Turkmenistan is a country in South-Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million square kilometres, or almost the size of Spain. Neighbouring 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.
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. Turkmenistan is a fairly poor and underdeveloped country, even though billions have been spent on modernization in Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, and many other cities in post Soviet times. While there has been much construction in Ashgabat, most of the downtown high rises appear empty. And also, the country has extensive oil and gas reserves being developed, with recently opened pipelines to China, Iran, and soon Azerbaijan.
Turkmenistan is a very unusual regime. The government is in firm control of nearly everything. Officially tourism is welcomed, but the requirement for expensive guided tours may discourage visitors. The presence of police and military personnel which will watch your every move and prohibit photographing of even mundane objects, make Turkmenistan the least friendly of the Stans. It is unwise for visitors to discuss politics or the omnipresent police and military.
The cult of personality the previous president created for himself is truly amazing and reminders of the Turkmenbashi's legacy are everywhere.
Turkmenistan's former all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov has had a surreal effect on Turkmenistan that will long outlive his presidency. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15m tall golden statue that rotated to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat, although it has since been removed. 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 its 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 some restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs. They can also purchase snuff from most Bazaars. 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 a sizeable ethnic Russian population, but they largely relocated to the Russian Federation 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 Ruhnama, 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 is 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 kilometres.
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 (3,117m). The lowest point of the country is the Akdzhak depression, 80m below sea level.
The country measures about 1,100km from West to East and about 650km 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 Celsius in summer and minus 4 to plus 4 degrees Celsius in winter. But in northern regions the temperature in winter months can decrease to -20 degrees Celsius.
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.
Except for short visits by residents of some nearby Kazakh and Uzbek regions, everyone needs a visa to enter Turkmenistan. For independent travel, a short (3-7 days) transit visa can be obtained, but a full visa may be difficult, as most embassies require an invitation letter (LOI) from a Turkmen tourist agency that is only issued upon booking a full tour. However, when you are visiting Ashgabat, you are able to explore the capital on your own. If tour company tells you that you are required to have a guide in Ashgabat, check with other tour companies, because this is not the case in 2016.
Arranging a tour will make things easier, as the company can help in getting the LOI and visa. Bear in mind that, depending on how you enter the country, you might have to be met by a guide. Entering Ashgabat by plane does not seem to require a guide. This can be particularly important, especially if your inward journey is delayed as is possible when entering across the Caspian Sea by boat. Remember that you do not have to have the tour company book all the hotels and internal airplane tickets. Request an itemization of the cost of these from the tour company, and check the prices on your own. The tour companies (especially Stantour) easily charge you many times the actual cost (e.g., airport pickup for US$30 when you could take a taxi for 5-10 manat = US$1-US$3).
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. Taking with you psychotropic medication, for instance sleeping pills, is not allowed. The exact list of prohibited drugs is difficult to find. There are limits for bringing to the country alcohol and tobacco products. 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 diphtheria, 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 travelers.
It is strongly recommended that you apply for a Turkmenistan visa before travelling to Turkmenistan. It is reported that travelers applying for visa at Ashgabat airport have been detained in the transit area of the airport for several days due to missing documents. A government approved letter of invitation is required of some tourists (such as residents of the United States of America) before a visa can be issued. It is advised to check with your country's Turkmenistan embassy website for more information. Processing for the letter of invitation can only begin about 90 days before your trip and will take several weeks. The tour company will email you the letter of invitation, and then you can apply for the visa at the applicable embassy.
Once you have the letter of invitation, obtaining the visa in advance from the Turkman embassy in Washington DC was pretty straightforward in summer 2016. It took about 3 weeks for processing. Make sure to follow the instructions exactly (e.g., two originals, copies of passports in a certain direction, copies of other identification) and include a prepaid return envelope.
All foreigners entering Turkmenistan have to pay a registration fee of US$ 14,- (2016). In Ashgabat, this is paid at the counter named 'Bank' when first arriving at the airport. There are stickers for Visa/MasterCard at the counter, but it would be prudent to have the amount in cash. After OVIR registration, which is usually handled by the hotel or tour agency, one 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 the Migration Service (www.migration.gov.tm, known as OVIR) in Ashgabat, Asady köcesi, phone 391337 or with Migration Service branch offices in other towns. You are responsible for registration, even when staying in a hotel. Normally, however, the hotel or tour agency takes care of this. You will need to bring two passport-size photos for the registration, or provide them to your hotel/tour agency. This confirmation and the receipt for the registration fee paid when entering the country have to be presented to the Migration Service. Registration will be stamped into your passport. You have to give notice to the Migration Service 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:
As of February 2013, Turkmenistan Airlines has direct flights to Ashgabat from Abu Dhabi, Almaty, Amritsar, Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kiev, London, Minsk, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Look out for the portrait of Sapamurat 'Turkmenbashi' Niyazov at the front of the cabin. Current flight schedules are listed on the airline website., although on-line ticketing is not available.
