Turkmenistan Travel Guide
Turkmenistan, Central Asia's land of the Karakum Desert and ancient Silk Road cities, invites the intrepid traveler to explore its enigmatic beauty.
Here, time-honored traditions weave seamlessly with eccentric modernity, where one can marvel at the remnants of empires past and the stark natural wonders that have shaped this mysterious land.
From the flaming Gas Crater to the architectural marvels of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most unique and least-explored destinations, offering a rich variety of experiences for those who seek the road less traveled.
Capital city: Ashgabat
Currency: Turkmenistani Manat – 1 USD = 3.50 TMT.
Electricity: Power voltage is 220 Volts. Power sockets type C and F.
Languages: The most spoken language is Turkmen. Various dialects are also present.
10 Handpicked Highlights of Turkmenistan
The Door to Hell – Darvaza Gas Crater
In the heart of the Karakum Desert lies a sight that seems straight out of a science fiction tale – the Darvaza Gas Crater, known colloquially as the ‘Door to Hell’. This fiery pit has been burning for decades, offering a spectacle especially otherworldly at night.
The crater’s genesis lies in a Soviet-era gas exploration that went awry, but today it draws visitors from across the globe, mesmerized by its eternal flames and the stark contrast against the barren desert landscape. Experience the heat and the glow of this burning phenomenon, a reminder of the earth’s potent power.
Once among the greatest cities of the Islamic world, the historic site of Merv whispers tales of yesteryears, having witnessed the rise and fall of empires. The sprawling ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site, encompass a series of urban centers stacked upon one another through time.
Explore the mausoleums, fortresses, and ancient walls that echo the grandeur of the Silk Road, and wander through history where traders and warriors once tread.
Ashgabat’s White Marble Heart
Ashgabat, the capital city, stands as an oasis of white marble buildings, lavish monuments, and gold domes shining under the sun. The city holds the Guinness World Record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings, exuding an almost ethereal aura.
Visit the Neutrality Monument, a three-legged structure topped with a golden statue, and the Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque, reminiscent of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, as testaments to Turkmenistan’s ambition and desire to impress.
Konye-Urgench’s Timeless Splendor
The ancient city of Konye-Urgench, situated in northern Turkmenistan, is a silent custodian of history, housing monuments that have survived the ravages of time and Mongol invasions.
The Kutlug-Timur Minaret, towering into the sky, is a resilient symbol of a once-thriving cultural epicenter. Visitors can absorb the solemn beauty of the Turabek Khanum Mausoleum, with its intricate mosaic work, a true masterpiece of medieval architecture.
The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa
The remnants of the Parthian Empire endure in the form of the fortresses at Nisa, showcasing the innovation of ancient fortification and palace architecture. Delve into the remnants of a royal residence and temples, imagining the bustling life of an empire that rivaled Rome.
Nisa stands as a proud reminder of Turkmenistan’s imperial past and offers a fascinating glimpse into a civilization that thrived over two thousand years ago.
Awaza: The Caspian Sea’s Riviera
Turkmenistan’s answer to the French Riviera, Awaza, with its luxury hotels and resorts, borders the Caspian Sea, promising a coastal escape from the desert’s embrace. The turquoise waters and sandy beaches provide a setting for relaxation and a range of water sports.
Here, the nation’s ambitious vision to create a tourist haven emerges against the backdrop of the world’s largest inland body of water.
The Tolkuchka Bazaar
Dive into the vibrant chaos of the Tolkuchka Bazaar, Ashgabat’s grand marketplace, where the heart of Turkmen culture beats. Amid the colorful stalls, one can find everything from traditional Turkmen rugs, famed for their intricate designs, to quirky souvenirs that speak of the local lore.
The bazaar is not just a shopper’s paradise but a sensory journey into the country’s soul, where the aroma of spices blends with the sounds of haggling and the sight of rich textiles.
The Yangykala Canyons
In the remote corners of western Turkmenistan, the Yangykala Canyons rise from the desert floor like petrified waves of a red and yellow sea. These stunning formations, carved by wind and water over millions of years, are best viewed at sunset when the canyons glow in fiery hues. For the off-the-beaten-path adventurer, this natural marvel offers an awe-inspiring glimpse into the planet’s geological artistry.
The Kopet Dag Mountains
Bordering Iran, the Kopet Dag Mountains offer a refreshing contrast to Turkmenistan’s arid landscapes with verdant valleys, cool springs, and diverse flora and fauna. Hikers and nature enthusiasts will find a network of trails leading to scenic vistas and rural villages. This mountain range serves as a green sanctuary for those seeking the serenity of nature and a touch of adventure.
Gonur Depe – The Bronze Age City
Gonur Depe is an archaeological treasure, part of the Margiana complex, which has unearthed the mysteries of a Bronze Age civilization. Wander among the ruins where a once-sophisticated urban center stood over 4,000 years ago. The site offers a humbling perspective on the ingenuity of ancient societies and is a must-visit for history buffs eager to trace the footsteps of the ancestors.
