Turkmenistan Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Nestled in the heart of Central Asia, Turkmenistan offers a captivating blend of ancient history, rich cultural heritage, and unique natural wonders. This off-the-beaten-path destination boasts architectural marvels such as the white-marbled city of Ashgabat, a testament to the country’s modern ambitions. Travelers can explore the ancient Silk Road cities of Merv and Kunya-Urgench, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, immersing themselves in the echoes of a bygone era. The surreal landscapes of the Karakum Desert and the mystical Darvaza Gas Crater, known as the “Door to Hell,” add an adventurous touch to Turkmenistan’s allure. With a proud and hospitable population, Turkmenistan welcomes intrepid travelers to uncover its well-preserved secrets and experience the convergence of history and modernity.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Turkmenistan for tourism largely depends on the type of experience you are seeking, as the country experiences diverse climatic conditions throughout the year. Here are two main periods to consider:

  1. Spring (April to June):
    • Spring is generally considered one of the best times to visit Turkmenistan. During this period, temperatures are moderate, and the landscapes are adorned with blooming flowers. Spring offers pleasant weather for exploring historical sites, such as Ashgabat, Merv, and Kunya-Urgench, without the extreme heat of summer.
  2. Autumn (September to November):
    • Similar to spring, autumn provides favorable weather conditions for travelers. The temperatures are comfortable, and the landscapes retain their beauty. This season is ideal for exploring Turkmenistan’s cultural and historical attractions, as well as its natural wonders.

It’s important to note that Turkmenistan experiences extreme temperatures during the summer months, especially in July and August, with daytime temperatures often exceeding 40°C (104°F). Traveling during the summer can be challenging, particularly in the desert regions.

During the winter months (December to February), temperatures can drop significantly, especially in the northern parts of the country. While the desert areas remain relatively mild, winter is not the most popular time for tourism.

Before planning your trip, consider the specific activities you want to engage in and the regions you plan to visit. Be aware of any special events or festivals that may be taking place, as these can add cultural richness to your experience. Always check current travel advisories and local conditions before finalizing your travel plans.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Turkmenistan as a tourist can be facilitated by a combination of transportation options. Here are the primary means of transportation for tourists in Turkmenistan:

  1. Domestic Flights:
    • Domestic flights are available between major cities in Turkmenistan. The country has a well-connected network of airports, and flying is a convenient option for covering long distances quickly.
  2. Intercity Buses:
    • Intercity buses operate between major cities and towns. While the bus network is available, schedules may vary, and it’s advisable to check in advance. Buses are a budget-friendly option, offering a glimpse of local life.
  3. Taxi Services:
    • Taxis are a common mode of transportation within cities. Negotiate the fare with the driver before starting your journey. Taxis can be hired for short distances or for a full day of sightseeing.
  4. Private Cars and Drivers:
    • Hiring a private car with a driver is a comfortable and flexible way to explore Turkmenistan, especially if you plan to visit remote areas. Many travel agencies can arrange private transportation.
  5. Rental Cars:
    • Rental cars are available in major cities and can provide flexibility in exploring specific regions. However, driving conditions and road signage may be challenging for those unfamiliar with the local environment.
  6. Cycling:
    • In cities and towns, cycling can be a practical and enjoyable way to explore. Keep in mind the weather conditions, especially during the hotter months.
  7. Walking:
    • Many tourist attractions within cities are within walking distance. Walking allows you to immerse yourself in the local environment and discover hidden gems.
  8. Train Services:
    • Turkmenistan has a limited but expanding railway network. Trains connect major cities, providing an alternative to flying or long-distance buses.

