Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million km2, or almost the size of Spain. Neighboring countries are Iran and Afghanistan to the South, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North. It has a coast on the Caspian Sea, but is otherwise landlocked. Nearly 80% of the country is considered part of the Karakum Desert.
Turkmenistan is one of just two Stalinist countries in existence (the other being North Korea) and the government is in firm control of nearly everything, although, surprisingly, tourism is welcomed as long as you don't discuss politics or omnipresent police/military. The cult of personality the previous president created for himself is truly amazing and reminders of the Turkmenbashi's legacy are everywhere.
The traditional life of the Turkmen is that of nomadic shepherds, though some have been settled in towns for centuries. The country is known for its fine carpets (one is even featured in its flag) and horses. It is a fairly poor country, that has been isolated from the world. Other than that, Billions have been spent on modernization in Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, and many other cities in post Soviet times. And also, the country has extensive oil and gas reserves being developed, with recently opened pipelines to China, Iran, and soon Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan is also the second wealthiest country in Central Asia.
North Korea may get all the press, but even Kim Jong-Il's cult of personality fades when compared to the surreal totalitarian state set up by Turkmenistan's former all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15-meter tall golden statue that rotates to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat. The month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after himself, while the month of April and the word "bread" became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of Niyazov's mother. Decrees emanating from Niyazov's palace have banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. Through it all, Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great (his official title) remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said. Niyazov's government also spent billions in renovating the country, shut down libraries and hospitals, and even wrote the Ruhnama, a spiritual book to improve the Turkmen people.
Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death in December 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has slowly peeled back the worst excesses of the Turkmenbashi. The Ruhnama has lost it's popularity, Berdimuhamedov has continued in the process restoring pensions and old names, while cementing on his own slightly more subdued cult of personality.
One thing of CRITICAL importance to any visitors who smoke cigarettes or cigars! It is (and has been for several years) absolutely forbidden to smoke 'in a public place'. Generally, this means 'outside'. Smoking at any of the bazaars is a definite no-no, as there were two major bazaar fires in 2006-2007. While it bothers non-smokers, those who enjoy tobacco products can enjoy them INSIDE most restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs. A good rule of thumb - if you don't see anyone else smoking, you shouldn't.
The people of Turkmenistan are predominantly Turkmen, also spelled Turkoman, in both ethnicity and language. Turkmenistan traditionally was home to sizable Russian and German populations, but they largely emigrated to their mother countries following the break up of the Soviet Union. According to the 1995 census 77 percent of the population are Turkmen, 9 percent Uzbek and 7 percent Russian.
According to the Ruhmana, the Turkmens originated from Oguz Han and all Oguz people descend from Oguz Han's 24 grandsons. The original homeland of the Oguz tribes was the Ural-Altay region of Central Asia. The Orhun inscriptions (6th cent.) mentions the "six Oghuz tribal union", referring to the unification of the six Turkic tribes. This was the first written reference to Oghuz, dated to the period of the Göktürk Empire. The Book of Dede Korkut, the historical epic of the Oghuz Turks, was written in the 9th and 10th cent. They migrated westwards in the area of the Aral Sea and the Syr Darya Basin in the 10th cent. A clan of the Oghuz, the Seljuks took over Islam, entered Persia in the 11th cent. and founded the Great Seljuk Empire. The name Oghuz is derived from the word 'ok', meaning 'arrow' or 'tribe' and an archer shooting an arrow was shown on the flag of the Seljuk Empire. The term Oghuz was gradually supplanted by the Turks themselves by Türkmen or Turcoman. This process was completed in the 13th cent.
The main tribes of the Turkmen are the Tekke (around the oases of Ahal, Tejen and Merv), the Ersari (along the Amu Darya), the Yomud (in the Balkan Region and Khorzem Oasis) and the Goklen in the Southwest.
Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert, with intensive agriculture located in irrigated oases. One-half of its irrigated land is planted with cotton, making it the world's tenth largest producer.
About 80 percent of Turkmenistan's surface are covered by the biggest desert in Central Asia, the Karakum (Black Sand), which forms together with the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) in Uzbekistan the fourth biggest desert in the world. The Karakum covers about 350.000 square kilometers.
