Turkmenistan is one of the least visited nations on earth! Why? Mainly due to nobody knowing of it and an inconvenient visa process requiring tourists who plan on spending more than three days to hire a guide or join a tour. But do not let these obstacles detour you from an incredible journey that you will remember for the rest of your life!
Turkmenistan has no shortage of incredible attractions, but one of my personal favorites involves a social aspect, the “cult of personality” created by the late president, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, translated as “Father of all Turkmens”. In order to go anywhere in Turkmen society, it is recommended you master The "Turkmen Bible", otherwise known as "The Rhunama". This book written by the late president himself, Turkmenbashi, is a long and complex book full of manifestos, poems unproven science and advice. Knowledge of the book is required in order to receive a driver's license, pass school exams and get a job. Not only will you find this popular book in bookstores, but also in a city square in which a larger than life Rhunama statue opens every evening to a random passage is read aloud over a sound system.
The cult of personality does not end with the book and also includes a statue of Turkmenbashi, The Monument of Neutrality, made from solid gold that was built to rotate with the sun. However, in the last few years in an effort to move away from the Turkmenbashi days, they have removed the statue and moved it to a location outside the city center. Other contributions to modern day Turkmen society include the renaming of the word bread after his mother, the renaming of the months and also days of the weeks according to Turkmen national symbols described from his famous book.
So, besides the “cult of personality” attractions probably the most popular attraction is “The Door to Hell” or its official name “The Darvaza Gas Craters”, located in the middle of nowhere in Central Turkmenistan. The crater is the result of a man made disaster, which occurred in 1971 when Soviet geologists tapped into a natural gas filled cavern. This subsequently led to a sinkhole developing that eventually swallowed up the entire gas well operation. The government felt the best way to remedy the situation was to burn the gas off, which continues to burn to this day. However, there have been rumors it may be capped soon, thus doing away with this infamous attraction. So far nothing has happened.
Most tour agencies in Ashgabat should easily be able to arrange a trip out there and if you are feeling really adventurous you could camp out next to the gas crater overnight. However, I recommend checking the weather forecast before you spend the night at the crater since during late fall and spring overnight temperatures can plummet to near 0°. If weather prevents you from setting up camp near the crater, be sure to inquire about having a barbeque picnic there. The entire experience of visiting the “Darvaza Craters” is a mind-blowing experience that you must do when in Turkmenistan!
If you desire to see more than just the “Door to Hell”/Gas Crater, I would highly recommend making a trip to Mary, the nation’s second biggest city. The city serves as a gateway to exploring two of the most incredible monuments on the Silk Road, Merv and Margush, otherwise known as Mouru.
The first highlight, Merv, is one of the most well preserved ancient monuments on the entire Silk Road. Encompassing the territory are several historical mosques, a large fortress and other landmarks varying in degrees of preservation. Walking through the ruins of this once thriving civilization is an amazing experience, which takes your breath away. I would recommend allocating at least a half-day if not more to really absorb all the beauty and feeling of this area.
A visit to Mary would not be complete without a journey out to the ancient UNESCO designated area, Margush or Mouru, site of what was the fifth oldest civilization on the planet. Unlike Merv, which is easy to reach, Margush can present difficulties due to poor road conditions. However, once you reach this incredible ancient monument you will be glad you endured the two hours on a rough, windy, dirt road. Everything about Margush is absolutely unbelievable!!! Thanks to the meticulous work by archaeologists one gets a real feeling and taste of what this once ancient thriving kingdom must’ve been like when it was a major stop on The Silk Road. If you choose to make the trip, be sure to request an archaeologist travel with you or meet you out there since there are no interpretive signs. The trip requires an entire day and a reliable 4-wheel drive vehicle.
The best time of year to visit Turkmenistan is during fall, winter or early spring when the temperatures are not blistering hot. Reaching Turkmenistan from Russia is fairly simple. Both S7 Airlines and Turkmenistan Airlines serve Ashgabat with flights departing daily.
There is so much to see in Turkmenistan that one article cannot even begin to give this enchanted place justice! So………..stay tuned for my next article coming to a screen near you, where I uncover even more hidden gems.