The most curious of the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan resembles an Arab Gulf state without the money. It’s the second largest Central Asian country, but four-fifths of it consists of an inhospitable lunar-like desert called the Karakum which conceals unexploited oil and gas deposits. The country is sparsely populated and its people, the Turkmen, are only a generation or two removed from being nomads. Turkmenistan is as much a culture as a country since the Turkmen have never formed a real nation and have allowed their cities to become predominantly populated by other peoples. They place most esteem on a rural life revolving around their famous, traditionally patterned carpets, their ceremonies, hospitality and fleet Akhal-Teke horses.
Full country name:Republic of Turkmenistan
Area: 488,100 sq km (302,620 sq mi)
Population: 4.2 million
Capital city: Ashghabat (pop 450,000)
People: 73% Turkmen, 10% Russian, 9% Uzbek
Religion: Sunni Muslim
President: Saparmurad Niyazov
Bounded by the Caspian Sea in the west and the Amu-Darya river to the east, Turkmenistan covers 488,100 sq km (190,360 sq mi), making it the second largest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics after Kazakstan. It’s very sparsely populated, the major reason being that four-fifths of the country is waterless desert. The Karakum (Black Sands), one of the largest sand deserts in the world, fills the entire central region of the country with great crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked, baked-clay surfaces. To the south, the Karakum is fringed by the Kopet Dag (Lots of Mountains), an earthquake prone range that forms a formidable 1500km (930mi) natural border with Iran and, farther east, Afghanistan. Smaller ranges of the north-west edge of the desert mark Turkmenistan’s border with Kazakstan. Apart from the Amu-Darya there are precious few water courses to bring life to the arid region.
Turkmenistan’s wildlife has a Middle Eastern streak, understandable when you consider that parts of the country are as close to Baghdad as they are to Tashkent. Leopards and porcupines inhabit the parched hills. Also ekeing out a living in the desert are the goitred gazelle, gophers, sand rats, jerboas (small jumping rodents) and the varan or ‘sand crocodile’, actually a type of large lizard. Turkmenistan is also noted for its big poisonous snakes including vipers and cobras. In the southern mountains there are ancient forests of wild walnut and pistachio trees.
Unsurprisingly for a desert nation, Turkmenistan is characterised by a lack of rainfall, lots of searing sunshine and high temperatures. During summer, daytime temperatures are rarely lower than 35?C (95?F) with highs in the south-east Karakum desert of up to 50?C (122?F). By contrast, in winter the temperature in Kushka, on the mountainous Afghan border, drops as low as -33?C (-27?F). In the capital, Ashghabat, there are rarely more than a couple of days when it drops below freezing and by April the heat is already uncomfortable.
Though never a goal in itself, the sun-scorched, barren land between the Caspian Sea and the Amu-Darya passed in ancient times from one empire to another as armies decamped on the way to richer territories. Alexander the Great established a city on his way to India, the Romans set up near present-day Ashghabat and, in the 11th century the Seljuq Turks used Alexander’s old city, Merv, as a base from which to expand their empire into Afghanistan. Two centuries later, the heart of the Seljuq empire was torn out as Jenghiz Khan stormed down from the steppes into Trans-Caspia (the region east of the Caspian Sea) on his way to terrorise Europe.
While the empire-builders tussled, nomadic horsebreeding tribes of Turkmen drifted in through the cracks, possibly from the Altay mountains, and grazed from oasis to oasis along the fringes of the Karakum desert and in Persia, Syria and Anatolia. With the decline in the 16th century of the Timurid empire, the region became a backwater dotted with feudal Turkmen islands. From their oasis strongholds, the Turkmen preyed on straggling caravans, pillaging and stealing slaves or skirmishing with other tribes. It was only when they started kidnapping Russians from the strengthening tsarist empire that the Turkmen fell into trouble. Military forces were sent to Trans-Caspia to rout the by now wildly uncontrollable tribes: in 1881 the Russians marched on the fortress of Geok-Tepe and massacred an estimated 7000 Turkmen. A further 8000 were cut down as they fled across the desert. Not surprisingly, the Russians met little more resistance and by 1894 had secured all Trans-Caspia for the tsar.
