The strangest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics is also the hardest to get into. Visas are a downright nightmare, and if you want to travel the country extensively you need to go on an expensive guided tour. However, it is possible to get a transit visa for the country, which gives you five days to travel through it, or if you are very lucky a full week.
So why bother? For one, to see how far a personality cult can go. The golden statues of the former President for Life, Turkmenbashi (aka Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov), are an eye-opener. Ever wanted to see one that revolves with the sun? Turkmenistan is your place. A statue of a book? Again, this is the country to see it. But there is more to Turkmenistan than just golden statues, Tolkuchka (aka Altyn Asyr) bazaar in Ashgabat is a worthwhile destination in its own right. Carpets? This is the country to buy one, forget about Persian rugs, this is the birthplace of the world famous Bukhara rugs. For a little history, go to the ruins of the old Silk Road Oasis of Merv, or visit Konye-Urgench in the north. And if you want to see The Door to Hell, visit the burning gas crater near Derweze in the Karakum Desert.
Turkmens are a proud and slightly wary people, though not unfriendly. The country is basically a dictatorship, though the current president it slightly better than the former (it would have been hard to be worse).
The official language is Turkmen, which is a Turkic language. Russian is also widely understood and spoken. English is nearly non-existent.
Highlights from Turkmenistan
Hints and Tips for Turkmenistan
- Visas are hard to obtain. Anything other than a transit visa means going on a guided tour, an expensive proposition. Independent travel is only possible with a transit visa, which gives you a maximum of 5-7 days. Even getting a transit visa isn’t easy and many a traveller has left frustrated and empty handed. The least you will need is to prove you can enter the next country, so if you are using Turkmenistan as a transit to, for instance, Uzbekistan, you will have to show your Uzbek visa. You might or might not have to obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI). And even if you have got everything in order, be prepared for failure!
- If you are staying longer than 3 days you will have to register with the Migration Service.
- Do not talk politics, and do not criticize the regime, it can land you in serious trouble.
- Be cautious when taking photographs of certain buildings. If you are not sure, ask!
- Corrupt police can be a problem, beware of this.
- Finally, don’t be too paranoid about all of this. On the whole if you don’t do anything stupid, you will find that the people are friendly and hospitable and will invite you in for a tea or provide help you if you are lost.