Guide to Turkmenistan – The Last Frontier of the Ancient Silk Road

Laura Pattara

Enigmatic Turkmenistan is the last stone unturned along the ancient Silk Road – a country that is as mysterious as ever. Read on to discover more about this truly fascinating corner of Central Asia.

Bizarre, eccentric and surreal: these are the most common adjectives used to describe Turkmenistan, the least explored country in Central Asia. It may be 20 years since the Iron Wall crumbled and the nation gained its independence but it certainly doesn’t feel like that when you visit. This still-enigmatic Stan, one the receives merely a few thousand visitors a year, feels like it exists in a world all of its own and that makes it the most enticing in the region for adventure-seekers. I don’t mean thrill-seekers looking to cross sky-reaching mountains on foot or rock-climb without a rope, I mean adventurous travellers looking for a totally ‘out there travel experience’.

In this regard, Turkmenistan is unrivalled. This is truly one of the most incomparable countries on earth.

Darvaza Gas Carter, Tukmenistan
Darvaza Gas Carter, Tukmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A Quick Overview – Why the Mystery?

While it’s true that the Stans have been ‘open’ to tourists for 20 years, it’s only been in the last few that they’ve knocked at the door of mainstream tourism. Joanna Lumley’s latest documentary, Silk Road Adventures, has helped dispel a lot of myths about this region, namely that it isn’t just a barren desert dotted with a few yurts and a couple of archaeological ruins. These mystical nations, in fact, hide a cache of incredible ancient treasures, startling wilderness and some of the most unaffected ethnic groups left on earth. The cities are sophisticated and modern, the deserts are spellbinding and the mountains and lakes sensationally beautiful.

The White Marble City of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The White Marble City of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Yet it’s no coincidence that Turkmenistan didn’t feature in Lumley’s documentary – this Stan still remains way off the tourist-trail. The main reason for this is that Turkmenistan doesn’t need any outside trade – the country depends almost entirely on a colossal gas and oil field that keeps it well fed and happy – and isn’t particularly keen on developing a foreign tourist trade it doesn’t need. Rated one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Turkmenistan trades primarily within its region and has maintained a very strict tourist visa regime that keeps most foreigners away. Curious explorers still come, of course, not deterred by the pesky regulations (on guided tours only) and the time restrictions (one week, max). This infamously out-of-reach nation is an enticing prospect for those who suffer from a serious case of wanderlust, for those who want to discover the country’s illustrious history – spanning thousands of years – and its most amazing highlights.

The mesmerizing Door to Hell and the grandiose marble capital of Ashgabat certainly add to the appeal but when it comes to Turkmenistan, this is just an entrée.

The monument of Independence in Asgabat, Turkmenistan.
The monument of Independence in Asgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Best Highlights of Turkmenistan

Have a week to explore this incredible country? Here are the highlights you shouldn’t miss.

Ashgabat – There really aren’t many cities on earth that can leave one speechless, but Ashgabat does, every single time. Arguably the most grandiose capital ever built, Ashgabat is famous for its astonishing white marble buildings, its colossal statues and gargantuan architecture, as well as its huge empty boulevards and totally eerie atmosphere. Often dubbed ‘the world’s strangest city’, Ashgabat is what happens when a government has immense wealth and wants to show it off – ultra-modern, impeccably kept and so white, it’s almost blinding. The Lonely Planet calls this a hybrid between Vegas and Pyongyang and they’re not all that wrong – Turkmenistan’s policies are not dissimilar to those of North Korea (so beware what you say) and the controlling nature of its government, coupled with its need to impress, is personified in its capital city. Ashgabat boasts a phenomenal number of highlights, including the largest (carpet, observation wheel, fountain and star mural) on earth. A wonderfully crazy introduction to the country and a most intriguing springboard for Turkmenistan explorations – you couldn’t miss this city even if you wanted to. You’ll need at least three days here to do it justice.