Turkish Airlines flies to Ashgabat from Istanbul. Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Ashgabat. See Ashgabat page for more detailed information. FlyDubai offers service from Dubai', UAE's DXB airport to Ashgabat.
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 shared 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) The last 50km on each side of the border is a very bad dirt road. (approx. US$ 100 private car or 10,000 KZT per person shared). 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 some “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. In July 2016, it was reported that there are three passenger/car-only ferries (two owned by Turkmenistan and one by Azerbaijan) that regularly sail between Baku and Turkmenbashy, but that departure times are not fixed.
Internal flights are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines which flies daily between Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi, Dashoguz and a couple other destinations. Flights are subsidized, and due to low fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around US$55 (July 2016) for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz (though companies like Stantours will gladly charge more than twice the price). 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 the case with many places in this highly controlled country.
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. The Turkmen drivers generally speak only Turkmen, no English, and maybe some Russian. The Russian drivers may only speak Russian and no English or Turkmen. Some tourists haggle for on the price and destination, but the better practice to give 3-4 manat for a short trip (e.g., a few blocks), 5 manat for medium trip, and perhaps 10 manat for a long trip (e.g., downtown to indoor Ferris Wheel). Simply give the money at the end of the trip. If you are trying go outside the city for a day trip, you will need to haggle and agree on price in advance, and will probably have to hail several taxis to find one willing to take you. If you do not speak Turkmen or Russian, write the name of the destination in Turkmen on piece of paper (search on Google for the words in Turkmen, or ask the hotel do it) and show to drivers until you find someone to take you there. Carry the name and address of your hotel in Turkmen to show to drivers to return back.
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.
The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen, and 50% speak decent Russian. If you are unable to speak Turkmen, then Russian would be your best bet to communicate. 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 origins. Kazakh is also understood in the north of the country (because of Turkic traits). Standard Turkish might be understood by some people.
Not many Turkmens will have a basic understanding of English, even in the capital city, although many younger people are now learning English in school, so do not be surprised if some want to practice English with you. Many shopkeepers and waitresses know some basic words and phrases ("change money", "how much", "check, please", etc.).
The official currency in Turkmenistan is manat (TMM)divided into 100 tenge.
The official rate of exchange was USD1 = TMM3.50 (Turkmen manat) in 2016. Euro and other major currencies will be proportional. Do not expect to be able to change manat back into dollars or other hard currency at the end of your trip, so exchange only what you need. According to some blogs, Turkmenistan restricted exchanges from manat into dollars beginning in early 2016, which has created a black market for currency
As of July 2016, the unofficial exchange rate was at least USD1 = 5.25 manat. Ask shopkeepers in the Russian bazaar in Ashgabat (and possibly other bazaars, such as the Teke Bazaar or Tolkuchka Bazaar). Negotiate the exchange rate in advance. You need to have clean-looking bills with no tears and no marks on the bills. All denominations of US bills seem to be acceptable.
US dollars are widely accepted and you should bring more than you think you need. It is incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible to get US dollars in the country. Make sure that, if you are negotiating a payment with dollars, you calculate the payment based on the unofficial rate. A merchant in Turkmenistan would much rather receive $10 than 35 manat, so negotiate accordingly.
Credit cards are only accepted in big international hotels in Ashgabat, but unknown outside the capital. Even in the capital, you should absolutely NOT rely on any credit or debit card.
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 14:30 to 17:30, Sat 10:00 to 12:00) has to certify that the carpet is not more than 50 years old and may be exported. This costs TMM115,000 per square metre and can take a few days. In addition carpets exceeding 1.5 square metres are subject to an export duty of TMM2,000,000 per square metre, payable in USD 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.
Yimpash is the biggest shopping centre in Turkmenistan. You can find almost anything you need there. On the first floor you can buy: vegetables, fruits, DVDs, perfume, home goods, cleaning supplies, chocolate, milk, dog food and send money through Western Union. The first floor is divided into specific parts for certain products. On the second floor, there is not as much stuff. There you can buy clothes, shoes, ‘’Apple’’ products, and you can put money on your phone. There are also selling materials for the dresses .If someone would like to buy flowers or a hair ribbons and clips, all these stuff are on the second floor. On the third floor are restaurants, a beauty salon, cinema and toilets. You even don’t need to know address, if you will say to taxi just the word ’’Yimpash’’ he will know where he need to drive you. - Closed in Dec 2016
Expect distinctly average Turkman or 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.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18, and is strictly enforced.
Look out for a range of 'Turkmenbashi' labeled vodka. Supposedly the vodka & other spirits made in the Ashgabat factory are higher quality due to the grain/vegetables that are used.
There are two local beer breweries, Zip and Berk which are popular in Turkmenistan. The Russian brand Baltika can be be found everywhere along with several imports.
Tea is excellent and readily available. Local people prefer to drink gok chai - green tea, often with dried fruits or herbs, as mint.
