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Turkmenistan is not your average holiday destination. For one, three quarters of it is covered by the Karakum desert, where predictably high temperatures are the order of the day. Second, its capital Ashgabat and other 'major' cities, are quite truly lacking tourist attractions. The best tourist attraction (in the traditional sense) is Gaurdak, which, lying between the Uzbekistan border and the Amu-Darya River, is blessed with impressive scenery highlighted by deep gorges, waterfalls and caves, as well as a riveting collection of dinosaur footprints.
Turkmenistan is a unique destination for a unique visitor. The highlight here is the Turkmens' nomadic culture, which still survives today, albeit to a lesser extent since the Soviets took over. Traditional garb, intricately designed rugs and a strong tribal loyalty give the anthropologically-minded traveller a fascinating journey - if they can handle the heat.
The territory of Turkmenistan has a long history, with various empires ruling over this land. It was under the control of Persians, Arabs, and even Geghis Kahn. Later control of Turkmenistan was fought over by Persian Shahs, Khivan Khans, the Emirs of Bukhara and the rulers of Afghanistan. During the 18th Turkmen awarness grew under spiritual leader and poet Magtymguly Pyragy, who lay the roots for an independent Turkmenistan, calling for unity, brotherhood and peace among Turkmen tribes. In the late 19th century the expanding Russian Empire seized control over Turkmenistan (than Transcaspia). With the opening of the Transcaspian Railway in 1897, and a link to European Russia in 1906, many settlers from other parts of Russia arrived in Turkmenistan, which was felt as the thread by the Turkmen people. Corruption and the abuse of power by the Russian military leaders led to a revolt in 1916, and was quickly followed by the Russian October revolution in 1917.
Ashgabat became a base for the anti bolshevik movement, but in 1918 the communists took control over Ashgabat and created a soviet. A group under leadership of Junaid Khan a loyal tribal chief to the old Russian regime joined together to try to get rid of the Communists. In July 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the independent state of Transcaspia. Even Great Britain got involved in the battles and even managed to occupy Ashgabat but this effort was shortlived. The last of the resistance gave up in 1923 fleeing across the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. This was later followed by over a million Turkmen people, when Turkmenistan was incorported in the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan became independent on October 27, 1991,when the Soviet Union fell apart. From 1991 until his death in 2006 the country was ruled by former communist leader Saparmurad Niyazov, which led the country into an isolated position when it comes to world politics, and a state where in there are no opposition parties and freedom of press. He also issued some other rather stranger things, like renaming the months of the calender after himself and members of his family, and creating his own personal cult. After the death of Niyazov a power struggle turned out in favour of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who turned back many of Niyazov's impopular laws, but has not yet moved toward making Turkmensitan a democracy.
At 488,100 km2, Turkmenistan is the world's 52nd-largest country. It is slightly smaller than Spain and somewhat larger than the US state of California. It lies between latitudes 35° and 43° N, and longitudes 52° and 67° E. Over 80% of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert. The center of the country is dominated by the Turan Depression and the Karakum Desert. The Kopet Dag Range, along the southwestern border, reaches 2,912 metres at Kuh-e Rizeh (Mount Rizeh). The Great Balkhan Range in the west of the country (Balkan Province) and the Köýtendag Range on the southeastern border with Uzbekistan (Lebap Province) are the only other significant elevations. The Great Balkhan Range rises to 1,880 metres at Mount Arlan and the highest summit in Turkmenistan is Ayrybaba in the Kugitangtau Range - 3,137 metres. Rivers include the Amu Darya, the Murghab, and the Tejen. The Turkmen shore along the Caspian Sea is 1,768 kilometres long. The Caspian Sea is entirely landlocked, with no natural access to the ocean, although the Don-Volga canal allows shipping access to and from the Black Sea.
Turkmenistan is made up of 5 provinces and 1 independent city (the capital Ashgabat)
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Another Central Asian highlight and also on the UNESCO list comprises the site of Kunya-Urgench, which is located in the northwest of Turkmenistan on the left bank of the Amu Daria River. It was the capital of the Khorezm region, which was part of the Achaemenid Empire. There are many monuments in the old town which date back from the 11th to 16th centuries. These monuments include a mosque, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a 60-m high minaret.
Merv is one of the highlights of the country and in fact of Central Asia, being the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route. History dates back over 4000 years here and several of the of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia. For this reason it is placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
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The Darvaza gas crater is one of the most extraordinary sites in Turkmenistan and is one of the most apocalyptic landscapes in the world. It is about 60 meters wide and 20 meters deep and it is not of a natural origin, but actually man-made. Although details are sketchy, the most trusted account is that Soviet engineers were drilling when they accidentally bored into a cavern filled with natural gas. To avoid the release of toxic fumes, they decided to set it alight and it has been burning every since. It is located about 260km north of Ashgabat.
The Karakum desert is dry and barren landscape in the central part of Asia, covering over two-thirds of Turkmenistan. It covers and area east of the Caspian Sea, south of the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya river and the Kyzyl Kum (see below) desert are located to the northeast. Although the desert is of course extremely dry, it is home to the largest irrigation canal in the world, which unfortunately causes soil salination because of leaks due to pour maintenance. The Karakum desert is easily visited if you have made it to Turkmenistan in the first place, which has very strict visa regulations. The Caspian railroad from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat and the nearby main road cross the desert. One of the main attractions in the desert, apart from several old city ruins, are the Darvaza Gas Craters.
Much of Turkmenistan has a continental climate with dry conditions year round. Summers are hot and winters are cold, except for the area around the Caspian Sea, where winters are moderated by the influence of the water and summers are less hot but more humid. Summer temperatures average around 35 °C during the day, around 20 °C at night. But temperatures close to 50 °C are not unheard of, especially in the central deserts. Winters are on average not that cold, around zero, but occasionally temperatures can drop well below -20 °C at night.
