Turkmenistan is the strangest and the least explored of all the six countries in Central Asia. It’s also one of the least visited countries in the world, with less than 10 000 foreign tourists a year.
This unique country is hard to get entry to but what awaits is a world of intrigue and an experience that will leave you with memories for a lifetime.
With that in mind, here is a complete travel guide to Turkmenistan to get you prepared and ready, with a few Turkmenistan facts and strange laws to go along with it.
During my visit to Turkmenistan so did I travel around a significant part of the country for eight days, visiting big parts of the country doing this itinerary: Ashgabat – Nisa – Geok Tepe – Kov Ata cave – Nokhur – Parau Bibi – Balkanabat – Yangy Kala Canyon – Turkmenbashy – Ashgabat – Darvaza Gas (The Gates To hell) – Ashgabat.
Getting to Turkmenistan
Officially, foreign tourists are welcomed, but the requirement for expensive guided tours and a lengthy and difficult visa process discourage many foreign visitors from visiting Turkmenistan.
Getting to Turkmenistan is the hardest part of the trip. There are no online bookings for flights with the national airline yet, so tickets can only be purchased through an agent.
You can also only fly into Ashgabat city as this is the only port of entry for international arrivals and departures.
To Turkmenistan with flights
There are only a few international flights to Turkmenistan, with only Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa being the international airlines flying into Turkmenistan.
However, the local Turkmenistan Airlines offers international flights to London, Birmingham, Dubai, Bangkok, Beijing, Paris, New Delhi, Amritsar, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Jeddah, and Minsk.
NB. Since the outbreak of Covid, all international flights to Turkmenistan have been canceled.
Visa for Turkmenistan Travel
The visa process to gain entry to Turkmenistan is strict, to say the least. Probably the most difficult visa in the world.
A tourist visa for Turkmenistan is only possible to obtain with help from a local Travel Agency, meaning you will have to book a guide and a tour, but the good news is with a pre-booked trip, are you able to get the visa on arrival at the international airport in Ashgabat.
Once you get the invitation letter, so will it only take about 2 min to get your visa at the airport.
If you are traveling overland, so it is possible to get a 3 or 5-day transit visa for Turkmenistan on your own without too much difficulty. But over the recent years, rejections have become an estimated 50% rejection rate.
The most up-to-date information about Turkmenistan visas can be found here.
Registration in Turkmenistan
After all the red tape that you have to jump through to get into Turkmenistan, you will have to register your stay with the local Migration officials upon arrival, and every city you stay in during your visit.
This is only for those who manage to obtain a visa on their own, though. If you go with a tour agency, then they should take care of this for you.
Best Places to Visit in Turkmenistan
During a visit to Turkmenistan, you can travel around a significant part of the country for eight days, and this is the best itinerary for it.
The capital city of Ashgabat is an odd place that once had elements and influences of Soviet Russia. This all changed when the new President took over.
He demolished the older Russian structures and created all-new buildings made of white marble.
One thing that’s a little creepy is that the city is very quiet, to the point where it almost feels like it’s abandoned. It is because of this that the city has the nickname ‘the city of the dead by many foreign tourists, however, I did really like Ashgabat.
Take a while to explore all the marble and gold buildings and take a trip to the Gates to Hell outside of the city.
Just outside of Ashgabat is the ancient city of Nisa, also known as Parthaunia. This massive city was the first capital of the area and dates back to 250 BC.
The fortress within the city was made a UNESCO Heritage site with Parthian remains discovered inside of it.
It is believed that this was the Arsacid Empire’s first seat. It was an immensely important trading center for the Parthian Empire and was also famous for its incredible horses that were both beautiful and fast.
Kov Ata Cave
One of Turkmenistan’s natural wonders, this cave dives down to around 59m/195 feet underground and has a naturally heated lake at the bottom of it.
You can actually swim in this lake with the waters believed to have medicinal powers; thanks to the thermal heat of the lake, the lake is 35+ warm.
Oh, the cave is also home to an immense number of bats that will circle overhead while you are in the lake. Be aware that the lake is really deep, while there´s a small platform to stand on, so is it often crowded with locals, so you should be able to swim to enjoy the lake.
You should only spend a maximum of 20 minutes in the lake and 45 minutes in the cave in total because of the sulfur fumes. But nobody checks.
There´s a small changing area at the lake, but the whole area is really dark without any safety guards or life jackets if someone gets into problems in the water.
NB. The place is absolutely not wheelchair available or for people with a bad knee.
This little area is very remote and has an interesting set of beliefs as they credit that they are descendants of Alexander the Great.
The inhabitants speak a different dialect which other Turkmen struggle to understand.
They are known for their odd customs and their work ethic. They are a rich little village with new cars being a pretty common sight.
This is a beautiful area to hike with the several different villages that make up the area being within walking distance. Take to the trails past the swimming areas and waterfalls and bask in the nature around you.
But most people that visit Nokhur, come here for the Nokhur cemetery. A pretty strange site.
