If you’re looking for truly off-the-beaten-track experiences, Central Asia will eminently be your dream destination. Each country in this area has its own attractions; the stunning natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the colorful mosques of Uzbekistan, and then there is Turkmenistan. It’s in many ways the black sheep of the herd, the weird kid in class. From the surprisingly pleasant capital city of Ashgabat to the fiery pit of the Darvaza Gas Crater, it’s hard to put a label on this Hermit Kingdom. Fellow adventure traveler and serial guest blogger Petteri Kyrklund visited this country and was astounded by the uniqueness of this relatively unknown travel destination. He shares his tips, itinerary, costs, and review of his highlights in this article.
Photo credits: joepyrek
Turkmenistan travel guide
- Why should I visit Turkmenistan?
- Is Turkmenistan safe to visit?
- What is the best time to visit Turkmenistan?
- How do I get into Turkmenistan?
- Is traveling in Turkmenistan expensive?
- List of 15 Turkmenistan tour agencies
- What to expect from a Turkmenistan tour
- Petteri’s Turkmenistan itinerary
- Turkmenistan: the verdict
Why should I visit Turkmenistan?
It is remote, it is unique and it is incredible. The capital city of Ashgabat is one of the most surprising and amazing cities I have been to. Its city center is full of gorgeous white marble buildings which create a very special atmosphere. The fact that you won’t come across many people in this city adds an element of spookiness, but it all makes the experience even more fascinating. Apart from this unbelievable capital city the “Door to Hell”, officially called Darvaza Gas Crater, was an absolute highlight of my trip to Turkmenistan.
It is remote, it is unique and it is incredible.
The recent history of Turkmenistan is totally absurd. Its previous ruler (read: dictator) Saparmurat Niyazov was not a man of modesty (or sanity). For one, he renamed all the months. April was renamed from Aprel to Gurbansoltan, based on his mother’s name. He also banned opera, ballet, and circus because, according to him, these forms of entertainment were un-Turkmen-like. He banned dogs in the capital city because he did not like their smell. He wrote a book called Ruhnama, which was the basis for all education in the country. As you might have guessed, it had zero educational value and was almost purely propagandistic.
Remarkably, he might be one of the only rulers to build a magnificent mosque and still get the hatred of many Muslims. The reason for this is that not all of the writings in this mosque are writings from the Quran; Niyazov replaced half of them with writings from his own Ruhnama book. He also made a grandiose golden statue of himself which rotated following the sun. He did so many crazy things that there is not enough space on the internet to list all of them.
You might ask yourself why I am listing all these things under ‘Why should I visit Turkmenistan’. Well, I guess you have to be a bit crazy yourself (or at least open-minded and adventurous) to get a kick out of visiting this kooky country. I certainly enjoyed it and I can wholeheartedly recommend visiting Turkmenistan!
To be honest, I do have a thing (ok maybe more of an obsession) for hermit kingdoms that can be found off the beaten track. Turkmenistan definitely qualifies as one of them. Although I had somewhat high expectations (many other travelers had told me about the country), I was positively surprised at how different and incredible the place was. The atmosphere in Ashgabat is something very exceptional. You can find white marble everywhere and you can visit a majestic park with some of the most ridiculous monuments you will ever see. But then there is the other side of the coin as well, with vast grey Soviet-style buildings that you can expect from a communist country. I can only describe it as a really weird place.
Photo credits: american_rugbier
Is Turkmenistan safe to visit?
It is generally safe to travel in Turkmenistan, even though it might come across as eerie or weird from time to time. In Ashgabat, for instance, some parts (especially around the white marble buildings) will make you feel like you’re the only person around. In other parts of the city (especially the areas with Soviet-style buildings) you will see plenty of people, but it definitely isn’t a busy city.
People are friendly towards foreigners, but also not overly friendly. I would say that they are a bit more cautious and courteous rather than “happy happy smile smile” friendly. I didn’t have any problem with scams on the streets, cabs, or around tourist sights. Tourism isn’t developed yet in this country so scamming wouldn’t be the most lucrative business.
