In South Turkmenistan, the country’s capital city, Ashgabat is a strange, impressive and confusing place. The first odd thing about it is that the government has absolutely mad licensing rules for cars that carry passengers for hire. Cars are either licensed to drive passengers in the capital city or in the rest of the country, not both. Cars licenced to carry passengers in the rest of Turkmenistan cannot enter Ashgabat with their passengers. Because of this, there is a change-over station about 15 kilometres outside of the city. Country taxis drop passengers off there and city taxis can pick them up. I presume they have the same rules for intercity buses, as the Ashgabat bus station is relatively close to the change-over station.
First Impressions of the South Turkmenistan Capital, Ashgabat (Aşgabat)
As I had entered the city from northern Turkmenistan, the first thing I saw was the Ashgabat International Airport. Someone was definitely trying to make a big impression there. It was like the city was going all-out for some gala show. There were massive statues and fountains of water shooting high into the air. I was, unfortunately, unable to capture the grandness of it all from the car, so you’ll just have to imagine.
City of White
As I moved further into Ashgabat, I realised that every building was white. Every single one. They all looked fairly new as well. Once the novelty of seeing shiny, new, white buildings everywhere wore off, it seemed that the Turkmenistan capital had no soul. It was almost like Ashgabat was the unpopular kid who had suddenly become popular and was trying too hard to impress, but offered nothing of real value.
Furthermore, it seemed that all the cars and buses in Ashgabat were either white or grey. I heard a rumour that it was illegal to own black cars in the city. I can’t really confirm if it’s true or not, but I can say for sure that I didn’t see one single black car during my time there. Only grey and white cars.
Ashgabat continued to try to make huge impressions with many green spaces, monuments and fountains within the city centre. What it seemed to lack was the openness and friendliness of other Central Asian cities. In fact, the ever-present contingent of police officers stationed strategically around the city felt kind of ominous.
Some of these officers were intent on telling you off for stupid stuff. Like having the audacity to take your phone out of your pocket, to look at your map, near some buildings they didn’t want people to take photos of. Others were a little more friendly and willing to help with directions. One park even had men dressed in plain clothes stationed there. Why? To stop people taking pictures of the huge screen featured in the middle of the park. The screen played a loop of the president, looking all presidential and photoshopped in the middle of 2 digitally produced Turkmenistan flags.
Another quirk of Ashgabat is the pictures of the president everywhere. You couldn’t walk more than 500 metres within the city without seeing his picture. Maybe you could go to a sports centre to escape his watchful eyes? Nope, he’s front and centre there too. Surely you could catch a bus to get away from him. Nope, he’s watching you from above the windscreen. The point is, the dude is everywhere.
I’m not sure of the reason for having these pictures everywhere in Ashgabat. Is it to remind people that the president does actually exist, even though he rarely goes out in public? There weren’t really that many pictures of him in the north of Turkmenistan though. Or maybe it’s done to illicit an undying love and admiration for him. If you are Turkmen you must love your fearless leader? Who knows, but it seems kinda weird and narcissistic. Especially seeing as rumour has it that he is ill and not even in Turkmenistan at the moment.
As an aside, I found out a few weeks after left Turkmenistan that the president was getting annoyed with all the gossip surrounding his health. So what’s a healthy president to do? How could he dispell such vicious rumours? By grabbing a car and doing donuts near the Darvaza Gas Crater. So yeah, the country is apparently being run by an insecure teenager.
Ashgabat in South Turkmenistan at Night
For all the weird things about the city of Ashgabat, it was much nicer at night. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that nightfall brought a drop from 45 degrees plus to a much more bearable temperature. You could walk around more comfortably at night. The lights of the night also added a dash of colour to break up the monotony of everything being white.
I had heard rumours of an 11pm curfew for foreigners in Ashgabat. Locals seem to think that it is enforced. When I went to visit a local friend, they told me I might have problems when walking back to my accommodation after leaving their place at 10:30pm. I did not have any problems. I was out past 11pm for both the nights I spent in Ashgabat. As I walked around there were several police officers standing guard outside buildings or near roads. They gave no indication that I shouldn’t be there. In fact, they barely even acknowledged I was there. So I was either lucky, or there is no curfew in effect now.
