This weekend we virtually traveled to Turkmenistan!
While several Central Asian countries have opened up to tourism in recent years, Turkmenistan still remains one of the least visited countries of all the stans — mostly because it is quite difficult and expensive to visit as a tourist. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries of Asia and is largely covered by the Karakum desert. In recent years, it has gained traction for medical tourism.
Ashgabat is the capital city, and interestingly, holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of white marble-clad buildings in the world — 543 buildings lined with white marble covering a total area of 4.5 million square meters! Given that it’s one of the richest countries in the region (thanks to having the fourth-largest natural gas reserve on earth) this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Why marble? It keeps the interiors cool in hot weather, and Turkmenistan can get pretty hot!
After Tuvalu and Liechtenstein, we decided to curate an itinerary for 36 hours in Turkmenistan — should we (or you) ever get to visit this mysterious land. We turned to YouTube videos, Instagram posts, Twitter posts, TripAdvisor reviews and travel blogs for information and inspiration.
36 Hours in Turkmenistan
9.00 AM: Independence Monument
Kickstart the day by visiting the Independence Monument of Turkmenistan. Many cities around the world have one, but this is one of the more extravagant ones, sitting amidst a landscaped park and numerous pools and fountains. It is surrounded by 27 statues of Turkman heroes, while the main tower is adorned in gold.
10.00 AM: Visit a Mosque of a Different Kind
Visit the Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque (also known as the Gypjak Mosque) which was constructed in 2004 for a whopping $1 Billion by Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president of Turkmenistan. It is unlike any other mosque, as it not only has inscriptions from the Quran, but also the Ruhnama, Niyazov’s own spiritual guide to life.
12.00 PM: Visit a Goat-Horned Cemetery
Visit the Nokhur Cemetery to see a unique practice common in Central Asia. Each grave in the cemetery is marked by a wooden post and adorned with the horns of a mountain goat, which are considered to fight off evil spirits and ensure a safe passage to heaven. Although visitors are not allowed inside the cemetery, it’s worth witnessing from a distance!
1.00 PM: Doner Lunch
Grab some traditional Turkish doner kebabs at MB Doner — great for a quick, cheap meal before heading to the next destination!
1.30 PM: Travel Back in Time
Post lunch, head to the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 18 km southwest of Ashgabat, it is one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire. If you’re a history buff, this is not to be missed!
4.00 PM Swim in a Cavern
Next, proceed to the Köw Ata Underground Lake, which is an hour and a half away, and also known as the best swimming spot and thermal spa of Turkmenistan — 200 feet underground!
What makes it even more unique (and might put-off a few swimmers) is that it’s also the largest known colony of bats in the whole of Central Asia.
8.00 PM: Get Married at (Or Just Visit) the Wedding Palace
As out-of-the-ordinary as this country’s architecture is, the Wedding Palace, with a disco ball globe on top, is where most locals get married. It also doubles as a tourist attraction with its strange architecture and lights at night. Head there before dinner and sink it all in.
9.00 PM: Hamburger Dinner
Why not eat something different after a long day of exploration? Head to one of Turkmenistan’s top-rated restaurants- Ammar Cafe and enjoy a Central Asian hamburger.
7.00 AM: Visit the Gate of Hell
The Darvaza Gas Crater, more popularly known as Door to Hell or Gate of Hell, is located in the north of Ashgabat, catch the 7 AM bus (costs 20 Manat) or shared taxi (costs 150 Manat) to Dashoguz. It is approx. 270 km away and is likely to take 3–3.5 hours to get there.
It is a natural gas field that collapsed into a cavern. Geologists intentionally set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. It is believed to be burning continuously since 1971. It is arguably one of the most remarkable natural sites in Turkmenistan and is not to be missed!
You can also take a camel or camping tour.
1.00 PM: Lunch
Grab a quick bite at the bus stop, before making your way back to Ashgabat.
5.00 PM: Sip on Camel’s Milk
Skip your evening tea or coffee and instead try Camel’s milk! It might be an acquired taste but worth experiencing once for sure.
If you’re not in the mood for experimentation, head to Solo Cafe.
6.00 PM: Ride a Giant Wheel
Take a ride on the Giant Ferris Wheel at the Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center. The Ferris wheel, known as ‘Alem’, meaning ‘The Universe’, was recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel!
7.00 PM: BBQ Supper
Enjoy your last supper at Altyn Cynar known for its Turkish food, particularly the barbecued meat and vegetables.
Finally, we leave you with some interesting stats: less than 1% of Turkmenistan’s residents have internet access and almost 90% of citizens are employed by the Government. It’s thus not surprising that the country is infamous for corruption and has some strange laws thanks to its political history. Famous travel blogger, Drew Binsky, even compares it to North Korea.
How to get there
Several airlines fly to Ashgabat including Turkish Airlines and Emirates.
When to go
The best time to visit Turkmenistan is between March and June or between October and December when the weather is mild and pleasant.
Citizens of all countries require a visa to visit Turkmenistan unless they are from certain parts of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. To obtain a tourist visa for Turkmenistan, all foreign nationals need to submit an invitation letter issued by a travel agency licensed in Turkmenistan.
Additionally, a special permit issued prior to arrival by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is required to visit the following places: Atamurat, Cheleken, Dashoguz, Serakhs, and Serhetabat.
Manat is the official currency of Turkmenistan.
Turkmen is the official language of Turkmenistan, although Russian is still widely spoken in some parts of the country.
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