Can you visit Turkmenistan as a tourist?
I wish I knew what I am about to tell you when I planned my visit to Turkmenistan back in Summer 2019. Turkmenistan remains one of the most reclusive regimes in the world today, however it has been gradually opening up tourists over the past few years.
When I planned my trip to Turkmenistan in 2019, I was primarily focused more on the “reclusive” status of the country rather than it’s incredible historical value. That was a BIG mistake. Rather than focus on the bragging rights of having visited such a reclusive country, I would really encourage anyone who considers travelling to Turkmenistan to take advantage of the opportunity to visit some of the most significant historical points along the ancient Silk Road.
Turkmenistan is very new to tourism, so you shouldn’t expect any of the slick tour operators or fancy gift shops that you’ll find elsewhere in the world. However, what Turkmenistan offers is predominantly unfettered access to a number of key, historical sites that made up the ancient Silk Road. The flip side is that they are not as well-preserved as those in say, Samarkand or Tashkent.
Where to visit.
So what is worth visiting in Turkmenistan and is it worth the hassle? To start with, the current capital of the country, Ashgabat is worth visiting just for it’s quirk value. Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for having the most number of white, marble buildings of any city in the world. It also is home to the world’s largest Indoor Ferris Wheel – another “interesting” claim to fame. In addition to the Ferris wheel, the country’s capital is home to a number of other iconic buildings and monuments including the Independence Monument, the Arch of Neutrality, the Wedding Palace and the Gypjak Mosque & Mausoleum.
Relatively close to Ashgabat are the ruins of the ancient city of Nisa. Nisa was the capital of the Parthian Empire, which ruled much of Central Asia around 300BC. To put things in perspective, the Parthian Empire was similar in scale to that of ancient Rome. The day I visited Nisa, I was the only person there apart from Lynn and Batyr of course –imagine that in Rome or Samarkand! The ruins themselves are not brilliantly preserved, but if you are slightly interested in history, then to stand there amongst the crumbling walls and imagine it in its heyday is worthwhile.
An absolute MUST SEE is the “Gates of Hell” aka the Darvaza Gas Crater which is a man-made phenomenon in the middle of the Karakum Desert – about 4 hours drive from Ashgabat. In 1971, Soviet Geologists out drilling for oil in the desert created this sinkhole from which they could smell gas escaping. They set the gas alight on the assumption that it would burn off in a couple of weeks – but that was 49 years ago and its still burning! You should plan to get there either just before sunrise or sunset to see the transition from darkness to light. You can see that in our video below - It is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced!
Another historical site from the ancient Silk Road is the city of Merv. During he 12th and 13th Centuries, Merv was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of around 500,000 people. Merv is about a 5 hour drive from Ashgabat and was a key strategic and economic town along the old Silk Road until it was completely sacked by the Mongol hordes. I made the mistake of NOT visiting Merv during my trip, however our good friend Andrew MacLeod visited and created this great video.
Planning your visit.
What I am about to tell you here, I had to learn the hard way. First of all, you will need to be accompanied at all times whilst in Turkmenistan. This is not as ominous as it sounds, but you can’t just simply jump in a cab from your hotel room and head downtown to a bar. You need to have planned your itinerary with a Government-approved travel agent before you even set foot in the country.
Again, don’t be put off by this – it is really nowhere near as restrictive as it sounds. To do this, simply send an email to Batyr Saparov (firstname.lastname@example.org) or give him a call on +99 364 608 537. He is great guy and will be very helpful for your planning. He is from Ashgabat but studied in Istanbul where he played varsity American Football. His English is great and he is extremely knowledgeable, flexible and proud to show you around is country.
In your itinerary you will need to cover arrival and departure flights, hotel preferences (there really is only the Yyldyz Hotel for foreigners), day trips and any dinners you would like to have while you’re there. Batyr will eventually book EVERYTHING for you including hotels, cars, drivers, restaurants, airport transfer. He will also be there to meet you at the airport, take you to your hotel, accompany you on all your trips and return you eventually to the airport to depart.
Once you have confirmed this itinerary, you can go ahead and book your flights to and from Ashgabat. We flew there on Lufthansa, but at the time of writing, I do not know if they still fly this sector. After your flights are confirmed, Batyr will apply for a Letter of Invitation (LOI) on your behalf. This takes a couple of weeks. Once you have the LOI, you can go ahead and apply for your visa from your closest Embassy of Turkmenistan. Apparently certain nationalities can also get a visa-on-arrival if they front with their LOI at immigration in Ashgabat. To be honest, I didn’t want any issues with my trip so I applied and received my visa before I left Switzerland.
Another interesting quirk with visiting Turkmenistan is that you need to pay for everything in CASH – USD to be specific. So make sure you take enough in with you, because there is no ability to get more once inside Turkmenistan. We took about USD $1,500 for 3 days / 3 nights which included $200 per night for the Yyldyz Hotel, 24/7 access to a car and driver, all tours, meals and everything – it was more than enough to cover everything and a decent tip.
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