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A post-Soviet totalitarian theme park built onto Turkmenistan’s ancient cultures and desert beauty

Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, is one of the weirdest places on the face of the earth, and that alone makes this trip outstanding. In addition, there are excellent natural wonders (primarily the spectacular Yangykala Canyons but also the oddball Darvaza Gas Crater) as well as decent big ticket heritage sites (especially Merv and to a lesser degree Konye Urgench), while the beautiful desert plains are scattered with the rarely seen ruins of numerous ancient settlements and monuments.

Above all, coming here allows a peep behind the iron curtain of one of the most isolated countries in the world. We can but try to understand how its friendly people, many of whom are living in poverty, are wrestling with their totalitarian regime’s bizarre excesses, paid for by oil and gas receipts and built on top of the hideous legacies of Soviet imperialism.

Turkmenistan is the least visited by far of the five Central Asian stans. Already remote and insular, some years issuing fewer than a thousand visas, most for trips lasting just three days, it used the Covid-19 pandemic as a chance to retreat further, opening its borders again only as recently as the spring of 2023. We encountered no more than twenty travellers in two weeks.

Getting into Turkmenistan is not straightforward: at least a month before you come, you need to submit to the Migration Service your proposed hour-by-hour itinerary along with an application form in order to generate a Letter Of Invitation; then, you get a Visa On Arrival at the airport or border; within twenty-four hours of entering the country, you must have your passport registered with the Ministry of Culture to receive a Travel Pass for permission to move around. Moreover, it is not actually allowed for foreigners to sort any of this paperwork ourselves; it is compulsory to employ an authorised travel agent, who must also serve as your guide, accompanying you throughout your journey.

Selecting the right guide and a suitable itinerary is crucial, but not easy. There are a dozen or more operators, including those offering multi-stan packages, and scores of one-man-bands. We went with a local outfit, Notoria, and dealt with Artem on You can choose from their list of scheduled group tours or, as we did, construct a private bespoke one of your own.

They are about half the price of the foreign-based firms, as they charge local rates, and they proved more than capable. We had two guides in relay – Serdar and Ishan – who were knowledgeable, and willing to go the extra mile to accommodate our desires to see and do loads of extra stuff. They were not at all invasive, often leaving us to do our own thing, especially in the evenings, when we went wherever we wanted by taxi. However, there are obviously limits on how far you can really get to grips with a place when you are not a totally free agent.

To help put together an itinerary, I recommend Turkmenistan by Simon Proudman, which gives comprehensive background information, though as it is from 2017 it obviously cannot reference the changes catalysed by both Covid and a new president. The mainstream guidebooks, however, offer little assistance. Take Lonely Planet’s current Guide to Central Asia from 2018, which has a footnote on page 377 that says: “Due to extenuating circumstances, our writer was not able to visit Turkmenistan. This chapter was updated remotely.” WTAF.

This article aims to put that right and give you a decent overview of what to expect based on contemporary personal experience and thereby better inform your negotiations with travel agencies when booking guides.

Turkmenistan is of course what Putin calls a “managed democracy” – a dictatorship – and we cannot forget that beyond the whimsical weirdness is a regime becoming more and more restrictive of basic human rights. Visitors are unlikely to be affected directly, though you will be aware that your guide has to call the Migration Service with updates every hour or so and whenever you arrive at or depart from any destination, and has to hand in a signed copy of your Ministry of Culture Travel Pass at every site.

We are told this procedure is becoming stricter, though contrary to our expectations it did not feel as claustrophobic as North Korea. In fact, the authorities seemed mostly to be monitoring our guides, rather than using them as a trusted instrument for controlling us. They felt like they were on our side, unlike in the DPRK.

Your own most tangible brush with this system of control is likely to be the clampdown on internet usage. They claim they need to prevent online freedom for security reasons – and it is true that the Taliban, for example, are neighbours – but the restrictions on common people are severe.

There is wifi in all hotels and I recommend you buy or borrow from your guide a local SIM card, which will get you 20gb of data per month for 200 manats, or just over US$10. However, VPN will not work, and you will be able to access only some email providers and a few Google services (including Maps and Translate, both of which are useful). You can also get a unique take on news and events in English from Turkman Portal and Turkmenistan Today.

I know of only two places with wifi and in-built VPN that allow access to WhatsApp, and they are in the Yyldyz Hotel and the Altyn café in the Gul Zemin mall in Ashgabat (though I am sure locals have their own secret methods of reaching the outside world).

The TV in the Yyldyz shows the BBC, CNN and other international news channels. In the rest of the country, we either found only local and Russian channels or could not make the sets work.

There is a double-pricing system in Turkmenistan that has caused confusion in some guidebooks. It is an expensive country only if you change your money at the official exchange rate of US$1 to 3 manat, for example at ATMs in Ashgabat or paying foreign travel agents. However, if you bring dollars in cash, you will use the black market, where $1 gets you 18 manat, causing Turkmenistan to be very cheap for foreigners. That should be no surprise for a country where the average local wage is as low as $300 a month. Cash is exchanged in restaurants, stores and other retail outlets whose proprietors need foreign currency to purchase goods from abroad.

In a decent provincial restaurant, a shashlik, salad and two beers costs about $2, and petrol is less than 10 cents a litre. All in, we spent under $2k each through our local travel agency, which covered our guides, all transport including 4×4 with A/C and internal flights, the best hotels at each stopover, plus breakfasts and endless supplies of water. On top of the visa and other immigration expenses, we spent an average of no more than $15 a day each on meals, snacks, drinks, entrance tickets and the $2 a day tourist tax paid in cash to hotels at check-out.

There is tangible nostalgia for the USSR among older people, many of whom do not even speak their own tongue because Russian was then compulsory. Turkmen has since revived among the under 40s, and is once again the official language, with 70% of its words similar to Turkish plus splashes of Arabic as well as Russian. It had been suppressed for so long that new terms had to be imagined for new inventions. For instance, there was no word for “elevator”, so after getting bored saying “a machine that transports people up and down”, one was created. Not many speak English, but your guide will help get you through. Sag bol.