The best time for a visit are spring and autumn when warm, sunny and dry conditions are the norm.
Note that you have to arrange your visa before entering the country and apart from transitvisas, you need a prearranged tour to spend longer in the country. Also, when arriving by plane, a transitvisa is not allowed!
The national airline of Turkmenistan is Turkmenistan Airlines, with flights from the capital Ashgabat to and from Beijing, Bangkok, Delhi, Tehran, Abu Dhabi and European destinations like Moscow, London and Frankfurt. Both Turkmenistan Airlines as Turkish Airlines have flights to and from Istanbul. From Europe, this is one of the best and cheapest connections.
Few people travel with their own car through Turkmenistan, but you should be able to get a transit visa if you want to drive between for example Iran and Uzbekistan. Be sure to arrange everything before you want to cross borders, and have your papers and insurance in order.
There are no direct connections between Turkmenistan and its neighbours, but borders with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Iran are relatively easy to cross and should take an hour or maybe two. The border with Afghanistan is open and can be crossed though few people take this route. You have to take transport to the border, cross the border yourself and take onward transport to the nearest town. Serkhetabat is the border town with Afghanistan and across the border it's about 2 hours to Herat.
To Iran, the most used border crossing is Gaudan/Bajgiran, south of Ashgabat and along the route to Mashad.
You can travel from Turkmenbashi in northern direction to Kazakhstan, onward to Aktau. It's a desolated but beautiful area.
There are three border crossings to and from Uzbekistan: the Farab crossing between Bukhara and Turkmenabat, the Dashogus crossing which is good if you are heading to Urgench or Kiva in Uzbekistan, and the Khojeli crossing towards Konye-Urgench and Nukus (half an hour away).
Turkmenistan Airlines has regular scheduled flights between Ashgabat, Chardzhou, Dashoguz, Mary, Turkmenbashi and Turkmenabat, and to Kerki and Balkanabat a few times a week as well. Flying in Turkmenistan is probably the cheapest anywhere in the word, with tickets rarely costing more than several dollars, maybe ten if you are unlucky. Flights are subsidised and fuel is extemely cheap as well.
There are several worthwhile train trips, but only for the train enthusiasts, as services are slow and sometimes uncomfortable. The Trans-Caspian Railway runs from Turkmenbashi at the Caspian Sea, through Ashgabat and Mary to Chardzhou in the east before continuing north to Uzebekistan. It takes about 16 hours to complete the journey between Turkmenbashi and Ashgabat, which is many hours more than by bus or car.
Travelling around by yourself by renting a car is not really an option, as most times you will be accompanied by a driver who doubles as a guide. Still, if you have a transit visa for a few days, there are several upmarket hotels in Ashgabat which might have rental cars. Roads are tarred and traffic drives on the right. You need an international driving permit or your national driver's licence will do as well. Most car travel will be on an organised tour, sometimes in sturdy 4wd cars when going to remote places.
There are modern and comfortable long distance buses to Dashgouz, Mary, Turkmenabashi and Turkmenabat from Ashgabat. All other towns are serviced by less comfortable older buses and minibuses or taxis.
Basically, Turkmenistan is a very dry place and there is no regular domestic passenger services, even no on the Caspian Sea.
Travellers from almost every country need a visa and you will have to arrange it before you arrive in the country. If you want to spend some more time in the country, you will need to arrange a tour as well, as transit visas are only valid for 3 to 5 days, which barely leaves enough time to enjoy everything the country has to offer. Visas come with a letter of invitation as well (LOI). There are several touroperators in the country which will be happy to arrange many things for you. For more information, check the visa info on the US Turkmenistan Embassy website and the Turkmenistan overseas Embassies.
All foreigners entering Turkmenistan have to pay a registration fee of US$ 12 (2012) 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.
Foreigners 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. Two photos are 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:
See also: Money Matters
The official currency in Turkmenistan is new manat (TMT) = 100 tenge. The US dollar is widely accepted, although it should only be accepted in international hotels or at the airport according to regulations. Credit cards are only accepted in big international hotels and banks in the bigger cities. Only Visa credit cards are currently accepted (MasterCard will be introduced in the near future but it's currently usable only at one single bank in Ashgabat).
Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 tenge, and 1 and 2 manat. Banknotes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 manat.
Turkmen is the official language spoken in Turkmenistan, and in some surrounding countries. Turkmen is one of the Turkic languages and is related to Turkish and Azerbaijani. For travellers Russian is also a very useful language, usually spoken as a second language. A minority of the people in Turkmenistan speak Uzbek.
Some basic expressions in Turkmen are:
yes - hawa
no - ýok
please - baş üstüne
thank you - sag boluň
good morning - ertiriňiz haýyrly bolsun
good evening - agşamyňyz haýyrly bolsun
good night - gijäňiz rahat bolsun
goodbye - sag boluň, hoş
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. Local people prefer to drink gok chai - green tea, often with dried fruits or herbs, as mint.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Turkmenistan. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Turkmenistan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
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 criticise 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 not to criticise 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 colour 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. Also, upon arrival make a copy of your visa page. The scanned documents will almost always suffice.
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.
See also: International Telephone Calls
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Travelled through Turkmenistan in Aug 05 entering with a car at Turkmenbashi (ferry from Baku) and leaving at Turkmenabat to Uzbekistan.
Nobody else is helping for this country so before you have no information you are welcome to ask an one time visitor!! (Who was also deported and is currently banned!) They are strict there!!
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