Where is Turkmenistan and Why Should I Go?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

When you take the map of Central Asia to find out where is Turkmenistan, you have two landmarks to look for: the Caspian Sea and the Karakum Desert. Turkmenistan has the lowest population of the countries in Central Asia, but it’s been here since medieval times, an important crossroad on the Silk Road. 

After long Soviet domination, today Turkmenistan wears its legacy proudly. A lesson of authenticity spread over centuries; this country is still struggling to develop a democratic world for its people.

Turkmenistan’s desert is one of the driest deserts in the world. The desert covers over 80% of the country, but this isn’t a poor country. With huge stockpile of natural gas and oil and impressive production of cotton, Turkmenistan’s economy should go well. 

In the last years, tourism of Turkmenistan has also blossomed. Caspian Sea resorts attract people from all over the world. Don’t forget that you’ll still need a visa for entering Turkmenistan.

But even if you have to respect many rules and do much homework before going on this adventure, a journey to Turkmenistan will teach you a lot. Beautiful nature, desert people, and a very united culture will charm you. 

Best Time to Visit Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is famous for the art of carpets, so they obviously have a Carpet Day.
Turkmenistan is famous for the art of carpets, so they obviously have a Carpet Day.

After you figure it out where is Turkmenistan, you need to know what kind of clothes to pack. Due to the fact that Turkmenistan has a subtropical desert climate, the highest temperature recorded in Ashgabat, the capital, is around 48 °C.

Avoid the summer months. Visit Turkmenistan between March and June or between September and November. The winters can be freezing. Also, the second part of October is not a good time for traveling. On 27th of October, Turkmenistan celebrates Independence Day. The borders are closed from around 20th of October until 1st of November. 

Read more: Where is Uzbekistan?

If you are looking for new cultures and you want to know how people understand life, there are many festivals and celebrations in which you can take part. 

Some say that Turkmenistan has more holidays than days in a year. Nevertheless, joy is never a problem. Here are some of the most popular parties in Turkmenistan:

Flag Day – on 19th of February you can celebrate both Flag Day and the birthday of the first president of Turkmenistan in a grand event at the Olympic Stadium from Ashgabat.

Novruz or Navruz – between 20th and 22th of March, in Turkmenistan like in all Central Asian countries, spring is the star.  Traditional foods, concerts, traditional music and dances, sports events, and visiting relatives are on the agenda.

Turkmen Horse Festival – celebrates the Ahal Tekke horses. It is celebrated every year, on the last Sunday of April. Like all Central Asian peoples, Turkmens are very attached to riding and horses.

Carpet Day – as Turkmenistan is famous for its art of carpets, it is natural that they have a day for celebrating this art. It is celebrated every year, on the last Sunday of May. The star is the Carpet Museum from Ashgabat.

Grain Day – The wheat harvest is the reason for this massive celebration. Held in the third Sunday of July, this is one of the most joyful festivals in Turkmenistan. Considering that they have soup made of flour you can understand how important is wheat in this country.

Melon Day – a country famous for its melons was impossible to miss a melon festival. It is celebrated on the second Sunday of August. 

Independence Day – the largest celebration of Turkmenistan, the reason for closed borders and huge parties in Ashgabat. Concerts, fireworks, and parades are also included. Independence Day is celebrated on 27th and 28th of October.

How to Get Around in Turkmenistan

If you want to discover the roads of Turkmenistan, navigate by car.
If you want to discover the roads of Turkmenistan, navigate by car.

Since 2013, you can enter Turkmenistan by plane. You can also use buses and cars. No passenger train enters the country. Still, you can travel across this country by train, if you have enough time. 

If you are in a hurry, use internal flights. They aren’t very expensive, as fuel price in low in this country. But if you want to explore and discover the geography of Turkmenistan, travel by car. Anyway, hire a local guide or agency if you're going to move around the country.

Read more: Driving in Turkmenistan

This country has a particular regime. Over 90% of the population is Muslim. Wear appropriate clothes, use travel guides and agencies, travel in groups and respect all the local traditions and beliefs. 

  • Government controls everything, and it’s not unusual to see police and military everywhere. Hold on to your visa and do not smoke in public! It is completely forbidden. Some facts to know about Turkmenistan are:
  • You cannot travel outside the capital without a local guide.
  • A man and a woman cannot share a hotel room unless they are married. If you make them suspicious, they will call the police.
  • Police can ask to see your papers anytime, anywhere. Don’t leave without your visa.
  • Homosexuality is illegal.
  • Do not discuss politics or anything related to the President, not even in your hotel. 
  • Smoking is forbidden in public areas. However, indoor smoking is not. You can smoke in specific cafes and restaurants if they allow it.
  • There are places where you are not allowed to take pictures, be careful and ask if you are not sure (official buildings, like the presidential palace, are among them).
  • Some medicines are illegal here, so declare all that you have with you from home when you enter the country.

What to Do in Turkmenistan

Where is Turkmenistan, you can find many beutiful mosques. Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque is just one of the beautiful mosques of Turkmenistan.
Where is Turkmenistan, you can find many beutiful mosques. Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque is just one of the beautiful mosques of Turkmenistan.

History of Turkmenistan is long and rich. There are many amazing places to see here. From ancient archaeological sites to medieval monuments, from cities with such a different civilization to multi-billion dollar construction projects, Turkmenistan can fill the agenda of any traveler. 

Also, Turkmenistan`s nature includes an incredible black sand desert, coastline at the Caspian Sea (which is actually a lake), mountains in the North of the country, several natural reservations, and unique landscapes all over the place.