Turkmenistan's Geography & Landscapes
Turkmenistan presents a geographic tapestry as rich and varied as its history. The country is predominantly covered by the vast and desolate Karakum Desert, which not only shapes the nation’s natural environment but also its cultural and historical identity. The landscape, however, is punctuated by oases and expanses of unexpected beauty and variety.
The Karakum Desert: Dominating over 80% of Turkmenistan, this massive desert is one of the driest deserts in the world, creating a sandy and rugged landscape that has challenged and shaped the lives of its inhabitants for millennia.
The Kopet Dag Range: This mountain range forms Turkmenistan’s southern border with Iran. It is a region of scenic beauty, with its diverse ecosystems standing in stark contrast to the surrounding deserts.
The Caspian Sea Coast: To the west, Turkmenistan boasts a lengthy coastline along the Caspian Sea, featuring important ports and the unique Avaza tourist zone with its beaches and resorts.
The Amu Darya River Basin: In the east, the historical Amu Darya river flows, creating a fertile valley which has been the cradle of various ancient civilizations and remains an important agricultural zone.
The Balkan Region: In the west, the landscape transitions from desert to the rocky and cavernous terrain, including the Yangykala Canyon, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.
The Central and Southern Oases: These areas are vital for agricultural activities, with cities like Mary and Tejen being important economic and cultural centers due to their more hospitable climates and irrigated lands.
Best Time To Go To Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan’s continental desert climate means that visitors can expect extremes – scorching hot summers and chilly winters. The transitional seasons of spring and autumn, however, offer the most pleasant conditions for travel.
Spring (March to May): The desert blooms with wildflowers, and the weather is warm but not yet overbearing. This is an ideal time for outdoor activities and for exploring the desert before the searing heat sets in.
Summer (June to August): It’s extremely hot, with temperatures soaring above 40°C (104°F). While this can be a good time to visit the Caspian Sea coast, desert excursions are less advisable.
Autumn (September to November): The heat begins to subside, making it a perfect season for traveling. The temperatures are comfortable, and the landscape is still vibrant from the summer.
Winter (December to February): Winters can be quite cold, especially in the desert at night, although it’s generally mild during the day. It’s a quiet season for tourism, which could appeal to those looking for a more solitary experience.
The best time to visit Turkistan is typically in the spring or autumn, particularly in April-May or September-October, when the weather conditions are ideal for exploring the diverse landscapes and historical sites without the discomfort of extreme temperatures.
Traveling in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is generally a safe country for travelers, with low crime rates and a strong sense of community. However, it is also a country with strict laws and cultural norms that visitors must respect. Here are 10 tips to ensure your safety while traveling in Turkmenistan:
- Follow Local Laws: Be aware of the strict legal system. Drug offenses can carry severe penalties, including long prison terms.
- Respect Customs: Dress modestly and behave respectfully, especially in religious sites and during important Islamic holidays.
- Photography Restrictions: Ask for permission before taking photos of government buildings, military installations, or locals.
- Avoid Solo Desert Treks: The Karakum Desert is vast and challenging. Always travel with a guide or as part of a tour.
- Register Your Stay: Ensure that you are properly registered with the authorities, which is typically handled by your hotel.
- Stay Hydrated: The heat, particularly in summer, can be dangerous. Drink plenty of water and protect yourself from the sun.
- Be Cautious of Stray Animals: Avoid stray dogs and other animals to prevent bites or diseases such as rabies.
- Secure Travel Documents: Keep your passport and visa with you at all times, as you may need to show them at checkpoints.
- Use Official Taxis: When traveling by taxi, use official vehicles and agree on the fare in advance to avoid scams.
- Avoid Sensitive Topics: Steer clear of discussing politics or criticizing the government, as this can be considered offensive and even illegal.
Getting to & Around Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan can be accessed by air and road, with limited options by sea via the Caspian Sea ferries.
- Airports: The main international gateway is Ashgabat International Airport, with Turkmenistan Airlines offering flights to several major cities in Europe and Asia.
- Rail: The Turkmenistan railway network provides connections to neighboring countries and key domestic locations.
- Road: Modern highways connect major cities, though rural roads can be less reliable. Car rental is available, but a local driving permit is required.
- Taxis and Buses: Taxis are plentiful in urban areas, and bus services cover most towns and some rural areas.
- Domestic Flights: For longer distances within the country, domestic flights can be a time-saving option.
- Visas and Permits: Visitors often need a guide to accompany them, and travel outside of Ashgabat requires a special permit.
Accommodations in Turkmenistan range from luxurious hotels in major cities like Ashgabat to basic guesthouses and yurt camps in rural areas. Prices vary greatly:
- Hotels: In Ashgabat, you can find opulent hotels with prices ranging from $100 to over $300 per night, offering all the modern comforts and amenities.
- Guesthouses: Smaller cities and towns have guesthouses and B&Bs, where you can expect to pay between $20 and $50 per night.
- Yurt Stays: For an authentic experience, yurt camps in the desert or near cultural sites offer stays for around $30 to $70 per night, including meals and basic facilities.
- Booking: It’s recommended to book accommodation in advance, especially during the peak travel seasons in spring and autumn.
Remember that while the options may vary in terms of comfort and price, staying within the network of approved hotels and guesthouses ensures compliance with local regulations and a safer experience.