The Soviets also outlawed religion, of course, and while some mosques have been built since 1991, I was surprised to learn Islam is not terribly widespread and Turkmenistan is not officially a Muslim country. We were here during Eid Al Adha, and while public offices were closed for the occasion, it was very light touch.

Incidentally, there are no signs of unrest, crime rates seem close to zero, and we felt safe and secure throughout. When we stopped at a café or a supermarket, we often abandoned the car with the doors unlocked and the engine running to keep the A/C on, with no expectation it would be disturbed while we were away.

Turkmenistan has an extreme climate with no spring or autumn of which to speak. In June it was early 40s°C during the day and late 20s°C at night, a breezy dry heat with dust in the air in both urban and desert areas. In July and August it often hits 50°C, so it is not advisable to come then. Climate change has been bringing colder winters, especially in the north, where it can reach well below freezing, though it is milder in the south, hovering around 5°C.

Turkmenistan is divided into five administrative provinces, each with their own logo displayed everywhere, including together in a red stripe on the green national flag. The provincial capitals are Anau in Ahal down south, Balkanbat in Balkan out west, Dashoguz up north, Mary out east, and Turkmenabat in Lebap in the far east.

This is a big country, roughly the same size as Spain, but it houses fewer than five million people. About 80% of it is in the Garagum Desert, mostly flat scrubby bush, where ancient nomads initially began settling to service the Silk Road traders that passed through. Garagum means “black sands”: black because it was criss-crossed at night in the dark to stay cool.

Despite inequitable distribution, Turkmenistan is classified by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income country. This status stems from its gas reserves, which are the fourth largest on the planet, so it is unexpectedly wealthy, especially since the USSR stopped sequestrating its revenues.

There are land border crossings for travellers to/from Uzbekistan in the north at Dashoguz-Nukus and the east at Turkmenabat-Bukhara. There are Caspian Sea ferries into Turkmenbashi from Baku in Azerbaijan, Aktau in Kazakhstan, and Astrakhan in Russia. Fly Dubai from the UAE and Turkish Airlines from Istanbul have several direct flights to Ashgabat each week, and Turkmenistan Airlines fly from more than a dozen locations in Asia and a handful in Europe. On arrival you have to have a cursory PCR test, then go to the cash desk to cover your visa and migration tax too. All in, that cost us $150 each.

For a comprehensive adventure, the route I recommend is in three separate parts, always starting in Ashgabat: driving west on the M37 to Turkmenbashi, north on the Dashoguz Highway, and east on the new toll road to Mary, using those cities as bases to explore. In each case you can fly back on a modern Turkmenistan Airways Boeing 737, or take a Turkmenistan Railways single-track overnight sleeper. You will be assigned a new guide on the next leg as the previous one drives back from the completed segment. Parenthetically, airports are where you are most likely to encounter the small middle class, denoted by women wearing trousers and men in jeans.

Throughout this review, I have tried to flag the most significant sites, including not just those on all the scheduled tours but some fun stops that our guides had not made since before Covid, and I have left out dozens of lesser things we saw. Place name spellings differ from different sources, and I have tried to stick to the Anglicised versions for ease of use.


The international airport, like many showpieces of Ashgabat, was opened in 2017 when the city hosted the Asian Games. Inside, the terminal is all art deco touched with green from the national flag; outside, it is shaped like a giant white falcon, the national bird. The main thing that strikes you, however, is that almost every vehicle in the car park is white, with just a few silvers and golds; all other colours were banned from the city a decade ago.

The first roundabout out of the airport, which is in the north, has a significant monument in its middle. Above the biggest fountain in Central Asia is a statue of Oguz Khan on horseback, guarded on the ground by his six sons. Oguz Khan united the twenty-four separate tribes of Turkmenistan in the third century AD, and is therefore considered the founder of the nation. He is also honoured on the front of the 100 manat note.

The city of today, with a population of half a million, can be understood only in the context of the tragic history of these lands, which have been repeatedly invaded and occupied since Alexander the Great, six hundred years before Oguz Khan. Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Uzbek Timurids, then Russian Tsarists and Communists have all ruled here.

Turkmenistan had its own fleeting moment of glory at the head of the Khorezm Empire, the largest imperial dynasty of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but that was conquered by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Apart from that, Turkmen have had to wait until 1991 to govern themselves.

Before Russia began taking Turkmen territory from 1868 onwards, Ashgabat, meaning “city of love”, was just a small town on the Trans-Caspian Railway. In 1881, it was formally made a city, serving as the headquarters of the Tsar’s regional army, from which it seized command of the whole country by 1895.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1924 the five stans of Central Asia were set up as separate Soviet republics. Turkmenistan, with Ashgabat appointed its capital, was the most southerly and probably the least important of the fifteen in the USSR, as it contributed economically more or less only cotton until gas reserves were exploited in the 1980s.

On the night of 6 October 1948, Ashgabat was flattened and two-thirds of its 300,000 population killed by an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter Scale. Stalin immediately ordered it to be rebuilt, and the low-rise Soviet buildings of this period are the oldest still standing. Like virtually every single modern apartment high-rise, they have white walls, many in marble or mock-marble, with rooves in flag-green. The lampposts, traffic lights and other street furniture are all also white.

Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but, as was the way of these things, the last head of the local Communist Party was the same man who became the first president of the new nation: Saparmyrat Niyazov. He ruled under the self-styled nickname Turmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen) and the slogan “Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi” (People, Nation, Me). He anointed himself president for life and devoted himself to a personality cult with idiosyncratic twists. He renamed the days of the week and the months of the year after his favourite family members, and erected more than 10,000 golden statues of himself all over the country. He proclaimed his rule an altyn asyr, or golden age; it was certainly a golden statue age anyway.

Turkmenbashi did indeed die in office, in 2006, to be succeeded by his personal dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Declaring himself Arkadag, the Protector, he paid Jennifer Lopez $1m to sing happy birthday to him at a party and he DJd at the national new year celebrations. He took down some of the Turkmenbashi statues, putting up a few of his own instead, naturally, and turbo-charged a programme of monument building in Ashgabat. Many of these structures feature the Rub el Hizb star symbol, an octagram created from two overlapping squares. Although it is used in some copies of the Qur’an to mark a division to facilitate recitation, it has become the national signature of Turkmenistan. Arkadag also introduced more severe restrictions on personal freedoms that continue to tighten today.