When planning your transportation, consider the distances you need to cover, the time of year, and your preferred level of comfort. Additionally, it’s advisable to check the availability of transportation options in advance, especially if you plan to travel to more remote areas. Turkmenistan’s transportation infrastructure is developing, and the country is investing in improving connectivity for both domestic and international travelers.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen. Here are some basic Turkmen phrases that may be helpful for tourists:

  1. Greetings:
    • Hello – Salam
    • Good morning – Ýöne sabahyňyz ýagdayy
    • Good afternoon – Ýöne öňmüş
    • Good evening – Ýöne sag boluň
  2. Basic Expressions:
    • Yes – Howa
    • No – Ýok
    • Please – Üçin
    • Thank you – Rähmet
    • You’re welcome – Hoş geldiňiz
  3. Common Courtesies:
    • Excuse me – Uzak düşüniş et
    • I’m sorry – Özüňi uzak düşünýärin
    • Excuse me (getting attention) – Çäýineňiňiže alnyp beryäňiz
  4. Numbers:
    • One – Bir
    • Two – Iki
    • Three – Üç
    • Four – Dort
    • Five – Bäş
  5. Directions:
    • Where is…? – …nädip ýerleşýär?
    • Right – Saý
    • Left – Çep
    • Straight ahead – Dürli
  6. Common Phrases:
    • How are you? – Nädipçe? or Ýagdaýynyzy näme?
    • What is your name? – Siziň adyňyz näme?
    • My name is… – Mena adym…
    • I don’t understand – Men sizniňiňiňi bäşe çäkýärin
    • Can you help me? – Meni size kömek edärsiňizmi?
  7. Emergencies:
    • Help! – Kömek!
    • I need a doctor – Meni doktor körmäge ýol beriň
    • Where is the hospital? – Howpital nädaýar?
  8. Weather:
    • How’s the weather today? – Bugün hawa näme?
    • It’s sunny – Gün hawa
    • It’s raining – Ygyly ýagýar
  9. Time:
    • What time is it? – Şu wagt näme?
    • It’s… o’clock – … sagat
  10. Food and Drink:
    • Water – Suw
    • Food – Ýeýim
    • Delicious – Goşgowaý

Learning a few basic Turkmen phrases can enhance your travel experience and help you connect with the local people. While English may be understood in some tourist areas, making an effort to use the local language is often appreciated.

Where to Stay? 🏨

In Turkmenistan, accommodations for tourists are available in major cities and towns. Here are some suggestions on where to stay in Turkmenistan:

  1. Ashgabat:
    • As the capital city, Ashgabat offers a range of hotels catering to different budgets. From luxury options with modern amenities to more affordable choices, there are various accommodations to suit different preferences.
  2. Mary:
    • Mary is known for its historical significance and proximity to ancient Silk Road sites like Merv. The city has hotels and guesthouses where tourists can stay while exploring the historical and cultural attractions.
  3. Turkmenabat:
    • Turkmenabat, located in the eastern part of the country, is another city with accommodation options. It serves as a gateway to the Amu Darya River and the surrounding regions.
  4. Dashoguz:
    • Dashoguz, in the north, is known for its historical sites like Kunya-Urgench. Accommodations in Dashoguz cater to tourists exploring the northern regions of Turkmenistan.
  5. Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk):
    • Situated on the Caspian Sea coast, Turkmenbashi offers hotels with sea views. It is a gateway to the Avaza National Tourist Zone and the natural attractions along the Caspian coastline.
  6. Avaza National Tourist Zone:
    • Avaza, located on the Caspian Sea, is a purpose-built tourist zone with resort facilities. It offers a range of accommodations, including hotels and resorts, making it an ideal destination for beachfront stays.