The graves at Nokhur cemetery are marked by the horns of mountain goats, point to burial rites steeped in animism, sprinkled with Zoroastrianism.
The goat horns are believed to fight off evil spirits, while the stones are marked with steps, to help the deceased ascend to heaven.
The white Parau Bibi mausoleum is a pilgrim site and shrine to the patron of all pregnant women and infants. Women from across Turkmenistan will gather here and ask for help when needed.
This is an amazing area to visit and one that will leave a lasting impression.
This city is the capital of the largest region in Turkmenistan but also one of the youngest. It’s famous for being where the oil and gas for the country were found.
Here, you’ll take a step inside modern Turkmenistan, with all the interesting structures and also having a very small amounts of people.
The Yangykala Canyon is an often overlooked or forgotten place that most Turkmenistan people haven’t even seen themselves. It´s a real off-the-beaten-path destination in Central Asia.
This natural attraction is something to behold, with sights of yellow, red, and pink rock contrasting the sharp canyon walls.
It is even possible to camp on a plateau there overnight so you can wake up to the solitude in the desert.
Sitting on the edges of the Caspian sea, Turkmenbashy is a port city that offers a link to Baku from either railway or by taking a ferry.
Just outside of the city is a smaller area of Awaza, which happens to be an insanely popular holiday destination of the country.
This area has a strong Russian influence and overall a very luxurious and more high-quality environment.
For those looking to relax in luxury while in Turkmenistan, this is the place for you.
What is Turkmenistan Famous for?
The first thing that comes to mind about Turkmenistan is its interesting government, but there is more when it comes to tourism in Turkmenistan so let’s take a look.
Darvaza Gas Crater
The famous ‘Gate of Hell’ is in Turkmenistan. Locally known as the Darvaza gas crater, it is a man-made crater in the desert that is continuously on fire.
The Gate of hell Turkmenistan was created by mistake in 1971 when a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched into a massive underground natural gas cavern.
This caused the ground to collapse and the entire drilling rig to fall in. You can still see the old metal pipes sticking out of the ground in the crater.
Almost 50 years on, and geologists still have no idea how much longer it will burn for. It might die out tomorrow, or it might burn for another 100 years; nobody knows.
Taking a trip to see it at night is a must when the fires flare up and give a stark contrast to the sheer darkness of the desert.
Silk Road Cities
The ancient city of Merv is one of Turkmenistan’s Silk Road contributions. It is a massive urban center that is the largest on Silk Road.
This is an oasis of a city that is a UNESCO site, with another city, Kunya-Urgench, being another UNESCO site.
The City Center is Made of Marble
Ashgabat is unique in that a majority of the structures and public areas are built with white marble.
It actually holds a Guinness World Record for having the highest density of buildings made of marble in the world.
There are no big billboards with commercials anywhere in the city, and best of all, there’s no Starbucks, no KFC, no Mcdonalds, etc. Only small, locally owned businesses here.
But the few tourists that make it to Ashgabat will see a city that is extremely well-organized with an easy bus system, and it’s also probably the cleanest city anywhere in the world. Dirty cars are not even allowed in the city.
What Language do They Speak in Turkmenistan
An interesting fact about Turkmenistan is that it has three spoken languages and only one written one. Uzbek, Russian, and Turkmen are the different languages that you can speak while in Turkmenistan.
Turkmen is a member of the Turkic family of language. It is very similar to Turkish and is spoken in seven different dialects throughout the different provinces of the country.
The sole written language, however, is Turkmen, so brushing up on a few key phrases is recommended.
Things You Should Pack to Visit Turkmenistan
Your luggage will depend on what time of the year you are planning to travel. If going in summer, you can expect high temperatures, so lightweight and breathable clothing, as well as your swimsuit, is essential.
Winter is the complete opposite, and multiple layers of clothing that are also waterproof are needed.
For women, even though it is technically an Islamic country, it has a complicated relationship with its views, and so it’s not an unacceptable thing for you to show skin. Turkmenistan is, in fact, one of the most liberal Muslim countries in the world.
Essential medication is also a must as while there are pharmacies in major cities where you can get the basics, there is no access to any form of medication outside of these major areas.
However, don´t expect much shopping in Turkmenistan, while there’s a big fancy shopping mall with “everything” in Ashgabat, so is there not much when it comes to shopping outside the capital.
Maybe the best thing to buy in Turkmenistan is locally woven carpets which are among the best in the world.
Trips to Turkmenistan Information
When it comes to tourism in Turkmenistan and planning your trip, there are a few things that you need to know to make sure that you are fully prepared for what lies ahead of you.
Getting Around Turkmenistan
If you make your own way into the country, then you only really have a train or taxi to use to get around.
If you go with a tour guide, then you should be taken around in a 4×4 vehicle while exploring the country.
There are buses, but there aren’t many at all.
All three of those options are pretty cheap ways to get around, but winter does have an impact on the transportation system with interruptions to power supplies.
The trains and buses are also slow, but at least they are reasonably comfortable.
