Turkmenistan is not your ordinary Asian destination. In the past, the country was an important stop along the Silk Road connecting China to Europe, but the previous century saw Turkmenistan eclipsed by Russia, first as a part of the Russian Empire and then a member state of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union finally fell in 1991, freedom didn’t materialize as President Saparmurat Niyazov initiated a dictatorship and transformed the country into a cult of personality dictated by his own eccentricities. However, when Niyazov died in 2006, the country began to open up to the rest of the world for the first time in centuries and restore its Silk Road legacy.
The population of Turkmenistan is a little over five million, almost three-quarters of which are Turkmen, with Russians and Uzbeks constituting the significant minorities. Over 90 percent of the country is Muslim, and although religious minorities exist, Islam dominates the culture. The country is large, but dry and vacant. Over 80 percent of Turkmenistan lies within the Karakum Desert, the fourth largest desert in Asia and one of the driest deserts in the world. As such, the climate is dry all year round and warm in summer and mild in winter. However, despite consisting mostly of desert, beachside idylls do exist on the east side of the country, which sits on the Caspian Sea.
The capital of Ashgabat sits in the south just across the border from Iran. This city of over 800,000 boasts the highest number of marble buildings on the planet and the kind of gold domes and gorgeous parks more reminiscent of exotic fantasy than Central Asian reality. Simply put, it’s a strange city, one that you’ll never forget upon visiting. In 1948, a magnitude nine earthquake destroyed Ashgabat and killed more than 100,000 people. The Soviets rebuilt the city in its utilitarian concrete style, so it wasn’t until after the Soviet collapse that the opulent modern buildings started sprouting up and the city became the eccentric mix it is today.
As Turkmenistan has the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world, the country has enjoyed an economic boom in the past 20 years, using fossil fuels revenue to rapidly expand its urban centres and modernize at breakneck speed. While Ashgabat gives you a taste of the ever-changing present, most of Turkmenistan’s popular destinations draw on its past and the Silk Road.
Nearby Ashgabat is Nisa, once the capital of the Parthian Empire and an important excavation site. The ancient city of Merv further to the east used to stand alongside Baghdad and Cairo as one of the epicentres of Islamic culture. Experts even believe it was briefly the largest city in the world during the 12th century, when it was a key stop on the trade routes between East and West. Today, Merv is a series of ruins and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A knowledgeable guide and personal transportation are a must when visiting Merv, as its sights are hard to decipher and relatively spread out.
You’ll notice when visiting Turkmenistan that the country has a lot of eccentric customs and flourishes. While Saparmurat Niyazov is dead and gone, the county retains many holdovers from his rule, such as certain months named after his family members and key events of his life. Some of the rotating statues of Niyazov have been removed from Ashgabat in recent years, but many of his garish monuments remain.
While travel in the country is relatively safe, Turkmenistan is still off the beaten path and some of its customs can be surprising to even the most-seasoned Globetrotters. Smoking is banned in all public places as a security measure to combat fires caused by the dry climate. As well, it’s best to avoid discussing the country’s autocratic government or large police presence while visiting. Steering clear of politics is a good way to ingratiate yourself to the surprisingly hospitable Turkmen people.
It’s necessary to get a travel visa to Turkmenistan prior to visiting so as to avoid any possible delays. As well, there are registration fees paid upon arrival and you have to retain your departure card throughout your trip, surrendering it when you leave the country. Ashgabat is accessible by air from most major cities in Asia and the Middle East and increasingly a few European destinations as well.
1 Trip Available
- 14 Days
- Prices From:
- US$ 5,373
- Trip Type:
- Rail Travel Ideas