Sights Near Ashgabat, South Turkmenistan
There are a few interesting sights that can be easily accessed from Ashgabat, but you can expect to part with more money than you should have to if you want to see them. First, there is Old Nisa, or Konenusay. You can hop on the #50 bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminus to get there. The bus takes about 30 minutes and only costs 0.5 Turkmen Manat. The entrance to Old Nisa is about a 20 minute walk from where the bus route terminates. There is a small shop there if you’re short on supplies.
Old Nisa Ruins – (Konenusay)
To enter the Old Nisa Ruins area, you need to pay 21 Manat. Considering that half of the ruins are not accessible and the other half seem to be barely maintained, it really doesn’t seem worth it. It could be worth it if you’re really super passionate about ruins though.
To be honest, the town surrounding the ruins, Nusay was much more interesting to walk around.
Kow Ata Underground Lake in Ahal
Another site in South Turkmenistan that seems like it would be fun to visit is the Kow Ata underground lake in Ahal. It is less than an hour from the Ashgabat city centre, or a 30 Manat taxi ride. What might blow your mind about this one is the 50 Manat entrance fee. The less than warm reviews of the place might also make you want to think twice. But I guess if you have money and time to burn, you might want to check it out; just keep your expectations low.
Turkmenbashy Monument and Mosque
The Turkmenbashy Mosque, Mausoleum and Monument may prove to be the three best value for money sights in South Turkmenistan. You can hop on a bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal to Kipchak/Qipchak and all three sites are within 500 metres of each other.
Train to Turkmenbashi (Türkmenbaşy)
I’d decided to take the overnight train to Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan, which would be my exit point from the country. Trains in Turkmenistan are a very economical option for travelling between cities, but they are quite slow. There is an online ticketing system, but it requires a Turkmenistan card to purchase tickets and often shows that there are no tickets, even when they are available at the train station.
Buying Train Tickets
The best option for tourists in Turkmenistan is to go to the building next to the train station, with ‘Kassalar’ written on the top of it in big yellow letters. Some say you should purchase your ticket at least 2 days in advance, but I purchased on the same day with no problems. Ticket counters open at 7am. Counters 4-7 sell tickets for Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan and Turkmenabat, in eastern Turkmenistan. It is pretty much chaos at the ticket counters as people don’t seem to know how to line up straight and people like to try to push through to get to the counter before you.
After waiting for about 20 minutes, I was finally at the counter and let the lady behind the window know that I was going to Turkmenbashi in the west of South Turkmenistan. She told me that the departure time and asked for 31 Manat. The departure time she gave me was different to what I thought it would be, but then I figured that there might be more than one train. It wasn’t until I looked at the ticket that I realised that she’d somehow mistaken Turkmenbashi for Turkmenibat, which was literally at the other end of the country.
I alerted her to her mistake but instead of giving me back 31 Manat, she only gave me 22 Manat, then made me pay another 31 Manat for the correct ticket. I was annoyed that she’d charged me for her mistake and indicated that I wanted the 9 Manat back. She said I could come back later to get my money back. That was probably something she said just to try to get rid of me, as there was no one at the counter later. So a 31 Manat train ticket ended up costing me 40 Manat.
The train takes a fairly straight route to the most western part of South Turkmenistan; the port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. It was quite comfortable, but each cabin had 6 beds, in the form of 2 triple bunks. That meant that the person on the top bunk wouldn’t be able to sit up without hitting the roof of the cabin. The people in my cabin were eager to share their food with me. They tried to chat with me, but it was hard because we couldn’t really understand each other.
Turkmenbashi, South Turkmenistan – Gateway to the Caspian Sea
The train arrived in the western Turkmenistan city of Turkmenbashi at 05:50, about an hour later than scheduled. The city of Turkmenbashi seemed a lot nicer than Ashgabat. For a start, it was a lot more modest and there were buildings that weren’t white. As an added bonus, it was surrounded by mountains.
I had figured that the port wouldn’t open until 8 or 9am, so I decided to have a bit of a look around Turkmenbashi. The early hour made it quite pleasant to walk around as there weren’t many people out and the sun wasn’t yet in full force.
The Turkmenbashi Port looked shiny, new and of course, white. There were a few huge buildings, but there didn’t seem to be much going on in the area. I entered the port area just before 8am, only to find out that tickets for the boat wouldn’t go on sale until 11am. Luckily, I found some people to talk to, who were also taking the ferry to Baku. Little did we know, that we would be spending a lot more time together than we’d originally thought.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming post to find out how an estimated 12 hours on the Caspian Sea turned into 3 days.