World's largest wheel, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
World’s largest wheel, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Darvaza Gas Crater – The Door to Hell is Turkmenistan’s most famous attraction, a collapsed gas crater that has been burning continuously since 1971, when scientists set it alight to ‘burn it off’. The crater is a mind-boggling site to say the least yet the road trip to reach it, across the Karakum Desert, is just as unmissable. This magical desert, one of the most arresting and least visited on earth, is home to a few remote villages that are really worth visiting and a night spent in a tent in the desert, to have the chance to see the crater glow after sunset, makes for an incredibly memorable experience.

Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan
Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Ancient Merv – A hot-spot of bustling trade for more than a thousand years, and one of the most important sites along the ancient Silk Road, Merv is a sight to behold. Before the Mongols arrived and brought its glory to an end, this UNESCO-listed desert-oasis was the richest city on earth and known as the ‘Queen of the World’. In the Middle Ages, Merv was home to an estimated one million people and the archaeological legacy left behind is stupefying. The oldest trade-stop along the Silk Road, Merv is an unmissable sight for history lovers.

Ancient Merv, Turkmenistan.
Ancient Merv, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Kow Ata Underground Lake – It’s fair to say that a hot thermal lake swim is about the last thing you’ll crave in Turkmenistan although when that lake is set 60 metres undergoing and home to the largest colony of bats in Central Asia, you may just want to swing by for a visit. Kow Ata is yet again a bizarre Turkmenistan highlight which attracts visitors due to sheer novelty-factor alone. It’s a popular destination for city-folks from Ashgabat who come here to splash and grab a shashlik (delectable skewered meat) from the stands outside. Just a tip – unless you want that sulphur smell to linger on you all day, bring a separate change of clothes and a bottle of water to rinse off after your swim.

Gokdepe Fortress & Mosque– The ancient fortress of Gokdepe  (or Geok Tepe) was the site of a brutal and bloody conflict with the Russian Imperial Army in 1880, an important historical event which is now commemorated by the beautiful Saparmurat Hajj Mosque. This picturesque white marbled wonder is topped with a sparkling turquoise dome and widely considered the most beautiful in the whole country. The on-site museum gives a fascinating insight into the battle and the history of the region and is a must for understanding the Turkmen relationship with their former Soviet rulers.

Saparmurat Hajj Mosque, Turkmenistan.
Saparmurat Hajj Mosque, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Kunya-Urgench – One of the most revered treasures of Islamic architecture and a prominent city along the old Silk Road, ancient Kunya-Urgench is a maze of minarets, mosque, monuments and mausoleums. Built between the 11th and 16th-century along the left banks of the Amu Daria River in north-western Turkmenistan, Kunya-Urgench was considered the heart and soul of Islam and is now one of the country’s best UNESCO-listed historical sites. A great local guide will bring this place and its amazing history to life, right before your eyes.

Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan.
Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The people – No travel guide to Turkmenistan could ever be complete without a mention of its people – some of the friendliest, warmest and most accommodating you’ll ever meet. The Turkmens are an ancient people of Turkic origin and although most live in Turkmenistan and make up almost 85% of the population there, large communities are found in neighbouring countries, including 200,000 in Afghanistan alone. Inherently curious about foreigners – because they really don’t see that many – the people of Turkmenistan are immensely friendly and hospitable – a trait that sets Central Asia, in general, apart from the rest of the world. The juxtaposition of experiencing such a welcoming people VS such a seemingly unwelcoming country is a surprising delight, even to the most seasoned of travellers.

Local wandering through the streets, Turkmenistan
Local wandering through the streets, Turkmenistan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Our Highlights of Turkmenistan Tour is a wonderful introduction to the country and its most unmissable sites. It’s a great add-on to a multi-country Stan adventure along the ancient Silk Road but is a rewarding and worthwhile adventure in its own right.

Although you may be tempted to simply learn all about Turkmenistan once you arrive, it’s advised you get a general perception of what the country is like before you even leave home. Everything about Turkmenistan is unique and unusual yet given the fact merely 7000 people visit each year, travel literature on the country is seriously lacking. To this end, we recommend the latest Lonely Planet ‘Central Asia’ guide (released June 2018) which doesn’t have a huge Turkmenistan section but offers a great up-to-date overview nonetheless.

Contact us here to know about travelling through Central Asia on private, tailor-made guided tours.


Author: Laura Pattara

“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”

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