Start your journey in Ashgabat, the capital of the country. Designed to impress, the capital is dressed in white marble and seems like nothing in the world. Did you ever see boulevards paved with white marble? Well, you’ll see here.

Limit your photography talents to non-military and non-political items, and you will be fine. There are many rules to follow here, but the view deserves it. 

Enter into the Turkmen Carpet Museum to see the art and the hard working masterpiece of Turkmen traditions. They have the largest carpet in the world here. 

Enter the Tolkuchka Bazaar to feel the Asian colors. Let the culture of Turkmenistan get into your soul. There is something magical about the Orient; it will always be. So different and so exotic, the city built to show ambition and glory will definitely astonish you. There is a long list of things to do and see in Ashgabat. Here are just a few of them:

Independence Monument – inspired from traditional tents, this monument commemorates the independence day of Turkmenistan. With an impressive architecture, the memorial is home for three exhibition halls.

Alem Entertainment Center – an impressive building, featuring the largest covered Ferris wheel in the world.

The Wedding Palace – is just a civil registry building, but in Ashgabat, no building is just a building. With modern architecture and colorful lighting during the night, this palace has event halls, cafes, and over 30 shops (all featuring wedding related products).

The Monument to Neutrality – celebrating the permanent neutrality declared in 1995, this monument offers a 360° view over the city.

Ertugrul Ghazi Mosque (or Azadi Mosque) – is a replica of the Blue Mosque from Istanbul and represents the friendship between Turkey and Turkmenistan.

Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque – situated only 7 km away from Ashgabat, this mosque was built in 2004 for the Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov. He was buried in the mosque two years later.

Nisa – this is an ancient place, with a history of millennia. Situated at 18 km away from Ashgabat, Nisa was once the settlement of Iranian peoples. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nisa was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1st century BC, but the excavations revealed an entire city, with buildings, monuments, and shrines.

One of the interesting facts on Door to Hell (or Darvaza gas crater) is that it has been set on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas.
One of the interesting facts on Door to Hell (or Darvaza gas crater) is that it has been set on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas.

To find out where is Turkmenistan and to not visit the Darvaza gas crater is a huge mistake. The "Door to Hell” is a natural gas field, which collapsed into a crater. It is situated in Derweze (Darvaza), in the middles of the desert. Since 1971, Darvaza gas crater has been on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. An apocalyptical view will show you the power of nature. 

Read more: Where is Tajikistan?

Turkmenistan is struggling to get on the tourists' map. A study of the World Tourism Organization said it is the seventh least visited country in the world. 

The resorts recently opened at the Caspian Sea are one of the measures Turkmenistan is taken to improve that situation. Visit Kara Bogaz Gol, a splendid bay, with a different regime. 

It is a separate lake connected with the Caspian Sea through an isthmus. Millions of tons of salt are brought from its large and salty neighbor. This makes the surface of the bay changes and forms crystals and other strange phenomena. Kara Bogaz Gol is a producer of mirabilite, used in chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

What to Eat in Turkmenistan

Where is Turkmenistan? There where melons are a huge part of the cuisine!
Where is Turkmenistan? There where melons are a huge part of the cuisine!

Turkmenistan`s cuisine is a mix of Turkman and Russian cuisine. Try a sturgeon from the Caspian Sea if you traveled so far in the world. Don’t miss a chorba as a starter and also try the lamb meat in any form you like.

Turkmenistan is famous for melons. They love green tea, kefir, and chal (fermented camel milk), but be cautious with the last one because it is very perishable. 

There are several dishes and traditional foods every tourist has to know when a journey to Turkmenistan is in a plan:

Melons – they aren’t a dish, but there are more than 400 varieties of melons in Turkmenistan. They even have a day of celebration. 

Pilav – rice with vegetables and lamb

Agaran, Chal, Kara gurt, Telemeh, Sykman, Sargan – camel and sheep fermented milk dairy products

Chorek – traditional Turkmen bread, baked in a special oven named tandyr. This oven is considered sacred, and its place in the house is the same.

Etli nan – meat in dough, like a cake

Keyikgzheren kebap – considered the national dish of Turkmenistan, this kebap is made from the meat of a young mountain goat.

Kakmach – meat dried in the wind

Gainatma -  a soup made of mutton fat meat and onions

Chekdirme – fried mutton meat

Sturgeon and beluga sturgeon – in the Caspian Sea area eating fish is a tradition. Even the Pilav is made with fish

Balyk shara – marinated meat or salmon roasted with onions

Kazanlama – a desert dish cooked with saxaul

Dograma – a festive dish made of fresh mutton, onions, and bread.

Umpach-zashchi – soup with flour

Kyufta – soup with meat sausages

Baklava – with Turkish origins, this sweet dessert has a particular Turkmen recipe. It is usually made for Navruz.

Pishme – dough fried in oil, very sweet and covered in sugar

Pack your things and visit Turkmenistan

A journey to Central Asia without stepping on the incredible territory where is Turkmenistan will be not nearly perfect. Even if you need to take precautions, to be respectful, and always follow the rules, this country is unique. A mix of Muslim traditions, desert traditions, and a long history of trading and travelers make from Turkmenistan an authentic culture in a rare form. Try their food with so many influences, flavors, and condiments. Admire their art, their customs, and their way of protecting the traditions. Understand their way of life and enjoy a great experience. Discover the world as it is, without pretending, without judging. Nature and people will always surprise you.

Monica Radulescu a freelance writer for aSabbatical.com
Travelling is a joy. It's a way to become a better and wiser person. Mountain paths and road trips are my favourites.