Howdy all, trusting on this fine Thursday that the day find you well! Today it’s time to prepare yourself for a trip to the amazing, the unusual, the surprising and the very very different destination of Turkmenistan. Before you go you are going to need to know a bunch of stuff before heading off. Your planning is possibly the most important part about going to Turkmenistan because if you just turn up you are not going to get far. So today I bring you my ‘essential tips’ for the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is a pretty large country in Central Asia. It’s not as big as Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan, but by land mass it has Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan covered. It does have the lowest population of all the Central Asian Republics with around 6 million people.
It’s a very dry country and doesn’t see a lot of rain. Around 125mm a year on average around the country which ain’t much!
Weather is very very hot – 50 degrees or more in the middle of the summer, and at night in winter it can get down to zero or below.I went to Turkmenistan in 2019 in November, and that turned out to be a good time I thought to travel the region because it wasn’t hot at all – maximums maybe around 18 degrees Celsius, but it didn’t get really cold either, except in the middle of the desert at night where it was around zero or just above.
The landscape isn’t that varied. It’s not that it’s all desert, it’s not, but it is fairly dry and arid from place to place. When part of the Soviet Union Turkmenistan was chosen to produce cotton as were parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (which led to Lake Aral drying up). Today they are diversifying and are growing vegetables and fruit with an emphasis on pumpkins and of all things, melons. You can find a surprising number of photos around the place with the President proudly holding a melon or two. And no, there is no subtext in that statement!
The topography features mountains, mostly in the east – although there are some in the south which separates Turkmenistan from Iran. But as for thick forests, well this is not the country for those!
It borders a bunch of countries – I entered from Uzbekistan, but also as I mentioned it borders Iran in the South, along with Afghanistan in the south-east and Kazakhstan in the north-west. It has a fair coast line along the Caspian Sea in the west and from there you can take a ferry to a number of locations across the Caspian Sea including Russia and Azerbaijan. The most common country to cross into or out of though is definitely Uzbekistan which has a lot of different points for border crossings.
The main international airport is Ashgabat and so if you are flying in you will probably fly in to the capital. The airport is one of the country’s many stunning buildings, it is huge and white and is a real true introduction to the stunning and mind blowing city you are about to enter. There are a somewhat limited number of airlines that fly to Turkmenistan as you might imagine, it’s not a country people visit in huge numbers, and it’s not always that easy for its own citizens to exit.
I flew out on Turkish Airlines and they are a very handy airline with one of the longest lists of destinations of any airline out there. So they can connect you to most places in the world. The only draw back is that the flight out of Ashgabat is really early in the morning, around 430am from memory. Lufthansa and Emirates also fly to Ashgabat, but the national carrier Turkmenistan is banned in many countries I believe including Europe.
Crossing the border will generally require you to get yourself to the border first before you cross, and then work out transport on the other side. If you are entering Turkmenistan via land and are on a tour, your tour guide and car will almost for sure be meeting you at the border. And speaking of tours and the like, that brings me to the next section.
Visas, Tours and Formalities.
So, the thing about Turkmenistan is, that getting into this nation is not as straight forward as some. Some even compare it to North Korea, and for sure the internet is censored and you MUST be on a tour if you visit. UNLESS that is, you manage to get a transit visa. By all accounts, these have become almost impossible to get, however I did meet a group of three German travellers who were passing through Turkmenistan transit visas they managed to get at the Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent.
However, it’s not advisable if you are intending on going to Turkmenistan on relying on getting a transit visa because most applications are rejected. The good thing about them if you get them is that they last five days, so that’s somewhat generous in terms of a transit visa, however you do need to be leaving a different way to which you arrive and they are, again, almost always rejected. I presume the German guys weren’t set on going to Turkmenistan but thought they would take a chance and see if they could get the visa, and they did. They entered as I did from Uzbekistan and were planning to exit via the Caspian Sea. They really planned to pack everything in whilst in Turkmenistan.
The biggest upside if you do get your hands on a transit visa is that you can travel much more freely about the place and don’t need your guide with you everywhere you go – and I’ll talk about guides and all that jazz in the next section. The German guys were able to rock up at a train station and catch a night train and things like that. On the flip side many hotels won’t take foreigners and perhaps some trains won’t or you will need to buy a certain class of ticket. Also I don’t think everything runs ultra-frequently in Turkmenistan as the population is scattered.
Getting a tourist visa though is what most people do, and to get that you first have to organise a tour and get a tour voucher. With this you get your visa, and the good news here is you don’t have to double up, you actually get the visa on arrival at land or airport with your voucher. And if you’ve a guide like the one I had they will do most of the work for you. I was met at the border and I had the documents taken to me then to the counter then back and forth with fees and so on until ready for me to present at the window and finish it all up. I don’t know how hard it would have been if I had had to do it all myself, probably not super hard but still, it took the hassle out.
Itineraries are agreed upon before you enter the country, but I found there was flexibility there and if you have requests the guide should be able to accommodate you because before you enter you really don’t know what you might find in Turkmenistan, or in any place. I was on a one person tour which was the only option I have because finding someone to go to Turkmenistan with me wasn’t as easy as I might have hoped!
