Turkmenistan, the North Korea of Central Asia, has a government as inhospitable as its deserts. Famously known for weirdness, from the marble capital of Ashgabat to the empty resorts at Awaza, travel in Turkmenistan is always both fun and ridiculous.
Desperately repressive and corrupt, the regime is no fan of photo-snapping tourists. Nevertheless, you can get in, and see what Turkmenistan has to offer. To really discover the country, you need to take time and a decent 4WD, which makes Turkmenistan an expensive destination.
But this way you can really experience the beauty of the country: feel super-welcome in remote desert villages, head into the remote green mountains, and discover the remote ruins of ancient civilizations. The nature of Turkmenistan is more interesting than what you would expect from a desert country, and there are more ancient historical sights than in the other formerly nomadic countries of Central Asia.
Central Turkmenistan Tourism
Framed by the Kopet Dag mountains, Ashgabat is the capital of Ahal, the reigning tribe, and thus the capital of the country. Bathing in marble and gold, it is a city like no other on Earth. Turkmenbashi’s personality cult has subsided, but lots of weird things remain from his time in office, like the many palaces of Ashgabat, the empty fantasy-world of Berzengi (including the Altyn Asyr shopping centre with the biggest fountain in the world) and a series of mosques and monuments coated in gold. Perhaps surprisingly: there are also some interesting museums (besides the obviously dull ones).
Bring some money to Tolkuchka bazaar, it is one of the most interesting bazaars on the Silk Road. If you are getting bored, try the theme park or the cable cart. Ashgabat will also be the easiest place from where to arrange horse riding on an Akhal-Teke horse.
Just outside of Ashgabat, there is the ancient Parthian capital Nissa. Don’t miss the Gipjak mosque on your way out, and pass by Geok-Depe to experience the full glory of Turkmenbashi. Naturewise, Badkyz is a visual tonic and home to the largest pistachio forest in the world, as well as mountain sheep, wild asses and leopards.
If you can, travel into the Karakum desert desert to get a slice of rural Turkmen life, and to see Turkmenistan’s most famous sight, the Darwaza gas crater.
West Turkmenistan Travel
Some really interesting destinations are to be found in this part of Turkmenistan. Travel from Ashgabat, and your first stop will be the underground lake of Kow Ata. Further west, the remote village of Nohur is populated by an unusual brand of Turkmens, and can be used as the gateway to some spectacular mountainous back country, with waterfalls and spiritualist sites.
Balkanabat has little to offer, but is perhaps a necessary stopping point on the way to Yangikala canyon and Dekhistan. With a real sense of adventure and the correct permits, you can explore the natural parks here: at Hazar Dag, Gasan-Kuli and Kaplankyr, you can find everything from bird and seal watching to desert hiking and mud volcanoes.
Turkmenbashi is a rather pleasant port town from where you can take the ferry to Baku, and hosts empty tourist development at Awaza. Dashoguz is the gateway to the historical site of Konye-Urgench, and to Khiva in Uzbekistan.
East Turkmenistan Tourism
Merv, once the biggest city in the world, is now an abandoned ruins, awe-inspiring in size. Gonur-Depe is an archeological site of great importance that even predates Merv. Further east is the Kugitang reserve, with rare hoofed animals and dinosaur prints.