Another one of the Central Asian countries that was sprung back into nationhood following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, Turkmenistan is a very peculiar place, for both good reasons and bad. The good relates to its people, and the marvelous history they possess, as well as the products that they create. Largely a nation of shepherds and nomads, the charm that the Turkmen possess, coupled with the fact that foreign travelers are quite rare in this country, will make you an instant star amongst the locals that you happen upon.
The bad part of Turkmenistan’s peculiarity is that it is a consummate police state. The regime that has been in charge since being sprung free from Soviet Union has retained all the hallmarks of totalitarian control, from secret plainclothes police that throws people in jail for criticizing the government, to strict curfews that keep people off the streets after 11pm at night. The authorities also abuse their position of power to extract bribes from the populace; as foreign visitors, you are not immune from this, lest you have an urge to spend some time occupying a Turkmen prison cell.
Despite the difficulties of navigating this tightly controlled state, there are rewards for braving the Soviet-style bureaucracy present here. This country was part of the Silk Road, and many sites throughout the country reflect this heritage. The mountains and deserts of this country are hauntingly beautiful, and as one of few hardy souls that go through the trouble to come here, you’ll have it all to yourself. Between the attractions you visit, the kindness of the people that call this nation home, and the often hilarious lengths that the cult of personality surrounding the regime (keep it to yourself though!) goes to trumpet its greatness, Turkmenistan is a destination that will be unlike any other you visit in the world.
Currency: Turkmen Manat
Languages: Turkmen, Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh
What To Do
Your journey in Turkmenistan will likely begin in the capital of Ashgabat, and it contains several sites of significance for the visiting traveler. After getting a brief look at the world’s fourth largest freestanding flagpole in the world, head inside to get a glimpse at one of Turkmenistan’s greatest cultural exports at the Turkmen Carpet Museum. The largest collection of Turkmen-style carpets in the world, this repository contains carpets from medieval times straight through to the present day. Some of the bigger ones on display include one that was made for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1941, and a carpet recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest hand woven carpet in the world, made to celebrate 10 years of independence from the Soviet Union.
Heading out of the capital, make tracks for the ancient ruins of Nisa, which are all that remains of the one of the first capitals of the Parthians, an ancient civilization whose ancestors now live mostly in Iran. Having status as one of Turkmenistan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the archeological diggings here have uncovered shrines, a treasury, mausoleums, and much evidence of fortifications, making it quite the important place for the Parthians in their heyday.
Those seeking out Turkmenistan’s Silk Road heritage can find much of it in the old city of Konye Urgench. In medieval times, this place was considered to be among the foremost centres in the Islamic World, with many learned Muslim scholars such as Al Biruni calling Konye Urgench home. Today, there are many mausoleums, mosques, and fortifications that will keep the avid culture junkie busy from dawn ‘til dusk.
Outdoors enthusiasts looking to get out into the arid backcountry of Turkmenistan will want to apply for a pass to visit Kugitang Nature Reserve before coming to the country. Once secured, you will have access to the Kugitang Mountains, home to an endangered species of wild mountain goat. Also interesting about this region is the presence of preserved footprints of dinosaurs (Megalosaurus), 400 in all, that are about 150 million years old.
Finally, if you surf the internet for surreal travel pics much, chances are you will have come across a picture of the infamous Door to Hell. Located in Turkmenistan, this feature was created when an oil rig hit natural gas, causing an explosion which collapsed the cavern beneath. Rather than put the fire out, which would cause deadly sour gas to float down to the nearby town, they let it continue to burn, and to the present day, the fire burns unabated, creating the effect of it being the Door to Hell, especially after the sun has set for the day.
What To Eat
Turkmenistan bears many similarities to cuisine in other Central Asian countries (such as their love for Plov, a popular Uzbek dish), but there are also foods that are unique to this country. Those just seeking a quick snack, or perhaps a starter before the main course comes out, will have some Manty, a steamed dumpling that contains of lamb with onion and potatoes, seasoned with pepper.
A popular soup that many Turkmen enjoy would be Chorba, a staple that keeps many warm on a chilly winter’s day. The combinations for this dish are multivariate, but almost always contain mutton, along with a variety of vegetables.
Those seeking even heartier fare usually opt for Gutap, which is a flatbread pie. It contains a variety of ingredients ranging on the type, but it usually contains meat, potatoes, spinach, pumpkin or squash.