A group of counter-revolutionaries briefly held sway in Ashghabat when WWI and the Bolshevik revolution distracted the Russians. A small British force, dispatched from northern Persia to back up the provisional Ashghabat governemt, skirmished with the Bolsheviks but withdrew in 1919 and the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was formed in 1924. Soviet attempts to settle the tribes, collectivise farming and ban religion inflamed the nomadic Turkmen and a guerilla war raged until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into the desert or into northern Afghanistan and a steady stream of Russian immigrants began settling in their stead to undertake the modernisation of the SSR. A big part of the plan was cotton: massive irrigation works bled the Amu-Darya and the Aral Sea all in the cause of crisp white shirts.
Turkmenistan was slow to pick up on the political changes in the other Soviet republics during the 1980s. The first challenge to the Communist Party (CPT) came in 1989 when a group of intellectuals formed Agzybirlik (Unity), a socially and environmentally progressive party. Agzybirlik was banned when it showed signs of garnering too much support, though the CPT did declare sovereignty in August 1990. In October 1990 Saparmurad Niyazov, unopposed and supposedly with the blessing of 98% of voters, was elected to the newly created post of president. One year later, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan became an independent country.
The years since independence have belonged to President Niyazov, authoritarian head of the Democratic Party (DPT), the new name judiciously adopted by the old (and in no way altered) CPT. With his statue on every available pedestal, a clutch of towns renamed after him and enough public portraits to fill the world’s galleries, Niyazov is the focus of a personality cult that makes Lenin look shy and retiring. He’s now adopted the modest title of Turkmenbashi (Head of all Turkmen) and parliament has extended his term in office until 2002. Opposition parties and newspapers are banned and, though there are grumblings of dissent, Niyazov genuinely does enjoy considerable popular appeal. The failure of oil and gas wealth to make an impact on empty shop shelves combined with rampant corruption may see this support erode.
GDP: US$12 billion
GDP per head: US$2840
Annual growth: 0.1%
Major industries: Oil, gas, cotton, cattle
Major trading partners: Russia and other former Soviet states, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Turkey
The father of Turkmen literature is poet and thinker Fragi Makhtumkuli (1770-1840), whose words are held in greater reverence than even those of the Koran. Born in an area of south-west Turkmenistan which now forms part of Iran, Makhtumkuli was something of a tragic figure. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he lost his two young sons to illness; later in life his whole body of work was not only confiscated by the Persians but, as he stood witness, the camel on which his precious manuscripts were loaded lost its footing and fell into a river to be swept away. In his writing, Makhtumkuli spurned classical forms for home-spun wisdom and a simplicity of language that contributed greatly to his popularity with the travelling bards. Such was his influence that Turkmen literature became a compendium of mere copyists. Of those who managed to struggle out of the shadow of the great scribe, the most noted are the 19th century writers Kemine, whose satirical rhymes castigated the ruling circles, and Molapenes, the author of popular lyrical poems.
For the nomadic Turkmen the only piece of furniture worth having was a carpet or three. Easily transportable, the carpets served not just as floor coverings, but as wall linings for the yurt, providing a highly decorative form of insulation. Turkmen textiles artisans have gone quite commercial over the last hundred years: most ‘Bukhara’ rugs, so called because they were mostly sold, not made, in Bukhara – are made by Turkmen. These days the swish Ashghabat Carpet Museum or the Tolkuchka market are good places to see these mostly red, mostly geometric, entirely beautiful rugs.
Though Turkmenistan is predominantly a Sunni Muslim country, the religion is not militantly or strictly enforced. Centuries-old tribal loyalties are at least as important as Islam; even the most urbane Turkmen retains allegiance to his tribe, while in the more remote regions tribalism dominates to such an extent that each tribe is easily distinguished by dialect, style of clothing and jewellery and the patterns woven into their carpets. Of all Central Asian peoples the Turkmen have kept the most traditional dress. While under threat from shell-suit pants and polyester jackets, it’s still common to see men in baggy blue pantaloons tucked into clumping knee-high bots, a white shirt under a cherry-red and gold-striped heavy silk jacket, and topped by a shaggy wool hat. Women are less showy and wear heavy, ankle-length silk dresses of wine red and maroon hiding spangled, striped trousers beneath. A woman’s hair is always tied back and concealed under a kercheif or scarf.