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' or 'no gas') if you do not like fizzy water. 'Borjomi' mineral water from Georgia is available in Ashgabat's shops.
Turkmenistan is a safe and friendly country. It is also, without doubt, one of the most perplexing – and potentially problematic countries for visitors to travel through, given the rigidly authoritarian political system in place.
Do not criticize, insult or speak badly of 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.
As a general rule of thumb, keep your opinions about the country's politics to yourself since speaking out against the government is a crime for which you can be given a prison sentence, or if you are a foreign citizen, the remote possibility of deportation from the country.
Turkmenistan has very low incidents of violent crime, largely because crime is severely punished by the Turkmen government and that most laws are strongly enforced. That said, the average traveller should not have any problem getting around safely.
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 color copies with you when you're walking around, and keep the original documents in the hotel safe. Also, upon arrival make a copy of your visa page. 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.
If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession. As in the rest of the former USSR, demand that the policeman show you their ID.
Turkmen law enforcement are well trained and professional, but be warned that they are very aggressive, especially during the night, so do expect some sort of harassment from them. One needs excellent communication skills in the Turkmen language as hardly any policemen speak English or Russian. Having a translator/interpreter is one option that you yourself can depend on. Due to their low salaries, bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many locals, given that Turkmenistan was ranked as one of the top twenty corrupt countries in the world.
Many hotels are frequently bugged by the police. Bugging in hotel rooms is common - telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. 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 11 pm, and this law applies to non-residents as well. The curfew inevitably helps to keep street crime down at night, and if you go out you may get arrested. Traveling from the airport to hotel by car in the middle of the night is acceptable.
Taking taxis or hiring private drivers may avoid problems, but don't be too dependent on this option, as it is possible it may not save your life. In Ashgabat, it is not necessary for your guide to accompany you if you wish to leave your hotel, and go for a wander.
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.
Most ‘taxis' are not licensed are most likely to be a man using his family car to make some extra money – these are sometimes known as ‘gypsy cabs.' Most locals flag a car down and then anything that stops is a ‘taxi', there's no official fares, so give what you think is fair (usually 3 to 10 manat, depending on length of ride). This of course leaves you wide open to being ripped off, but there's no alternative. If you get in and feel uncomfortable, simply ask them to stop politely, get out and wave them to carry on. This is what locals do and it's perfectly acceptable.
For a safer ride, use the hard-to-find Yellow Cabs, which are usually located at the airport and near large hotels. Yellow Cabs are the only registered taxis and are discernable by their yellow colour and green Turkmen license plates. If the meter isn't working, agree a price before getting in.
Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohibited, each of which is punishable with up to 2 years in prison.
Vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and B are recommended. A vaccination against typhus is also recommended in case you stay in poor hygienic conditions, 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 tap water. Tap Water in Turkmenistan is known to contain traces of toxic metals, and this can cause long-term health problems.
Fruits and vegetables should be peeled before consumption. Avoid dairy products as they are not pasteurized.
Turkmens are generally very friendly, hospitable and approachable people. That said, if the average visitor comes to them in the appropriate fashion and respects the local culture, then they should not encounter any issues whatsoever.
Although Turkmenistan is an Islamic country, years of isolation and rule under the USSR have resulted in some laissez faire attitudes towards Islam and the country is fairly secular. For instance, most Turkmen locals drink alcohol.
Topics to Avoid
Avoid passing comments about the development of the country, the human rights record, and the political situation. Turkmens are generally proud of their country and they may take such topics of conversation in a negative way. Do not in any way to allude that things in Turkmenistan are done a little bit differently, because chances are the locals have a much better idea of how things work than you, so avoid coming in with that sense of superiority.
Turkmens are generally very superstitious and it is important to be careful and mindful about your actions since your actions very much happen to be something that they perceive to be likely to draw unwanted attentions from evil spirits.
For instance, spicy food should be handled with care and it should be placed in the centre of the table where it can be easily reached. Passing spicy food to your Turkmen hosts can be considered bad luck.
Due to the country's turbulent history of isolation, foreigners are often treated with a degree of scepticism, especially by the local police. Although Turkmens are generally curious about other cultures and countries, this may be tempered by unwanted attention from the local police since Turkmenistan is not used to that many visitors from other countries. So chances are, if some of the locals are refusing to talk to you, do not take it personally; They are probably trying to avoid drawing unwanted attention. In most cases however, natural friendliness wins out.
You may be met with open stares and intense curiosity by locals and treated to a greater degree of scepticism by the police if you appear to be of South Asian, East Asian, Hispanic and/or African descent, as visitors from those areas are generally rare in Turkmenistan.
That said, Turkmens are conservative dressers and like to look good in public. Individuals wearing things such as shorts, shirts with logos or inappropriate labelling, or even yielding brightly coloured backpacks will make you stand out as culturally insensitive and will result in some odd looks from the locals.