About Tourism in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan tourism is growing and this unique country is a fantastic destination for adventurous travellers and “dark tourists”! In this article, we will look at the best places to visit in Turkmenistan and its unique tourist attractions!
Turkmenistan isn’t what you would consider a typical tourist destination, in no small part thanks to the country’s tightly controlled borders and paranoid government. However, for a little effort, the country will reward you with one of the most unique travel experiences you can have!
A Note about Turkmenistan Tourism in 2021
As of June 2021, Turkmenistan’s land and Caspian Sea borders remain firmly closed due to the ongoing world health crisis.
According to the UK Foreign Office:
“All international scheduled commercial flights to and from Turkmenistan have been suspended.”
At present, entry to Turkmenistan is prohibited except for Turkmen nationals and accredited diplomats, permanently registered foreigners and some employees of international companies and organisations.
This page will be updated as soon as things change.
Does Turkmenistan even want Tourists?
Turkmenistan is not reliant on tourism for income thanks to its vast wealth from the Caspian oil fields and the sector remains very much in its infancy. As this report shows, the government seems unconcerned with increasing tourist visitors to the country. This means if you are looking for a unique destination that few others visit, Turkmenistan should definitely be at the top of your list!
Turkmenistan’s Strange Laws
President Saparmurat Niyazov (1940 – 2006), also known as Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen, ruled the country from 1985 until his death in 2006.
To say Niyazov was a little unorthodox in his ways would be something of an understatement! Like Ghaddafi, he penned his own “little green book” which was required reading in schools and by all government officials.
This book is called the Ruhnama and is a mixture of folklore, tyrannical musings and dodgy poetry. There is a large sculpture/statue of the Ruhnama in Ashgabat which opens at certain times of the day!
Niyazov/Turkmenbashi was famous for instituting some very strange laws. Here are a few of the things he made illegal in Turkmenistan:
- Long hair on men
And it gets stranger still… Did you know that Niyazov renamed the months and days after himself and renamed bread with his mother’s name!
Smoking in Turkmenistan
Since Niyazov was ordered to stop smoking by his doctors, he reasoned that if he can’t smoke, neither should anyone else in the country.
Smoking is highly illegal across the entire country except for a few very specific places, such as outside restaurants and bars.
Smoking on the street is highly illegal and could land you in a Turkmen jail, so don’t spark up unless you are sure you are allowed!
Turkmenistan Tourism – 11 pm Curfew
There is a curfew in force across Turkmenistan from 11 pm every night. If you are caught out on the streets after this time you can face possible arrest and imprisonment.
If you arrive late at night, then this should not be an issue if you go direct to your accommodation (I arrived well after midnight thanks to delays with the Baku – Turkmenbashi ferry and customs emptying our bags).
Turkmenistan Tourism – Photography
Given the paranoid nature of Turkmenistan, you should be careful about when you have your camera out.
Do not photograph near government buildings, police or army checkpoints. The problem is, Ashgabat is mainly government buildings, police or army checkpoints! Always ask your guide (or the soldiers/police nearby) if taking photos is allowed.
Outside of the city things are a little more relaxed (well, because it is mostly desert), however you must still avoid pictures of any official buildings including railway stations and airports.
Bugs (Listening Devices)
It is more than likely that your hotel room will be bugged. Refrain from discussing anything political or critical of the country while in your hotel.
Places to Visit in Turkmenistan – Cities
Most of Turkmenistan (90% in fact) is covered by the sun-scorched Karakum Desert. There are however plenty of interesting places to visit in Turkmenistan such as the shiny capital Ashgabat, the Darvaza Gas Crater and much more!
Turkmenistan’s capital has to be seen to be believed. It is one of the most bizarre cities in the world thanks to its spotless and empty streets, white, marbled buildings and golden statues.
There is plenty to see in Ashgabat from Independence Square to the Ashgabat Museum, Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque and even a giant folding statue of Niyazov’s little green book, the Ruhnama.