Surprisingly for a country that is mostly uncultivable desert, some of the more interesting Turkmen dishes are vegetarian. Herb-filled pastries and cornmeal pancakes are common in the markets. Porridges with mung beans, or of cornmeal and pumpkin, or of rice, milk and yoghurt, can make a meal. The Turkmen also make a tasty meatless plov (pilaf) with dried fruit. Economic and political stagnation has had a major effect on Turkmenistan’s food industry. Restaurants are scarce and the fare is generally miserable.
Turkmenistan isn’t known for its jolly street parades. Public holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1), Remembrance Day (anniversary of a 1948 earthquake on January 12), National Flag Day (February 19), International Women’s Day (March 8), Labour Day (May 1), Victory Day (a commemoration of the end of WWII for Russia on May 9, 1945) and Independence Day(October 27).
The spring festival of Nauryz (‘New Days’) is one of Turkmenistans biggest holidays. It’s an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations and can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.
Visas: Every visitor to Turkmenistan needs to obtain a visa and a letter of invitation before turning up at the border. Failure to have such a letter, or at the very least, a personal statement with an itinerary, is likely to mean that your experience of Turkmenistan will be limited to what you can see as you fly straight back out of there.
Health risks: Hepatitis A & E, diphtheria, tuberculosis & undulant fever. Don’t drink the water even if locals say it’s OK to drink.
Time:GMT/UTC plus 5 hours
Electricity:220V, 50 Hz, using European two-pin plugs (round pins, no earth connection). Bring a torch.
Weights & Measures: Metric (see conversion table)
- Budget meal: US$1-5
- Moderate restaurant meal: US$10-15
- Top-end restaurant meal: let us know if you find one
- Budget room: US$5-10
- Mid-range hotel room: US$25-60
- Top-end hotel: let us know if you find one
Turkmenistan is one of the cheaper Central Asians destinations. If you twin share in modest hotels, get your food from cheap restaurants and street stalls and travel by bus and train, you should be able to keep daily costs to around US$25-40 a day. Budgeteers relying on trains, streetside cafes or bazaars and truckers’ hostels may need little more than US$10 a day. Foreigners often pay substantially more than locals for services, and there’s not much you can do to avoid this. Watch for budget blowers like imported beer and chocolate bars.
Turkmenistan is effectively a cash-only zone. The local currency is the only legal tender, though in practice US dollars and German Deutschmarks may be accepted or even requested for some transactions. Tourist hotels are your best bet for currency exchange; there is a black market for dollars and Deutschmarks in Ashghabat, but it’s typically at no better than official rates. Be aware that most changers accept only crisp, brand new banknotes, convinced somehow that anything older is worthless. Travellers’ cheques are of limited use – there may be a Vneshekonobank in Ashghabat which changes US dollar travellers’ cheques but don’t count on it. Credit cards are most useful for picking your teeth.
Tipping runs counter to many people’s Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.
As summers are ferociously hot and winters bitterly cold, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best seasons to visit Turkmenistan. In April the desert blooms briefly and the monotonous ochre landscapes explode in reds, oranges and yellows. Autumn is harvest time, when market tables heave with freshly picked fruit. If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season.
Ashghabat is not the end of the world, but it feels like it can’t be more than a short bus ride away. It has a dust-blown, shutter-banging-in-the-wind quality, and on a sun-scorched afternoon all that’s missing are vultures wheeling in the burning blue sky. Belying the seductive imagery of its name, nobody seems too excited about this ‘City of Love’. It’s out of sight, out of mind as far as Moscow is concerned, and Turkmen traditionally don’t care for cities. The fact that Ashghabat was wiped off the face of the earth by an earthquake in 1948 doesn’t help either; 110,000 people died and for five years the area was closed to outsiders while bodies were recovered and the wreckage cleared.