The Kopet Dagi Mountains (Many Mountains) in Southern Turkmenistan form the border to Iran. In the Kugitang Mountains in North East Turkmenistan is the highest mountain of the country, the Airbaba (3.117 meters). The lowest point of the country is the Akdzhak depression, 80 meters below sea level.
The country measures about 1.100 kilometers from West to East and about 650 kilometers from North to South.
Turkmenistan has a continental climate with long hot summers. Winters are not too cold. The average temperature is 26 to 34 degrees centigrade in summer and minus 4 to plus 4 degrees centigrade in winter. But in northern regions the temperature in winter months can decrease to -20 degrees centigrade.
While the provinces are a helpful way to break down large Turkmenistan into regional travel areas, bear in mind that there is one geographical region present throughout them all, dominating the country—the brutal desert wasteland that is the Karakum.
Historically, most of these towns were oases along the Silk Road.
You will need a special permit in order to visit a nature reserve, and it will be necessary to apply for it through a travel agent well in advance.
Shrine pilgrimage (ziyarat) and its underlying beliefs have played an important role in islamization of Central Asia as well as in creating and sustaining communal identity up to the present day. Recent research suggests that Musilm "holy men" (Sufi shaykhs) were key players in the conversion to Islam due to their knowledge of Inner Asian pre-Islamic religious traditions and their ability to translate the meaning of Islam to the local population. The prominent position of ancestor worship in Turkmen traditions is shown by the fact that the progenitor of a tribe or community is often ascribed to "islamizers" among the Turkmen. The burial sites of these Muslim founding fathers became a focus of veneration and were accompanied by what is called "Muslim shamanism": ancestral spirits were identified with the companions of the "Saint-progenitor". The communities also accepted saints with outstanding spiritual, intellectual or physical powers. Thus the burial sites of Islamic saints, local rulers, learned scholars, warriors or pre-Islamic figures have become shrines. Turkmen tradition also recognizes six non-Turkmen öwlat groups, which trace their lineage to the first caliphs of Islam, e.g. the progenitor of the öwlat group Ata is Gözli Ata who in the 14th cent. came from Turkestan, a center of Sufi teaching, in order to carry on his teachings in Western Turkmenistan. The legends describe him as an extremely powerful saint, outdoing other saints in miracle performances and winning large numbers of followers.
Most all nationalities need a visa to enter Turkmenistan. For independent travel, a short transit visa can be obtained, but a full visa may be difficult. Most border guards are young conscripts and a small bribe can ease your entry at the border and roadblocks.
Arranging a tour will make things much easier, as the company can help in getting the LOI and visa. Bear in mind that you might well have to be met by a guide, regardless of how you enter Turkmenistan. This can be particularly important, especially if your inward journey is delayed as is possible when entering across the Caspian Sea by boat.
When you enter Turkmenistan your bags usually will be searched with an X-ray machine. You will have to fill a green Entry Travel Pass, an immigration card and a customs declaration. List all your valuables that you bring with you in the customs declaration, make sure that it is stamped and keep a copy with you. You will have to show it again when you leave the country.
The World Health Organization recommends vaccinations against diphteria, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, polio, rubella, tetanus, typhoid and varicella. In addition, vaccinations against meningitis, rabies and tuberculosis are recommended for long term travellers.
It is strongly recommended that you apply for a Turkmenistan visa before travelling to Turkmenistan. It is reported that travellers applying for visa at Ashgabat airport have been detained in the transit area of the airport for several days due to missing documents.
All foreigners entering Turkmenistan have to pay a registration fee of US$ 12,- (2010) and will receive a green entry and departure card. Take particular care of the departure card, as it must be presented when leaving the country.
Travelers staying for more than 3 days in Turkmenistan must register with IVOR in Ashgabat, Asady köcesi, phone 391337 or with IVOR branch offices in other towns. You are responsible for registration, even when staying in a hotel. The hotel will give you a confirmation of the accommodation only. This confirmation and the receipt for the registration fee paid when entering the country have to be presented to IVOR. One photo is required. Registration will be stamped into your passport. You have to give notice to the IVOR in order to be permitted to leave the country. This notice will be stamped into the passport as well. Border controls will check if you have registration and notice to leave stamped into your passport.