It’s important to note that Turkmenistan may not have the same abundance of accommodation options as more popular tourist destinations. It’s advisable to book accommodations in advance, especially during peak travel seasons or when attending special events. Additionally, consider checking online travel platforms and contacting local tourism offices for the latest information on available accommodations and any special offers.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Turkmenistan offers a variety of traditional dishes that showcase the country’s culinary heritage, influenced by Central Asian and Middle Eastern flavors. Here are some must-try foods in Turkmenistan for tourists:

  1. Plov (Pilaf):
    • Plov is a staple in Turkmen cuisine and is made with rice, meat (often lamb or beef), and vegetables. The dish is seasoned with various spices, creating a flavorful and aromatic rice dish.
  2. Manti:
    • Manti are dumplings filled with minced meat, often lamb or beef, and seasoned with spices. They are typically steamed and served with yogurt or a garlic sauce.
  3. Shashlik:
    • Shashlik is a popular grilled meat dish, usually made with marinated lamb or beef skewers. It’s commonly served with flatbread and vegetables.
  4. Lagman:
    • Lagman is a noodle soup with vegetables and meat, often lamb or beef. The noodles are handmade and add a unique texture to the dish.
  5. Churek (Bread):
    • Churek is a type of Turkmen bread, usually round and decorated with patterns. It’s a common accompaniment to meals and is often served with tea.
  6. Gözleme:
    • Gözleme is a thin flatbread filled with various ingredients such as meat, spinach, or pumpkin. It’s cooked on a griddle and makes for a delicious snack.
  7. Samsa:
    • Samsa is a pastry filled with minced meat, onions, and spices. The pastry is typically baked until golden brown, resulting in a savory and flavorful snack.
  8. Köwurma (Dried Meat):
    • Köwurma is dried meat, usually beef or lamb, that is preserved by drying. It’s a traditional method of preserving meat for consumption during the winter months.
  9. Shorpa:
    • Shorpa is a hearty meat and vegetable soup. It often includes lamb or beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions, seasoned with herbs and spices.
  10. Yaprak:
    • Yaprak consists of grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, minced meat, and spices. The stuffed grape leaves are then cooked until tender.
  11. Chal (Yogurt):
    • Chal is a traditional Turkmen yogurt, often served as a side dish or used in sauces. It adds a refreshing element to many Turkmen meals.
  12. Halwa:
    • Halwa is a sweet confection made from sugar, flour, and butter. It’s often flavored with nuts or seeds and is enjoyed as a dessert or sweet treat.

While exploring Turkmenistan, take the opportunity to try these traditional dishes in local eateries, teahouses, or markets. The flavors and culinary traditions provide a unique and authentic taste of Turkmen cuisine.

What to See? 🔍

Turkmenistan boasts a rich history and diverse landscapes, offering tourists a unique blend of ancient Silk Road sites, modern architecture, and natural wonders. Here are some must-see places for tourists in Turkmenistan:

  1. Ashgabat:
    • Explore the capital city, Ashgabat, known for its impressive white-marbled architecture, including government buildings, mosques, and monuments. The Independence Monument and the Turkmenistan Tower are notable landmarks.
  2. Ancient Merv (Mary):
    • Visit the ancient city of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Merv was a major center on the Silk Road and features well-preserved archaeological remains, including the Gyz Gala, Erk Kala, and Sultan Kala.
  3. Kunya-Urgench:
    • Discover the historical city of Kunya-Urgench, another UNESCO-listed site. Highlights include the mausoleums of Turabek-Khanym, Sultan Tekesh, and Najm al-Din al-Kubra, showcasing the city’s rich architectural heritage.
  4. Darvaza Gas Crater (Door to Hell):
    • Witness the otherworldly sight of the Darvaza Gas Crater, often referred to as the “Door to Hell.” The large flaming crater in the Karakum Desert is a surreal natural phenomenon caused by a natural gas field.
  5. Avaza National Tourist Zone:
    • Relax in the Avaza National Tourist Zone, located on the Caspian Sea coast. It offers sandy beaches, resorts, and recreational activities along the picturesque coastline.
  6. Nisa Archaeological Site:
    • Visit the ancient Parthian city of Nisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Explore the archaeological remains, including the Royal Palace and the fortress walls, providing insights into Turkmenistan’s historical significance.
  7. Dashoguz and Konye-Urgench:
    • Explore Dashoguz and the nearby city of Konye-Urgench, home to historical landmarks such as the Mausoleum of Il-Arslan, the Kutlug Timur Minaret, and the Tekesh Mausoleum.
  8. Yangykala Canyon:
    • Marvel at the breathtaking landscapes of the Yangykala Canyon, characterized by colorful cliffs and unique rock formations. The canyon offers stunning views, especially during sunrise and sunset.
  9. Hazar Nature Reserve:
    • Discover the Hazar Nature Reserve, a protected area known for its diverse flora and fauna. Birdwatchers can spot various species in this natural habitat.
  10. Dehistan Archaeological Site:
    • Explore the Dehistan Archaeological Site, an ancient settlement with archaeological remnants that provide insights into the region’s history and cultural evolution.
  11. Balkanabat and Yangisuw Oasis:
    • Visit Balkanabat and explore the nearby Yangisuw Oasis, known for its picturesque landscapes and traditional Turkmen yurts.