Ashgabat was all but rebuilt after a devastating earthquake destroyed the city in 1948 killing 110,000 (including President Niyazov’s parents) and raising much of the capital to the ground.
From the city, you can see the Kopet Dag mountains which separate Turkmenistan from Iran less than twenty kilometres away.
The ancient Timurid settlement of Konye Urgench has been excellently preserved and is definitely one of the best places to visit in Turkmenistan. Here you will find the thousand-year-old Kutlug Timur Minaret that stretches a whopping 60 metres into the desert sky!
The ruins of Konye Urgench are a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and include the minaret, mosques, madrasas and mausoleums. The ancient city is one of the top Turkmenistan tourist attractions!
Turkmenistan’s fourth-largest city was (and still is) a Silk Road oasis within the Karakum Desert. It is famous for the nearby ancient ruins of Merv, the one-time largest city on earth!
The city had a population of over 1 million during the twelfth century and was an important Silk Road trading post. The city was founded in the 3rd Century BC and was ruled at one time by Alexander the Great.
Turkmenabad, formerly known as Turkmenabat, is Turkmenistan’s second-largest city after Ashgabat.
The city is an industrial sprawl with nothing of antiquity remaining. Unless you will be travelling to or from Uzbekistan via the Farab border, it’s not really worth seeing as a tourist destination.
That being said, one of the more interesting things to see is the pontoon bridge that crosses the Amu Darya (Oxus) River here (though don’t try and take any pictures as the bridge also encompasses an army checkpoint).
If Turkmenistan is the world’s emptiest capital, then Turkmenbashi must be the world’s emptiest coastal resort town. Unless you are arriving by boat from Azerbaijan, there is not much reason to come this far west.
The city is on the shores of the Caspian Sea with large, palatial hotels lining the beaches. There are theme parks and restaurants and shopping malls. There aren’t any people though! When I stayed the night in one of the grand hotels, my friend and I seemed to be the only guests. It was beyond spooky and the strangest hotel breakfast experience ever!
Yerbent is a small village in the middle of the Karakum Desert. There isn’t a lot here aside from a couple of buildings, rusting soviet jeeps, a few yurts and the local camel population. It makes for an interesting pit stop when travelling between Ashgabat and Darvaza.
Places to Visit in Turkmenistan – Tourist Attractions
Darvaza Gas Crater “The Door to Hell”
Probably the most famous Turkmenistan tourist attraction, the Darvaza Gas Crater is a large, fiery pit in the middle of the desert. In 1971 the soviets drilled for oil and instead came upon a natural gas field. They decided to burn the gas off, thinking it would extinguish itself soon after, but it has been burning strong ever since!
Most tours of the country include the Darvaza Gas Crater as a highlight, and this is definitely one of the best places to visit in Turkmenistan! It’s possible to camp on a ridge above the crater so you can take in the scene as the sun sets and watch it light up the night with a barbeque and vodka!
Kow Ata Underground Lake
Kow Ata is home to a mineral lake and hot springs around 90km from the capital Ashgabat. The lake is located 60 metres underground and is warm year-round. It is very popular with locals who come here to relax with a bbq and usually a few shots of vodka!
As well as a great place to relax, Kow Ata is also home to Central Asia’s largest bat population and is an impressive geological structure of itself. Definitely one of the more interesting things to do in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque
As you can probably tell by its name, this mosque was constructed for President Niyazov/Turkmenbashi, and as such caused a lot of controversies. Included within the walls are scriptures not only from the Koran but also from the Ruhnama, which greatly angered the Saudis!
The mosque, which is located in Gypjak on the outskirts of Ashgabat, is massive and can hold up to 10,000 people at any one time and was completed in 2004.
Ashgabat Cable Car
One of the best Turkmenistan tourist attractions is the Turkmenbashi Cableway, also known as the Ashgabat Cable Car. The cableway goes from the city up into the Kopet Dag Mountains to a height of 1,290 metres (4,200 feet) offering fantastic views of the city. One of the best things to do in Turkmenistan for sure!