Consequently there are no great camera-friendly monuments, no shady tree-houses from which to watch the world go by, and travellers have to work hard to make a stay worthwhile. The highlight of the city is definitely the huge Sunday Tolkuchka bazar which attracts a colourful Cecil B de Mille cast of thousands. It sprawls across acres of desert on the outskirts of the city, and consists of corrals of camels and goats, avenues of red-clothed women squatting before silver jewellery, and clusters of trucks from which Uzbeks hawk everything from pistachios to car parts. The bazar is a great place to purchase Turkmenistan’s traditional dark red carpets. If you can’t get enough of the famous rugs, there’s a Carpet Museum which, among other things, includes the world’s largest handwoven rug.
The remains of the vanished ancient cities of Nisa and Anau are just outside Ashghabat but there’s little to see unless you’re an archaeologist, historian or have a good imagination. Firuza, the old hunting reserve of the Persian royal family, is now a popular mountain escape for those seeking relief from the heat of the plains. The settlement is squeezed into a gorge 30km (19mi) south-west of Ashghabat and is the closest independent travellers can get to exploring the Kopet Dag mountains which form the Turkmen-Iranian border. Buried 60m (200ft) underground in the accessible lower slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains is a hot-water mineral lake known as the ‘Father of Lakes’ where you can take a dip in 36?C (97?F) waters, if you don’t mind surfacing to the smell of rotten eggs.
Once one of Central Asia’s greatest cities, Merv is an archaeologist’s dream and has moved travel writers to muse for pages on the life and death of civilisations, but for the casual visitor it can be a bit of a disappointment. The area contains the remains of no less than five walled cities from different periods, though don’t expect an alfresco museum of ancient architecture. What you’ll see is a lumpen landscape scarred with ditches and channels, grazed by camels and dotted every now and then with an earthwork mound or a battered sandy-brick structure. Merv’s origins are shrouded in conjecture and romance – one legend suggests it was founded by Zoroaster – but this oasis settlement was definitely a Silk Road staging post and reached its greatest heights in the 11th and 12th centuries when the Seljuqs made it their capital. It retains a certain melancholic charm, and Sultan Sanjar’s mausoleum is impressive in size and solidity. Merv is a short drive east of Mary, seven hours east of Ashghabat by train.
The ancient state of Khorezm, which encompassed the whole Amu-Darya delta area in Northern Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan, rose to its greatest heights at Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench). For a short period in the 13th century, Old Urgench was the heart of Islam, until its ruler antagonised Jenghiz Khan and the city was on the receiving end of Mongol wrath. Old Urgench regained its former glory, only to be flattened again by Timur in the late 14th century. It didn’t recover a second time, which is why modern Konye-Urgench is a fairly humdrum place, but its handful of ancient buildings make it well worth visiting. The best include the cluster of sights around the Najm-ed-din Kubra Mausoleum, the Torebeg Khanym mausoleum and the 67m (220ft) high Kutlug Temir minaret – the highest minaret in Central Asia. Konye-Urgench is 480km (300mi) north of Ashghabat. Trains run between Ashghabat and Dashkhovuz from which regular buses make the 100km trip on to Konye-Urgench.
The port town of Turkmenbashi is enclosed by a crescent of mountains looking out over the turquoise-blue Caspian Sea. The surrounding pocked desert shoreline seems composed of grey dust frosted with salt rather than sand and looks more like NASA footage of the moon. Turkmenbashi is Central Asia’s sole port and sea link to European Russia. It has been variously described as `miserable’, `joyless’ and a ‘desolate dust-heap’, but while it’s definitely hot and dusty, it’s also quite attractive in a sleepy Mediterranean sort of way. If you can cope with a little grime and aren’t too choosy about what you eat, then this single-storey, pastel-painted port is a relaxing spot to rest up for a day or two, and there are hikes into the surrounding mountains that offer fine views of the town. Ashghabat is to the south-east, 12 hours away by train.
