Travel to Turkmenistan – 8 Things to Know

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Things to Know. Ashgabat Subway

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.

2) Transport

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Things to Know. Shared Taxis in Ashgabat

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Things to Know. Buses in Ashgabat

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Things to Know. Presidential Picture

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.

8) Accommodation

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Things to Know. Toilet, But no Shower in a Hotel Room
Hotel room with toilet, but no shower

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.

Travel to South Turkmenistan – Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat White Domed Buildings

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Taxi Changeover 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Taxi Changeover Station

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 suddenly became popular and was trying too hard to impress, but offered nothing of real value.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat White Buildings

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Only Grey and White Cars on the Road

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.

Presidential Pictures

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Ubiquitous Photo of the President

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 president. 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.

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Monument Lit Up at Night K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Mosque Lit Up at Night

I had heard rumours of an 11pm curfew for foreigners in Ashgabat. Locals seem to think that it is enforced. I met a local who told me I might have problems when walking back to my accommodation after leaving them at 10:30pm. I did not have any problems. I was out past 11pm for both the nights I spent in Ashgabat. I walked past 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 Kone-Nusay. 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 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Bus Fare K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal

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 passionate about ruins though.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Old Nisa Ruins Entrance

To be honest, the town surrounding the ruins, Nusay was much more interesting to walk around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Nusay, Near Old Nisa Ruins

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 best value for money in South Turkmenistan, if you want to see a local site. 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Train Ticket to Turkmenbashi

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Structures K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Monument

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. In Front of Turkmenbashi Port K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Port

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post to find out how an estimated 12 hours on the Caspian Sea turned into 3 days.

Travel to Turkmenistan – Frontier to Fire

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell at Night

Travel to Turkmenistan – Frenzy at the Frontier

With a fresh visa for travel to Turkmenistan in my passport, I made my way to the Nukus border to cross over and see the historic Turkmenistan city of Kunya-Urgench. But first I had to contend with some border chaos. From the outside, the immigration building was possibly one of the cutest I’ve ever seen. It was a lovely white building with a golden, mosque-like domed roof. The red, green and white Turkmenistan flag was flying freely on a pole shooting up from the centre of the dome.

That interesting vision gave way to a picture of an unorganised mob crowding around a luggage scanning machine as soon as I opened the door to the building. I had absolutely no idea where to go. The immigration desk wasn’t marked, or even findable from where I was. I tried to have a peak in the next room, where everyone was gathered. Then I heard a man calling me from behind. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it room to the left of the entrance, where the man was seated. Upon entering the room, the man looked at my passport and gave me a customs form to fill out. He then gestured for me to head to towards the crowd.

Where To Now?

I still had no idea where the immigration desk was, as I couldn’t see anything with the crowd in the way. Luckily the crowd dispersed as the immigration officers slowly scanned and checked everyone’s luggage. I finally noticed a small window tucked away on the lefthand side of the room and figured it must have been where I needed to go. It was indeed. The officer perused the stamps in my passport for a bit, then said I had to go to the next window to pay the US$14 entrance tax. Paying the fee was quick of course, but I had to wait a while for the guy to write out 2 receipts.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Turkmenistan Border Receipt Number 1 K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Turkmenistan Border Receipt Number 2

Back at the first window, the officer asked me for my detailed itinerary, then took issue with one of the cities I had indicated that I would visit. He told me that I was only allowed to continue in one direction towards my exit port in the southwest and I wasn’t allowed to visit any cities to the east. I told him that I had indicated that I would visit that town in my application, so there shouldn’t be a problem. He repeated himself a few more times and I did the same until he eventually said, “Okay” and stamped me in.

Searches and Small Talk at the Luggage Scanner

By the time I got to the luggage scanner, there was no line. The staff were busy checking every small article in the bags of the Belgian guy who had passed through in front of me. They spent at least 30 minutes going through his luggage. All the while, I stood there thinking that I would be subjected to that next. I was pleasantly surprised when the officers on the other side of the machine didn’t really seem too interested in looking too closely at my bag.

Instead, after asking if I had any weapons or medications, one of the officers asked me why I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan what I planned to do and see. He did this in a friend chatting kind of way, not an immigration officer kind of way. He also asserted that I would like Turkmenistan a lot. The other officers half-heartedly looked at my bag while this guy chatted to me for several minutes. I ended up leaving the building at the same time as people that had arrived 2 hours earlier than me. The guide that was with two of those people, organised a car. That car took us all from the immigration area to an area 500 metres down the road. That’s where the people on tourist visas could meet their drivers and I could get a taxi onto Kunya-Urgench.

Travel to Turkmenistan – Historical Kunya-Urgench (Köneürgench)

Before crossing the border to travel to Turkmenistan, I knew that the taxi to the northern town of Kunya-Urgench should only be US$1. It’s only a 10 minute drive. The waiting taxi drivers were intent on charging me $4. They negotiated hard and it seemed like they weren’t going to budge from $2, but finally, they relented. I got the ride for US$1.

