Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world, with even fewer tourists every year than North Korea. It truly is a unique place. Far from the beaten track, you will spend the entirety of your time in Turkmenistan being in awe of something.
Here are our top 10 things to do in Turkmenistan.
10. Stay with a local family in a homestay
We like to stay in the village of Nokhur in the Kopetdag mountains. The family sets up an amazing spread of local food for their guests, and with everyone sitting on the floor together, eating, drinking and relaxing, the dinner room gradually becomes the bedroom as sleepy (drunk) people fall asleep on the array of cushions and mattresses that line the edges of the room.
9. Swim in Kow Ata
After the dry and dusty Turkmen desert, you’ll be relieved to descend 100m through a cave to Kow Ata, a natural underground lake. The vibrant blue, mineral soaked, thermal lake is the perfect place to relax. We’re rarely the only people here though since it’s a very popular hang-out spot for locals of all ages. Then when your body is suitably refreshed and cleansed you can enjoy a freshly cooked kebab and a bottle of chilled Turkmen Cola from one of the stands in the car park.
8. Visit Kyrk Gyz Cave
This cave is covered in a peculiar layer of stalactites, which are in fact cloth rags dangling from the ceiling. Legend has it that anyone who can fling a mud pie with a cloth attached to it, and make it stick, will have a wish come true.
7. Climb atop the Dinosaur Plateau
This is the largest repository of dinosaur footprints in the world. 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.
6. Turkmenbashy Mosque and Mausoleum
Adorned with a magnificent gold cupola and flanked by four 91m tall minarets (to represent Turkmenistan gaining independence from the USSR in 1991), this resplendent mosque is the largest in Central Asia. Built in honour of Turkmenbashy’s mother, the space is said to be big enough for 10,000 worshippers, though it is usually empty. Words from the Ruhnama are carved into the magnificent marble walls, and a the largest handwoven carpet in the shape of a star lies in the centre. Next door is Turkmenbashy’s grave where he is buried next to his beloved mother.
5. Ride on the Arch of Neutrality
Being the only officially neutral country, listed by the UN as such (yes Switzerland, sorry, but check it if you don’t believe us!), naturally, Ashgabat has an Arch to represent it. It used to be in the centre of the city, and the 12m gold statue of Turkmenbashy which is at the top of the monument rotated to be constantly facing the sun. In 2010 though, four years after his death, the arch was moved to a giant park in the foothills of the mountains, but sadly the statue no longer rotates, though it is still there, proudly and constantly watching over Ashgabat. And it is still possible to ride a lift that ascends one of the three legs to get a splendid view of Neutrality Park, the Kopetdag Mountains, and the white city of Ashgabat.
4. Yangykala Canyon
Many Turkmens don’t even know that this place exists, but once you’ve been there you’ll start calling the Grand Canyon the “Pretty Good Canyon”. We drive there in 4×4’s, crossing over the canyon walls, passing through the canyon itself, and ascending up the other side, to an excellent vantage point from where you will be able to see all the shapes and colours of this spectacular natural phenomenon.
Built on the Caspian coast in the west of the country, Avaza is Turkmenistan’s version of a glamorous beach resort town, however, there isn’t really a market for such a place in Turkmenistan. So, although the facilities are extravagant and the buildings futuristic, the town is somehow best described as a ghost town. Even in summer, it’s likely just to be you and a couple of cleaners wandering through the amusement parks, exploring the lavish hotels and enjoying the sea breeze.
2. Ride on the Wheel of Enlightenment
The largest enclosed ferris wheel in the world, you will definitely feel enlightened after a visit here. The complex has a food court, a billiards room, a bowling alley, a space museum and a games arcade, however, as usual in Ashgabat, they’re almost always completely void of people. In fact there isn’t even a working fridge in the food court, the space museum’s automatic doors don’t have sensors, and there aren’t any balls in the bowling alley. But they’ll turn on the wheel for you and it is well worth a ride!
1. The Gates of Hell
Even if not a single other thing in Turkmenistan grabs your interest, the Gates of Hell in itself more than justifies a trip. One of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights, this flaming gas crater really does look like it is the gates of hell. Far from civilisation and accessible only by 4WD, the glow from the fiery pit stretches for miles. The result of an explosion during a failed Soviet exploration in 1971, the 70m wide crater was set alight in an attempt to burn off the vast amounts of natural gas that was seeping into the atmosphere. Having never come across such extreme quantities of natural gas before though, they had no idea that there was, in fact, a big enough supply there to continue burning for hundreds of years, and has been on fire ever since. There is not a single signpost, warning sign or barrier, and no one has set up a shop or restaurant. Plans have been around for several years to shut it down because of environmental reasons, so if you don’t get in quick, you might miss out. We’ll camp nearby, literally in the middle of nowhere.