Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million km2, or almost the size of Spain. Neighboring countries are Iran and Afghanistan to the South, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North. It has a coast on the Caspian Sea, but is otherwise landlocked. Nearly 80% of the country is considered part of the Karakum Desert.
Turkmenistan is one of just two Stalinist countries in existence (the other being North Korea) and the government is in firm control of nearly everything, although, surprisingly, tourism is welcomed as long as you don't discuss politics or omnipresent police/military. The cult of personality the previous president created for himself is truly amazing and reminders of the Turkmenbashi's legacy are everywhere.
The traditional life of the Turkmen is that of nomadic shepherds, though some have been settled in towns for centuries. The country is known for its fine carpets (one is even featured in its flag) and horses. It is a fairly poor country even though billions have been spent on construction in Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi in post Soviet times. The country has extensive oil and gas reserves being developed, with recently opened pipelines to China , Iran, and soon Azerbaijan.
North Korea may get all the press, but even Kim Jong-Il's cult of personality fades when compared to the surreal totalitarian state set up by Turkmenistan's all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15-meter tall golden statue that rotates to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat. The month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after himself, while the month of April and the word "bread" became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of Niyazov's mother. Decrees emanating from Niyazov's palace have banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. Through it all, Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great (his official title) remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said.
Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death in December 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow has slowly peeled back the worst excesses of the Turkmenbashi, restoring pensions and old names, but is slowly working on his own cult of personality.
The people of Turkmenistan are predominantly Turkmen, also spelt Turkoman, in both ethnicity and language. Turkmenistan traditionally was home to sizable Russian and German populations, but they largely emigrated to their mother countries following the break up of the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert, with intensive agriculture located in irrigated oases. One-half of its irrigated land is planted with cotton, making it the world's tenth largest producer.
Historically, most of these towns were oases along the Silk Road.
Pay a visit to 'Kow Ata' underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in - unless you're handy with your towel.
Most all nationalities need a visa to enter Turkmenistan. For independent travel, a short transit visa can be obtained, but a full visa may be difficult. Most border guards are young conscripts and a small bribe can ease your entry at the border and roadblocks.
Arranging a tour will make things much easier, as the company can help in getting the LOI and visa. Bear in mind that you might well have to be met by a guide, regardless of how you enter Turkmenistan. This can be particularly important, especially if your inward journey is delayed as is possible when entering across the Caspian Sea by boat.
Turkmenistan Airlines has direct flights to Ashgabat from London and Birmingham, used predominantly by the British Sikh community as a transit point for further flight to India and Pakistan. Look out for the portrait of Sapamurat 'Turkmenbashi' Niyazov at the front of the cabin.
Turkish Airlines flies to Ashgabat from Istanbul . Lufthansa also flies from Frankfurt to Ashgabat.
There is a railway connection to Russia and Iran but no train crosses the border at any point of the country.
Since no public transportation goes across the Turkmen border, to get to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan from Mashhad (Iran), the following option is the most convenient:
Internal flights are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines which flies daily between Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi, Dashoguz and a couple other destinations. Flights are subsidised, and due to fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around $5 US for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines operates with a new fleet of Boeing 737s, purchased in 2001. Be aware that you might not be able to photograph freely in and around the airport, though this is not unheard of elsewhere.
The Amu Darya is an important inland waterway for Turkmenistan.
At least in Ashgabat, like in much of the former Soviet Union, "taxis" are mostly unofficial - and can be hailed by flagging down a car by the roadside. Haggle, and agree on the destination and price in advance - knowledge of Russian will definitely come in handy at this point.
The usual sensible precautions apply here. If your instincts suggest that something might be not quite right, then it's best to go with your instincts.
Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.
It is possible to travel by train between some of the major cities in Turkmenistan, but journeys are slow (up to 16 hours from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi) - so unless you have a specific interest, plane travel is the best way to get around the country.
Expect distinctly average Russian cuisine in restaurants. As in Uzbekistan, plov and more central Asian-type fare can be found in markets.
If you can find it, try sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, sometimes prepared in a 'tempura' style.
Look out for a range of 'Turkmenbashi' labeled vodka, which can be washed down with the range of Russian 'Baltika' brand beer. Tea is excellent and readily available.
Best to err on the side of caution, and stick with bottled water. As in Russia , you may want to specify byehz gah-zah (literally, 'without gas' or 'still; plain') if you do not like fizzy water. 'Borjomi' mineral water from Georgia is available in Ashgabat's shops.
Turkoman rugs are famous, tending towards rich reds with geometric patterns. Sometimes they are called Bokhara rugs because Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan was a center for their trade. Turkoman designs are now often copied in India and Pakistan.
The classic book on Turkoman rugs is "Tappiseries de l'Asie Centrale", in Russian and French
by AA Bogolyubov, Tsarist governor of Turkmenistan, 1905. It was a limited edition with hand-painted illustrations, now rare and extremely expensive. A translation (the original French plus English), "Carpets of Central Asia", was published in Britain in the 60s. Even it is now hard to find and expensive. However, if you intend spending a lot on these carpets, it is definitely worth reading. Look for it in libraries.
Why not add to your own despotic library by adding Turkmenbashi's self-penned 'Ruhnama' book, exploring his views on what it means to be a Turkmen. Surprisingly, this is a fairly sensible read.
Around 70% of the people in Turkmenistan speak Turkmen, and 50% speak decent Russian.
Most Turkmen will respect you if you respect them. They detest being called Russians or Soviets.
It is possible to take photographs relatively freely in Turkmenistan. However, you are best advised to exercise caution when photographing anyone in uniform or government buildings. In Ashgabat, there are uniformed police/military on every street corner. Play it safe early on in your visit to give yourself an idea of what is acceptable.
It should not be necessary for your guide to accompany you if you wish to leave your hotel, and go for a wander.
Do not under any circumstances criticize the president, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since the Turkmenbashi's death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state.
The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Supurmurat Niazov is still sold, and still learned in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best regarded to not criticize the former President as well.
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Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7% - Turkmen manat (TMM)