I felt the further I went the more confident I was to ask for things that weren’t planned. And there are freedoms that you certainly DON’T get on a North Korean tour. At the end of the day I was dropped at my hotel where I was free to eat or go where I liked. I didn’t do anything particularly exciting, but I could have if the mood took me! Although I had a list of agreed things to do and see before I even left Australia, things were moved to different days and so on whilst actually in Turkmenistan.
I love taking photos and shooting video, and it wasn’t too limited, there seemed to be three basic things not to take photos of though. Soldiers for one, military establishments as you might presume, and at markets in both Ashgabat and Mary photos weren’t necessarily welcomed. I was told not to take any photos at the Russian market in Ashgabat. In Mary I was told it was fine to take photos, but at one point I took a photo of an outdoor section, it was a wide angle shot, and someone came up to me and told me to delete the photo. Which I did. It was a broad photo and I have no idea WHY he didn’t want me to have it. At least I was able to take photos of people and shops in general there.
The WiFi in the country, which was available at the hotels, was slow and restricted. Facebook and Instagram were out, but Google wasn’t. DropBox to me was a really odd one to ban. A lot of the locals do have VPNs so this might be worth trying, but considering how slow the net already is there, I wouldn’t be surprise if it’s a waste of time.
Organising Your Tour
Probably the most useful website online for not just Turkmenistan but Central Asia as a whole is Caravanistan. As far as Turkmenistan is concerned, they will link you to the various tour companies they recommend and you can start planning from there. I sent off an email with the things I wanted included in my tour and an approximate length, and they contacted I think four companies who got back to me.
The itineraries were pretty similar all up with some subtle differences. You could pay a bit more for a better class of hotel too. The difference was negligible. All companies had an internal flight from Ashgabat to Mary included, which I didn’t want to take. Not just the safety aspect, but also I prefer to see what I’m missing on the road. The time by road was 4 to 5 hours. When you factor in flight time of around 45 minutes, getting to and from airports and checking in, waiting for baggage, it only cost me an hour or so I would say. And we made stops in both directions (the original plan was to go back by road). I did ask to take the train, but was dissuaded and it was a night train with odd times and I wouldn’t have seen anything. I might still regret it though as I never tried the train in Turkmenistan.
I feel a bit guilty as I kept going from one tour agency to the next and back asking for this and that until I got the one I was most happy with. I paid around $1800USD. Included almost everything including entrance prices, just really had to pay for lunches and dinners, souvenirs and the like. I could have saved a little with a lower class of hotel, but really it wasn’t that much. I organised through Sanat Tours in Uzbekistan, but it was run by Owadan Tourism who I think are the biggest company in Turkmenistan. I was pretty happy all up, and you could save a bit of money no doubt by contacting them directly and not dealing through a third party. Remember also looking at that price (which was for a five-night/six-day tour) that I was the only person on the tour. They may well have taken a couple for the same price and the more people you have the cheaper the tour will be per person.
Costs and Money
So Turkmenistan is not an expensive country. With most paid for a part of your tour – and I had to paid in cash, USD, once in Ashgabat). The Manat is the currency in Turkmenistan and I think mostly I needed to use the Manat. Have cash ready before you enter I’m not sure of the ATM situation but I don’t think they are an use to the visitor. Although at the time of writing the USD was listed as being worth around 3.5 Manat, in fact the black market rate when I was there was around 10 Manat to the USD. And that’s the main rate I got – I changed with the tour agency at that rate and also with a guy on the bus which took me across the border from one post to the other. Meals are less than $10USD easily I found. Things aren’t absolutely dirt cheap, but they are pretty cheap all said.
Hotels and Accommodation
So you won’t be surprised to learn that booking hotels online isn’t really a thing. What I was able to do was to see a hotel offered by one tour operator and request it from another. They were both listed as three star hotels (the two options) and I don’t think there much if any change in price – that was for the Ak Altyn Hotel. It was a 3-star Hotel and was a bit worn and probably only just three stars. In Mary I stayed in the Mary Hotel which is a four-star hotel (although I saw it listed somewhere as a five star). It looked very nice, very glittery and all, but scratch the surface and it didn’t quite function as a smoothly as a four star place might. Things like draining water poorly and noise issues. Anyways, having said that it was very comfortable. Both places had slow and limited WiFi.
Other Posts on Turkmenistan –
Wrapping it Up
As usual this post is not about what to see in Turkmenistan. That will follow next week! All in all the key to visiting this incredible but strange country is simply to plan well ahead I think. Know what you want to do and where to go and find a company that will accommodate you. It should be mentioned that I had offers for tours of a few hundred LESS than I paid too. So it needn’t be so expensive.
It’s a really interesting country. Being on a tour it’s not as challenging as it might be, but hopefully one day in the not too distant future the country will open up a bit more and independent travel will be easier and more possible! Thanks for reading and May the Journey Never End!