The president is technically head of state and head of government. However, in 2022 Arkadag nominally abdicated the presidency while immediately assuming the invented position of National Leader and chair of the People’s Council, which took over supreme political authority. As luck would have it, he was in any case succeeded as president by his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, who dutifully carries out his titular functions and no doubt enjoys having his gigantic portrait displayed outside many public buildings, notably in the powerless provinces.

Between them, Turkmenbashi and Arkadag have created a unique city packed with whimsical edifices on a vast scale that is simply eye-popping. The centre is where Turkmenbashi Street crosses Atabayena Street. Here is the golden domed Presidential Palace, his official office as his residence is in the mountains, as well as a number of imposing ministerial buildings. These include the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, which commands 25,000 police officers, and the Ministry of National Security, which runs the KNB intelligence agency, the rebranded KGB. Photos are unsurprisingly forbidden around here, but virtually nowhere else.

The main north-south artery is Andalyp Street, which takes you down to the new city, the epicentre of extravagance. Among the manicured grass and trees in enormous and gorgeous Independence Park are two Independence Monuments: the comparatively diminutive pyramid marked the five-year anniversary, and the eighth year was commemorated with the 118m-high tower, fronted inevitably by a massive golden statue of Turkmenbashi, along with replicas of poets, philosophers and, of course, warriors. The National Day annual public holiday is on 27 September.

Close by is the Ruhnama Monument, a gigantic recreation of Turkmenbashi’s epic tome, which translates roughly as “Book of the Soul”. It was published in two volumes, the first in 2001 and the second in 2004, with the aim of giving advice on spiritual matters while setting out the approved line on politics, history and so on. You can imagine. It was initially put in schools and public libraries, but it was not long before an exam about it was part of the driving test – !?!? – as well as the interview process for government jobs. Suffice it to say that it is available in English in all good bookshops and bazaars locally.

After independence, Turkmenistan secured in 1995 a unanimous vote at the United Nations for Resolution 50/80, endorsing its status as a neutral nation. Notwithstanding this, every Turkman has to do two years of national service on leaving full time education. The third anniversary of this UN vote was commemorated by the erection right next to the Presidential Palace of 75m-high Neutrality Monument, which was topped by a 12m-tall golden statue of Turkmenbashi rotating so he always faced the sun. However, in 2010, Arkadag relocated the Monument to the southern suburbs and Turkmenbashi suddenly stopped rotating, though the panoramic viewing platform inside remains open. Neutrality Day is celebrated with a public holiday on 12 December every year.

The white marble 185m slim Constitution Monument was built to honour the independent and neutral country’s framework of government. Construction began in 2008, the same year that the post-Soviet Turkmenbashi-shaped constitution was ripped up by the National Council, the legislative body controlled by Arkadag.

There have never been political parties, sovereign judiciary or free media in Turkmenistan, though the 2008 constitution did pay some lip service to some of the instruments of autonomous government.

The National Council was the rubber-stamp parliament with two houses: the upper chamber was the People’s Council, with representatives appointed by the president (not unlike the British House of Lords tbh), and the lower was the Mejlis or Assembly, with 125 members elected for five-year terms in single-seat constituencies in which rival candidates were banned. Since the start of 2023, Arkadag has run the reformed People’s Council, while the Mejlis, which has a formidable building at least, has withered altogether.

The Wheel Of Enlightenment, opened in 2012, is in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the largest enclosed Ferris wheel. But are there any others? It is used sufficiently infrequently that it had to be started just for us, when we learned first-hand that the casing blocks the view, which is surely the whole point of a Ferris wheel.

There are too many enormous sculptures in the middle of roundabouts of almost empty roads to count. Most sprang up for the Asian Games in 2017. Many of them are rocket-shaped, and some have additional gimmicks, such as this magnificent thermometer.

Other common roadside features are elaborately designed white marble bus stops, with A/C and TV included.

In the west of the White City is the Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex, in brown! This is in three sections spread across a single huge plaza. In the middle is a Memorial, the baky şöhrat, to local victims of the Second World War. Moscow, 3,500 kilometres away, directed more than 180,000 Turkmen, about 10% in the republic at that time, to fight on the European front in the Great Patriotic War between 1941 and 1945. Its five steel pillars, surrounding an eternal flame, are protected by a pair of soldiers. By chance, we were here for the goosestepping changing of the guard, when photos are strictly prohibited.

The Memorial to the victims of the 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat, the ruhy tagzym, is a depiction of a bronze bull tossing on its horns a marble globe, from which a woman and her golden child are escaping.

The Memorial to all Turkmen heroes of all wars, the milletiň ogullary, depicts a woman holding her arms up to the sky, under a vast arch.

Nearby, on a hill, is a sculpted park, with a tall flagpole but a tiny national banner at its top, offering great views over the south of the city. The dominant structure up here is Bagi Kosgi. Known as the Palace of Happiness, which is where people come to register their marriages and their divorces, either way apparently always leaving with a smile on their faces.

Most of what is left of the Soviet-period city is in the north of contemporary Ashgabat. Beside buildings with gorgeous Socialist-Realist carved murals depicting scenes from the earthquake, is the last statue of VI Lenin left in the whole country. All the rest were removed after 1991, and mostly replaced by those of Turkmenbashi. It is only just larger than Lenin’s real slight height of 1.65m, and it stands on a rather camp patterned plinth. Perhaps that is why this was reputed to be the main cottaging location of Ashgabat during Soviet days.

There is also a bust of Alexander Sergayevich Pushkin, quirkily small atop a high column. It was erected to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the great Moscow poet’s birth.

It is hard to overstate how significant it was for Turkmenistan’s ruling regime to host the Asian Games, and thereby receive the honour of an endorsement from the Olympic Council of Asia. They used it as an opportunity to invest $5 billion over seven years to recast parts of the city ready for the jamboree, stuffing it with resplendent buildings and monuments. The centrepiece was obviously what they call the Olympic Complex itself, with fifteen venues, including the 45,000-seater Olympic Stadium, overlooked by a massive sculpture of a horse’s head, all served by a dedicated monorail system.

