No:53 – Turkmenistan – The mysterious “Stan” …

About the Blog …

The blog is based on my visit to Turkmenistan, as a part of my 2023 Silk Road Tour.

Type of vacation …

Solo tour with drivers and guides, exploring Turkmenabad, Mary, Ashgabat, Darwaza, Dashoguz Etc.

Country Counter: Countries/territories I have visited so far …

Travel TipsTips based on my travels so far …

What I liked best …

(1) The lack of the typical “selfie-taking” tourists … In fact, saw only a handful right through the Turkmenistan trip.

(2) The interactions with the Guides and Drivers. We spoke for hours …

What I did not like …

There were a few not-so-optimal experiences, but I had an absolute blast! The mysterious nature of the country was a big plus.

Location in the World map …

 

Some interesting tidbits about Turkmenistan …

 

Turkmenistan, in Central Asia, has the Caspian Sea to the West and is largely covered by the Karakum Desert. The archaeological sites Nisa and Merv were major stops along the ancient Silk Road. Ashgabat, the capital, is filled many grand monuments, most of them honoring former President Saparmurat Niyazov. Ashgabat is a showpiece capital. Meticulously designed, it is meant to show the World the achievements of the Turkmen people. The city looks very unique with white marble buildings across a long and dry valley. It can get really hot here! Media control is taken very seriously and one will encounter many security guards and policemen who monitor everything. We cannot take pictures of the government buildings. One always feel “watched”. Since its independence in 1991, there have been two presidents. The first, President Saparmurat Niyazov, ran unopposed in 1992 and declared himself “President for Life” in 1999. He served till his death in 2006. During his time he banned dogs from Ashgabat because of their “unappealing odor”, made his birthday a national holiday, outlawed Opera, Ballet Etc., renamed all the days of the week and months of the year after his family members and colleagues, made a book he had written himself a part of the curriculum in schools Etc. Niyazov’s Russian wife and son lived in Russia and rarely came to Turkmenistan. Niyazov’s successor is Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who has been president since 2007 and is also a “President for Life.” He impounded all non-white-colored cars in Ashgabat and ordered them to be painted silver or white. After all, the capital is known as the “City of White Marble”. Human Rights Watch notes that Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most “closed” countries.  Reporters without Borders ranks Turkmenistan at 168 (out of 170 countries) for freedom of the press, just ahead of North Korea and Eritrea! In 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records declared that Ashgabat has the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world. The city of about 8 square miles has over 500 buildings covered with millions of cubic feet of imported Italian white marble. Our guide says the Turkmenistan government buys more than 50% of the World’s white marble, mostly from Italy and some from Spain. Almost every building is white. No wonder the current president outlawed colored cars.

  • Ethnicity: 79% Turkmen
  • Religion: 93% Muslims
  • Ashgabat Earthquake in 1948 killed 100000+ people.
  • It has the 6th largest deposit of Natural Gas in the World and also has extensive Oil reserves. Citizens get Natural Gas for free it seems.

 

My Experiences

Among the 8 nations I covered as a part of my 2023 Silk Road Tour, I was looking forward to Turkmenistan the most. The primary reason was its “mysterious” nature and also the fact that I do not know a single person who have been to or aspired to go to Turkmenistan 🙂

My main impressions:
(1) For a “Closed” Country, from erstwhile USSR, with no great/direct rapport with USA, how ironic that the OFFICIAL currency at Immigration is “US Dollars”! Even local Turkmens are paying in USD.
(2) Security, Police and CCTVs are everywhere. Regular car checks, no-photo zones (Government buildings, Police/Military check posts, Security guards at various sights Etc.). Government hotels (not private!). No major Souvenir avenues. No Facebook, WhatsApp, Yahoo/Gmail, YouTube Etc. Luckily ESPNCricinfo works and was able to follow IPL 🙂
(3) If I have to describe the capital city of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, in one word, it is “WHITE”. If a 2nd word is allowed, it is “MARBLE’. The entire city is very spread out. There is roughly 100-200m between buildings. And pretty much every building and every car was white. For buildings, what was the “WHITE”? MARBLE! Marbles from Italy, Spain, Turkey Etc. And the city is SPARKLING clean.
(4) Roads in Ashgabad city (most of it, anyway) is THE best I seen in my life. Smooth as silk. Imagine 8-10-lane roads inside the city! And the intercity roads? One of the worst I have seen. Some portions of it will make some of the useless Indian corporate/municipal road contractors (Not inter-city, where India has excellent roads, mostly) blush in embarrassment 🙂
(5) Definitely, one of my Top-5 Countries, in terms of “Interesting Experiences”. I spent countless hours discussing with my Turkmen guides (Elias and Aygul) and Turkmen drivers (Aslan, Roma Etc.). Experienced a city like no other. Saw the World-famous Darvaza Crater and even stayed there overnight! Spent 5hr10min at a border crossing, my current record. Drove through a large portion of the country. Crossed 2 separate Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan borders by road. Took a flight within the nation and that was an experience in itself. Etc.

