Updated: Oct 18
What is it like visiting one of the least accessible countries in the world? Thought-provoking, and surprisingly, welcoming.
With one of the toughest tourist visa processes, and repressive regimes, we had little information on what to expect in this fascinating Central Asian country. This isn’t a country that you can just step into and do a typical ‘vacation’. Social media is completely banned and internet is heavily monitored.
Long touted as 'North Korea with oil', this Central Asian country sees five times fewer visitors than North Korea - that shouldn’t scare you though. In fact, that's why I wanted to visit. What we experienced was the classic Central Asian hospitality.
Land. Immigration. Spend two days in Ashgabat
Erbent, camping overnight in Darvaza
Darvaza morning tour, drive to Nokhur Village, stopping enroute in historical monuments
Nokhur Village local family and valley hikes. Drive back to Ashgabat for the night.
Head to airport
TABLE OF CONTENTS
FLIGHTS + VISA We flew from Dubai to Ashgabat with Fly Dubai. It's a very short 2.5 hour flight.
Now, the visa, is a bit trickier. Note that there is a high chance of rejection, so plan ahead of time and leave room to reapply.
📌 First, find a reliable local guide who is familiar with the way of the land. My recommendation is @stantours_ who have been doing this for 20 years.
📌 You then inform them of your travel dates. They apply for a letter of Invitation with the Ministry of Tourism on your behalf. The letter could take up to three weeks.
📌With this letter of invitation, you can get a visa on arrival at the Ashgabat airport for $99. If there is an embassy where you live, you can also get a visa stamped before going. There is an embassy in UAE, but we got our LOI just 2 days before flying out, hence we opted to get the visa on arrival.
📌 Have confirmed travel dates - the LOI and the Visa on Arrival is often issued only for 7-10 days, you may not able to plan for a trip longer than that.
📌 Carry cash in dollars - get your guide to exchange local currency once there!
📌 We were one of the first tourists to enter the country post-pandemic, so everything is still ‘new’ - be patient. It will be just fine.
Even in the capital, we struggled. No one outside of Ashgabat speaks a word of English. You will need a local guide to help you, unless you speak Russian.
BEST TIME TO VISIT Like in any Central Asian country, the summers can get really uncomfortable. Between March- May or October & November is the best time to visit.
You HAVE to carry dollars. Money exchange can only be done through the guide as well. So carry enough to tide you through for a few days. DON'T even think of exchanging money in the 'black market'
Independent travel is NOT an option here. You will need a guide for a letter, to take you around and for everything else.
This trip, inclusive of accommodations for all days but without the flight and on arrival visa cost was $590 per person.
PHOTOGRAPHY - dos and don'tS
Be very careful about taking photographs of the presidential palaces, police stations, cops. There is a no photography rule and you will find guards everywhere, watching you like a hawk. Don't try to be cheeky just to get in trouble. Follow the rules of the land.
HOW MUCH TIME TO SPEND IN THE COUNTRY
How much time spend depends on how many days you get the LOI for. Usually it is 7-10 days at the most. In 5 days, you can cover this itinerary I shared without rushing. If you have more time, include a few more hikes.
WHERE WE STAYED?
In Ashgabat we stayed in Ak Atyln Hotel - we liked that it was centrally located, with grocery markets and a nice cafe near by.
In Darvaza, we stayed in the Yurt. Loved the whole experience of cooking pizza in the sand - what a treat.
In Nokhur Valley, it was a home stay with one of the oldest families in town. They treated us like one of their own. Traditional carpets await, don't expect a bed but I promise, it will be a very comfortable sleep.
VEGETARIAN + VEGAN FOOD
As is the case in any Central Asian country, meat is a staple. So you will be having a lot of old bread and labneh, some salad along the way. There are two cafes that I recommend you try when in the city. They both had wonderful vegetarian options and fantastic service. One of them is Sha Cafe and the other one is Uzum Cafe. 10/10 from us for variety and freshness.
