Traveler: Oh Desert Oddity, let me explore you without restrictions! Turkmenistan: No! You shall pass hurriedly, or pay your dues to my horrid dictatorship. Ha ha ha!
Such is the situation today. If you want to visit Turkmenistan and experience its treasure trove of historical, geological, botanical, archaeological and spiritual sites, you will have to pay dearly for it. Some places are even completely off limits, depending on the mood of the border guard. We have separated transit itineraries from tour itineraries. This is what we think is interesting for most travelers in Turkmenistan.
You have a few options here. From Iran to Uzbekistan, you have to make the choice to go Ashgabat – Darwaza – Konye-Urgench – Khiva, or Ashgabat – Mary – Turkmenabat – Bukhara.
You can also head west towards the Caspian to take the boat, or hop across the border into Western Kazakhstan. We marked the places you could visit along the way on the map.
If you are a cyclist intent on cycling the whole thing, you will have to skip Ashgabat and just rush to try and make it.
Turkmenistan has some amazing landscapes. In the west, the ancient Tethys Sea has carved craggy, capricious shapes into the desert floor in an array of beautiful colours, with mud volcanoes bubbling in salt plains. The Karakum desert is bleak, but at the same time teeming with life, if you know where to look for it. Head straight in.
The center hosts the famous Gates of Hell, and you would be surprised to learn families live here in this inhospitable environment. Ask your tour company to make sure you get to stay at some desert communities; they are very welcoming, and have a lifestyle different of anyone else in the region.
In the far east of Turkmenistan lies the Kugitang reserve, home (amongst many other things) of dinosaur footprints and sulphur springs. The mountain ranges on the border with Iran and Afghanistan are home to lush fertile landscapes like in Badkyz national park and the Sumbar valley. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on Ashgabat, an idiosyncratic urban landscape that knows no equal in the modern world.
History and archaeology itinerary
We tried to go a bit beyond the usual listings on this itinerary. There is much more to see than you would initially think. Turkmenistan has an important place in the history of the many Persianid empires of the past 3 millennia, and unlike Uzbekistan, the mind really gets the opportunity here to delve into those histories, as nothing is rebuilt. At most, things got a bit restored.
Highlights are marked with a star. This is not an exhaustive map, but it’s quite complete. Some markers are located approximately.