Ever since I read about the experience of the American in North Korea, I have been nervous about Turkmenistan.
Tried to mug up the Dos and Don’ts.
As you probably know, it is a very closed nation, with barely any relation even with neighboring nations like Uzbekistan. My VISA itself took 1+ month!
It has or has had many weird laws and regulations.
I am the 1st person I know among my friends, colleagues and family, to visit Turkmenistan.
I have had many nervous, fearful, uncomfortable and painful moments during my travels. Examples:
(*) Getting stuck between Cambodia and Vietnam.
(*) Being at Manaus port area in Amazonas (Brazil) at 02:00 with no one else around and with 2 big bags.
(*) Being caught by Kyrgyzstan Border Force for taking photo inside a restricted area.
(*) Getting arrested by Police in Lucknow.
(*) Trekking many mountains on the way to Machu Picchu, in the cold/rain/hail/snow.
(*) Being in Trans-Siberian train for almost 2 days with zero “English” speakers or materials (The overall Train trip was 6 days, but the other days I had company).
Etc.

Sometimes, like while waiting indefinitely at TKM border, I do wonder: “Am I crazy? I am doing all this, voluntarily!?”

Answer is “Yes” and that is the thrill! It is like a drug. When in the moment(s), it may be painful. But the memories, later on? That is the Gold Dust! Priceless!

Border Crossing (Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan):
There were trucks/rigs galore, as we approached the border. For such a closed country, Turkmenistan sure does a lot of trade by road!
Ilkhom dropped me off at the Uzbekistan border at 08:00. I tipped him, took his photo and bade goodbye.
Butterflies had started in my stomach 🙂
Uzbek border guys were more interested in my VISA stamps than the actual checking.
Customs counter was not even manned :-).
I knew it was a 1.5km walk in the bright (yet cool 8am Sun) with my backpack and the wheel-less bigger bag.
Started my walk, with the bags.
Crossed a zillion Turkish and TKM trucks on the way. Border customs apparently open at 08:00.
Truckers were staring at me as if I was an Alien. I did not see any other tourists.
Finally, reached the Turkmenistan border.
It was all youngsters at the border, in TKM Military attire.
Multiple dudes checked my passport and TKM LOI (Letter of Invitation).
Then one dude asked me to wait at a booth. The booth’s counter window was closed. When I peeked in, there was no one inside! Meanwhile trucks were being inspected by the Military guys and being passed through.
After 10-15m of waiting, a van driven by a Military dude approached my area. There was a lady inside the van. I thought TKM border force had arranged transport for tourists. Nope! It was the “COVID Testing Lady”. She came with a bag full of swabs, forms Etc. and started blabbering in Turkmen. I knew she came for COVID testing based on the stuff she way carrying. She wrote “47$” on a piece of paper. Just as I was paying her, some 7-10 truckers barged into the small booth, all talking at once, with their passports in their hands. I wondered if they also pay the 47$. Before I could dwell further on it, it was COVID sample taking time! It was funny how she took the samples. 1st she had the throat swab hover near my mouth, without touching anything. It is like how people in India circle pictures of Gods with Agarbathi 🙂 Then she had the nose swab touch my outer nose skin. It was a remarkably detailed COVID testing 🙂 What happens next??? While I stood there wondering (Did not try to communicate with TKM Military guys using Google Translate as I did not want to inadvertently break any Border Rules of TKM).
Hung around for another 15-20m, as even more Military dudes checked my Passport and LOI. Then one of the dudes beckoned me to the van and took me in the van to a kind of “Waiting Area” building. This building, which had no signs or markings, had some seats and a very basic flies-filled restroom.
By the by, I take everything I said about “Ultra-clean Central Asia” back 🙂 TKM border is one big garbage dump! Could not open my mouth for fear of flies going in. Started wearing my surgical mask. By now, time was 09:25. There were 2 other dudes in the Waiting Area, one a Turkmen returning to Turkmenistan, the other an Uzbek going to Turkmenistan. Soon some Uzbek (or Turkmen) ladies also came in and they sat in a different area. Then came one Tajik dude returning to Tajikistan. None of them speak anything close to English.
11:25: 2hr mark. Nothing much has happened. The Uzbek guy showed me 2 Uzbek passports. What’s up with that!? (Later, learned from Elias (my guide for Turkmenabad/Merv/Mary) that Uzbeks and Turkmens have 2 passports, one for domestic use and one for foreign use). Whenever the van driver pulled up with more non-English-speaking folks, I keep asking him in sign language “How much more time?”. He gives a smile, says something in Turkmen, and drives off.
11:35: A Military dude comes in the van and picks up the 2 guys (Uzbek and Turkmen) heading to TKM and takes off. I enquire but am told to continue waiting, in sign language.
What all I will do to see a country! 😉
12:05: A Turkmen old lady came and sat near me and we chatted a bit, with each of us understanding 2% of what the other said 🙂
Why all this procedure and delays?? Maybe they are worried that I might illegally give up my existing Citizenships and settle down in Turkmenistan! They have a point.

