Turkmenistan is a weird and wonderful place, and there’s really nowhere else like it. It definitely fits into the category of “off the beaten path” with only 6,000-ish foreigners entering every year, and very little information about the country circling throughout the rest of the world.
We’ve been running tours to this Central Asian gem for six years and still there are places we’re discovering and exploring.
To be eligible for a tourist visa you’ll need to book a tour through a tourism agency, who will then apply to the State Migration Service for your Letter of Invitation (LOI). Depending on your nationality and exactly what information that you provide them with, the approval rate for most Western passports is about 90%. Once you have the LOI, you can get the visa at any embassy, the airport on arrival, or most land borders on arrival. Once you’ve got the LOI you’re all good – the LOI is the key. To find out more about getting a visa, visit our visa page .
What counts as a tour?
Within Ashgabat you don’t need to be accompanied so can have “free time” to explore the city on your own. However, all your accommodation will still need to be pre-arranged. Outside of Ashgabat though, you must have all your transport booked as well and have an “escort” with you. This might be a driver, or a guide, depending on the exact nature of your trip.
Transit visas have the advantage of not requiring a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from a tourism agency, and thus you don’t need to book a tour or be accompanied while you’re there. However, it’s not just that simple. A transit visa is is only for up to 5 days as an absolute maximum, and you must be literally transiting through the country ie. travelling between two countries that don’t share a border with each other, for example, Uzbekistan to Iran, or Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. You also need to have the visas for both of those countries already approved before you can even apply for a Turkmen transit visa. Transit visas usually take 2-4 weeks to process at most embassies, and unfortunately, about 80% of transit visa applications get rejected, and this number has been steadily rising over the past several years.
Getting In and Out
Most people arrive in Turkmenistan by flying into Ashgabat International Airport, and depart the same way. It’s not a very connected airport, but there are regular flights to and from Dubai, Istanbul, Moscow, and a few other cities around the world. Flydubai, Turkish Airlines, S7 and Turkmenistan Airlines are the main carriers providing these services.
There are also several land borders that it’s possible to cross at, though if you’re doing this, it does need to be stipulated on your itinerary before your LOI is applied for. The main ones are Bajgiran/Howdan between Ashgabat and Masshad in Iran, Shavat/Dashoguz between Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan and Khiva in Uzbekistan, and Farap/Alat between Turkmenabat in north eastern Turkmenistan Bukhara in Uzbekistan. For more information on border crossings, visit our Maps page .
See and Do
Turkmenistan has plenty to offer, from Soviet-exploration disasters, to bizarre dictatorial architecture, to the wonders of the Karakum Desert, and plenty more. Here are a few of our favourite sites:
Not just a capital city, the “white city” of Ashgabat is definitely somewhere worth exploring. Made almost entirely of white marble, trimmed with gold and punctuated with gold statues and depictions of the president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, you’ll come across some of the craziest buildings you’ll ever find.
The Wheel of Enlightenment
The largest enclosed ferris wheel in the world, it's made completely of white marble, with golden trims. Inside there's an arcade, a bowling alley, a space museum, and plenty more. But most importantly, you can take a ride on the wheel itself!
The Monument to the Ruhnama
Like most monuments in Ashgabat, this one is fairly unique. It's a statue of the book that Turkmenbashy wrote, and even used to open every evening alongside recordings of excerpts being read aloud for the public. Unfortunately it doesn't open any more, but it's still well a visit.
The Monument to the Constitution
This is a tall obelisk adorned with the five carpets of Turkmenistan and golden doves to represent peace in Turkmenistan. There is a viewing deck, but unfortunately it's never been opened.
The Arch of Neutrality
This it to represent the fact that Turkmenistan, as acknowledged by the UN, is the only officially neutral country in the world. Sorry Switzerland! The monument is a tripod shape, with three legs, and you can catch a lift up one of them to a museum that houses gifts to the President and a few UN related artefacts. You can then keep going up to a viewing deck for amazing views over the city on one side and the mountains on the other.
Turkmenistan isn't a great place for buying souvenirs, but this bookshop satisfies most visitors. Here you can purchase a huge number of beautiful hardback books written either by or about the president, along with recipe books, old Soviet books, music books, flags, posters, postcards, and there's even a locally produced Ashgabat guidebook now.
The Earthquake Monument
Part of the Monument Complex, it is an imposing statue of a bull tossing a globe around on its horns, a mother rising out of the earth and holding up a small golden baby, which some people think could represents Turkmenbashy. The monument commemorates the earthquake of 1948 which flattened Ashgabat and killed Turkmenbashy's mother and two brothers (his father had already passed away during WWII).
There are three monuments here – firstly the Earthquake Monument, secondly a monument to all the Turkmen heroes of all past wars, and lastly a WWII memorial with an eternal flame. The three monuments are at the top of 300 stairs and flanked by luscious parkland, and behind them is the war museum.