With recorded air temperatures of over 50?C (122?F), and the surface of the sand sizzling at a soul-scorching 70? (158?F), you wouldn’t expect the Karakum desert to be inhabited by cuddly creatures, but the animals that call these rolling sand ridges home are a particularly repulsive lot. Among the thousand-plus indigenous species of insects, spiders, reptiles and rodents are bronze-coloured cobras, large black scorpions, tarantulas and prehistoric-looking monitors which grow to over 1.5m (5ft) in length and still put on an alarmingly good show at the 100-metre dash. All of these lovable critters are objects of study at the Repetek Desert Research Centre, which boasts a visitors’ centre, museum and herbarium. Visits can be arranged with tour operators in Charjou, in Turkmenistan’s central-east and 70km (43mi) to the north of the reserve.
Gaurdak is in the extreme eastern corner of Turkmenistan, squeezed between the Amu-Darya and Uzbekistan. The mountainous landscape of this region is starkly beautiful, and contains interesting gorges, waterfalls and cave complexes. The Kugitang reserve, right on the Uzbek border, is a geological research centre, the pride of which is a rock plateau imprinted with hundreds of dinosaur footprints. It’s believed that 150 million years ago, in the Jurassic period, the plateau was the bed of a lagoon which dried out, leaving the wet, footprinted sand to bake in the sun. Charjou, in Turkmenistan’s central-east, is the only place from which you can fly to Gaurdak.
Trekking is possible in the Kopet Dag mountains, though much of the range is out of bounds as it forms a sensitive border with Iran. The safest way to proceed is to engage a guide through a reliable agency. Bring your own equipment since gear is hard to come by. The best trekking season is between June and September, though be prepared for bad weather at any time. Some of the agencies that arrange treks can also set up horse or camel treks. If lurching across the Karakum desert on a camel appeals or you’d love to gallop across the sand on one of Turkmenistan’s famed Akhal-Teke horses, get on down.
Flights to Ashghabat most commonly transit through Istanbul (Turkey), Abu Dhabi (UAE), Damascus (Syria) and Moscow (Russia). There’s one flight a week from London and another from Delhi. If you’re more into travelling than arriving, there’s a hybrid journey by air from Turkey to Baku (Azerbaijan), by cargo vessel across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, and from there to Ashghabat, Bukhara and beyond by train. The Iran-Turkmenistan border is officially closed to foreigners even though there is a bus which runs between Mashhad in north-eastern Iran and Ashghabat.
Bus and train travel can be a nightmare. Services are infrequent, always full and station staff can be astoundingly surly or even hostile. Same-day departure windows are absolute scrums; you can be elbow-locked and compressed for hours, only to find everything sold out (by contrast, advance-purchase windows rarely have long queues). Bus timetables change frequently so check well beforehand on the state of play. Turn up early to avoid having to wrestle with someone for the seat you have purchased and also because buses occasionally leave early. An option in many areas is to hire a car and driver: taxis and private citizens are often willing to take travellers between cities.
- Ella Maillart’s Turkestan Solo is the engaging account of a Swiss woman’s low-budget travels in the early 1930s.
- Sacred Horses: The Life of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathon Maslow is a good, if abrasive, account of this naturalist’s visits to the Karakum desert.
- Johannes Kalter’s Arts and Crafts of Turkestan is a detailed, beautifully illustrated historical guide to the nomadic dwellings, clothing, jewellery and other applied art of Central Asia.
- Somewhere East of Life by Brian Aldiss is one of the few English-language novels ever to employ Ashghabat as a backdrop. Unfortunately the author didn’t visit Turkmenistan until after he had written the book, so his Ashghabat is rather more colourful than the one you’re likely to encounter.
- The Silk Road: A History by Irene Frank and David Brownstone is a well illustrated and mapped history of the caravan routes that began crossing Central Asia in the 2nd century BC.
- The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk is a very readable history of the 19th-century cold war between Britain and Russia as it unfolded across Europe and Asia.
- Kim by Rudyard Kipling is the master storyteller’s classic epic of the Raj during the Great Game