Trucks, zillions of them, had the following signs on it:
.tr (Turkey)
http://www.tca.lc
KACMAZ
Deger Transport.
Bdayur Celik Kapi “BIONKA”.
Etc.

12:40: Finally, after 3hr15min in the “Waiting Area”, the Military guy comes and take me and 4 ladies in the van. He had a small handwritten note with our names on it. Looks like the Immigration bigshots have called us up.
I must say the van driver (also in the Military attire) was the only bright spot. He had a smiley, welcoming and apologetic demeanor. Pleasant dude.
I was taken to the Turkmenistan Immigration building. In front of the building, there was a huge board which said in English, “Welcome to Turkmenistan”! Nice way of welcoming visitors 🙂 The irony.

There were zero English signs inside. I kept being sent from counter to counter. At one counter, they gave me my (obviously) negative COVID test result. At another, they took my photo and left thumb print. At another, which was a chaotic one with many Turks/Uzbeks/Turkmens/LocalLadies/Etc. all shouting and waving their passports, I had to pay the Turkmenistan VISA charge, in US Dollars! I.e. US Dollars is the official currency used at the Immigration Counter, of a nation which barely has any relation with USA. Strange! All the other people at the counter were also having USD notes.
Now comes the Turkmenistan Customs form. Partly because I had just put eye ointment which made my eyes blurry and partly because of the tiny font, I could barely read anything. Luckily, one young Military guy helped me fill it up (He knew little English). The younger Military guys chatted with me in broken English, about “New York”, “USA’, “whether I work out” (Because of the load I carried across the border, I guess) Etc. Customs guys went through my bags. An Immigration official welcomed me to Turkmenistan (in English) and stamped my passport. I do not think I have worked harder for a VISA stamp! Even US VISA was way easier. Then I walked to the final gate/checkpoint where they checked my Passport and Turkmenistan VISA stamp. Finally, 5 hours and 10 minutes after I had reached the Uzbekistan border, I took my 1st step into Turkmenistan! Country No:53.

At the gate, the young security guy asked me to take bus (He was a pleasant youngster). I said I will wait for my guide. I saw no one. It was getting hot. I did not have guide phone number. It was in Yahoo email! A young business man, who spoke English (He ran a pen manufacturing business and did MBA in Cyprus), gave me his phone and I tried through his VPN to log into my Yahoo/Gmail. No luck due to the required phone approval. Then he told me I should go to another checkpoint around 300m away, where taxis wait. I thanked him for his help. He gave me his pens as souvenir and his friend gave me a Tomato! I tried to walk with my bag and security youngster called me back. Then the TKM business man and his friend dropped me at the next checkpoint in their car. Thanked them and took their photo.

Elias met me at that gate at 13:40.