In contrast to the dust and dryness of the Turkmen desert, it's a welcome relief to descend the 100m through a cave to Kow Ata, a natural underground lake. The vibrant blue, mineral soaked, thermal lake, is the perfect place to relax. Unlike most of the sites in Ashgabat, you're unlikely to be the only people here since it's a very popular hang-out spot for locals of all ages, so it's also a great place to experience locals relaxing and enjoying themselves. And if you really want to do it like a local, after your swim you can sit back for a freshly cooked kebab and a cold drink from one of the stands in the car park.
Set in the Kopet Dag mountains very close to the border between Turkmenistan and Iran, Nokhur is a unique village in Turkmenistan. Most of the original tribes have inter-married, lost their roots, and moved around between each other's towns, however the Nokhuris are one of the few tribes that have remained relatively homogeneous. Visiting the village, you can stay in a homestay overnight and visit the unique cemetery in which the graves are adorned with the horns of mountain goats – one of the many relics of ancient tribal beliefs which has been incorporated into their modern Turkmen version of Islam.
Now protected by UNESCO, Nisa was once one of the world's major powerhouses, during its reign as the capital of the Parthian Empire. Nestled into the foothills of the Kopetdag mountains just outside Ashgabat, the city was of course long ago destroyed, but there are still extensive remains that can be visited, and you can still easily make out the shape of the city.
This is a very unique mosque in that it's not dedicated to Islam, the Kuran or Allah, but instead is entirely in honour of, you’ve guessed it, Turkmenbashy (First President, Saparmurat Niyazov). Built in honour of his mother, the magnificent marble walls are adorned with words from the Ruhnama, and the largest handwoven carpet in the shape of star lies in the centre of the mosque. The imposing structure consists of one large gold cupola in the centre, surrounded by four 91m tall minarets (to represent Turkmenistan gaining independence from the USSR in 1991), making it the largest single domed mosque in Central Asia. The mosque is said to be big enough for 10,000 worshippers, but usually it's empty. Built in the small village of Kipchak, which is where Turkmenbashy's family was from, Turkmenbashy's mausoleum is just next door. It's a smaller version of the shimmering white and gold mosque, and is the final resting place of Turkmenbashy alongside his beloved parents and two brothers.
This is the site of the horrific massacre which saw Russia capture Turkmenistan in 1881, under the leadership of General Skobelev. There is a famous quote, which he said in regards to this battle, “the harder you hit them, the longer they stay down”. January 12 th is now Memorial Day, set aside to mourn the loss of some 50,000 Turkmens (mostly civilians), and a turquoise mosque has since been built on the site as a commemoration. The only remains of the battle site that can still be seen are sections of the old wall, and displays about the battle in an adjoining museum.
The Karakum Desert covers the majority of Turkmenistan's land, so unless you just stay in Ashgabat, it's impossible to avoid. Karakum means “black sands”, which it was named during the period of the Silk Road when traders were crossing using caravans of camels. Because of the extreme heat of the Central Asian desert and the lack of modern air conditioning, it was normal to rest during the day and travel only after the sun went down, and so they thought the sand was black.
One guess who this town is named after... you got it, the great Turkmenbashy. Sitting on the Caspian Sea, this is Turkmenistan's port town. It doesn't have the glitz and glam of Ashgabat, or the breathtaking awe of Darvaza, but there is something charming about the simplicity of this ex-Soviet seaside town and you might even get a chance to meet some locals.
This partially built futuristic ghost town, intended to be Turkmenistan's luxury beach resort, is almost entirely void of life at all times. The Caspian Sea coast is lined with extravagant 5-star hotels, leisure centres, swimming pools, nightclubs and restaurants, all white and gold, and mostly depicting bizarre shapes – one is in the shape of a ship for example. The glamorous pocket of buildings is just sitting there waiting for the tourists to stream in, but they never do. Brand new amusement park rides stand there, yet it's just somehow completely lifeless, and aside from an army of cleaners, you may well be the only people there. It is both strangely deserted and eerily quiet, whilst also being bizarrely futuristic and exceptionally opulent.
If this canyon was anywhere else in the world, it would surely be world famous, but hidden in the desert of Turkmenistan, noone's ever heard of this place. It's truly breath-taking as you approach, the streaks of pink, yellow and red which stretch across the steep canyon walls becoming visible from a distance. You can drive up onto the top of the 100m high canyon walls, and peer into the distance to try and make out the end of the canyon, some 25km away through the Karakum Desert.
Mud Volcanoes on Cheleken Peninsula
This has to be one of the weirdest natural phenomena in the world. As a result of small, intense pockets of natural gas bubbling just below the earth's surface, these mud volcanoes are literally a collection of mud hillocks, erupting mud out of them. It's quite a bizarre sight, whether you view from the edge of the mud plains, or get your feet a bit dirty and get up close, as the volcanoes spontaneously simmer and erupt, scattered across the eerie pockmarked landscape.