Of course, it’s hard to say as a non-female, but my impression was that it shouldn’t be a problem for female travelers to visit Turkmenistan. If you’re a solo female traveler, it could be wise to avoid walking in the city at night time (just like in many other countries).
The Turkmenistan travel advice section of the British Government website is in line with my experience as well. My advice: be cautious when photographing official government buildings and don’t start any demonstrations against the said government, you should be totally fine.
Photo credits: Dan Lundberg
What is the best time to visit Turkmenistan?
Weather-wise, spring or autumn are the best times to visit Turkmenistan. The summer months of July and August can be scorchingly hot (mid/upper 30ºC or around 100ºF), while the winter months can get quite chilly (between 0 and 10ºC or around 30-40ºF), especially in the desert areas. The worst time to travel could be around Turkmenistan’s Independence Day (October 27th). It is unlikely that your visa would get approved if you plan to travel between October 20th to October 27th.
Photo credits: Martha de Jong-Lantink
How do I get into Turkmenistan?
Turkmenistan is not a very easy place to get into. One option is applying for a transit visa, but then (at least officially) you will have to enter and exit over land, without going back to the country you entered Turkmenistan from. The second option is easier but much more expensive; you will have to book a tour for the full duration of your intended stay and then let the agent handle the visa process. You cannot get a tourist visa on your own. The good thing is, however, that even if you have to book the full tour, you will be allowed to move around the cities on your own. So even though Turkmenistan has many similarities to another hermit kingdom, North Korea, it is different in that you don’t have to be supervised by tourism officials at all times.
I guess you have to be a bit crazy yourself (or at least open-minded and adventurous) to get a kick out of visiting this kooky country
Ashgabat has the only international airport in the country and as you can imagine, it is not exactly the busiest airport hub out there. The most likely options to fly in and out of Turkmenistan are to Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Dubai (FlyDubai), and Frankfurt (Lufthansa). In addition, Turkmenistan Airlines also has a few additional options.
Photo credits: Jose Arturo Lopez Palacio
Is traveling in Turkmenistan expensive?
Because of the tourist visa requirements, Turkmenistan can be an expensive country to travel to. Expect to pay somewhere around 500 USD for a 5-day trip (this includes a letter of invitation, a driver/guide, and accommodation, but not your meals). Many tour operators ask much more than 100 USD per day, but I don’t see the point in paying more than you have to. Of course, it also depends on how big your group is. If you plan to travel alone, it is slightly more expensive.
I simply Googled some travel agents, asked them to make a quote for a 4-day itinerary, and chose the cheapest option. I traveled with a friend of mine, and we both paid 380 USD per person for our “private tour” with the Travel Notoria agency. This included all accommodations, one internal flight, all the driving, one meal and arranging a visa. The tour operator’s fee and the flight ticket to Ashgabat will be your biggest expenses. You don’t have to worry too much about your meals, it is easy to find cheap food in Turkmenistan. All in all, however, it is the most expensive country to travel to in Central Asia.
Photo credits: tjabeljan
List of 15 Turkmenistan tour agencies
There are many local tour agencies to choose from for your trip through Turkmenistan. I would recommend getting a quote from at least a few agencies, as the prices can vary wildly. Some agencies offer more stops, meals, and accommodations as part of their itinerary, so it’s good to compare this as well. Here is a list of Turkmenistan tour agencies:
What to expect from a Turkmenistan tour
My travel buddy and I love to explore a country on our own, so we only booked a “minimalist tour” with the tour agency which included a few nights in a hotel in the capital, airport transfers, an overland trip from the south to the north of Turkmenistan including a night in a tent with a meal next to the crater, and a one-way flight back to the south. For the rest of the trip, we were on our own. If you would like to have a bigger part of the trip arrange by and with a guide, that’s certainly possible.
We felt quite comfortable speaking openly about many things with our guide/driver, including some skepticism towards the government. The owner listened to our questions and ‘criticism’ politely but was a bit cautious with agreeing or disagreeing with our statements when it got political. The other driver on our trip was much more open and he wholeheartedly agreed that the previous leader was batshit crazy and that the current one isn’t much better either.
