Turkmenistan: Across the sands of the Karakum Desert

turkmenistan Mosque

We started working on planning our Turkmenistan trip back in December, knowing that we’d need a Letter of Invite from a tour company, a package tour, and a visa before arrival- all of which takes time. After receiving our LOI by email, we took it to the Turkmenistan embassy in Tbilisi, where for $55 they issued us a visa (you can also get it done at Ashgabat airport for $87). We let Travel Notoria plan our tour, and we just showed up with a load of cash (no ATMs in Turkmenistan!) after catching a flight on AirDubai.

The flag shows the symbols of the five regions

Ashgabat

We spent the first two days in Ashgabat, which, aside from Pyongyang, might be the strangest capital city we’ve visited. Called the “White (Marble) City”, it has the most marble buildings- 543- monuments, statues, parks, etc. Yes, certified by Guinness Book of World Records and everything. There’s a lot you can’t take pictures of, but we got enough shots that you’ll get the basic idea. Blindingly white and eerily empty by day, the city is transformed into a kind of “neon-Vegas-in-the-desert” vibe by night. Only white or silver cars are allowed in Ashgabat; you can get a ticket for having a dirty car; and smoking is illegal in any outdoor public space.

The White City
Ashgabat at night. Don’t worry- the state pays everyone’s electric bills

Most of the city was planned by the first President of Turkmenistan, who not only renamed himself “Father of the Turkmen”, but he also renamed the month of January for himself, the month of April for his mother, the word for “bread” for his mom, and had himself declared “President for Life”. He even wrote a book called the Runahma, which was basically a spiritual guidebook, and required civil servants to be tested on it- and even students to answer questions on it during their driving exam! Turkmenbashi ruled from 1991-2006, when he died, and the second (and current) President was elected.

A city planned by a megalomaniac

One highlight of Ashgabat was the carpet museum. From rare double-sided carpets, to carpets using over 270 colors in them, to the world’s largest handmade carpet (it was supposed to be the curtain to the Moscow theater but it was too heavy)- it was all really fascinating. They had examples from the five regions of the country, with each region’s distinctive motifs. The guide was really knowledgeable, but each photo cost 11 manats! In the official exchange rate, that’s $3.14, but at the black market rate, only 75¢. (We exchanged our USD at the black market rate of course).

The Carpet Museum

Mary

We left Ashgabat to go see some very old settlements out in the desert. An ancient Silk Road settlement named Abiverd was a particularly pretty stop due to the red poppy field spread out all around. Closer to Mary, we toured Gonur Depe, a city that existed 7000 years ago and was noted in an inscription by Darius I of Persia. A tomb was found here a few years ago that includes four bronze-rimmed cart wheels, evidence of Bronze Age civilization. Both of these settlements have been excavated by archaeologists, but now just sit out untended in the desert, and visitors can walk around them at will. Turkmenistan doesn’t get many tourist visitors per year, which is probably a good thing, because these ancient mud walls which have stood for centuries won’t last long once the Instagram crowd geo-tags them and the tourists start arriving in droves.

Chris at Abiverd ruins
Bronze Age cart wheel

After Gonur Depe, we spent a day driving out to another old city, Merv. It was an oasis that was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. Sacked by the Mongols in 1221, the mud fortresses, mosques, and battlements can still be seen today. We even watched a whole herd of wild camels arrive at the oasis for their daily watering, with baby camels just a couple of days old.

Khan Khala, built by Timur’s son 15th c
A life-saving oasis in the desert

Darvaza Crater

Our final stop in Turkmenistan was the Darvaza gas crater. From Mary, we took a quick 40 minute flight back to the capital, spent the night, and then met our driver the next day. We loaded up with dinner and breakfast supplies at the huge Tolkuchka bazaar, and headed out towards the Uzbekistan border. After a lot of sand dunes and some bumpy four-wheel driving, we arrived at the gas crater. In 1971, an oil rig hit a pocket of natural gas and caused a collapse, losing all the equipment. Geologists decided to burn off the gas, thinking it would just take a week or two. 47 years later…. it’s still going, and it’s quite a sight to see! We stayed in a yurt just a few hundred meters from the crater. It was definitely a highlight of our trip there!

Chris And Deah at Darvaza Crater

Turkmenistan was a fascinating place to visit. Secluded for so long from much of the outside world, they have only recently made their visa requirements a bit easier. Turkmen people still wear traditional hats, scarves, and dresses, and drive around in old Lada cars or in carts pulled by donkeys. Proud of their heritage, but with an eye to the future, change is coming to Turkmenistan, so I’m glad we got it see it when we did.

Turkmen women climbing a sand dune, wearing their traditional scarves