Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most reclusive countries. For individual travellers, the almost only way to travel to Turkmenistan is on a transit visa. Otherwise you have to book a tour – even if it is a “private tour”, the tour guide would be with you all the time. Travelling Turkmenistan with a private guide and driver makes it a quite expensive and also very nannied experience.
The very first newspaper travel article that we wrote and got published in a German newspaper, back in 2006, was about a transit through Turkmenistan in 2006. Then-president Turkmenbashi played a major role in this extraordinary travel experience. „Unzugänglich and bizarr“ (unapproachable and bizarre) we had titled it and by some mistake the „unzugänglich“ was printed as „unzulänglich“ – meaning „unsatisfactory“. Some of the obeservations we made back then are still valid, but a lot has changed.
Applying for a transit visa to Turkmenistan
In order to move freely, we wanted to go again on a Turkmen transit visa, which we had already done in 2006 (see: Mr. T. – Leader of the Turkmen people). Back then we came from Bukhara in Uzbekistan and took the ferry over the Caspian sea to Baku in Azerbaijan.
This time we applied for our tranist visa in Tehran and picked it up two weeks later in Mashhad. This procedure went surprisingly smooth considering that it seemed somewhat unorganised. You cannot get the application forms beforehand or online. The Tehran embassy only opens erratically and when it opens for half an hour or so you can join a crowd around a small window in the wall to hand in your documents. In addition, we never got any receipt about our application in Teheran. But the consulate in Mashhad willingly gave us the visa, valid for 5 days and almost as we had applied for it. They changed the exit point but not the dates, all of which has to be clearly specified and cannot be changed.
Sightseeing in Ashgabat
We spent several days sightseeing in Ashgabat and the surrounding areas. 9 years on, the country has changed considerably and Ashgabat in particular is a very modern and glittering city – mentioned in the Guiness Book of World Records as the city with the highest concentration of marble-plated buildings. They even cover the old Soviet ready-made apartment blocks with marble.
The inhabitants are very friendly, but rather disinterested in foreigners. Indeed, Turkmenistan is rich enough not to need tourists. In fact in some areas it gives the impression of not wanting them, either.
Official photophobia – which we know from other Central Asian countries – extends from government buildings, border facilities and military to all kinds of buildings, monuments, and markets, in fact most of the capital Ashgabat. Taking pictures of holy places such as saints’ graves also elicits aggressive shouts and shoves from the guardians.
Turkmenistan has a number of top-quality sightseeing spots as well, but the amazing museums in Ashgabat are devoid of tourists. Most Turkmen people don’t even know about the (fantastic) carpet museum, and the few foreign tourists don’t visit because a guided tour costs over 30 $ per person (we opted for the unguided 12 $ entrance fee, again no photos inside).
Outside the capital
We also visited historical places such as Nisa, the ancient Parthian capital, and the Silk Road city of Anau.
Once outside Ashgabat, Turkmenistan appears rather less modern.
From Ashgabat we went to Kunya Urgench near the Turkmen-Uzbek border. The town is famous for its pre-mongolic architecture and the most beautifully decorated inner dome of the whole region.
No more marble-clad buildings are to be seen in the small town of Kunya nearby. The only hotel in town is so overpriced and so run-down and unfriendly that we asked around for private accommodation. We were lucky and a cheerful Uzbek woman took us in who has practically no furniture, no bathroom, no running water and half the day no electricity due to power cuts. And that is in an oil-exporting country!
It’s a discrepancy that most Ashgabat residents probably can’t imagine exists in their country.
Why we recommend a transit visa for Turkmenistan
Overall, a transit visa is a very good option for seeing more of the country than would be possible with an overprotective guide. We moved around by public transport (taxi, shared taxi, public bus). This was quite easy and very cheap. As for accommodation, we stayed in an overpriced but not horrendously expensive hotel in Ashgabat (50$ a night) and in a private home in Kunya.
In Ashgabat, we visited the very good National Museum and the Carpet Museum and several markets. We also went to Nisa and Anau nearby, and near Kunya the extensive ruins of the old town of Konye Urgench.
NB: Our travels to Turkmenistan was not sponsored in any way. We paid all travel expenses ourselves.