Travel permits are required for many border regions. You do not need a travel permit for Ashgabat, Merv, Turkmenabat and Balkanabat. Transit visas allow you to travel along the main roads on your way to the next country on your itinerary. It is, however, absolutely necessary to have a travel permit for the following regions:
Turkmenistan Airlines has direct flights to Ashgabat from London and Birmingham, used predominantly by the British Sikh community as a transit point for further flight to India and Pakistan. Look out for the portrait of Sapamurat 'Turkmenbashi' Niyazov at the front of the cabin. Turkish Airlines flies to Ashgabat from Istanbul. Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Ashgabat. See Ashgabat page for more detailed informations. FlyDubai offers service from Dubai', UAE's DXB airport to Ashgabat.
As of October 2011, Turkmenistan Airlines schedule includes the following destinations: Abu-Dhabi, Almaty, Amritsar, Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kiev, London, Minsk, Moscow, and Sankt-Petersburg. The schedules are often less-than-convenient, and there unfortunately is no website for the airlines with flights listed. It's usually best to visit the webpage of the airport from which you are departing to find the schedule.
If you want to enter Turkmenistan with your own car, you need a liability insurance. The green International Insurance Card is not valid in Turkmenistan. In addition you have to pay an additional tax for the government subsidized fuel prices, depending on the distance of your travel in Turkmenistan. This tax has to be paid on the border in US Dollars. Be prepared to have long waiting times at border controls. By vehicle, you can get in through Kazakhstan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Visitors holding visas can enter Turkmenistan from all neighbouring countries. Checks at the border usually take one or two hours and maybe even more. Border points are open daily from 9AM to 6PM.
Each crossing may require 15 minutes' walk across no-mans land, sometimes sharded taxis are available. There are three crossings from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan:
It is a two hours' drive from Zhanaozen to the Turkmenistan border and another 40 minutes drive from the border on a dirt road to the city of Karabogas (formerly Bekdash) (approx. US$ 50 per car). From Karabogas there is a good road to Turkmenbashi with fine views on the Caspian Sea. About 60 km south of Karabogas the road crosses a bridge over the channel connecting the Caspian Sea with the inland gulf.
Several popular travel guides discuss traveling by “ferry” across the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the port of Turkmenbashy in western Turkmenistan. Some travelers have faced problems attempting to travel to Turkmenistan by boat. Travelers should be aware that these “ferries” are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. Passengers are generally not provided food or water on these ships, and sleeping and sanitary facilities are likely to be rudimentary. Travelers should be aware that ships arriving at the port of Turkmenbashy often wait days offshore for outgoing ships to vacate the dock to allow incoming ships to disembark. Some travelers have spent more than a week offshore while their ship awaited permission to enter the port, and they have run out of stores of food and water, or had their Turkmen visas expire before they could be used. For this and other reasons travelers, especially those who plan to enter Turkmenistan by boat, are discouraged from using transit visas to enter Turkmenistan.
Internal flights are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines which flies daily between Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi, Dashoguz and a couple other destinations. Flights are subsidised, and due to fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around $5 US for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines operates with a new fleet of Boeing 717s, purchased in 2001. Be aware that you might not be able to photograph freely in and around the airport, though this is not unheard of elsewhere.
The Amu Darya is an important inland waterway for Turkmenistan.
At least in Ashgabat, like in much of the former Soviet Union, "taxis" are mostly unofficial - and can be hailed by flagging down a car by the roadside. Haggle, and agree on the destination and price in advance - knowledge of Russian will definitely come in handy at this point.
The usual sensible precautions apply here. If your instincts suggest that something might be not quite right, then it's best to go with your instincts.
Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.
Drive on the right. Minimum age: 17. International permit required. Speed limit: 60 km/h in urban areas, 90 to 120 km/h on highways.
It is possible to travel by train between some of the major cities in Turkmenistan, but journeys are slow (up to 16 hours from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi) - so unless you have a specific interest, plane travel is the best way to get around the country.