The older and smaller National Stadium, built in 2011 with 20,000 seats, continues to host athletics events as well as football matches. We were lucky enough to be here when Turkmenistan were playing a World Cup qualifying game against Hong Kong. It was easy to get tickets from the box office at the venue on the day as it was half empty, though it was full behind the goals where fans dressed in full kit dutifully waved flags the entire match.

It is said that Turkmen have three national obsessions – horses, dogs and carpets – and as you would expect they are each venerated in Ashgabat in a big way.

Eating horse meat is common in neighbouring Central Asian countries, but here killing horses is illegal. Turkmenistan is renowned for its pure blood golden-coloured Akhal Tekke breed, which are to be found at the Hippodrome in the east of the city. All year round you can visit the stables, watch them dance with trainers, and even ride them. Between March and May there are also racing and show jumping events here.

Alabay shepherd dogs, AKA Turkmen Wolfhounds, are big (up to 120kg), pretty (beauty contests are popular) and powerful (they can take down wolves, and there is a vibrant underground dog-fighting scene). Alabay puppies are the gift of choice from the president to visiting dignitaries; almost every hardman dictator from Putin down has been given one. A titanic golden statue of an alabay was erected at the end of 2020, the most recent monument to go up in Ashgabat, the programme derailed by Covid. It is at the head of Svoboda or Freedom Street, which is lined by colossal post-Soviet white apartment blocks with colourful murals down the sides depicting the city’s major sites. On top of that, a dog day national holiday was introduced in 2021.

The National Carpet Museum (closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays) has such valuable treasures that it is permanently guarded by an armed soldier on the front door. Its most important display is right in the lobby. On one side is a rug from 1941 that at the time was the largest hand-woven carpet in the world; it was made to be the curtain of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, but it was returned as it was too heavy to hang. On the other is the largest in the world today, 301m2, made in 2001. Most of them are red, the traditional shade in all provinces, where the wool and silk was originally coloured by pomegranate juice. There is also a good shop in the Museum, which is a bit more expensive than the street stores but vastly cheaper than you would pay abroad. It also offers the peace of mind you are unlikely to be ripped off with a synthetic artefact. Wherever you buy a carpet, you will need to bring it to the Museum to purchase an Export License to get it out of the country.

Arabian conquerors brought Islam to Turkmenistan in the seventh century, though it was suppressed by the Soviet Union and appears comparatively unimportant to today’s despots. One large new Sunni mosque has been built in each of the provincial capitals, and there is a handful in Ashgabat. The pick of them is the Ertugrul Gazi, modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Non-believers are permitted to enter, and it is sufficiently relaxed that men and women use the same doorway and face the same rules of removing their shoes and covering their knees and shoulders but not their heads.

These are just the main sites – and I have not even mentioned the joys of the circus or the puppet theatre – but there are jaw-drop moments around almost every corner of this city that make you reach for your camera. None of these should be skipped and to see them all properly you need at least two or three days.

The place to stay is the five-star Yyldyz Hotel, the best in the country. It is in the west, and looks a bit like a cross between the Dubai Burj Al Arab and a massive avocado. The Garagum Hotel, in the north, shaped like sand dunes and at night projecting little camels walking across it, is soon to open, and it appears it too will not be understated luxury.

Food and drink are not as central to the national culture as in other Central Asian stans, possibly because every outlet is forced to close at 11pm in a de facto curfew that limits nightlife entertainment. The only bar I know that stays open later, until 2am, is at the top of the Yyldyz.

Good traditional restaurants include Altyn Jam and Josgun Palaw House (they do not, of course, have websites or Instagram sites). I passionately recommend the Berk Garden Pub, popular with foreign embassy workers, where they serve the best drinks (dark, unfiltered) as well as prime steaks, all off a menu unusually with English translations. Many restaurants and bars, where smoking inside is common, double as discos, with banging tunes turned up to eleven and people bopping around under a mirror ball and flashing lights while you eat. There are also lots of coffee shops with a contemporary culture instantly familiar to Westerners.

Far less common than among its neighbours, plov is still the national dish, though counter to stereotype healthy and delicious salads are widespread too. It is all washed down with düýe çaly (fermented camel milk), wheat beer (Berk and Zip are the major brands) and of course vodka (there are dozens of local versions, all in extravagantly designed bottles, but the market leader is Arassa).

The best upscale mall in the city is Berkarar, which has foreign stores from Mui Mui to Zara, though it is hard to tell which are real and which are dodgy. The supermarkets are well stocked and very cheap, and some even sell fake Rolex watches as well as copycat branded local goods such as Red Tut (Bull) energy drinks and Hemmesi XO brandy, all in near identical packaging to the originals.

Moving beyond the centre of Ashgabat, 20km north, is Choganly, home of the biggest bazaar in Central Asia. Tolkuchka, AKA Altyn Asyr, lacks the buzz and charm of a Middle Eastern souq, but it is certainly large, and larger still on Sundays when there are additional sections selling livestock and automobiles. The rest of the week you can buy all kinds of foodstuffs, including kebabs and shashliks for immediate sustenance, and domestic supplies ranging from homeware, made in China, to carpets, possibly also made in China, to yurts. They are very jumpy about photos here as they are at all malls and markets in Turkmenistan, oddly, but I sneaked this one of the central clocktower.

Kipchak, in the western suburbs, was the native village of Turkmenbashi. This is where he was born and raised, and where his mother and brothers lost their lives in the 1948 earthquake. The whole village was destroyed and there are still several mass graves of mounded land behind fences.

Turkmenbashi’s heritage explains why the largest mosque in the country, and indeed Central Asia, is here. Currently undergoing renovation, the Ruhy Mosque, capable of holding 10,000 worshipers, opened in 2004. Two years later a dome was added to the front right of the garden to serve as Turkmenbashi’s Mausoleum.

