Ancient Silk Road ruins, sweeping desert landscapes, gleaming marble cities, and a welcoming population are waiting for you in Turkmenistan. Perhaps the most enigmatic country in Central Asia, this complex country is like no place else.
Turkmenistan is one of the least visited countries in the world. This is understandable considering the cumbersome visa process and restrictive government. But it’s also a shame -- behind its imposing exterior, Turkmenistan is a country full of beauty and energy.
In recent years, Turkmenistan has been promoting itself as a destination for the intrepid traveler. Here, like almost nowhere else on Earth, you can conquer barren deserts, interact with people just as curious about you as you are about them, and explore amazing monuments without any crowds between you and the adventure.
For centuries, the Turkmen have been breeding the Akhal-Teke horse known for speed, intelligence, and strength. Today you can retrace the routes of Silk Road merchants through the Karakum Desert atop one of these magnificent animals on an adventure tour like no other.
Or how about spending the night camped by the Darvaza Flaming Crater? This pit of flaming natural gas was accidentally ignited in 1971 and has been burning ever since, earning it the nickname “The Gateway to Hell.” If you need to soothe sore muscles after a long day of trekking you can head underground to the sulfur lake of Kow Ata, known for its warm healing waters.
The people of Turkmenistan are rightly proud of their heritage and eager to share it with you. You’ll likely arrive in the capital of Ashgabat with its gleaming white marble buildings and golden monuments. However, Turkmenistan remains a mostly traditional pastoral society, where you can visit shepherds in their fields and small villages.
Weaving ornate carpets is a time-honored tradition here (it's even on the flag) and you can buy one in a traditional bazaar or see how they are made in a family-run workshop.
Once an important segment along the Silk Road, Turkmenistan has a rich and storied past. Many ancient and medieval monuments, ruins, and shrines remain to be explored. On a historical tour, you can walk among the mighty sandstone ruins of the oasis city of Merv. Once one of the world’s largest cities (until it was razed by Genghis Khan), you can imagine what this cosmopolitan city was like during its heyday when merchants from all over the known world came here to trade treasures of every kind.
The mighty Parthian fortress of Nisa, which prevented even the mighty Roman Empire from extending into this land, now stands as a UNESCO world heritage site, ready to receive visitors with an interest in ancient military history.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit Turkmenistan
With its blazing hot summers and frigid winters, spring and fall are the best times to visit Turkmenistan when daytime temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit).
If you visit at the end of April you’ll be able to enjoy the annual horse festival, which features exciting races all around the country, as well as horse beauty pageants.
What to Look for in a Tour of Turkmenistan
Due to the amount of red tape a visitor to Turkmenistan needs to deal with, you’ll want to use a tour company that will handle entry, transportation, and accommodation requirements for you. Some tour companies will book all these but at a considerable mark-up. Request an itemized list of expenses to see just how much you’re paying for each part of your trip when comparing companies. Make sure they provide an English-speaking tour guide since English is not spoken much in the country.
Turkmenistan requires all tourists traveling outside of Ashgabat to be accompanied by a state-licensed tour guide, so be sure to ask about your guide's credentials.
Typical Tour Cost
Turkmenistan is the most expensive country to travel to in Central Asia. This is due to the price of the tourist visa and the monopoly that tour companies have over the tourist industry. Consequently, prices here might be more than you expected.
Budget at least $125 per day for your tour. Fortunately, costs for things outside of the tourism sector, such as meals at local restaurants and non-souvenir purchases, can be had for just a fraction of Western prices.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
The time of year you travel to Turkmenistan will greatly determine what you pack. Bring warm clothing if you travel in the winter and light clothing for the summers. Turkmen dress conservatively and you’ll want to do the same. Avoid shorts, tank-tops, large logos, and flashy colors. These can be viewed as culturally insensitive.
If you’ll be heading out to the desert, remember that although it can be scorching hot during the day, nighttime temperatures often drop below freezing.
Most tour companies will provide any specialized gear that you might need, but it’s a good idea to check ahead of time. Bring sturdy shoes for any hiking activities or horse treks.
Other Tips for Travel in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is a very insular country that is only beginning to open up to the rest of the world. Most Turkmen are unused to foreign visitors, so be very aware of cultural norms and behavior. Never sit next to a member of the opposite sex unless they are a family member. Always take your shoes off when entering a home or a religious site. Check with your tour guide whenever in doubt.
Expect to be under the watchful eye of the police and military. There are many laws in Turkmenistan that might seem strange or overly harsh to a foreigner. For instance, it is strictly illegal to smoke outdoors and taking photographs of government buildings or uniformed officials is forbidden. Even lip-syncing has been outlawed.
Speaking ill of the country’s politics or government is not allowed. Keep your opinions to yourself or you might find yourself on the next plane out of Turkmenistan.
Visas are required and are usually only given with a letter of invitation from a Turkmen tourism agency upon booking a tour. Apply for your visa as far in advance as you can as the process can be slow and cumbersome. You can apply as soon as 90 days before your trip. You will need the letter of invitation from the tour agency to start the process. As of writing, you will need $73 for your passport stamp plus a $14 registration fee at the border along with a passport-sized photo.
Don’t expect internet anywhere. Turkmenistan is one of the least connected countries on the planet. Even luxury hotels rarely have internet connections. Even if you are able to connect, many popular websites and most social media platforms are blocked in the country. Other than your tour guides, it is unlikely that anyone to speaks English. Turkmen is the official language, but Russian is also commonly spoken.
Health & Safety
The World Health Organization recommends that you are up to date on your diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, polio, rubella, tetanus, typhoid, and chicken pox vaccinations before heading to Turkmenistan. Also, bring any medications you need along with your doctor’s prescription as it unlikely that they are available in-country. Note that psychotropic drugs such as sleeping pills are prohibited.
Very basic medical services are available in the larger cities, but hard to come by elsewhere. Travelers’ health insurance is a must. Only drink bottled or treated water and avoid ice or unpasteurized milk.
Due to strict and harsh enforcement of laws, incidents of crime are very low throughout the country. A visitor should feel safe when traveling in Turkmenistan.
Cities in Turkmenistan have an 11pm curfew. Be inside by this time or expect to be harassed by the police. Keep a copy of your travel documents with you at all times. While rare, the authorities can ask you for them at any time.