Howdy all. I have planned to write a detailed dissection of my tour through Turkmenistan last year, a country which is a hell of a destination, and one that is generally off the traditional and well-worn ‘travel map’ as it were. And today is the day! I wind the clock back nine months (with 2020 being the year it has been though, feels more like 9 years!) to November 2019 and venture back into Turkmenistan.
Organising Visas and Tour before departure
I have only good things to say about the site Carivanistan – you might think I plug them intentionally, but I don’t, it’s just that I haven’t found a site with more resources and information on the Central Asian region throughout the interweb. And they were invaluable to my preparations for Turkmenistan and Tajikistan last year.
What I did was put in an enquiry looking for a tour of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan only allows people in on a tourist visa if they have a pre-booked tour. It’s not the world’s most open country, and so they do regulate what visitors are able to do, see and photograph. I sent a message or email to the site and they forwarded it on to a number of tour companies, which replied to me with itineraries and prices. You CAN get a transit visa, which gives you five days and there were a group of German backpackers I met at the Darvaza Crater who were doing just that. However many embassies won’t issue them, it’s very hit and miss and from everything I’ve read, they were extremely lucky to get the visas. Plus you have to get them on the road, not every country has a Turkmenistan consulate!
I must admit I kept changing my mind in regard to what I wanted to see, where I wanted to go and the direction I wanted to traverse the country in. In the end I finally settled on entering in the north of the country from Khiva in Uzbekistan and leaving via the Ashgabat Airport. I went with a company called Sanat Travel. They are based in Uzbekistan, but in fact they then subcontract out to a company in Turkmenistan, Owadan Tourism. I presume that I probably could have paid a fair bit less if I hadn’t gone through two places to get the tour and gone straight to Owadan, but I’m not particularly fussed now. The total cost was $1850USD for the ‘six-day’ itinerary. It included most entrances, all accommodation, all transport (in private 4WD), some meals (all breakfasts), guide fees and a few other fees. But there were a few on-ground expenses too such as hotel taxes ($2USD a night so nothing major) and visa fees.
Sanat Travel were great with communication and I must have been a pain flipping constant emails back and forth with questions. I probably worried overly about it being ‘right’, but that’s my own neurosis I guess these days! I wanted to leave Australia knowing everything was taken care of. One issue was the payment, I was going to pay in advance by bank transfer – when I travel I prefer to have as much paid for in advance as possible. However, I ended up having to pay Owadan direct in cash in Ashgabat, which meant walking around with a lot more cash than I normally would. It was a relief to hand the money over to be honest!
You don’t receive your visa in advance. You get your Letter of Invitation and present that at the border, where you receive your visa after payment. So that was sent through and printed off in triplicate.
From Khiva through into Turkmenistan
I arrived in Khiva (Uzbekistan) on the evening of Friday the 8th of November 2019. I spent two nights there – a full day of sight-seeing is possibly enough to pack the old city into when you’re there, it’s a great place to explore and a great little ‘prologue’ to making my way into the weird and wonderful Turkmenistan.
I woke up early enough on the 10th of November, ready to let this adventure begin. I had a little panic attach about money, worried I wouldn’t have enough and so I had to find an ATM, asking kindly for my pre-arranged taxi to wait. I had to go to the Asia Hotel in Khiva to find an ATM that was working in Khiva, so if you head to Khiva, be ware that ATMs are not in plentiful supply there! So we left fractionally late to head to the border with Turkmenistan.
I had pre-arranged the taxi the previous night, and arranged for the guy to wait for me at my hotel inside the Old City. I went out to the gate of the Old City where taxis waited for customers, and I set a price but the taxi drivers weren’t biting. One friendly guy though came up to me as I was leaving telling me he would drive me for the price I wanted, and so I had a deal! It was around an hour to the border, perhaps a little less. It’s known as the Shavat border crossing, as the closest town on the Uzbek side is Shavat. There is another crossing closer to Nukus, which is closer to Konye-Urgench but further away from Khiva in Uzbekistan, and we initially had some confusion about which crossing I was using. So to be clear if you are planning – I used the Shavat border crossing.
The Uzbek side of the border was extremely easy. There were smiles and thanks for visiting Uzbekistan, it was quite different from my previous experience in the country where all my bags were thoroughly searched, with gusto.
It was a short walk past a fence, and there was this sort of no-man’s land with corn or wheat as high, in fact higher than a person in this ‘zone’. Everyone who was crossing the border was waiting, watched by security guards, until this old bus arrived to take us to the Turkmen border post. We all crammed in, some didn’t have seats, and people had sacks and the like. We had to pay for the bus, and I paid in Uzbek Som. I asked the bus driver if I could change money into Turkmen Manat somewhere, and he changed the money then and there. I did some calculations according to the official rate which I had checked online – he had given me way too much, maybe 10x too much. It turns out there is the official and unofficial rate, and the unofficial rate IS TEN TIMES or thereabouts the official rate. And this is what you can get if you don’t go to a bank I guess. Even when I changed at Owadan Tours, I got the ‘unofficial’ rate.
The bus took us all not far, maybe 500 metres if that, to the Turkmen border control. I took a deep breath because I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, or what I would need to do. As it turned out, as soon as I entered the building a young lady approached me and asked me if my name was Andrew. It was Ay-Gul, my guide! I had expected to meet her on the other side of the border.