While we were in Kipchak, we were lucky enough to encounter an Islamic wedding party having their official photographs taken in front of a golden statue of the great man. They kindly invited us to crash in for pictures with the smartly dressed groom and his bride hidden behind a heavy veil. We never saw a burqa in the whole country, and most of the time women are in elegant floor length floral dresses in autumnal colours, while men wear traditional long robes and black sheepskin telpek hats or tracky-bottoms and T-shirts. An idiosyncrasy across the country is that less educated women tend to bite their scarves or dress tops as a sign of respect when they meet an older man, such as when I entered a rural shop, apparently showing they will not speak first.

To the south and west of Ashgabat, overlooking the city, are the Kopet Dag mountains. They are at the boundary of the Turan tectonic plate, where tiny earthquakes are common, and at the border with Iran, where there is an open land crossing.

In the southern foothills, a Cable Car is sadly rusting away. Before Covid it went to a 1,293m summit with, I assume, great views back over Ashgabat. A bit further along, there is a 211m-tall blue TV Tower that glories in its Guinness Book Of World Records status as the largest building in the shape of a star. It is also the tallest structure in Ashgabat. It used to offer a lookout too, but its platform for visitors has similarly been closed since the pandemic.

Old Nisa is in the western foothills. This was the capital of the Persians’ Parthian Empire, which expanded across the whole of Central Asia from the third century BC to the third century AD. All that is left today are the ruins of the mudbrick fortress, an archaeological site protected by UNESCO. Most of the artefacts unearthed here were long ago whisked away for display in Moscow.

The last point of interest around the Ashgabat section of the Kopet Dag is the Serdar Health Route. Paths of 8km and 37km, in series of steps up the mountainside, were opened by Turkmenbashi in 2003 to encourage his people, and compel his ministers, to climb them to get fit. Unfortunately, this is another structure that has failed to open again since Covid, though the route is lit in flag-green neon every night and is highly visible from across the city.

The West

The M37, a decent tarmac dual-carriageway that sets off from Ashgabat parallel to the Kopet Dag, cuts through the flat plains that gradually dissolve into scrubby desert as it heads west. Ultimately, it reaches the city of Turkmenbashi, 550km away on the Caspian Sea. Along the route are insights into rural life, multiple ancient settlements, mosques and mausoleums, and best by far the magnificent Yangykala Canyons.

Roadside checkpoint barriers, usually unstaffed, are common; they are not at all threatening and we were not delayed once. That said, our car was pulled over every day or two by random police officers, who merely checked our guide’s bona fides.

It is a genuine shock to encounter splashes of colour on the roads as non-white cars are allowed to trundle along outside the capital. Old-school Soviet-style Ladas, especially the 06 Model, nicknamed Shestyorka, are highly popular; production ended in 2006 and they currently go second-hand for less than the cost of a bicycle. There are also plenty of loaded donkey-carts and Yral motorbikes-and-sidecars.

Villages tend to have ornamental gateways as well as obligatory Turkmenbashi golden statues on grand plinths. In these outposts post-Soviet capitalism has unique properties. For instance, some shops offer the same goods at different prices, depending on when they bought their stock; so you can buy a litre of Arassa vodka for 20 manat or precisely the same litre of Arassa vodka on exactly the same shelf that was delivered two weeks earlier for 25 manat. Villagers will rarely have met Westerners and walking into small-town stores or restaurants on our own caused enormous excitement, with people often requesting selfies, sometimes in return for gifts of little loaves of home baked bread.

Along with wheat, grapes are growing on the southern plains. The ancient vines were destroyed by Khruschev, but they have been replanted to make sweet pudding wines (the Gulustan, like a port, is perfectly sluggable) and brandy (Begler, Garabekewul and Turkmen are the chief brands).

Our Nissan Patrol 4×4 starts to accumulate quite a collection of dried apricots, figs and raisins, plus fresh melons and watermelons, as well as peanuts and walnuts, all from roadside vendors, while we have begun listening to traditional music played on the dutar (a kind of two-stringed lute) and gidjak (like a three-stringed cello).

Across the west, there are occasional villages surrounded by scores of little oil wells busily drilling away. Oil was discovered in western Turkmenistan in the 1930s, and under its share of the Caspian Sea in the 1950s. However, its remaining reserves of 600m barrels are relatively insubstantial, and it is a cottage industry compared to the gas sector.

Donkeys and camels roam freely by, and even on, highways all over the country. It is not impossible to spot a desert monitor, which grow up to 2m long, hunting a desert squirrel. You are less likely to see Central Asian sub-species of bears or leopards in the mountains as they are so shy, or cheetahs, as they are tragically now extinct.

After some minor stops at mausoleums and caves, about 400km from Ashgabat, there is a left turn off the M37 at Boyadag. This runs for another 100km on a bumpy asphalt road through the desert towards the Misrian Lowlands. It goes past the Gumdag extinct mud-hill volcano, a fine example of the kind of muddy eruption that is common out here.

A final 30km sandy track eventually reaches the ancient Mashat-Dehistan settlements, which are now on the provisional list of UNESCO. Our guide had not been for five years.

From the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, this was a vast oasis that served as multiple caravanseris, major stops on the Silk Road. Destroyed by the Mongol invasion, today the sandy ground is lumpy with mounds of unexcavated archaeological treasures and scattered with broken bits of firebrick that formed the buildings. Only two sites are visible.

At Mashat, amid the medieval graveyards, is the Shir-Kabir Mosque-Maousoleum, the oldest extant mosque in the country.

About 10km away in Dehistan are the two side columns and main portal, decorated with turquoise glaze, of the Mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed.

It is 170km back to Boyadag and on to Balkanabat, where the long line of the Kopet Dag finally peters out. Balkanabat is the capital of Balkan province, where the only hotel, the three-star Nebitchi, is directly opposite the main square. Here is the requisite golden statue of Turkmenbashi, as well as a massive national flag on a 100m pole, and a post-Soviet large mosque. Along the main boulevards are lines of enormous municipal buildings, most displaying the current president’s portrait, with extraordinary architecture: the public library (check out the open-book window design), state theatre, local history museum, Palace of Happiness, and central events venue (shaped like a giant yurt) look like no buildings you would find in other countries. Other major features include a Hippodrome horse racing track and a bazaar.

