Ashgabat is a very strange city in a very strange country. Turkmenistan has a repressive, authoritarian government and it ranks third from last in the press freedom index (North Korea being the last).
Satellite dishes have been banned and there is practically no internet in the country to try and stop the people having access to free and independent news. Under former president Saparmurat Niyazov (or Turkmenbashi, leader of the Turkmen as he renamed himself) things were even worse…
Some of the things he banned include lip-syncing, dogs (because of ‘their unpleasant odour’), beards and long hair on men, pool, smoking (after he had to give up on health grounds, so did the entire country), opera, ballet and circuses and gold teeth.
Geographically the country sits in Central Asia on the old Silk Road. Iran lies a few kilometres to the South. Uzbekistan to the north, and Afghanistan to the East. The Caspian Sea and its vast oil and natural gas deposits lie to the West. The endless Karakum Desert covers almost 90% of the country.
Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan is sandwiched between the Karakum Desert to the north and the Kopet Dag mountains separating it from Iran 20km to the south. This temple to marble has to be seen to be believed.
Empty, spotless streets, vast soviet-style apartment blocks and golden monuments to Turkmenbashi abound. There is even a giant mechanized version of his book, the Ruhnama, situated in the city that opens at certain times of the day. The architecture is very modern due to an earthquake in 1948 that all but wiped it from the map and the city glistens in white under a scorching desert sun.
Arriving in Turkmenbashi Port
And so it was that I found myself in this strange country one hot April evening. I had arrived with a friend on the Bagtyyar, a cargo vessel that crosses the Caspian Sea from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, a small port town named after the former president.
After a long and gruelling time getting through customs and border security, we were eventually driven to our hotel in the Tourist Zone; a vast an empty expanse of grand hotels, but very few tourists (I think we were the only ones).
Our hotel, the Seyrana, was palatial. White marble, huge ceilings, crystal chandeliers and a huge twin room with flatsceen TV (no foreign channels), balcony overlooking the Caspian and the odd bug (the listening type, not the crawling ones).
The bathroom was as impressive as one would expect, but as soon as I ran the taps I was horrified at the bright orange water gushing forth. The next morning I awoke to expletive–laden shouts coming from the bathroom as my friend was blasted with orange water in the shower, which needless to say I found highly amusing.
After a few hours’ sleep we went down to breakfast in the large dining hall. A buffet counter lined one of the walls, but was empty of food. An elderly waitress came and asked if we were ready to eat and went off to prepare our breakfast.
The meal was sumptuous. Eggs, cheese, bread and cucumber, all washed down with piping hot coffee, but it was unnerving being the only two people in such a grand hotel. It had the vague air of Fawlty Towers about it, but with a menacing undercurrent.
Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat
After breakfast we were picked up by our driver and began the six hour journey to the country’s capital, Ashgabat. We first stopped at the bazaar to change money as the driver would get a better rate on the black market than in the banks.
As soon as we left the coast with the sun casting its glare across the calm waters, the land changed into arid desert. Camels ambled by the roadside and nothing but sand and scrub could be seen for miles in any direction.
We had a guide with us who gave us a commentary on all the places we passed and we listened with interest as he pointed out the area where his tribe came from.
As we got nearer to the capital, the Kopet Dag Mountains started to rise up to the South and these form the natural land barrier between Turkmenistan and Iran. I was idly taking pictures out the window of a strange wire fence running along one of the ridges and then clicked that it was the actual border and quickly pulled my camera in.
Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque, Ashgabat
Before going to our hotel we stopped in Gypjak, a suburb of Ashgabat, to have a look at the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque. A massive monolith of marble and gold trim with minarets stretching to the heavens, splendid in the afternoon sun.
This mosque has caused a lot of controversy as built into the walls are scriptures from not only the Koran, but the Ruhnama too, Niyazov’s little green book. This especially angered the Saudi’s who see it as sacrilege that the Ruhnama is placed with equal weight as the Koran.
Our guide informed us that the capacity is for 20,000 people. It was truly staggering. Inside carpets lined the floor and the central dome towered above us. A handful of worshipers were praying at the front, bent down in prostration and subservience to their imaginary friend in the sky.
The city of Ashgabat
It was a short ride to our hotel on the top of a hill overlooking the city and mountains. The Bagt Koshgi Hotel is a strange edifice indeed. A huge globe is trapped within a three dimensional eight pointed star and underneath is the hotel, another monstrosity of marble.
Turkmenistan is the number one importer of European marble in the world, and you can certainly see why – the city is made of nothing else. All the old soviet tower blocks are being or have been pulled down and replaced with ornate temples to the new order of things.
Inside the hotel, female workers dressed in traditional clothing busied themselves behind the reception desk and a man in a suit was sitting casually observing us from a nearby sofa. The women looked stylish in their brightly coloured dress, with piercing brown eyes and long dark hair.
We left our passports with reception and noted another man in a suit loitering in the lobby, looking on in interest. We had seen the same in the hotel in Turkmenbashi and wondered quietly if they were secret policeman keeping tabs on the strange looking foreigners.
The room was as grand as the Seyrana if a little smaller, though at least the water in the bathroom was not orange this time. We decided against hitting the town as we were tired from all the travelling over the last few days and opted instead to share a bottle of vodka in the room to toast reaching Turkmenistan, arguably the most important destination on our trip.
