dual Citizenship: What You Need to Know for more information.
The currency is the New Turkmen manat (TMT). The economy is primarily cash-based. A few hotels and restaurants in Ashgabat accept credit cards (Visa and American Express) and traveller’s cheques in U.S. dollars. Carry U.S. dollars in pristine condition and in a variety of denominations, as change is scarce. The Vnesheconombank and the National Bank of Pakistan cash traveller’s cheques in U.S. dollars, but a surcharge is levied on the total amount. There are no automated banking machines in the country.
Turkmenistan is located in an active seismic zone.
Heavy rains may trigger floods and landslides.