There is also a fascinating Soviet side to the place. The scruffy apartment blocks are of course low-rise, and there are Socialist-Realist mosaics on the ends of the Oil and Gas Institute; there is even a mural of the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot bear, Mikhail Potapych Toptygin. There is also a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church. Café and restaurant guests and proprietors are astonished to see us, and it is immediately apparent that most people here still speak Russian first and foremost.

There are few taxis outside Ashgabat, so in provincial cities like this many people get about by hitchhiking, and you will see lines of them with their hands out on the main roads. The icon of the city is the smiling camel captured in the Monument to Desert Explorers, those who discovered oil in the area.

Turkmenistan is one of five countries to share the Caspian Sea, along with Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan. Turkmenbashi, formerly Krasnovodsk, is the largest town on the Turkmen coast, 150km north-west on the final stretch of the M37 from Balkanabat.

Turkmenbashi is not a provincial capital or a tourist centre – it is an industrial hub and port – but it is the ideal base to explore the western province. The Soviet-period old town, all pretty white buildings with green rooves, inevitably, is on a hillside with a simple Russian Orthodox Church from 1895 and the recent Ymam Agzam Ebu Hanife mosque. There are two four-star hotels the travel agents recommend: the new Beyik Yupek Yoly, oddly in the rather desolate Cruise Terminal, and the historic Carlak, by the Marine Passenger Station Building.

We were told it was possible to charter a boat to take a look at the city from the water, and we were offered a choice of two vessels. Expecting perhaps small motorboats, we were surprised to find they were both ferries with more than 200 seats that had been purchased to carry workers to and from oil rigs. The Charlak was available for the specific sum of 3,513 manat per hour, and the Rowas for 3,189.

Around the headland is the Avaza Resort, marketed as the “Turkmen Las Vegas”, the only real holiday retreat on their stretch of the Caspian Sea. Beyond its pyramid-shaped foreground structure, there are twenty or so hotels, the Royce Beach Club, and a Yacht Club. Some visitors before Covid offered grim reports of an unfinished futuristic ghost town, although from our assessment of passengers at the airport it certainly attracts the Ashgabat middle class. While most travel agents still have it on their programmes, it has sadly been closed to foreigners since the pandemic (which tells us something about how often those tours come here).

The Caspian Sea is famous for the private dachas that line its coast, for the overfishing that has caused both sturgeon and caviar to vanish, and for the fact that it is not a sea at all but a lake as it has no direct outlet to the oceans. In fact, it is currently the largest lake in the world, though that record may not last. Since the early twentieth century, it has been shrinking alarmingly, thanks to climate change and oil drilling, causing the dreadful mockery that the Turkmen Naval HQ no longer has access to the water, which has receded about a kilometre away.

The Caspian Sea has a natural saline content of just 1%, compared to a global ocean average of 3-4%. However, its salt ratio is boosted by the Garabogazkoi Bay, a huge inlet north of Turkmenbashi, where it is 35%. To get to it, you pass a huge oil refinery on the left as you leave town. The coast road, the R18, is little more than a single track riddled with potholes that takes you 130km to the 200m-wide channel that links the Caspian Sea to Garabogazkol Bay, only 100km short of the Kazakh border. It is of huge ecological significance, but it is a long way to come to see not very much.

The R20 heads north-east from Turkmenbashi. Never much more than a stony track, it rapidly disintegrates into a barely visible palimpsest of ancient tyre tracks. After 170km it arrives at the standout geological phenomena of Turkmenistan, and indeed a highlight of Central Asia: the Yangykala Canyons.

About 140m years ago, tectonic activity created the topographical wonder of these 100m-high limestone walls striped with red, pink and white striations; Yangykala means “fiery cliffs”. Then, roughly 50m years ago, they were revealed to us by the ebbing away of the Tethys Sea, which left behind a floor beautified by fossilised seashells.

The main area is shaped like a gigantic W, and you can drive or hike the path up on top of it for genuinely breathtaking panoramas.

South of here are two sites of mausolea that despite their remoteness are magnets for pilgrims, if not tourists. The biggest site, Gozli Ata, is 65km south-west, mostly across desert sand. “Ata” is a title showing respect, and Muhup Ibn Hasan Gozli Ata, a twelfth century local Sufi master murdered by the Mongols, and Ak Suluw Janbeg Gyzy, his wife, have grand tombs surrounded by an ancient tribal graveyard, situated against a stunning backdrop of bright red cliff faces. It is another 25km further east – off-road – to Kemal Ata. Hezreti Kemal Gaytarmys Ata was a disciple of Gozli Ata, and his resting place is at the source of a spring that has carved a green patch in the desert.

Around both sites makeshift dormitories have appeared since the fall of the USSR for pilgrims to sleep over, which you could do too. However, beware the local snakes, including the deadly Caspian Cobra!

The North

By far and away the most popular route for short-term passers-through Turkmenistan is the 560km drive due north from Ashgabat on the Dashoguz Highway that takes in the unique Darvaza Gas Crater and the ruins of the medieval capital Konye Urgench. For those trying to take time to understand the country as best we can in the constrained circumstances, the cluster of Silk Road fortresses that date back to the time before Christ is also unmissable.

This road was built rapidly and poorly after the collapse of the USSR, and it was later severely damaged during the period of Covid-19. Turkmenistan did not enforce terribly strict measures to combat the pandemic, but it did prohibit travel between provinces. So this asphalt was left to burn in the heat of the sun without repair for three full years, meaning journeys on it today are a bumpy slalom around giant potholes all the way. The respites are the roadside cafes selling somsa meat pasties and zeleniy chai, green tea, which is up there with vodka as the national drink.

Not far out of the capital you cross the Garagum Canal. This was carved by the Soviet Union in the 1950s to steal water from the Amu Darya River, which traces the Uzbek border, to supplement the little wells that had long supplied Ashgabat. This inevitably disrupted flows to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which all share the same river, and helped cause the ecological catastrophe of desertifying the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

About 260km out of Ashgabat there is a pair of craters a stone’s throw apart and close to the side of the road, one of mud, the other of water, both about 40m in diameter, that presage what is to come.