National Museum of Turkmenistan
The national museum of Turkmenistan is located in the capital Ashgabat and contains three main displays; natural history, science, and of course, President Niyazov/Turkmenbashi!
The museum costs a whopping $30 for entry, so unless you have a burning desire to learn more about Niyazov, it’s not really worth the entrance fee.
Here you will find the gold statue of President Niyazov alongside warrior Turkmen, the independence monument and a series of landscaped gardens and fountains.
A giant, mechanised version of President Niyazov’s little green book located in the west of Independence Park, Ashgabat. Definitely one of the more interesting places to visit in Turkmenistan.
Kutlug Timur Mimaret
A 60m (197 foot) minaret located in the ancient settlement of Konye Urgench. The minaret was built in 1011AD under the Khorezm/Khwarazm empire.
Visas for Turkmenistan
Visas for Turkmenistan are notoriously difficult to get and applications are routinely refused with no obvious reason. When I went, the tour company applied for four visas, and only two were granted (my friend and I were the lucky ones).
Turkmenistan Transit Visa
The Turkmenistan Transit Visa is valid from 3 to 7 days (usually 5 is given) and you must enter and leave the country at different border crossings; you CANNOT return to where you came from. You don’t need a letter of invitation (LOI) for the transit visa.
• Completed application form
• Cover letter with a detailed route
• Passsport with 2 blank pages
• Copy of visa for onward destination
• One passport photo
You can download the application form and covering letter template here.
Turkmenistan Tourist Visa
Most visitors to Turkmenistan come on a tourist visa as the tour companies can issue a letter of invitation (LOI) and assist with the visa application process.
• Letter of Invitation (LOI)
• Completed application form
• Passport with 2 blank pages
• One passport photo
You can download the application form here.
Internet Censorship in Turkmenistan
Just like nearby Iran, China and others Turkmenistan has a very tightly controlled internet. If you wish to stay connected to social media and news sites then you will need a VPN before you travel.
ExpressVPN is one of the best for travellers to Turkmenistan (I used it there with no problems and could access banned sites such as Facebook, Google etc).
A VPN is not just useful for getting around restrictions, but also should be a must for any traveller to secure your connections while you are on the move.
How to get to Turkmenistan
There are three ways to reach Turkmenistan; by air, land and sea. Below we will outline each in more detail.
Turkmenistan by air: Turkmenistan’s primary international airport is located close to the city of Turkmenabat rather than the capital, Ashgabat. There aren’t a lot of airlines flying to the country, with flights coming predominantly from Russia.
Turkmenistan by boat: there is a weekly ferry/cargo service from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in the west of the country. You can read all about how to make this trip in the Caspian Sea Ferry article.
Turkmenistan by land: There are border crossings with Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan. The border crossing between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan has been closed since June 2018.
Getting Around Turkmenistan
The best way to get around Turkmenistan is to take a tour (one of the only ways tourists can actually visit the country). Most tour companies provide a 4X4 as Turkmenistan’s roads are pretty bad and the country is 90% desert.
For those crossing the country on a transit visa, marshrutkas (taxi vans with a fixed route) and buses are the main way to get around outside of the cities.
Once you leave Turkmenistan’s main cities you will find military checkpoints on all major roads. Drivers must slow down, make eye contact with officials who will indicate whether you can carry on or need to pull over.
Is Turkmenistan Safe to Visit?
As with other police states, Turkmenistan is very safe for tourists and violent crime towards foreigners is almost unheard of. Falling foul of the country’s strange laws and corruption are some of the biggest dangers, along with the state of the roads and the harsh desert climate.
Do not criticize the current or former president or Turkmenistan’s political system. Avoid discussing politics altogether in public and in your hotel room which is probably bugged.
As with elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, it’s best to try and avoid interactions with the authorities as much as possible lest you be seen as an easy target for bribery.
Turkmenistan is a strange place indeed, but that makes it even more of an interesting destination for intrepid travellers. Given the country’s relative lack of tourists, it means you are likely to have most of the Turkmenistan tourist attractions all to yourself.
Looking for more of the Silk Road? Check out our guides below:
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.