She handed me the forms I needed to fill in, which I did, and she handled most of the formalities. She got me to the window and I signed what I needed to in front of the customs official, paying for the visa and there was also another fee, in total it was $77USD, I was told it varies (presumably per country, although I heard a suggestion it’s a little bit random!) and then I had all my bags checked. It took around an hour I guess on the Turkmen side, and I was there! In Turkmenistan!
Across the north, to an Ancient City
So the border had been negotiated, which was great, and then I was taken to our 4WD, a must for covering Turkmenistan roads, which are at best variable in quality. I had a driver, a guide, and a trainee guide in the vehicle with me, and the itinerary was about to start. The first day had us visiting the ancient city ruins at Konye-Urgench and then heading down to the Darvaza Crater in the Middle of the desert, where the first night would be spent.
So, we moved on into Turkmenistan, passing through the biggest city of the region in Dashaguz. It was a pretty clean place, looked nice enough, not a lot of people on the roads. The population of Turkmenistan is around 6 million, and it’s not a small country, so they are sparsely distributed around the land. I was told the population of Dashaguz is around 300,000.
We stopped for lunch at a café for lunch before reaching Konye-Urgench. It was apparently owned by Owadan Tours, and in the peak of tourist season, which had already ended, I was assured it is full. I was surprised November didn’t see more tourists, the weather was cool but not freezing but there was no rain the whole time I was there, and the skies were blue. In this instance, we were the only people at the café and there were only two or three things available on the menu, and so I had soup and potatoes, and a few dumplings. It was enough to keep me going.
We arrived at Konye-Urgench in the early afternoon. The ticket office was next to the Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum, which is the most impressive of them. It was quiet and the sites were spread out over a large-ish area, and it seemed there could possibly be more that hadn’t been excavated. It was an interesting introduction to Turkmenistan. We wandered the field for less than an hour, so it was a quick one too. There were a few people out and about walking around the ancient city as we were, but fairly spaced out, it was no ‘packed’ tourist site for sure. The ruins are mostly if not completely Islamic, but the city which used to sit here, Khwarazm, dates back to pre-Islamic times. Today, the ruins are UNESCO World Heritage Listed.
From there it was back in the car for a long four and a bit hour drive (around 270km) to the Darvaza Crater. The road lacked lines most of the time, and road signs were pretty infrequent too. It had the look of having been ‘patched up’ many times over the years. The landscape was pretty barren as well, desert or semi-desert most of the way, and I am struggling to remember even a single town being seen on this journey!
We chatted quiet a bit on the ride, which was great. Ay-Gul spoke good English, and I felt relaxed now about where I was, I genuinely was a little apprehensive about coming to Turkmenistan in the days leading up to the crossing, which for me is pretty odd. I was very hopeful that we could progress over the next few days to talking a little about the politics of Turkmenistan and its charismatic leaders, and why it is such a ‘closed’ country.
As we zoomed across the desert I shared my Ipod with the vehicle, and the driver really liked AC/DC! Vehicles coming the other way were rare, and then suddenly three truck behind each other, then nothing for 15-20 minutes.
At some point, just as the sun was setting, we turned off the road and went across the sandy desert. I didn’t see any sort of sign, so they do well to find these points which seem to be somewhat out of nowhere. It was only three or so kilometres to the crater but the 4WD struggled to make it up one hill and we had to reverse down and take a ‘run-up’ as it were to get over it.
And then, just as the sun was disappearing, I saw the crater. Created in 1971 during gas explorations, the gas below the surface ignited and has been burning ever since. And for once, there were a few people there too! Not huge numbers, but maybe twenty or so. There were a couple of groups of yurts, and Owadan Tours seemed to own the biggest grouping of around 30 yurts all on a flattened gravel surface. This is where I would spend the night. There was one other group from Owadan staying as well in another yurt, I think they were Chinese.
We spent time right on the crater, which had a flimsy bar to protect people around its circumference which people just completely ignored. The yurts were 150 metres or so away. There was a fair bit of heat coming from the flames as you might imagine. I have heard there are loads of spiders at the crater, but I didn’t see a one. Perhaps this is a mid-Summer phenomenon when it’s much hotter.
I met three Germans at the crater, who had entered the same crossing as I did but earlier and had transit visas and this were visiting Turkmenistan without a guide. I envied them their freedoms I guess, but they had been pretty lucky to get transit visas in Tashkent. They had five days and planned to leave via the Caspian sea on a ferry from Turkmenbashi to Baku. They had gotten themselves to the crater, not sure how, and they planned to take a train at 2am or something. I didn’t realise it but there was a train line out there, 7km or so from the crater. There plan was to walk in its direction at about midnight. I could see all manner of how this could go wrong, but good on them I say! It was already getting quite cold, it would have got down near zero over night I think. Still, the exercise would keep them warm. Did they make it out of Turkmenistan alive? I have no idea!
The camp set up was decent. They had nice, flushable (well, via bucket) toilets and electricity via a generator. It was due to disconnect at 9pm, I don’t think it made it that late though. There was water through a tap, it was all set up very well.
Fire was what kept us warm over night. Initially I had my own yurt, but there was a problem wit the flue attached to the fire/stove unit in the yurt and it kept filling with smoke. So I ended up sharing with Ay-gul and the driver. The fire was most needed, it was pretty cold. But there I was, in the middle of Turkmenistan on my first day/night. And believe me, the adventure was only beginning.
Also on the places included in this post elsewhere on my blog –
Next week I will present the second half of the story. I was planning on doing it in one post, but it’s just too big for one single post. Thanks for joining me today, please feel free to comment, and if you want to know about the rest, that should be up next Thursday! Thanks and as always – May the Journey Never End!