The first question that people asked whenever we talked about going to Turkmenistan was ‘Why?’… followed closely by ‘Where is it?’
If you love visiting interesting and unique places then Turkmenistan is perfect. The main attraction is Darvaza crater, a giant flaming pit in the middle of the desert. Followed closely by Ashgabat which is the man-made marble capital of the country. Turkmenistan is one of the least visited countries in the world and although getting there requires more effort, it is well worth it!
Preparing for the trip
Turkmenistan has strict rules, one of them is that all tourists leaving the capital must be accompanied by a guide. We decided to go on a private tour so that the itinerary could be tailored to the specific areas that we wanted to see. I emailed lots of different tour agencies to find out different options and their prices. After much back and forth we opted for a company called Stan tours. They accommodated any changes that we wanted to make to the itinerary and also turned out to be one of the cheaper options.
There were no direct flights from the United Kingdom to Turkmenistan, but there was a four hour flight from Istanbul. As a result, we decided to turn our visit into a two week holiday which also included site seeing in Istanbul and Cappadocia.
Unfortunately the cheapest flights to Turkmenistan were at very unsociable hours. Luckily the tour company arranged for us to check into our hotel as soon as we arrived and also check out of our room in the early hours of the morning for our departure. This made everything much easier and a lot less stressful.
Getting the visa
The normal tourist visa requires a letter of invitation (LOI) from the tour company. The LOI is based on your itinerary so it is best to take your time when deciding this, as once the LOI is submitted you are not able to deviate from the agreed plan. The other option is a transit visa which is much harder to get. It allows for a maximum of 7 days in the country and requires you to enter and leave through different borders.
We decided to obtain the visas in person and took all of the paper work and LOI to the Turkmenistan embassy in London (information about what you need is on the visa-info section of the turkmenistan.gov.tm website). Through the embassy in London the visa’s cost £50 per person and were ready within 3 days. Tour companies are very good at answering any questions you may have, so please use them if you need any help.
We were worried because I had read about people being denied the visa multiple times before it is accepted. But we were lucky and ours was accepted first time without any problems (the whole process was much easier than getting my visa for Russia).
The airport itself is beautiful and clean as well as eerily quiet. The building is shaped like a bird which makes the whole holiday an unusual experience from the start.
Before booking this trip I read that customs go through all of your luggage, look through your phone and require an explanation for any medication that you bring with you. So when packing I tried to take the bare minimum in terms of medications and kept everything in their boxes. But once we arrive we had no problems at all, they quickly scanned our luggage and waved us through. However it is a good idea to bring a prescription if you have to bring any type of strong painkiller, sleeping tablets or antidepressants.
The airport experience
Once you get off the airplane you will quickly see the high security presence, with more guards than visitors. After a somewhat long walk through the terminal you arrive at passport control where there are futuristic passports scanners that move to take pictures of your face/eyes and scan your fingerprints.
Once you have gone through this strange robot dance you then need to go to the desk next to the currency exchange and pay a tourist fee ($14) for entering the country. This is also where you can pick up your visas if you haven’t already done so. I recommend then exchanging around $100 dollars into Munat so that you have some of the local currency. The tour guides will be able to take you to exchange currency at any point in the trip so there is no need to exchange all your money in one go.
After this you go to the immigration desk and give them all of your paperwork, this includes the LOI, tour itinerary and visa receipt. The guards, like many people in Turkmenistan, do not speak a lot of English but they will help you with pointing and gestures (if you know Russian it is a bonus as most people in the country can speak it as well as Turkmen). After getting through passport control, we had our bags scanned quickly and were waved through into arrivals where our driver was waiting for us.
Things to know once you are there
There are photos of the leader everywhere! I mean everywhere! From airplanes, to random places in the city, to hotel lobbies.
There are armed guards at all monuments and government buildings. They used to be a lot stricter about what you are allowed to photograph, but now for the most part as long as you aren’t taking photos of guards or government buildings it is ok. However this seems like it could depend on who’s on duty, as at the monument of neutrality one day they were ok with us taking photos as close as we wanted and another they didn’t want us to take photos at all.
They make it very clear if you shouldn’t be taking photos by clapping and making gestures to stop. As long as you stop they won’t do anything else, they didn’t even come over and make us delete the photos (I have read about them doing this in the past).
Things to remember
- I would recommend taking extra dollars for your trip as your credit/debit cards will not work there. Also Munat is a closed currency so it is only available within the country. But large hotels in Ashgabat do accept dollars for certain things.