Rail service in Turkmenistan is provided by Turkmendemiryollari (Turkmenistan Zeleznice), Ashgabat, phone 3632 255545, fax 3632 473858. On the principal trains they offer soft and hard accommodation with sleeping and dining cars. Tourist using rail services in Turkmenistan must expect to pay higher charges than local people and to pay tickets in foreign currency. Turkmendemiryollari (Turkmenistan Zeleznice) runs trains from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi and via Mary to Turkmenabat and return.
Around 70% of the people in Turkmenistan speak Turkmen, and 50% speak decent Russian. If you are unable to speak Turkmen, then Russian would be your best bet to communicate. Not everyone has the time, resources, or money to learn Turkmen. However, out of respect, and due to the fact only 50% of the people speak Russian, learning basic Turkmen would be advisable. Turkmen was written in a Cyrillic alphabet during Soviet times and is now written in a Latin alphabet. Uzbek is widely understood in Turkmenistan, due to both languages sharing common Turkic traits. Kazakh is also understood in the country (because of Turkic traits), yet very, very few Turkmen will understand Kazakh.
Not many Turkmens will have a basic understanding of English, even in the capital city.
The official currency in Turkmenistan is Manat (TMM) = 100 Tenge, the rate of exchange being 1 US$ = 2,85 TMM, 1 EUR = 3,99 TMM (2009).
The US Dollar is widely accepted, although it should only be accepted in internationals hotels or at the airport.
Credit cards are only accepted in big international hotels in Ashgabad, but unknown outside the capital.
The bazaars are the heart of every town in Turkmenistan. Bazaars are usually open from 8AM to 8PM every day including Sundays. Large markets, like the Tolkuchka Bazaar in the outskirts of Ashgabat are open two or three mornings per week only. Bazaars outside Ashgabat will be closed at daylight hours during the cotton harvest season in autumn.
Government shops are closed on Sundays and at lunch time.
Turkoman rugs are famous, tending towards rich reds with geometric patterns. Sometimes they are called Bokhara rugs because Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan was a center for their trade. Turkoman designs are now often copied in India and Pakistan. Some carpet factories are run by the state owned company Turkemhaly. Today, wool is often coloured with synthetic and not with natural dyes.
The classic book on Turkoman rugs is "Tappiseries de l'Asie Centrale", in Russian and French by AA Bogolyubov, Tsarist governor of Turkmenistan, 1905. It was a limited edition with hand-painted illustrations, now rare and extremely expensive. A translation (the original French plus English), "Carpets of Central Asia", was published in Britain in the 60s. Even it is now hard to find and expensive. However, if you intend spending a lot on these carpets, it is definitely worth reading. Look for it in libraries.
You need an export permission for carpets purchased in a bazaar or private shop. The Expert Commission on the back of the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat (phone 398879 and 398887, opening hours Mon to Fri 2.30PM to 5.30PM, Sat 10 to 12AM) has to certify that the carpet is not more than 50 years old and may be exported. This costs 115.000M per square meter and can take a few days. In addition carpets exceeding 1,5 square meters are subject to an export duty of 2000000M per square meter. payable in US$ at the official rate of exchange at customs on departure. If you buy a carpet in a state shop, these fees normally are included in the price, although customs will charge a commission fee of 0,2 percent of the price of the carpet.
Expect distinctly average Russian cuisine in restaurants. As in Uzbekistan, plov and more central Asian-type fare can be found in markets. If you can find it, try sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, sometimes prepared in a 'tempura' style.
Meals often start with a soup, as chorba, a meat and vegetable soup. Another national dish is plov, rice with mutton, onions, carrots, spices, raisins, peas or quinces. Manty are steamed dumplings filled with lamb. Ku'urma is lamb, cooked in its own fat. Ichlekli is a meat and onion pie and gutap is a pie filled with meat, potatoes, spinach and pumpkin.
Look out for a range of 'Turkmenbashi' labeled vodka, which can be washed down with the range of Russian 'Baltika' brand beer. It can be harder to find local beers in outlets catering to foreigners, but 'Berk' is well worth asking for; 'Zip', on the other hand, is awful.
Tea is excellent and readily available.