Trucks/Rigs galore, near Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border, going to Turkmenistan.
Currency exchange ladies near the Turkmenistan Border.
At the gate, the young security guy asked me to take the bus (He was a pleasant youngster). I said I will wait for my guide. I saw no one. It was getting hot. I did not have the guide’s phone number. It was in Yahoo email! A young business man, who was in a car with a friend (and they were waiting for someone), who spoke English (He ran a pen manufacturing business and did MBA in Cyprus), gave me his phone and I tried through his VPN to log into my Yahoo/Gmail. No luck due to the required phone SMS approval. Then he told me I should go to another checkpoint around 300m away, where taxis typically wait. I thanked him for his help. He gave me his pens as Souvenir and his friend gave me a Tomato! I tried to walk the 300m with my bag and the security youngster called me back, as it was not allowed. Then the TKM business man and his friend dropped me at the next checkpoint in their car. Thanked them and took their photo. The business man is the one in the back.
The long bridge over Amu Darya river, the lifeline for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar (“Sultan Kala”): Built in 1157. Double-domed. Merv, Turkmenistan.
Ashkab Mausoleum, Merv, Turkmenistan.
Great Kyz Kala … Still standing! One of the key sights in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Merv, Turkmenistan.
Yusuf Hamadani Mausoleum, Merv.
Photos are not allowed in the Airports. This is the only photo I took, of the Security Brochure. Taken during the flight from Mary to Ashgabat, using Turkmenistan Airlines. Seemed like the Turkmen ladies loved to dress up in colorful dresses, as the airport was filled with women in colorful traditional dresses. The aircraft was on the tarmac and we had to walk 200-300 meters to the aircraft. I would have loved to have taken some pictures, but alas …
Lobby of the Archabil Hotel where I was put up … I believe the hotel is state-owned. From Wikipedia: “Arçhabil Hotel is meant first of all for native and foreign delegations, but is always ready to accept Turkmenistan residents and foreign guests, traveling by themselves. The hotel consists of 152 rooms.”
Had this excellent Beer, from Ýaşlyk Piwo Zawody, Turkmenistan.
I loved this TV channel, again state-run, which had these color musicians playing local music. I found it very soothing and kept the channel on, at low volume, through the night 🙂
I loved this TV channel, again state-run, which had these color musicians playing local music. I found it very soothing and kept the channel on, at low volume, through the night 🙂 As background music …
City streets in Ashgabat were very wide, multilaned, and very smooth. I do not think I have experienced such smooth roads in any other city!
Ashgabat is a very spaced-out less-dense city …
My hotel at Ashgabat, Tuekmenistan. This is a nice hotel, run by the government. The breakfast was very basic, though.
Did some basic walking around … As you can see, it was all empty streets.
Did some basic walking around … As you can see, it was all empty streets.
Aygul (Pronounced “Iyul”), my guide for Ashgabat and Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan: From the North, Dashaguz town, near Uzbekistan border, which is 5hr or 500km away. Darvaza Crater is half way between Ashgabat and Dashaguz. It is a 40m flight between Ashgabat and Dashaguz. Aygul speaks English, Russian and Turkmen. I was her 1st customer after the Pandemic. Her Father, much older than her Mother, passed away in Dec 2016. She has 7 siblings. Mother lives alone in her hometown, Dashaguz. She was a beautician before and during the Pandemic. She is a moderate Sunni Muslim. Asian games had happened in Ashgabat. Aygul was a part of it, in the administration part of it, as a room coordinator and translator. She has a Qozon bowl at home and makes Plov on her own. Qozon is made of Aluminum. Her company has been around since 1996, and is run by a Turkmen boss.
Saw this cute Turtle at Nisa, nibbling away at a leaf
How one of the halls must have looked … Nisa, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. The archeological site of Nisa is just 20-odd kilometers from the Iran border!
The main prayer hall in Saparmyrat Hajji Mosque. It was built during the rule of President Saparmyrat Niyazov.
Many many flags of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan Independence Monument, Ashgabat. I did not see anyone around …
One of the many statues at Independence Monument, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
Another view … The black statues goes well with the actual monument. It was very hot and sunny (38C), quite the contrast from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Etc.
Row of statues … At Independence Monument, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The Arch of Neutrality, located in the Ashgabat outskirts. This multi-level structure is crowned by a sculpture of the former Turkmenistan´s President, Saparmurat Niyazov.
There is an elevator that can take you up. For some reason, it was not working … Maybe because there were absolutely no one (else) around!
Turkmenistan flag in full glory … You can note the symbols of the 5 Tribes or Provinces.
Ashgabat National Museum of History. Again, I was THE only visitor at the Museum. Turkmenistan desperately needs more tourists to visit 🙂
The tall flag pole in front of National Museum. One of the tallest in the World.
Map of Turkmenistan. Looks like I drove (actually, “driven”) through a lot of Turkmenistan.
Maya, the official guide at Ashgabat National Museum of History, explaining away. The museum gives a good depiction of local history.
The Mall, surprise-surprise :-), government-owned, from the outside.
The lunch. Roasted-Meat Slices, Salads Etc.
Inside a Mall where we went for Lunch.
Local bus. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The central bus stops in Ashgabat have AC rooms and TV!
Colorful red uniform for the University students.
Tried this local Ice-Cream.
Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan. 80% of the Country is covered by this Desert.
Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan. 80% of the Country is covered by this Desert. Saw a lot of such camels.
Yet another Crater (Sink Hole), this one with water.
Another small Crater on the way to Darvaza. I could not see the bottom of this one, due to the fence.
Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan. 80% of the Country is covered by this Desert.
My Yurt … Darvaza Crater.
Inside my Yurt. Due to the Sandstorm, I just crashed and (tried to) sleep as much as I could in the howling noise (due to the Sand Storm).
The Yurts in the Camp Site at Darvaza Crater. I used the 1st one. The camp is just 500 meters from the Crater.
The camp, at night …
The camp, at night …
Darvaza Crater, during the Sand Storm.
Approaching Darvaza Crater, early in the morning …
The pathway from the camp to the crater …
Dinner at the Camp Site, Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan. Barbeque, Kebabs, Plov, Bread, Salad Etc.