A Tour of Ashgabat
The next day we rose early and tucked into another good breakfast of eggs, ham, bread and coffee. We were due to hit the road at 3pm for our journey across the desert to Darvaza and the Door to Hell but before that we needed to register our presence in the country and drop our passports off at the tourist agency in downtown Ashgabat. This would be combined with a brief sightseeing tour of the city.
We were picked up at 10:00am and taken to the National Museum. We decided against paying the ten dollar entrance fee and had a wander around the grounds. Next, we went to the Owadan Tourism office to hand in our passports and then continued our drive through the city.
There were scarcely any cars on the road or people about. No mothers with pushchairs, or people taking a stroll on this sunny morning. No workers save for policeman and street cleaners with their strange bright blue robes; faces obscured by a headdress to shield against the strong sun.
We certainly didn’t see any other tourists about, not even at the main sites which was truly bizarre. I’ve never seen such an empty city, let alone a capital. What was also strange was the lack of shops. All you could see was white marble buildings and no other obvious signs of habitation.
We drove on to Independence Park, 2km of monuments and dictator kitsch in the centre of Ashgabat. Again, empty save for the cleaners and soldiers guarding the place. We had to be very careful about where we could take photos. All the usual places a tourist would want to photograph are strictly off limits and Turkmenistan is not the sort of place where you want to break the rules.
We would constantly check with our driver if it was okay to photograph this or that. As long as we avoided soldiers, the police and all government buildings we were told we would be okay. The problem is the city mostly consists of government buildings, soldiers and police.
The park was pleasant enough. Spotlessly clean and a few trees and shrubs were dotted around the gold and marble monuments and ornamental fountains. Statues of proud Turkmen stood defiantly clutching weapons, the gold glinting strongly in the sunlight.
We made our way to the other side of the park and were greeted by a giant statue of the Ruhnama, Niyazov’s lengthy tome to the nation that is required reading in all schools. A mixture of folk poems, moral guidance and autobiography, it was first released in 2001 and reissued again in 2004.
Memorial Park, Ashgabat
We then moved on to the memorial park dedicated to the victims of the 1948 earthquake that raised the city to the ground. The park was very similar to those found in ex-soviet cities, with square –jawed soldiers peering out from large walls in the soviet-realist style.
An enormous bullock stood atop a monolith with a golden baby clutching a globe, and an eternal flame burned, flanked by two rigid soldiers. I asked one of them if it was okay to take photographs and he tersely nodded in agreement.
By now the sun was high in the sky and I could feel my skin start to burn. It must have been 35c and we decided to escape the sun and head back to the hotel, which we could see perched on the hilltop across a small valley. It was now lunchtime and we needed to pack and be ready by 3pm for our desert adventure at Darvaza.
Read more about Turkmenistan
You can read more about Turkmenistan by clicking on the below links to my other blog posts:
Caspian Crossing – Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan by container ship.
Yerbent Desert Village – A small village in the middle of the vast Karakum Desert.
Darvaza and the Door to Hell – One of the craziest sites on earth.
Konye Urgench – Ancient Silk Road City
By far the best way to see Turkmenistan is through an independent tour, which I would never normally recommend. It takes out a lot of the hassle but still leaves you with a lot of the freedom associated with independent travel. Young Pioneer Tours offer a great selection of packages for ‘people who don’t really don’t like tours’. Check out their Turkmenistan page here for more information.
Citizens of almost every country require a valid VISA to enter Turkmenistan. Apply in your home country as applying on the road is not recommended. If you apply for a tourist VISA you must first obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which can only be applied for by state aligned tourist agencies. We used Owadan Tourism but other companies include Young Pioneer Tours and Indy Guide.
To make a stronger case for your VISA approval, it is worth providing information on the route you are travelling. If you are exploring the region and can provide details of onward travel it will help your case. If you are simply visiting Turkmenistan on its own as a tourist destination the chances of obtaining a VISA are slim.
Combine your trip with other places on the Silk Road. Once the LOI has been approved (takes around two weeks) getting your VISA is just a formality. Take the LOI to your Turkmenistan embassy along with completed application form (download here), passport and fee (we paid around 60 pounds in London). Our VISAs took 10 working days, but there is also an express three day service for double the price.
Entry Tax: An entry tax of $14 per person is payable upon entering Turkmenistan.
Getting to Turkmenistan
Air: Flights to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport depart from a limited number of European airports including Frankfurt, Istanbul, London and Moscow and the airport has links to other central Asian cities such as Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumqi in China.
Land: There are border crossings with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. You will need to take a taxi, bus or Marshrutka to the border, walk across and do the same the other side.
Sea: There is a crossing from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in the west of Turkmenistan. There are no passenger ferries but it is possible to take one of the cargo vessels plying this route.
Think carefully before opting for this as delays are frequent and it could mean your VISA runs out before you even get to Turkmenistan. We had two extra days built into our tour to cover such delays, but it’s not been unheard of that a vessel could be waiting to dock for up to six days.
In the end our boat was only delayed by half a day and we were more or less on schedule. Our ticket for a seat in the passenger lounge cost $50 (cabin $90). There are no services on board so make sure you stock up with enough food and water to last the duration and possible delays. Aside from the uncertainties, this is by far the most rewarding way to arrive in (or leave) Turkmenistan.