Turkmenistan. 2023 travel guide – Independently explore this mysterious country!
Turkmenistan is one of the most fascinating yet secretive countries in the world and therefore can be one of the most difficult to independently travel through. But, the effort is worth the reward. Sometimes called the North Korea of Central Asia – it is notoriously difficult to gain access to this landlocked central Asian country which sits on a historically crucial ancient Silk Road junction with a history dating back four thousand years to 2000 BC and the breakup of ancient Persia. The reward for entry? Incredibly welcoming locals, the fiery “gates of hell”, a gleaming capital city like no other, thousand-year-old mausoleums, ancient Persian ruins, and beautiful nature await the intrepid traveler. My wife and I plus two equally adventurous friends recently traversed Turkmenistan for 7 days and had an incredible time – below are the details.
Entry and Exit
We entered overland from Uzbekistan at the Dashoguz and exited from Ashgabat airport. Turkmenistan overflows with amazing sights, incredible contrasts, and absolutely beautiful people through and through. We had a seamless trip. There are shiny new white marble ghost towns, true. But there are also less shiny parts of Dashoguz and Ashgabat where it’s a completely different vibe, bustling with energy and full of people. It’s important to know these areas exist because some of our best memories were interacting with curious and friendly locals thanks to 2.5 days of guide-free wanderings in Dashoguz and Ashgabat. Many of the young people we met were super plugged in and curious about the outside world. Everyone was lovely and generally shy, respecting your privacy and leaving you alone. But if you break that friendly barrier and speak to anyone they open up, welcoming the opportunity to chat. We made new friends in Dashogus who invited us to spend the day with them. A family in Ashgabat humbly paid for our dinner one night. Everyone will ask for your Insta, which is technically illegal but plastered everywhere even on advertisements and businesses.
We arranged a custom semi-independent / semi-guided itinerary which cost us $647 per person, for 7 days, including guide, hotel, transport, 2 flights, train, cars, etc. Not including Lunch/dinner, visa, drinks, and circus 😀 Meals are around $5 – $10, beers or soft drinks $1. We exchanged money $1 USA = 18 – 19 Turkmenistan Manat at the time. There is a black market in Turkmenistan and if you don’t use it, then costs are exponentially higher at the official exchange rate of $1 USA = 3.5 Turkmenistani Manat. Two of us needed less than $100 extra spending money in the entire week….for all our meals, drinks, and extras. Not expensive.
Visa & LOI
You must be invited to Turkmenistan by the State Migration Services. They will issue you a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which will grant you a Visa on Arrival (VOA) at the border. Ours was arranged through a local guide named Artem @ email@example.com who I recommend. I had previously tried to go down the independent transit visa route (not available post-pandemic) and it was much more cumbersome to arrange. Tourist visas without a guide are not possible.
Required visa info:
- application form
- copy of passport
- covid vaccination photo
- copy of university diplomas.
We were a group of 5, which included: 2 USA, 1 Nica, 1 German, & 1 Lithuanian. 4 received LOI approval, and 1 was denied (Lithuanian). Apparently, the government researches you. Checks out your social media, online presence, background, etc. Of note, we all had different itineraries which were all able to be accommodated in a single semi-independent “tour”. 3 of us arrived together at Dashoguz border, and 1 arrived two days later at ASB airport. 3 of us departed from ASB while 1 departed at Dashoguz Border. Cost for Visa was around $57 USD + $12 migration tax +$35 PCR.
3 of us started our journey in Khiva, Uzbekistan. I arranged a taxi for $20 (per taxi) from here to the Turkmenistan border. This is the standard cost. Driver contact info: Ganisher +998885135311. I randomly met this driver in Khiva while looking for a supermarket. It’s a family business so they have multiple cars. Professional, the communication was good, he was kind and on time picking us up for the 2 hr drive. If he is unavailable ask him for another driver, or where to find them.
