Turkmenistan is not well-known as a travel destination. So far, the main reasons for visiting have been the difficult visa process, the astounding marble capital of Ashgabat and the flaming gas crater known as the Door to Hell.
There are other sights to see, detailed below, but for me, much of Turkmenistan’s charm lies in meeting its people. I love them for their unassuming manner, their openness despite the intense scrutiny from the top. Turkmenistan is much more fun than you would imagine.
Like North Korea, the country’s political system is a reason to visit all on its own. It can be disturbing, but not always in the way you would expect. Talk to people, and make up your own mind.
Unrelated, I think their food is the best in Central Asia.
The modern developments of Ashgabat are stupefying. Their size and splendour must leave you speechless for a moment. Old Ashgabat on the other hand, is a surprisingly lively, leafy town of Soviet make. Nearby, visit the Parthian site of Nisa, and the blasphemous Kipchak mosque.
There is countryside too. Nokhur is a traditional village with homestays at the foot of the Kopet Dag mountains straddling the border with Iran.
Konye-Urgench is locally known as the Mecca of Turkmenistan. Its ancient architecture is thought-provoking. Turkmenistan’s particular brand of Sufism pervades every tree, well and ancient piece of brick in the country, but here its odor is particularly pungent.
Halfway between Ashgabat and Konye-Urgench lies the Door to Hell of Darwaza. Its blazing fireballs and unhealthy vapor are as awesome as they are epic. Casting irony aside, it is a unique sight and well worth visiting. If nothing else, a night in camp will give you a hint of the magic of the desert.
Those with more budget and a desire to see something truly different can get a custom tour into the heart of the Karakum desert. Meet the locals, and find yourself in a seldom-visited part of the world.
Turkmenistan has an important place in the history of the many Persianid empires of the past 3 millennia, and unlike in Uzbekistan, the mind really gets the opportunity here to delve into those histories, as few things are rebuilt. You can find relics all over the country, but Merv is the most important site (minor sites are listed in our history itinerary).
In the far east of Turkmenistan lies the Kugitang reserve, home of dinosaur footprints and sulfur springs.
The ancient Tethys Sea has carved capricious shapes into the desert floor in a rainbow of colours. Yangikala Canyon is breath-taking, but it’s a long drive. Adventurers with time and money can consult our landscapes itinerary to find pistachio forests, mud volcanoes, desert birds and an underground lake.
On the coast, Turkmenbashi is a somewhat cosmopolitan port town with a good bazaar and a resort town vibe. People come here for the Caspian Sea ferry, or to take the road north towards Kazakhstan’s Mangystau.
Avaza is a type of Ashgabat-on-Sea. It is still overpriced for foreigners, which is too bad, because it really is a nice place for a beach holiday. In summer it is packed with Turkmen families enjoying the sea air. Come out of season to enjoy that uniquely Turkmen zombie-takeover vibe.