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.