Turkmenistan’s attractions showcase the country’s rich cultural heritage and its position as a crossroads of ancient civilizations. When traveling in Turkmenistan, it’s advisable to check local conditions, travel restrictions, and any special permits required for certain areas. Additionally, guided tours and local guides can enhance your experience by providing historical and cultural context to the sites you visit.

What to Do? 📸

In Turkmenistan, a country with a rich cultural heritage and diverse landscapes, there are several must-do activities that offer a unique and immersive experience for tourists. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Explore the Ancient Silk Road Sites:
    • Immerse yourself in the history of the Silk Road by exploring ancient cities like Merv and Kunya-Urgench. Marvel at the well-preserved archaeological remains, including mosques, mausoleums, and fortresses.
  2. Visit Ashgabat’s Modern Architecture:
    • Wander through Ashgabat, the capital, and admire the modern architecture adorned with white marble. Don’t miss the Independence Monument, Neutrality Arch, and the Turkmenistan Tower.
  3. Witness the Darvaza Gas Crater:
    • Experience the surreal sight of the Darvaza Gas Crater, often called the “Door to Hell.” Visit the flaming crater in the Karakum Desert, especially at night, for a mesmerizing and unique natural phenomenon.
  4. Relax at the Avaza National Tourist Zone:
    • Enjoy leisure time at the Avaza National Tourist Zone on the Caspian Sea coast. Take advantage of the sandy beaches, resorts, and recreational activities along the picturesque coastline.
  5. Discover Nisa Archaeological Site:
    • Explore the Nisa Archaeological Site and witness the remains of an ancient Parthian city. Discover the Royal Palace and fortress walls, offering insights into Turkmenistan’s historical significance.
  6. Experience Turkmen Hospitality:
    • Embrace the hospitality of the Turkmen people by interacting with locals, trying traditional foods, and attending cultural events or celebrations if possible.
  7. Visit the Yangykala Canyon:
    • Take a trip to the Yangykala Canyon and be captivated by the breathtaking landscapes, colorful cliffs, and unique rock formations. Consider camping under the stars for an unforgettable experience.
  8. Attend Local Bazaars and Markets:
    • Visit local bazaars and markets to experience the vibrant atmosphere, interact with sellers, and explore the variety of products and crafts available.
  9. Explore Natural Reserves and Oases:
    • Discover the natural beauty of Turkmenistan by exploring places like the Hazar Nature Reserve, known for its diverse flora and fauna, and the Yangisuw Oasis for picturesque landscapes.
  10. Take a Desert Excursion:
    • Arrange a desert excursion to experience the vastness of the Karakum Desert. Consider camel trekking or a guided tour to explore the desert’s unique features.
  11. Attend Turkmen Cultural Performances:
    • Seek out cultural performances, traditional music, and dance shows to gain a deeper understanding of Turkmenistan’s cultural heritage.
  12. Participate in Local Festivals:
    • If your visit coincides with local festivals or events, seize the opportunity to participate and witness traditional customs, music, and celebrations.