- At all hotels in the capital charge a tourist fee of $2 per person per day which has to be paid in cash separate to your bill.
- Take extra passport size photos with you. If you are taking any internal flights your guide will need two pictures to book them for you once you are in the country (this is on top of any photos you’ve already given them).
- Dress code: there is not a specific dress code but because most people are dressed very traditionally, you may feel more comfortable dressing conservatively. It is best for men to avoid shorts and for women to cover their legs and shoulders. Also if you are visiting the village of Nokhur be aware that it is a more religious area.
- The top hotels in Ashgabat have good WiFi, however other hotels in other cities rarely have any. Also access to a lot of websites and Apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and even some email accounts is restricted.
- When driving outside of Ashgabat there are regular road blocks but most of the time your driver just needs to stop and is then waved straight through (apart from the one time we were stopped for our car not being clean enough).
This marble city is a photographers dream: the streets, monuments and attractions are spotless, empty and perfectly symmetrical. This means that you can take the impressive photo without any effort and enjoy the attractions in peace.
We walked around the city, visited all of the crazy monuments and went to the Russian bazaar, where we managed to pick up a traditional Turkmen hat! At night everything is lit up similar to Las Vegas, just without the crowds.
Read more about Ashgabat here: Ashgabat the most unusual capital city
Darvaza gas crater
Nicknamed the door to hell and the gates of hell, this has been my favourite travel experience ever (it’s going to hard to beat). We drove for about 4 hours from Ashgabat (seeing the water and mud crater on the way) and arrived around 18:00. This meant that we were able to see this wonder during the day and the night.
Read more about it here: Darvaza Crater (the gates to hell)
We took an hour long internal flight from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi, which the tour company organised for us. The plan was to camp at Yangykala canyon, unfortunately it had been raining so much that the road was damaged and we could only see it from a distance. Instead we spent the night in a hotel in the surreal town of Awaza by the Caspian sea.
The drive from Awaza to Nokhur took about 6 hours, this quaint village is in the mountains range at the border with Iran. Instead of a hotel the tour company had arranged a home stay with a local family. This was an interesting and unique experience, most of the floor space in their home was covered with beautiful Turkmen rugs.
During the home stay we enjoyed a delicious dinner and lovely breakfast, made from fresh locally grown produce. This was our favourite food out of all the meals that we had in Turkmenistan. Over dinner the guide explained the history of the village and its Zoroastrian heritage.
The family were very friendly and welcoming despite the language barrier. I would definitely recommend doing a home stay if you are given the chance.
Whilst in Nokhur we visited the fertility shrine Qyz Bibi. Muslim women make the pilgrimage from all over the country and tie pieces of cloth all around the small cave where the goddess to fertility resides.
We also visited the Nokhur cemetery which is the only one of its kind left in Asia, and now probably the world. Based around Zoroastrian traditions the tombstones are carved with indentations to represent the stairs to heaven. They are also topped with the horns of a mountain goat which is thought to ward off any evil spirits.
It is a truly powerful sight, with the different types and colours of the horns, the luscious greenery and flowers surrounding the graves, all located in the remote valleys of the mountains.
Day 1– We arrived at 02:00 in the morning after a 4 hour flight from Istanbul. We went straight to Yyldyz hotel and slept. After a late breakfast we were picked up at 14:00 to drive to Darvaza crater, we arrived at 18:00 and camped overnight.
Day 2– We ate an early breakfast then left Darvaza at about 09:00, and went back to Yyldyz where we asked for a car to take us around Ashgabat for 2 hours.
Day 3– We were picked up at 07:00 for our flight at 09:30. The flight was only an hour and when we landed in Turkmenbashi we drove for 3 hours to Yangykala canyon and then another 3 hours to Awaza where we stayed in a hotel over night.
Day 4– We left Awaza at 11:00 and drove for 6 hours to Nokhur where we stayed overnight for a homestay.
Day 5– We left at 08:00 and looked at Nokhur cemetery and the shrine for Qyz Bibi. On the way back to Ashgabat we stopped to see the Saparmurat Hajji Mosque and Ruhy mosque. Then we went to the Russian bazar, monument of independence and the arch of neutrality before being dropped back to the hotel at 15:00. We walked around Ashgabat until 21:00, then we returned to pack and relax before we were picked up for our flight at 00:00.
Visited: the end of April 2019