This was painless on the Uzbek side. Then you will wait in the desert for a free bus that takes you to the Turkmen side. There is an funny little outhouse in case you need to use the toilet in no-mans land. A nice touch. The bus runs every 20 min or so. The Turkmen border is simple, but a long process. It’s a LONG process. You will: 1) take PCR test for 35 USD (yes still required, 2) then start passport processing, and 3) payments. When we crossed they told us they haven’t had many Americans cross, not sure why this was relevant. They called our guide to come to meet us at the border. Overall the Turkmen side took over 2 hrs. Each of us had to sign 18 papers! I have 18 receipts!!! They will xray your bags. Overall $110 USD total for everything. There is a nice border guard who speaks English, and his Mom is in Brooklyn. From the border its a 30 min ride to the town of Dashoguz where we started our explorations of Turkmenistan.
Our Itinerary: Organized by Days:
- Border Dashoguz (Uzbek side name is Shavat) – Dashoguz, (full free day in Dashoguz) 21:25 VIP Train coach from Dashogus to Ashgabat.
- Ashgabat arrival ( free day in Ashgabat).
- Ashgabat city tour + Nisa fortress and Turkmenbashy mosque. Evening flight to Mary.
- Mary / Merv, Merv History Park. Alexandria in Margiana, Antiochia in Margiana, Mary al-Shahijan remains. 2pm flight from Mary – Dashoguz to see Kunya Urgench.
- Drive from Dashoguz – Darwaza gas crater, 315 km, see Izmukshir fortress. See gas crater at day/ nighttime. Overnight in Yurts near crater.
- Drive Darwaza – Ashgabat, 255 km inc. visit other gas craters after Darwaza. Drive to Ashgabat. In Ashgabat pm we had a free night, went to the circus and did a night drive in Ashgabat to see the town in lights.
- Leave Turkmenistan on morning flight from ASB – IST, one member departed in the evening on a night train to Dashoguz.
We had a free day to explore Dashogus, and this ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Not because of the incredible abundance of sights, but mainly due to the people we encountered. At the Millenium Cafe, we met a lot of locals and were invited to a large party, we helped make advertisements and videos for a couple restaurants that had started up, and were invited to a wedding at one point.
It was a bizarre entry into what we expected was going to be such a closed-off tightly controlled country. There are some sights in Dashoguz but don’t go out of your way to see them. That evening we left on an overnight train to Ashgabat. It was the same style but much nicer quality than the ones we took in Uzbekistan. We booked an entire cabin for $30. In the latter half of our trip we returned to Dashogus and met a kind lady who really loved showing us how Samosas were made (random: not part of the tour). At the same place there was an Ice cream girl who was super happy to meet my wife, absolutely loved her.
They chatted for a while and had ice cream. She was super excited to show my wife her ice cream business. So cute. We returned to the Millennium cafe, like celebrities arriving back home from some long trip away. On this second journey to Dashoguz, we visited Kunya Urgench which was impressive, but not life-changing.
After our overnight train journey, bisecting Turkmenistan, we arrived on a train and were picked up and dropped off at our hotel by our guide. Another day free to explore by ourselved. All the white buildings are a marvelous sight, but one peculiarity that surprised me was the rules stipulating all cars must be white. Silver is also cool. If you visit with a red car or a dirty car then you must park in giant car parks outside the city and take a bus into the city. On our first day, we checked into Ak Altyn Hotel, next to the Circus. It’s not fancy, but it was in the old part of town, and walkable to many shops, restaurants and cafes.
During our full free day, we walked around Ashgabat, just the 3 of us – with no guide.We seemed to catch a lot of places by surprise and got yelled at for taking pictures, a lot. It was completely different on the following day when we were with our guide being escorted around. It seems there must be a briefing of sorts, preparing the city for tourists. One highlight was the Berk Garden pub next to the Saudi embassy which had $0.50 draft beer, only 10 manat, and there were 4x draft choices wheat, dark, white, and unfiltered! The setting is incredible with a beautiful garden, full of trees and fountains where you can sit and be served. There is also a dancefloor which is quite lively in the evenings.
We ate dinner at a place near our hotel, where we chatted with a friendly couple who surprisingly paid for our meal. They also asked us to join them for dinner at their apartment the next time we were in the city, but unsure if this was allowed. We were told its illegal, but really have no way to verify.Our 2nd day in Ashgabat – was our guided tour day and we left the bustling old city for the quiet, shiny white marble, but still beautiful, new city which is impeccably clean and feels a bit abandoned. Here we saw the normal sights. They opened and turned on the Indoor Ferris wheel just for us 3. Entry is 15 cents. We were the only ones there, but it was really fun.
