Turkmenistan travel guide
It’s an accomplished geographer who can confidently point to Turkmenistan on a map. Despite being similar in size to Spain, this Central Asian nation remains well under most people’s radar.
There are two reasons for this. One is that Turkmenistan is a country comprised largely of barren desert and untamed terrain – hardly a big draw for tourists. But the main reason for its obscurity can be traced to Turkmenistan’s autocratic government, which has been compared to the regime of North Korea.
At the helm of this ex-Soviet state is President Berdymukhamedov, who promotes a Kim Jong-un style personality cult in which he and his inner circle enjoy absolute power over every aspect of life. Consequently, according to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is one of the most repressed countries in the world, a place where "human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisals.”
If you’re not put off by repressive regimes, Turkmenistan is a destination that offers one thing most others don’t: the chance to travel across the country without seeing other travellers. The isolation is palpable.
The brave few who do make it here usually arrive via the capital, Ashgabat. This modern city was built in 1948 after an earthquake destroyed the previous incarnation. Visitors can learn more about this devastating event at the touching Earthquake Museum, one of the city’s finer attractions.
Many of Ashgabat’s other landmarks take on a Soviet flavour – Independence Square, the Arch of Neutrality, numerous Lenin statues – but there are also mosques, galleries and gardens. The Altyn Asyr bazaar is worth a visit too, especially if you’re in the market for a Turkmen carpet.
Outside the capital, almost all of the country’s attractions lie around the fringes of the desert. Some of the world’s most powerful empires settled here and their crumbling legacies can be seen at the Parthian Fortress of Nisa, Kunya-Urgench and Merv, which are all UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites. And quiet ones at that.
488,100 sq km (188,456 sq miles).
5,438,670 (UN estimate 2016).
10.7 per sq km.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov since 2007.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov since 2007.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Incidents of mugging, theft and pick pocketing are rare, but take sensible precautions and keep valuables out of sight. You should avoid going out alone late at night as after midnight the police and security forces are suspicious of people on the streets. Unaccompanied women in particular may draw their attention.
Turkmen border crossings can be subject to occasional and unannounced closures.
Certain areas of the country, particularly border areas, are designated restricted zones and require special permission to enter. The borders with Afghanistan and Iran are particularly sensitive. Ashgabat, the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi, and the ancient Silk Road city of Merv/Mary are not in restricted areas. Check with your local tour guide before travelling outside the capital.
You can drive in Turkmenistan using an International Driving Permit.
Driving standards are poor. Road travel at night outside cities is particularly dangerous because of the condition of the roads. There is a 60k speed limit in much of Ashgabat, enforced by both static speed cameras and police with mobile speed cameras. There are no signs warning that speed cameras are in use.
Seat belts, if fitted, should be worn at all times.
Licensed taxis are clearly identified and yellow in colour. Although taxis have meters, drivers will usually ask foreign nationals for a set fee of around 20 Manat. Taxis from the airport cost more. Some taxis might also ask for payment in dollars. You should be cautious about this as it’s against the law. Most taxi drivers do not speak much English. Don’t use unlicensed taxis.
Rail travel is slow and can be uncomfortable. If you have to travel overnight, keep valuables in a safe place. Don’t leave the compartment unattended. Lock the door from the inside.
We can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
In 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Turkmenistan.
A list of incidents and accidents in Turkmenistan can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
It is not clear whether maintenance procedures are always properly observed on internal flights.
The political situation is calm. Nonetheless, there is traditionally a relatively high level of security in Turkmenistan. You should avoid demonstrations or large gatherings of people.
The state-owned mobile telephone provider in Turkmenistan, Altyn Asyr, does not provide a roaming service, and the quality of the network is low. Roaming is however provided by a Russian service provider, MTS, which re-entered the Turkmen market in 2012. It is possible to purchase a local SIM card.
Internet connections outside the larger hotels can be unreliable and many social media and sites, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are blocked. Some messaging Apps, such as Whatsapp, are also blocked. Access to Yahoo, gmail and hotmail are currently proving difficult.