If anyone has ever heard of any “tourist attraction” in Turkmenistan, it is most likely to be the iconic Gas Crater at Darvaza. It is 20km on from the mud and water craters, much of which is off-road on sandy tracks.

While the Soviets were searching for gas in the middle of the Garagum Desert, in 1971 they literally hit upon a field that has been leaking flaming fumes ever since. While the fires are gradually shrinking, Turkmenistan has talked up this unique phenomenon for more than fifty years.

During the day it is singularly unimpressive, but at night it comes alive. Given its remoteness, a small community of tourist yurts has sprung up beside it so visitors have the chance to see it in the dark. These yurts are basic and without facilities of any kind except BBQ pits to cook your own supplies, but they do provide a great chance to experience desert nightlife.

The diameter of what is called the Door to Hell on Google Maps is roughly 70m. At night a fiery orange haze is visible from far off, and close up you can see the individual gas burners. There is a broken fence railing around it but nothing to stop you looking right over the lip and getting your hair singed.

North of Darvaza the sandy desert, repeatedly decorated with random camels, gives way to scrubland mingled with grassy plains that are cultivated with cotton and rice. This originated under Soviet collective farms, but these days the small holders who till this enclosed land rent it from the government, which owns every square inch of the ground in Turkmenistan. The irrigation comes from a network of little ancient canals expanded by USSR-dug additional channels that on top of the Garagum Canal contributed to the disastrous drying of the Aral Sea.

Between Darvaza and Dashoguz are fifteen pre-Christian mudbrick fortresses built to protect their territory and offer safe passage to traders on the Silk Road. Destroyed and remodelled repeatedly during their lifetime, they have been left to sink into the desert since they were finally abandoned in the fourteenth century. Rarely visited and crying out for professional excavation, they are comparable to those in the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm, 200km away in the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan. We went to two of them.

The most impressive is Shasenem, about 140km north of Darvaza, and just getting here is a hugely rewarding adventure on a crazy drive through the bush from the main road. Bouncing over the sand dunes, it is hard to see much of a path beyond the tyre tracks left by shepherds’ motorbikes. The fortress, overgrown by thorny ýylgyn trees, has a large defensive wall. Much has melted into mud heaps of course, though there are several sections with watchtowers and ramparts visible. If you scramble through the main entrance, where there is an official Ministry of Culture sign, you can climb up the central structure for a fabulous 360° look over the battlements and on to the horizon. Just outside the wall are several outhouses, including two buildings that resemble sandcastle watchtowers complete with Lego-castle turrets and ramparts. Totally unrestored, authentic Shasenem feels as if it has not been touched in seven hundred years.

It is 120km north up the Dashoguz Highway and once again across the bush to Izmukshir fortress. Oddly, this is more visited, probably because it is easier to access from Dashoguz, but much less impressive. It was originally surrounded by a deep ditch, and the gateway has been partially reconstructed, but the rest is a large mudbrick wall that has largely dissolved into an oval perimeter hill, with nothing in the middle but bushes. During its construction, fatal injuries were common, and the bodies of dead workers were simply added to the mud mix of the walls; in several places human bones are visible in the remains of the structure.

It is only 20km on to Dashoguz, the best base to explore the far north. The brand new four-star Dashoguz Hotel, the only place in the whole country where we have found a decent gym, is right opposite the central events venue that is shaped like a giant yurt.

It is dawning on us that all the provincial capitals have been planned to be the same. There is a large main square with a 100m-tall flagpole, the mandatory golden statue of Turkmenbashi, and all the usual municipal buildings in similar if not identical style and exhibiting the current president’s portrait. The public library even has the same book-theme windows, and there are familiar versions of a state theatre, a local history museum, a Palace of Happiness, a new mosque, a Russian Orthodox Church, and a hippodrome horse racing track.

Every provincial capital’s bazaar is built on a floor plan that matches the exact shape of their emblem. Here, I continued my personal campaign to get one over on the system by snatching this harmless picture.

Konye (Old) Urgench, 100km north-west of Dashoguz on the Amu Darya River, was settled as early as the fourth century BC as a vital stop on the Silk Road, before rising to become the capital of the Khorezm Empire.

Khorezm was the largest imperial dynasty of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, with territory stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan, until it was sacked by Genghis Khan in 1219. This was an important episode in the devastating Mongol invasion of Central Asia that massacred most if not all its Iranic Khorezm people, paving the way for the Turkicization of the former Khorezm region, and destroyed most if not all its settlements and monuments.

Despite this, Konye Urgench revived and thrived again until it was conquered by Timor in 1388 as he expanded his Uzbek-based Timurid dynasty. Once more its people were slaughtered, and its buildings desecrated. Konye Urgench was finally abandoned as late as the eighteenth century when the Amu Darya altered course depriving residents of water. The remains of this once glorious city are protected by UNESCO.

Vehicles are not permitted on the site, but it is not so large that walking is difficult, even in the heat of the sun. At the edge of the main site is Kyrk Mound or Forty Mullahs Hill, on which was the fortress where Konye Urgench made its last stand against the invading Mongols. In front of it are the remnants of the great city the marauders destroyed, spread around the 63m-high Gutlug Timor Minaret, once the tallest in Central Asia, that formed part of the main mosque.

Standouts include the Mausoleum of Il Arslan, who reigned from 1156 to 1170, and the Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh, who ruled from 1172 to 1200 and expanded the Khorezm Empire into Afghanistan.

The most intact structures are thought to date from the fourteenth century, after the Mongol demolition: a large portal that is assumed to have been the gateway to the caravanseri; and the massive Mausoleum of Turabek Hanym, a female courtier, which has an exquisite domed ceiling.

There is a smaller site about 3km away, which holds the Mausoleums of Nejameddin Kubra, a Sufi teacher beheaded by the Mongols, and Sultan Ali, one of the last leaders of Konye Urgench, during the sixteenth century. These buildings face each other.