Photo credits: Jose Arturo Lopez Palacio
Petteri’s Turkmenistan itinerary
We got picked up at the airport and dropped off at the hotel by the owner of the agency. In Ashgabad we could roam around ourselves without a guide and organized transportation or meals. We moved around on our own, taking mostly street taxis.
The next day we went to Darvaza, but we had agreed to stop at the Mosque (which is in outskirts of the capital) and Nisa before arriving at the famous gas crater. The driver/guide (not the owner of the agency this time) set up the tents for me and travel buddy Joe. He slept in the car himself.
The next day we drove north towards Kunye Urgench, where there was some guide-free time for checking out a few of the sights. Then, he drove us to the airport, in time to catch our flight back to Ashgabad.
Photo credits: David Stanley
Darvaza Gas Crater, or the “Door to Hell”
Besides Ashgabat, the second highlight for me was the Darvaza Gas Crater. It was created by accident in 1971 when Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union. While drilling for natural gas in the desert, the platform collapsed which made the engineers decide to stop the whole operation and set the gas coming from the ground on fire. The expectation was that it would probably take a few hours to die out. Evidently, it didn’t go as planned, and today (over 50 years later) the fire still hasn’t gone out. Don’t expect something the size of a campfire; it is an enormous crater with a diameter of 70m (230ft) filled with raging fire.
Don’t expect something the size of a campfire; it is an enormous crater with a diameter of 70m (230ft) filled with raging fire.
The location of the crater is a few hours drive from Ashgabat. We stayed the night in a tent just 50 meters from the crater itself. The nights can be very cold in the desert so remember to bring some warm clothes (we did not bring any and regretted every minute of it). Luckily there are two ways of staying warm. The first option is the obvious one: every time you feel cold, you just walk 50 meters towards the fire crater and you’ll be toasty again. Putting your tent too close to the crater is a bad idea, however, as the fumes might cause you to pass out while you sleep. The second option is almost as obvious: bring enough vodka.
No matter what your plans are for your visit to Turkmenistan; do not miss the ‘Door to Hell’ (unless the gas finally decides to run out, in which case you can blame yourself for being lazy and too late to the party). Some travelers just come to see the crater during the day and continue onwards without staying overnight. I think that this does not give you the complete experience. You want to see the fire at night time, as it is at its most magnificent. Staying the night next to the crater also adds to the experience and makes it so much more special. I can say without hesitation that it was one of my most memorable travel experiences ever.
Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque and the city of Nisa
Other sights what we saw in Turkmenistan include the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque I mentioned earlier. It is impressive and definitely worth a visit. Nisa is an ancient mud-walled city which has been partially restored and is now a Unesco’s World Heritage site. There is a good chance that you will be the only one there, but it did fail to impress me as much as Turkmenistan’s other sights; it is nice enough to have a 30 minutes walk around it, but it does lack the uniqueness of Turkmenistan’s other sights. Nevertheless, it is a good pitstop on the way to Darvaza. Both the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque and the city of Nisa are very close to Ashgabat.
We went to very north of Turkmenistan to see another Unesco World Heritage site called Konye-Urgench. It has a few mausoleums and one tall minaret. Having been in Uzbekistan earlier (which has some of the best ancient architecture) these didn’t really rock my boat.
Photo credits: Joe Lamerton
Turkmenistan: the verdict
All in all, Turkmenistan is most definitely worth a visit. It has ancient ruins, friendly people, good food (although it doesn’t particularly stand out) and it has these two unique things which I have not yet encountered anywhere else during my travels through 130+ countries:
- Ashgabat (gorgeous, unique, spooky capital with great mix of Soviet, modern, rich, poor and bat-shit crazy)
- Darvaza Gas Crater (there are very few other eternal fires in the world, but none are as remarkable as this one)
The is only one last thing for me to say: go visit Turkmenistan before the gas runs out!
Photo credits: Joe Lamerton
Cover photo credits: StevenBrace