History of Turkmenistan:
With ancient villages little changed since their inception around the time of Christ, some areas of Turkmenistan have existed in a time capsule. Others, founded and built by the armies of Alexander the Great, flourished until they were destroyed by Genghis Khan in a story you are likely to hear repeated in every major city in Central Asia. Seljuk Turks then conquered the area and ruled for some time until warlords and merchants controlled much of the area. The modern Turkmen are descendent from a nomadic people who settled the area in the wake of the Seljuk Turks. The Soviets conquered the whole of Turkmenistan, after several unsuccessful attempts, in 1919 when they took Ashgabat.
Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen fled the region for Iran and Afghanistan rather than live under the Soviets and abandon their nomadic roots. Those who remained engaged in ongoing guerrilla warfare with the Soviets, making settling the region difficult. The Soviets, however, pervaded and managed to populate the arid desert area with Soviets eager to change the Turkmen nomad grounds into cotton fields. The Soviets built the massive Karakum Canal to water the desert to grow the much needed cotton. Meanwhile, the Soviets managed to all but destroy Islam in the area by destroying all but 5 mosques in the country.
By 1985 the locals were participating in the communist regime and a local named Saparmurat Niyazov became General Secretary of the Communist Party. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Niyazov retained power as Turkmenistan declared its independence. Following in true Soviet style, Niyazov changed his name to Turkmenbashi, leader of the Turkmen, and had gold statues and monuments of himself erected across the country. His dictatorship took a bizarre turn as he renamed the days of the week after his family members and renamed many large cities in his name. His death in 2006 paved the way for democratic changes, but his dentist rose to power in his place and has since followed in his predecessor’s footsteps.
Culture in Turkmenistan:
Carpets from Turkmenistan are renowned for their designs and craftsmanship, and treasured worldwide. Take time to learn the differences between the regional carpets and to familiarize yourself with the many tribe’s intricate and telling patterns.
Silk weaving is particularly well done in Turkmenistan, and you can find women weaving silk in their living rooms on intricate looms across the country. Thin strips of bold-colored silk fringed in bright trip are popular for making the traditional dress still worn by the majority of locals, even in the major cities.
Turkmen music and dance are similar to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, though the dress is somewhat more common today in Turkmenistan than in the other two countries.
Transportation in Turkmenistan:
Transportation around the country is cheap by western standards, but afford little luxury. Trains run daily to every major city for around $4 USD a ticket while airfare is subsidized at the affordable rate of about $20 a seat nationwide. The ferry to Bake runs when full, but does in fact still run if you have the time to wait. The most active border crossing is northeast with Uzbekistan near Bukhara, and guards here commonly see tourists.
Ashgabat’s bus system is efficient and clean at a cost of about $0.11 a ride. You can travel anywhere in the city, and indeed outside the city, by bus if you are patient. There is not bus route map or schedule, you will have to ask locals which bus will take you to your destination.
Cabs in the cities are cheap at about $2 a ride inner-city or about $20 a ride nationwide. Bargain as much as possible to ensure prices stay fair for yourself and those who travel after you.
Money in Turkmenistan:
2.8 Minat = 1 USD
Like Uzbekistan, the USD is all-popular in Turkmenistan. You will be hard-pressed to exchange any other currency. Confusingly, the Minat is undergoing a transition from the old Minat to the New Minat, the former being phased out as soon as possible in favor of the later. Learn the current conversion before entering the country, at today’s exchange 5000 old Minat equal 1 New Minat. 2.8 New Minat to the US dollar.
Food in Turkmenistan:
Plov (rice, meat and veggies) is popular in Turkmenistan, as in the rest of Central Asia. You can also find kebabs, donars and langman, though the spicing differs here. Manty (steamed mutton dumplings) with sour cream are also popular. Corek (bread) is considered holy and not to be wasted while the sour milk is common as a breakfast substitute. Salads are more than an appetizer, and constitute an important part of every locally produced meal. Especially flavorful are the cucumber and tomato salads.
For some reason, Pizza has permeated Turkmen food culture, and you can find Pizza in any major restaurant, though the definition of the word varies and you may get corn on your Pizza. French fries and hamburgers are also fairly common, though often made of mutton or a beef-mutton mix.
Interaction with residents: Full
Luckily, your stay in Turkmenistan will involve interaction with local Turkmen, who are as friendly as their renown reputation attests. Hospitality is a specialty here, and you will not be disappointed. Though many Turkmen speak Russian, very few speak English or other languages. You may want to brush up on your Russian before visiting, or you can tackle the very throaty Turkmen language, which sounds like a form of controlled gargling. Because the Turkmen are so friendly, you will have little of the problems encountered in other Central Asian countries concerning money. Agreements are honored as a point of pride here, and negotiating is less common than in any other Central Asian country.
Suggestions for Traveling in Turkmenistan:
Turkmenistan is a lovely place to visit and live, however it is remarkably hot. Do not underestimate the danger of the heat and the desert. Do not wander off into the desert even for a brief walk as getting turned around is likely and the city is full of stories of visitors dehydrating and worse in the deserts. If you travel outside of any major city by land bring enough water to last several days. Roads are horrible, at best, and damage to your mode of transportation likely.
Turkmenistan is a police state. You will see officers on every street corner watching you. Hotels, cafes and even buses are bugged. Keep this in mind when talking about anything sensitive. Be kind and courteous to the security forces you encounter and you will find they are likely to be friendly in return. Don’t push you luck, don’t take pictures of government buildings or of the police.
Many people report food poisoning, this is most likely because food safety standards are not what Westerners are accustomed to. Bring a healthy supply of anti-diarrhea medication, drink water plentifully and stay out of direct sunlight.
Recommendation level: 10
This may be one of the highest recommendations we’ve given. As strange as it is exotic and welcoming, Turkmenistan is a country that is truly impossible to describe in due justice. The people were remarkably friendly, the culture is beautiful, vibrant and lively and the scenery is as harsh and uninviting as the moon. The dichotomy between the capital, Ashgabat, and fringe towns like Nohur is drastic. From marble palaces to adobe huts, there is very honestly something to see and experience every day. Though gaining access to the country is difficult, it is worth it and we recommend Turkmenistan as highly as possible.
Visas for Turkmenistan:
Visas are hard to come by; the best you can hope for with a letter of invitation is several days for a transit visa or a max of six days with a travel visa. You may need to be a part of a tour, as many recently have claimed they were required to be. Borders close often and sometimes without explanation, so be prepared for long waits or delayed entries. Keep in mind that what lies inside the borders is well worth the wait and set yourself up for an adventure.
Routes Around Turkmenistan:
Though we were lucky to spend three months in Turkmenistan and saw a great deal, the map below shows only a general outline of our travels in this amazing country.