The East

The mighty M37 runs all the way from Turkmenbashi in the west, through the capital and on east to Mary, Turkmenabat and over the Uzbek border to Bukhara. From Ashgabat to Mary it is paralleled by a brand-new toll road, the smoothest in the country, which will eventually also run all the way from Turkmenbashi to Turkmenabat. However, going east by either is not a particularly riveting drive, tearing through the flat bush, and there are only minor diversions along the way.

The Soviet-built town of Mary (130,000 people) is not as large as Turkmenabat (280,000) or Dashoguz (250,000), but it serves as Turkmenistan’s second municipality because it is the centre of the gas industry, the main source of the country’s wealth.

Major gas deposits were discovered in eastern Turkmenistan in the 1940s and by the 1980s the republic was the second biggest producer in the Soviet Union behind only Russia. It is currently the thirteenth largest producer in the world, accounting for 2% of global supplies. Galkynysh, near Ýolöten in Mary province, is the principal gas field in the country, and Turkmengaz has revenues of about $5 billion a year, though it sits on the potential for vast growth as only Russia, Iran and Qatar have greater reserves than its 13 trillion cubic metres. However, there are obvious difficulties in exploiting this potential, given that Turkmenistan’s inherent weirdness makes it a hard place to do business.

By now we know what to expect in a provincial capital, though there are slight twists here because Mary has the power typical of a second city to do things ever so slightly differently. However, this is in a uniquely Turkmen fashion. For instance, the public library does not have the same window design, and instead of making drivers give way when entering roundabouts, here drivers on roundabouts have to give way to those entering.

That said, the centre is of course instantly recognizable. The main square, 100m-tall flagpole, golden statue of Turkmenbashi, state theatre, Palace of Happiness, events venue shaped like a yurt, bazaar and hippodrome horse racing track are all present and correct. The new mosque is particularly impressive. The four-star Margush Hotel is shiny and new, and has a terrific garden restaurant at the back overlooked by the local history museum.

The Pokrpyvska Russian Orthodox Church is by common consent the prettiest in the country, adorned with a salon hang of icons. About 5% of Turkmen are Eastern Orthodox Christians, mostly ethnic Russians and other Slavonic migrants such as Ukrainians and Belarussians.

Unique to Mary is the MiG 29 fighter plane on the same street as the church. It was positioned on a plinth outside the Soviet Air Force headquarters there, and though that building has long been abandoned and is left rotting away, its symbol still stands proud.

It is 25km east of Mary on our old friend the M37 to Merv. This was once one of the most important cities in all of Central Asia, the capital of several successive empires from its crucial position on the Silk Road. It grew from a small oasis in the sixth century BC to become the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants, until it was razed by the Mongols in 1221.

Its remains were further damaged by the USSR, not least when collectivisation led to the cultivation of farmland all over it. These days, it is one of the most important archaeological sites in the wider region, protected by UNESCO, and a highlight of any trip to Turkmenistan. There are signs everywhere explaining that continuing excavation is largely funded by the US government, and I cannot help wondering if that is in any way connected to the vast gas reserves nearby.

The site is so large, covering five different periods of development beside each other, that you have to traverse it by vehicle. The best place to start is the short stiff climb up the outer walls of the fortress dating from the Macedonian conquest in the third century BC, when Merv was named Alexandria after their Great King. The mud bricks have all melted out of definition of course, but there are the discernible remains of a watchtower here from which you can take in a panorama of the whole area to get your bearings.

There are several important extant monuments from the Arabian epoch, when this was the capital of the entire third Islamic caliphate. The core of medieval Merve was inside the massive fortress of Sultan Kala, where the best preserved building, known as the “pigeon house”, is of disputed purpose.

The Greater and Lesser Kyz Kalas are two eighth to ninth century fortresses belonging to a wealthy landowner. Despite the decay, they clearly display excellent examples of the corrugated mudbrick walls used at that time to resist erosion. If you ask the guy in the ticket office, he will unlock the door to let you inside the Greater Kyz Kala where excavations are still taking place.

The icon of Merv, and indeed of Turkmenistan, whose image you will see on hotel and restaurant walls all over, is the twelfth century Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Being later, this was built not with mud but more durable firebricks, and it has been carefully restored.

Around 2500 BC, almost 2,000 years before the development of Merv even began, hundreds of Bronze Age villages started sprouting along the Murgab River at the Margiana Oasis, 60km north. The greatest of these was the enormous settlement at Gonur Depe, capital of the Margush region and head of one of the most advanced civilizations of its day, until it was abandoned in 1500 BC when the Murgab River shifted course to the west, leaving the oasis dry.

Gonur Depe was discovered only in 1972 and is woefully under-excavated. A combination of lack of investment, a reluctance to meet the conservation standards demanded by its UNESCO protected status, and a shortage of foreign visas for archaeologists means the site remains little more than a deserted archaeological dig.

About two hours north through the desert from Merv – so hard to find we got badly lost in the bush – the site is rarely visited. It is baking in the summer, and muddy in the winter. Gonur Depe today is a waste-high maze of collapsed walls – with some over-reconstruction – of what apparently were the ruler’s palace, various fortresses and watchtowers, temples and necropolises. It is also claimed this was once the home of Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism, whose believers say the world was created by God, Ahura Mazda, in order that the power of good can triumph over the force of evil. Hallelujah.

Heading east from Mary, it is 250km on to Turkmenabat, and another 200km south from there to Kerki. This is the jumping off point for the Kugitang Reserve, 100km further south on the other side of the Amu Darya. We did not go there so I am indebted to our guides for the use of the following photographs of its two novel attractions.

The most important goes even further back in time than Gonur Depe. The Age of the Dinosaurs (the Mesozoic Era of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods) extended from 250 to 66 million years ago until that devastating asteroid hit the earth. The largest repository of dinosaur footprints in the world, about 400 of them, some over 1.5m long, were discovered here in the 1980s.

The most fun is in the village of Hojapil, in the pocket between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. An elderly couple who live here have trained long-horn goats, weighing up to 20kg, to climb on the backs of people to give them what is claimed to be a massage.

Although we did not do this, it looks like the perfect bonkers way to end this trip, and it is quite hard to know what to say after that.

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1 Comment

  1. Nicholas McDonagh
    01/07/2024 @ 11:13

    Fantastic trip!


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