But the fastest and cheapest way to get across Turkmenistan is by flying; domestic flights in Turkmenistan with the local airline Turkmenistan Airlines are subsidized by the government, making Turkmenistan probably the cheapest country in the world for local flights.
My flight from Turkmenbashy to Ashgabat was only 7 USD.
Money in Turkmenistan
The Manat is the main currency of Turkmenistan, while a single Manat is made of 100 Tenne.
It is worth remembering that there are not that many ATMs at all.
Don’t bank on using a card either, as cards will rarely be accepted by any store.
There are currency exchanges throughout, and they will happily change US Dollars and Euros into local Manat at a fixed rate and take no commission.
They love to exchange US Dollars and prefer them, so bring various low denominations in cash, which you can exchange as you need in a small discrete bag.
The notes need to be in near perfect condition for them to be accepted, as any marked or damaged notes will not be accepted.
You will be expected to settle your hotel bill in cash with US Dollars if you won’t use a credit card. All other payments will have to be made in cash.
NB. Changing money on the black market, (strictly illegal) will give you a much, much better rate, often three times the official rate.
Internet in Turkmenistan
Don’t expect too much internet while you visit Turkmenistan. The connection has always been a struggle, but the state also has strict laws on internet access and is heavily filtered.
When you do gain access, your online activity will be monitored, and a large number of websites are blocked from access.
If you thought the Great Firewall China or the internet in Eritrea was strict, then you haven’t been to Turkmenistan, even with a premium VPN, so was about every social media still blocked and unavailable, even WhatsApp, telegram, etc. was impossible to log into, even with a VPN.
In general, there is wifi in the higher-end hotels in Balkanabat, Turkmenbashi, and Ashgabatand at most one old-school internet cafe in each city. But even in the high-end hotels, so is the internet connection extremely slow.
If you are looking for a social media or internet detox, then a Turkmenistan holiday isn’t a bad idea while exploring this unique country.
Because while the first day it´s pretty frustrating with not being able to connect to the outside world, but after a few days, it feels actually good.
Safety in Turkmenistan
In general, Turkmenistan safety is considered to be good and a safe place to explore, but there are consequences of breaking the law. It is an authoritarian state and not widely known as a tourist hotspot.
And criticizing the President is a serious offense.
The standard safety precautions should be carried out as there is a crime, just like in any other major city.
Seeing as that almost all sales are cash-driven, be careful with the amount that you carry on you at any given time and keep it in a discreet place.
Going out alone, especially at night, is not recommended as the police can get a little suspicious. Also, don’t take any photographs of the military or any government buildings and markets.
And be aware there´s secret police everywhere, personally so did I get stopped 3 times by the secret police, once for taking a photo of the University in Asgahbat, the central market and just for walking down a random street, however, while the secret where polite, so are they strict and not open for discussion.
Electricity in Turkmenistan
Surprisingly, there is plenty of access to electricity throughout Turkmenistan, with most of the population receiving gas and electricity for free.
However, it is pretty inefficient, and there have been reports of various problems with the supply of electricity.
There are even problems with the heating in Ashgabat, not a nice thing to have to endure while visiting in winter.
The older power stations are heavily impacted by the weather so expect frequent blackouts in both the colder winter months and also in the warm summer months.
Ensure that you always keep a bottle or two of water on you as the electricity going out in Ashgabat causes issues with the supply of water as well.
Drinks and Alcohol in Turkmenistan
Although it is a predominantly Muslim country, Turkmenistan is still somewhat liberal around the consumption of alcohol.
There are, however, quite a few strict laws in Turkmenistan around the sale of alcohol. But is not often strictly enforced. About every restaurant and shop in the country offers at least beer.
But to the surprise of many, so do Turkmenistan, produce their own, beer, vodka, wine, and brandy.
Mainly that it cannot be consumed on public transport or in public areas of any kind. Beaches, forests, and elevators, as well as at any sporting facilities, are a few other areas.
There is also a ban on the sale of alcohol on weekends from establishments that are not either bars or restaurants. But this rule doesn´t seem to be very strictly enforced. And there´s no shortage of bars and restaurants anywhere in Turkmenistan, so you don’t have to worry about staying “dry”.
Beer is insanely popular and the drink of choice for almost everyone, even though it is pretty low in alcohol percentage. For all the wine lovers, there are some amazing local wines.
The Turkmenistan people also make stunning Brandy, and even vodka, believe it or not. Start your night off over a few bottles of Tac Premium beer, and then maybe sample some brandy after that.
When Will you Travel to Turkmenistan?
There are surely a ton of interesting facts about Turkmenistan. But, if you are ready to pay the high price and go through the hassle to obtain a visa, Turkmenistan has a lot to offer.
From three historical UNESCO World Heritage sites, two of the strangest natural sites in the world, and a one-of-a-kind capital covered with white marble.
There are gold statues and a lot of obscure monuments and strange architecture to add even more reasons to travel here.
So the question remains, when will you travel to Turkmenistan?
Thursday 23rd of December 2021
Thx for the report. I have been twice in Turkmenistan ( 2006 and 2017). strange but interesting country to visit.