Remember to respect local customs and traditions, and be open to engaging with the local community. Turkmenistan’s charm lies not only in its historical and natural attractions but also in the warmth and friendliness of its people.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture in Turkmenistan:

  1. Respect for Tradition:
    • Turkmenistan has a deeply rooted cultural heritage, and locals take pride in their traditions. Show respect for customs, including greetings, hospitality, and rituals.
  2. Hospitality:
    • Hospitality is a core value in Turkmen culture. If invited to someone’s home, it’s customary to bring a small gift as a token of appreciation.
  3. Modesty in Dress:
    • Dress modestly, especially when visiting religious sites or rural areas. It’s respectful to cover shoulders and knees, and women may prefer to wear longer skirts or pants.
  4. Photography Etiquette:
    • Always ask for permission before taking photos of people, particularly in rural or less touristy areas. Some locals may prefer not to be photographed.
  5. Respect for Elders:
    • Show respect for elders, and be attentive to social hierarchies. It’s common to greet older individuals first in a group setting.
  6. Language:
    • While Russian may be understood in some areas, especially in Ashgabat, learning a few basic Turkmen phrases can go a long way in fostering positive interactions.
  7. Conservative Values:
    • Turkmenistan is a conservative country. Avoid public displays of affection, and be mindful of cultural sensitivities.

Safety in Turkmenistan:

  1. Political Stability:
    • Turkmenistan is generally a stable country, but it’s essential to stay informed about local and international developments. Follow any travel advisories issued by your government.
  2. Travel Permits:
    • Some areas, especially near borders and sensitive sites, may require special permits for access. Check and obtain necessary permits in advance.
  3. Health Precautions:
    • Ensure vaccinations are up-to-date before traveling. Carry any necessary medications, and be cautious about food and water hygiene to prevent illness.
  4. Transportation Safety:
    • Use reputable transportation services. While roads are improving, exercise caution, especially in rural areas. Follow safety guidelines if traveling in the desert or remote regions.
  5. Currency Exchange:
    • Use official currency exchange services, and be cautious when carrying large amounts of cash. Credit cards may not be widely accepted outside major cities.
  6. Respect Local Laws:
    • Familiarize yourself with local laws and regulations. Be aware of restrictions on photography, and avoid engaging in activities that may be deemed disrespectful or illegal.
  7. Border Crossings:
    • Be aware of the regulations regarding border crossings. Check visa requirements and ensure you have the necessary documentation for your entire journey.
  8. Emergency Services:
    • Know the emergency contact numbers in Turkmenistan and the location of the nearest medical facilities. Medical services may be limited, especially in more remote areas.
  9. Cultural Sensitivity:
    • Be mindful of cultural nuances and avoid sensitive topics in conversations. Maintain a respectful and open-minded attitude toward local customs and practices.
  10. Environmental Awareness:
    • Respect the environment, especially in natural areas. Dispose of waste responsibly and be conscious of the delicate ecosystems.

While Turkmenistan is generally safe for travelers, it’s crucial to stay informed, exercise common sense, and be respectful of local customs. Engaging with the local community and embracing Turkmenistan’s unique culture can lead to a rewarding travel experience.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Turkmenistan stands as a destination that beckons the intrepid traveler with a rich tapestry of history, awe-inspiring architecture, and natural wonders. From the gleaming modernity of Ashgabat to the ancient Silk Road cities, the country unfolds as a living testament to its vibrant past. Turkmenistan’s unique landscapes, including the enigmatic Darvaza Gas Crater, promise adventure and discovery. As visitors traverse its diverse terrain, they find themselves immersed in a culture of warmth and hospitality, where the echoes of ancient civilizations resonate. For those seeking a journey beyond the ordinary, Turkmenistan awaits, offering a blend of the old and the new in a captivating Central Asian mosaic.