Best to err on the side of caution, and stick with bottled water. As in Russia, you may want to specify byehz gah-zah (literally, 'without gas' or 'still; plain') if you do not like fizzy water. 'Borjomi' mineral water from Georgia is available in Ashgabat's shops.
Local people prefer to drink gok chai - green tea, often with dried fruits or herbs, as mint.
Turkmenistan is safe and friendly country as long as a visitor does not discuss politics. Politics remain a very sensitive issue, and it is your responsibility that you do not involve yourself in or speak out against the government, since it is considered a crime. For safety and respect, Do not under any circumstances criticize the President, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since Turkmenbashi's death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state. The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Suparmurat Niyazov is still sold, and still learned in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best regarded to not criticize the former President as well.
Turkmenistan, like any other Central Asian country, is a fairly corrupt country. Corrupt officials and authorities may ask for bribes, and so if you are pulled over for any reason, simply pay the bribe. It is also possible that you will be asked by police for documents. This is rather rare, but this can happen at any time and they have a legal right to do so. You should carry your passport and visa with you, though in practice, it is better to make a color scan of the first two pages of your passport and your visa before you arrive. Carry the colour copies with you when you're walking around, and keep the original documents in the hotel safe. The scanned documents will almost always suffice. If not, make it clear to the Police that he will have to come to your hotel to see the originals. Nevertheless, Policemen will demand a bribe for this. Always be polite with the Police, but also be firm. Although rare, Policemen can take visitors/locals to secluded places to beat up people for even more money, so stay alert. Policemen are the most frequent problem you will always come up across and be warned that the Policemen are generally very agressive, especially during the Night, expect some harassment from them. Many hotels, including very good ones, are frequently bugged by the Police. Do not sign any documents provided by the police if it is in a language you do not know, as it may be that they may try to rip you off for some more money. Just be polite with them, and just say that you do not understand it.
A curfew prevents people from leaving from 11pm, and this law abides to non-residents as well. Going out will get you arrested. However, taking taxis or hiring private drivers should avoid the problems, but don't be too dependent on this option, as it is possible it may not save your life.
It is possible to take photographs relatively freely in Turkmenistan. However, you are best advised to exercise caution when photographing anyone in uniform or government buildings. In Ashgabat, there are uniformed police/military on every street corner. Play it safe early on in your visit to give yourself an idea of what is acceptable. There are almost no 'no photo signs'. If you are in doubt ask the next policeman if you are allowed to take a picture.
It should not be necessary for your guide to accompany you if you wish to leave your hotel, and go for a wander. Try to not walk with a female companion - Police may think of this of walking with a prostitute and can simply arrest you.
Most taxis are not regulated by any government licensing agency and drivers are usually private citizens looking to make money. The majority of cars will not have seat belts or other safety devices, and drivers may not have had any formal driver training. For safety reasons, visitors should strongly consider hiring a private car and driver through their travel agency or hotel.
Penalties for breaking the law can be severe. And do remember, Homosexuality is punishable by 2 years. Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohbited.
Vaccinations against diphteria, tetanusm, polio, hepatitis A and B are recommended, and a vaccination against typhus is recommended in case you stay under very simple hygienic condition and a vaccination against rabies is recommended for long term stays and frequent contact with animals.
Medical supply does not correspond to American or European standards. Bring the medicines you need for your personal use with you, as they will be unavailable outside of Ashgabat. A travel insurance covering hospital care and an emergency flight to your home country is strictly recommended.
Avoid drinking trink tap water. Tap Water in Turkmenistan is known to contain traces of metal, and this can cause long-term health problems.
Fruits and vegetables should be peeled before consumption. Avoid dairy products as they are not pasteurized.
Because of the nation's history (past and current), Turkmen avoid talking politics, and you should too. Turkmens are notoriously xenophobic—not in a hostile way, but in a suspicious and wary way, no doubt a product of having had to stay guarded from any attention from the secret police over the past century. To win friends, it's best to keep opinions to yourself, and let them take the lead in conversation, ideally complemented with a little Russian vodka.
Colin Thubron, The Lost Heart of Asia, Penguin, 1994