 

Darvaza Crater: “Door to Hell”: “Gates of Hell”: Central Turkmenistan, around 300km from Ashgabat. While excavating, Geologists inadvertently collapsed the ground and formed the Crater, which had Natural Gas discharge. They intentionally set it on fire. In 1971!!! It has been burning ever since. 52 years! These photos are taken with my phone, both in the night as well as early morning. I stayed overnight in a Desert Camp, 500 meters from the Crater. While I was at the Crater, a severe sandstorm started and I got caught smack in the middle. Somehow waded my way back to camp, but the howling winds covered me in sand (Inside my Yurt!) and I could not sleep much due to the noise. It was surreal to see an Orange glow in the Desert, as you walk towards the Crater. There were around 10 other tourists (In the night. Only I was there in the early morning). Government has been planning to close it, for several years. But how???
I liked this pastry …
Turkmenistan Manat … I had to exchange USD for TMT, in the “Black Market”, as apparently it was not easy to get it exchanged at banks.
The 24hr TV channel that plays Turkmen music, mentioned above. Very colorfully dressed artists. I actually had it on (at low volume) through the night.
Great Kyz Kala, Merv, Turkmenistan. Made using mud bricks.
Parthian Fortress of Nisa, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. From 3rd Century BC. Only I was there 😀 My guide told me that I am her 1st International tourist after a long COVID break in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is only opening up now, after COVID shutdown.
Ertgrul Gazi Mosque: Modelled in Turkish style. Reminds of the Mosques in Istanbul. Can seat around 5000 people. Turkey helped with the funding, it seems. There were locals praying there, when we went.
WHITE & MARBLE everywhere 😀 Ashgabat is in Guiness Book of World Records for this aspect. Turkmens love White color. 95% cars are White. They also love Green color on roofs of houses. Almost all houses had Green roofs.
Ashgabat is very lit up in the nights. For sure, Turkmenistan (due to its small population, 6M only, and Oil and Natural Gas reserves) is not starved for energy. Zillion street lights and lit buildings. Most of them are either apartment buildings or shops.
The beautiful Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan. I entered Turkmenistan near Turkmenabad town, drove through ancient Merv to Mary (Pronounced “Mahri”), took a 45m flight to Ashgabad, drove to Darvaza and from Darvaza, drove to Dashoguz, and crossed back into Uzbekistan. Note that Ashgabat is just 25km from Iran. Karakum is 95% plain Desert. You can imagine the winds.
Near the city of Ashgabat is the largest Mosque in Central Asia and the main mosque of Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque. “Turkmenbashi” == “Leader of Turkmen” == President Saparmurat Niyazov, the 1st President of Independent Turkmenistan. It can seat around 10K people. Ladies have to use 1st floor. Ground floor is for men. The mosque was built in 2002-2004 on the initiative of Turkmenbashi. Carpets depict the 5 Provinces or Tribes of Turkmenistan.
Elias, my guide for Turkmenabad, Merv and Mary: He was born and raised in Merv. He calls himself a “Farmer”. He teaches English in school and speaks very good English. He is semi-retired now and being a tourist guide is his summer job. He can speak Turkmen, Russian, English, Persian and German. He explained how Turkmens and Uzbeks have 2 passports! One for domestic use and one for foreign use. He likes History and Archeology. He reads a lot and self-educates himself in History. Some Stanford Archeology students had come to Merv and they gave him a “Stanford Alumni Association” red bag, which he displays proudly. He mentioned that few Turkmens get Uzbek VISA. Educated Turkmens speak Turkmen and Russian. Villagers speak Turkmen. He has 3 daughters, who live in Merv, with their families. His youngest is a Son who works in Russia. DaughterInLaw and 2 young kids live with Elias. He has been all over Turkmenistan. He had visited India in 2000. Did the Golden Triangle trip. He has also visited Europe, Russia, Pakistan Etc. Turkmen people cannot travel much due to VISA issues and lack of money.

 

 

Adios!

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