We also saw Independence Park, Neutrality monument x2, a park with warriors around it, the marriage ball globe & hotel building, and a large mosque outside the city (where I took a hyperlapse and our guides / the Turkmenistan Security services thought I had vanished for a moment). This was interesting because for the first time, I realized how much we were being watched 4 men with walki- talkies came out of the bushes while I was filming my hyper-lapse because apparently the state security had momentarily lost track of me for a minute and they thought I had disappeared. The men were visibly stressed and panicky but relieved to find me. Everyone calmed down when I was friendly and they realized I was just filming. In the evening we went to the domestic airport and flew to Mary on Turkmenistan Air!
At the end of our trip, we returned to Ashgabat and had another free day to explore. We were allowed to take public transportation, buses, and taxis with no issues. On our last day we met some locals in the city had dinner at a nice restaurant in a part atop one of the old Independence monuments, and went on a side trip to the Circus. Which was hysterical. They had monkeys, camels, acrobats, horses, poodles pushing carts containing other poodles, etc. We were invited on stage to perform a short opera tragedy, the whole experience was hilarious.
Mary (aka: Merv)
At the domestic airport it was a bizarre check-in experience, but an otherwise normal (delayed) flight. Airport tip. Liquids are allowed. You will see people bringing 6 packs of 2-liter bottles of Coke onto the plane. Full cakes. Many bottles of pickles. (??!?) Baskets of fruit. The list goes on. In Mary on arrival we had a nice night walk through the city: mosque, river, etc. Nothing is open past 9pm. Our hotel, the Margush Hotel had 1hr massages for $3. But, strangely beers were way overpriced at $5.
Visiting Merv the historical sights were incredible. The castle walls are still visible, and countless ruins where you can imagine how incredible a city it once was. We also saw a Sultans mausoleum which was very impressive. To do all this we had hired a local guide, which was arranged by Artem, the same guide we used in Ashgabat.
“Gates of Hell” Aka: Darvaza Gas Crater
It is a lonnnnng bumpy ride to Darvaza Gas Crater. Your driver will weave around all the holes on the horrible road, so it gets a bit dizzying at times. Not a lot to report other than it’s beautiful, and we didn’t see any public transport on this route (no buses, etc.), and the craters themselves are a ways off the main road. It seems Darvaza would be very difficult to do it 100% independently without a driver, using only public transit.
Once we were at Darvaza we set up camp at a set of nearby yurts (10 min walk over a small hill, not the ones immediately next to the craters).Sunrise was amazing. The craters are a pretty amazing sight. There are some not-as-fiery craters nearby, a water one, and one with bubbling mud.
International Airport and departure from Ashgabat / immigration.
I had one of the most hilarious immigration experiences exiting ASB. At passport control, the officer asked me, “Ahh USA? Who is the best president?” I wondered who Turkmenistan would like, and guessed…”Obama?” He said, “No no no.” So then I guessed wrong again. Finally, the agent said, “Trump, he started no wars!” I said, “Ummmm, ok?” Then the officer pulls up an infographic of each president and the wars each of them started during their presidency.” I then said, “ Ah yes, Neutrality! Turkmenistan loves neutrality” He laughed, and said, “Yes, you know Turkmenistan!” and joked that I had passed the test and it was now okay for me to leave. After that, we just hung out chatting for 5 minutes laughing about random things. It was one of the best border crossings ever.My wife was super curious about what was taking so long. I think she started to get worried since we had been chatting for so long.In retrospect, I find it hilarious, and a bit curious that he just happened to have that infographic of US Presidents, and the wars they started, already pulled up on his phone. While waiting on my flight I was chatting with a local who told me all Turkmen go through extra screening in a separate room when they leave. One of the things they are looking for is gold and gems. Interesting.
Turkmenistan in Summary
Looking back – Turkmenistan is a safe & fascinating country, with some incredible sights, and welcoming people. Its a bit of a struggle to arrange the visa, loi, and a guide that allows independent travel but the reward is a country that sees few tourists and has a lot to explore.