Named because it really does look like a gateway to the underworld, this is one of the world's most awe-inspiring sights. By itself, right in the middle of the Karakum Desert and only accessible by 4WD, the glow from the fiery pit stretches for miles, taking anyone's breath away. There is not a single signpost, warning sign or barrier, and noone has set up a shop or restaurant. There are a few stories of how it happened, but the most reliable is that the 70m wide crater was the result of an explosion during a failed Soviet exploration in 1971. Completely unaware of how much gas there really was in the deposit, they decided to set the crater alight in an attempt to burn off the vast amounts of natural gas that they knew were seeping into the atmosphere. They thought it would all burn off in a few days, and had no idea that there was in fact a big enough supply there to continue burning for hundreds of years. And so it has been on fire ever since.
The main reasons people visit Dashoguz are because they're on their way to Konye Urgench, or the Uzbek border. The capital of the Dashoguz region, this city is a strange mixture of being a typical Soviet outpost and a mini-Ashgabat, and although it's not quite as exciting as Ashgabat, it is interesting to see other smaller cities too.
Probably Turkmenistan's most famous ancient ruin, Konye Urgench was once a thriving metropolis, but has of course been destroyed many times over the centuries. It is still home though to some of the most interesting mausoleums and buildings in Turkmenistan, including the iconic Gutlug Timor Minaret, which rises 63 metres high, and was once used as a lighthouse to guide caravans through the desert. It's easily distinguishable from other minarets because it isn't attached to a building, and gets considerably narrower towards the top, making it look even more lop-sided than it actually is.
Mary is an important asset to Turkmenistan, being the main centre for the country's gas industry, which contributes the majority of the economy. Similar to the other regional cities in many ways, Mary is primarily used as a launching pad for Merv. Whilst in Mary though, there is a great museum which houses all of the ancient artefacts that have been excavated from Merv, alongside displays of Turkmen carpets, national costumes, and precious stones.
Now preserved by UNESCO, Merv is an ancient Silk Road city. There's a huge expanse that can be visited, and although most of it is in ruins, there are still several buildings that are in tact, including towers, city walls, fortresses, temples and mausoleums. The most famous building in Merv is the mausoleum of Sultan Sandzhar Dar-al-Akhir, which is forty metres tall, with an almost completely intact brick dome at the top. The legend of the Sultan is that he unknowingly married a fairy and when he exposed her secret, she left him and returned to heaven. He loved her dearly though and begged her to stay, so she promised that if he built her a special building, she would return in the form of a pigeon for one night a year for the rest of eternity. This building became the Sultan's mausoleum and locals believe that the small hole in the top of the dome, directly over Sanzhar's grave, is where the fairy pigeon enters once a year to visit her husband.
Turkmenabat is mainly visited by people either crossing at the Farap border (Uzbekistan), or visiting the Koytendag region. If you are travelling through Turkmenabat, the Lebap Regional Museum is well worth a visit. The building itself matches perfectly with the glitzy ministry buildings of modern Turkmenistan, every inch of it covered in either white marble or gold. The two-storey museum is quite impressive with a huge display of all things presidential, dioramas of ancient Turkmen life, a colourful recreation of a traditional bazaar, and even a life-sized yurt. Our favourite part of this museum though is probably the large models of the Dinosaur Plateau, life-size dinosaurs and all, and a vast range of taxidermy of local wildlife.
This area makes the rest of Turkmenistan seem on the beaten path! Surrounded by mountains in the remotest part of the country, already surreal because of just how removed from civilisation you are, this cave is certainly a bizarre sight. The whole thing – ceiling, walls and even the floor – is covered in a peculiar layer of stalactites, which from a distance just look a bit bizarre, but once you look closer, you can see that they are in fact cloth rags. Legend has it that young women (virgins) would make a ball of mud from the ground, then attach a scrap of cloth to it and fling it at the inside of the cave, making a wish for their future – a good husband, many healthy children (especially sons of course), a safe home, etc. If they were able to make their cloth and mud concoction stick to the ceiling or walls, their wish would come true. Over time the tradition developed into a anyone to make a wish, virgin or not, and so the cave is now full of generations and generations of mud pie stalactites. There are plenty of fallen ones, and the ground's always muddy, so if you like, you can even fling your own and make a wish yourself.
Although it may sound crazy, the scientific explanation of this place is that it is the largest repository of dinosaur footprints in the world. There are other places where similar footprints have been found in other countries, but nowhere else has this many. Discovered in 1980, the limestone slab that sits at a 20 degree angle on the side of the mountain, is covered in pre-historic footprints ranging from 20-70cm in size. Although scientifically explained as this, one local legend tells us that the plateau was a place where white elephants gathered to perform sacred dances, and another tells us that the footprints are those of battle elephants brought by Alexander the Great. Regardless of what you want to believe the story to be, nobody can dispute that it's a spectacular sight.
It was a long wait, and they ended up being closed for 3 years for COVID, but the borders have finally re-opened. Read more about it here .