Say hello to the whitest city in the world. Easily one of the quirkiest cities we have ever been in. It currently holds a Guinness World Record for being the city with most marbled buildings in the world. Another interesting fact is that people are only allowed to drive white or LIGHT color cars in the capital. If you have a red, blue or black color - repaint. Yeah, for real.
To say this city is GRAND would be an understatement. It’s home to some seriously alien-looking buildings but it’s also an architectural marvel. Each building represents something of significance in Turkmen history. Once you get to used to the strict photo policy, it may even grow on you.
We spent two days here but if you only have one day, then these are some of the iconic things that are completely unique:
📌 Panoramic view of the white city
📌 Independence Monument with huge golden statues of gargoyles alongside the first President 📌 10 Horse Monument with golden statues of the national horse, Akhal-Teke.
📌 Amazing ministry buildings - this one is Ministry of Knowledge, and it’s an open book!
📌 We went here three times, it was our favorite place to find veggie food - Sha Cafe 💯
📌 Inspiration Park - a park lined with beautiful fountains and ponds, and massive structures of old poets and scholars of Turkmenistan.
📌 Ertugrul Gazi Mosque - similar to the blue mosque in Istanbul minus the crowd
One the way to Darvaza, we made a stop at a local village for lunch.
There is a quaintness in Erbent village, where you can see people still living traditional semi-nomadic lives. One of the most profound sight here is of a nun standing over the burial ground of the men slain in the battle against Soviet Union.
Saparmurat Hajji Mosque
Erected in memory of the soldiers, defenders of the fortress Geokdepe. This is an international mosque - the printed tiles are from Germany, the ornate door is from Morocco and it was built by a French company 🏽
Built by the former president. It’s not a real mosque though. On the columns you see inscriptions from the Ruhy book he wrote and not the Quran. Fo003r a place that is not a mosque, this is all kinds of epic...
It’s even MORE grand on the inside if you can imagine that!
Darvaza or Gates of Hell
Darvaza or “gates of hell” is unfortunately, not a natural phenomenon, but a manmade disaster. It is actually an experiment gone wrong. There are lots of geeky facts like the flame would never ever go out and no amount of water can put it out. I won’t oversell it or drown it in hyperbole.
Why then is it still a great place to be? Our stay at the Yurt - just our yurt like in Kyrgyzstan, it was wonderful and so spacious. We are always camp people and never a miss chance to camp out anywhere. With nothing but stars for company, we could hear the roaring fire even hundred meters away. This camp view of the darvaza was my favorite moment from the night.
Needless to say, the full effect has to be felt at this time of day and camping is the best way to experience the Darvaza. It’s almost apocalyptic. Don’t you agree?
During the last leg of our trip, we drove on a dusty winding road heading into the Kopet Dag mountains that separate Turkmenistan from Iran before arriving in valley the village of Nokhur.
It’s remote, and steeped in ancient beliefs. The place and the people are completely different from the rest of Turkmenistan. We stayed with one of the oldest families in town, slept on long carpets and were welcomed with mondo doses of food and chai. I also noticed how the women here cover their headscarves over their mouths. I never did find out why but these are just one of the many fascinating things about this mountain village.
The cemetery of Nokhur is a highlight where graves are marked by the horns of mountain goats. They believe the goat horns are there to fight off evil spirits, while the stones are marked with steps, to help the deceased ascend to heaven.
As we hiked up to the tallest mountain there I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to discover yet another untouched part of this planet.
On our way back to Ashgabat we stopped at an underground cave that has medicinal healing properties. You take a few hundred steps through a cave until you get to the lake, a great place to cool off after that long hike. Highly recommended.
It was a wonderful road trip where we discovered some of the highlights of this eccentric Central Asian gem.
Getting so off the tourist trail meant that we found genuinely curious people, proud to let us in on their history and traditions, and plied us with so much veggie food, we couldn’t move for days.
It’s filled with Presidential vanity projects, spillovers from Soviet-era, overlaid with animist beliefs & traditional lives. Time almost stands still here. That is what makes it so unique. I hope I have inspired you to visit.
Thanks for reading. Leave your comments and questions below.
Lots of love,
To explore more Asian destinations, be sure to check out other blogs for additional insights.