Turkmenistan is a strange country in many respects. It is completely different to its Central Asian neighbours in that it has tried to close itself off from the world. This means that it can be a confusing and frustrating country to travel in. If you’re planning a trip there, the following list of things to know about Turkmenistan could come in very handy for you.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan, No 1 – Currency
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this one is probably the most important as it could affect how much money you’ll have available to you. The local currency is the Turkmenistan Manat. You cannot exchange Turkmenistan Manat outside of the country as the official government stance is that the currency must stay in the country. There are 2 exchange rates for the currency. The official exchange rate is 3.5 Manat to US$1. This is the rate at which the banks sell the currency. The black market exchange rate however can range from 15-20 Manat to US$1. Yes, you read that right. The black market rate can be 5 to 6 times more than the official rate.
As you can imagine, the rate you change your cash at will influence how much you spend in Turkmenistan. Obviously, the black market rate is much better and would allow you to eat like a king while only spending a small amount of money, comparatively. The problem with exchanging at the black market rate is that it is forever fluctuating. If you change to Manat when the rate is 15 to 1, but the rate goes up to 20 to 1 when you want to change back, you stand to lose a fair amount of money.
Blackmarket or Official?
If you want to play it safe, you can exchange at the bank rate of 3.5, but that means things will end up being much more expensive and you will spend a lot more money. Another disadvantage of changing at the bank rate is that you may not be able to change any leftover money back to US Dollars at the bank, because the laws of the country only allow Turkmenistan citizens to exchange into US Dollars. This means you’ll be forced to change back at the black market rate, which could see you lose more than half of your money.
The best course of action is to only exchange a small amount, say $20 at the black market rate, to minimise the chances of losing money with exchanges. Hotels will generally exchange US Dollars for you. Some bazaars are also known for their black market exchanges. Locals always know where the best place to exchange is.
The Mashrutkas (minivans) that are prevalent in other central Asian countries are not as common in Turkmenistan. I only saw a few operating and only within Ashgabat.
Shared taxis are readily available for intercity journeys and normally cost 50-100 Manat (US$3.30-6.60 at the black market rate). Taxis around the city in Ashgabat should cost between 10-20 Manat (US$0.60-1.30). Bear in mind that drivers will try to double the price for foreigners and they sometimes negotiate hard to get you to pay more. You can always walk away from them and find another, more cooperative driver.
As Turkmenistan only consists of a few cities, it’s easy to travel between them by train. Train tickets are cheaper than shared taxis, but can take up to twice as long. Some trains will get to their destinations at inconvenient times as well. Train tickets to Turkmanbashi and Turkmenabat are 31 Manat/US$2 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train. Train tickets to Mary are around 34 Manat/US$2.20 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train.
By far the cheapest form of transportation in Turkmenistan is the public bus system in Ashgabat. It is quite well developed and each ride only costs 0.50 Manat, or 1 Manat if the bus driver doesn’t have any change. The buses are not airconditioned, but as long as they’re moving, there’s generally enough airflow to keep you from overheating in the summer.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 3 – Tourist Traps and Money Makers
Even though Turkmenistan isn’t all that open to tourism, locals still seem to find ways to put tourists in situations where they have to spend more money than they should. This starts before you even enter the country. Want to get a tourist visa to travel to Turkmenistan? You need to pay for a guide to accompany you for your entire stay in Turkmenistan, which of course does not come cheap. Want to opt for the cheaper option of a Transit visa? You’ll need to pay a US$14 entrance fee to the country at the border.
Perhaps you want to spend a night in a yurt with no amenities near the infamous Darvaza Gas Crater? That’ll be US$20. You want to get a taxi somewhere? You’re guaranteed to be quoted double the price as a foreigner. Even visiting a smelly underground lake in a sauna-like cavern can set you back up to US$20. In Turkmenistan, they know what tourists want to see and they’re prepared to charge you extra for the privilege of seeing those places.
There are some even more nefarious ways that locals will try to make money off visitors. Even though it’s illegal, locals will often try to force tourists to pay in US dollars, so they can take the money and make a profit by exchanging it on the black market. Always try to pay in Turkmenistan Manat where you can.
4) Social Media and Internet
All social media, from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to WhatsApp and WeChat are blocked in Turkmenistan. That can make it very hard to keep in contact with the outside world without a VPN. In truth, it can still be impossible to connect, even with a VPN. Many VPNs have been blocked by the Turkmenistan government, as I found out.
As you can imagine, when a government starts screwing with the internet, things get very slow and annoying to use. I was only able to connect to WiFi twice during my visit and each time connectivity waxed and waned, to the point where it was just easier to give up and do something else.
Weird Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 5 – Presidential Pictures
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this is possibly the weirdest. A ridiculous amount of pictures of the current Turkmenistan president can be seen around Ashgabat. You can’t walk more than 500 metres without seeing him. He’s everywhere.
You’ll see him in parks, at train stations, on government buildings and even in buses. I’m not quite sure of the purpose of all these obviously photoshopped pictures of the president. Or if there is some law in the country about his pictures being displayed everywhere.
Whatever the deal is, it just seems odd to have photos of the country’s leader in so many places. I suspect it’s because the leader somehow expects that the people of his country should idolise him, but that just seems a bit arrogant and narcissistic. I guess that’s just about what you would expect from a guy that does donuts around the Darvaza Gas Crater to quell rumours that he’s in poor health.
6) Police State
There is a huge and noticeable police presence in Turkmenistan, on the roads and in the capital city, Ashgabat. Police Checkpoints are set up at intervals along the country highways in Turkmenistan. They may or may not stop cars that are going through and check that their paperwork is in order, especially if they’re carrying tourists. I personally was never stopped at any of these checkpoints, but I definitely noticed that they were there.
In the Ashgabat city centre, police are ever-present, normally standing on the side of roads in front of buildings. For the most part, they don’t interact with people passing by, although they do seem to use their extra curious ‘WTF are you doing’ stare when a foreigner happens to be walking past their building. Most of them always look stoic and often menacing, whereas others are a little more friendly and willing to answer questions.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 7 – Agressive Drivers
When compiling this list of things to know about Turkmenistan, I was reticent to include this one, but eventually decided it should be included because cars outnumber pedestrians substantially in Turkmenistan. Turkmen drivers seem to believe that they are the only ones that have the right to use the road. They do not take kindly to pedestrians being on roads, even at pedestrian crossings. Do not expect them to stop if they see you crossing. In fact, they are more likely to speed up and honk their horn at you. Be prepared to run at intersections, if you want to live.
Hostels don’t really exist in Turkmenistan and hotels are quite expensive, especially when you take into account what you get for your money. In Ashgabat, US$15 will get you what would be considered a super budget room anywhere else in the world. You will have to share a bathroom and there won’t be any WiFi. Or perhaps you could take the next step up and get a budget room for US$22 at a hotel that has WiFi, although there won’t be WiFi in your room. Also, expect room configurations to be weird.
One of the more quirky things to know about Turkmenistan is that accommodation generally can’t be booked from outside of the country, unless you go through a tour agency. Luckily, it seems to be easy to get accommodation sorted by just walking into a hotel. At $15, the Kuwwat Hotel seems to be the cheapest in Ashgabat, but it doesn’t have WiFi. It’s also in a pretty good location. Syyhat Hotel has WiFi in the reception area only, but their price is $22 and the location isn’t as good. Hotels generally expect payment in US Dollars as well. If they do take payment in Manat, they will use the black market exchange rate to jack up the price. Apparently, the accommodation in other Turkmenistan towns outside of Ashgabat is even more expensive.