Before we reached Kunya-Urgench, my driver stopped on the side of the road. Another driver approached us. He wanted to take me on to Darvaza from Kunya-Urgench. That driver initially wanted to charge me US$50 for the 3 hour ride. Of course, my reply was a firm no. The lowest he was willing to go was US$30, so I told him no thanks and got the current driver to continue on to Kunya-Urgench.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. UNESCO Mausoleums in Kunya-Urgench

The driver dropped me off at a UNESCO site that comprised of the Piryarvali, Nedjmeddin Kubra, Sultan Ali and Matkerim Ishan Mausoleums, as well as the Dash Mosque Museum. It was a fairly interesting site that I spent quite a while walking around and admiring. The Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum had a very interesting front. It was built on an angle away from the rest of the building.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Nadjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum with Angled Wall in Kunya-Urgench

Near the Sultan Ali Mausoleum, there was a small tree trunk with coloured bits of cloth wrapped around the end of it. It seemed to have some significance. I saw locals walk around it several times while making some gestures, like it was some kind of ritual.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Sultan Ali Mausoleum in Kunya-Urgench

Making New Friends

While wandering around, I bumped into the Belgian guy that I’d met at the border. We chatted for a bit about the history of the area. It was at that point that our presence started generating some interest among the locals at the site. That’s when the standard, “Where are you from?”, “Why did you travel to Turkmenistan?” and “Where will you go in Turkmenistan?” questions started. Then came the requests for photos with us. So much for blending in.

I then continued onto the town mosque, which I could easily see from the mausoleum area. Meanwhile, Martin, the Belgian guy, headed off to check out some more historical sites with his guide. He was a bit of a history buff, you see. That wasn’t the last time on my trip that I would bump into him though.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Mosque in Kunya-Urgench

Negotiating Passage to Darvaza

I managed to sneak in one more monument before I made my way back to the mausoleum area. I’d noticed that some taxi drivers had gathered near there. These drivers started negotiations at more reasonable prices than previous drivers. They also seemed to be having fun interacting with me. At one stage there were even 2 drivers fighting over who was going to take me. Then someone put me on the phone to a man who spoke English. He said he would be there soon to help me out.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Monument and Building in Kunya-Urgench

That man was Murad, a tour guide based in Kunya-Urgench. He said that he was heading to Ashgabat to pick up a tourist. He suggested that I could join him in a taxi and he would ask the driver to drop me off at the Darvaza Gas Crater, then I could hitchhike to Ashgabat the next day. Murad was very interested in my motivation for travel to Turkmenistan.

Darvaza Gas Crater – The Gate to Hell

When we arrived at Darvaza, which is towards the centre of the Karakun desert in Turkmenistan, I didn’t realise that the taxi had pulled up right next to the crater. It’s not all that impressive during the day. I did, however, notice that it was hot as hell when I got out of the car. I actually felt like my face was going to melt. As much as I wanted to get a closer look, it just wasn’t humanly possible at that time. I guess that’s why they call it the Gate to Hell.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell during the day

Murad introduced me to his friend who works near the crater and said he would look after me. Murad then left me his number to call if I needed any help while I was in Turkmenistan. I was then whisked away on a motorbike to an area near a yurt. There were tents set up there for a tourist group that was coming in later that day. While still warm, it was much cooler than it was near the crater.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Tents Near the Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell

To be honest, I was pretty excited about being there. This crater was the main reason I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan. Ever since I heard about it many moons ago, it had been very high on my to-do list. It’s a perfect example of how the human lack of foresight can showcase the power of nature.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Sunset Near the Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell

Nature’s Fury Brought By Scientific Blunder

If you don’t know how the crater came to be, it happened around the mid 70’s in what was then part of the USSR. Soviet scientists accidentally collapsed an underground cavern full of natural gas. The natural gas started flowing freely into the surrounding desert. The scientists decided that the best way to deal with the escaping gas was by adding fire. They had expected the natural supply would be exhausted within a few weeks, but 45 years later, it’s still going strong.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell Around Sunset

Just after sunset, I bumped into some young guys close to the edge of the crater. They were trying to get the perfect ‘look, I’m breathing fire’ shot. For Instagram, I presume. That would be ironic considering that social media is blocked in Turkmenistan. While I was chatting to them, Martin, the Belgian guy from earlier, joined us. There were many pictures and videos taken. Just after sunset is the best time to capture the essence of the crater.

The people working near the crater offered for me to sleep in a yurt, but it was quite stuffy inside. There was a nice breeze outside, so I decided to sleep under the stars. It was lovely. The next morning, they wanted to charge me US$25 for eating some food and sleeping outside. I got them down to $10, but this was only the first example I encountered of how Turkmenistan is geared towards parting travellers with their money. It wasn’t the last time.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Darvaza Gas Crater. Gate to Hell After Sunset
One last crater photo

Other Craters

I decided to walk out to the main road, but barely 5 minutes into my walk, a car leaving the crater stopped for me. It was Martin and his guide and they were heading for the other 2 craters in the area. The first one was much smaller than the main crater, with only one little fire burning in a more shallow, rounded crater. There were a few muddy patches not far from the little fire where bubbling gas could be seen and heard.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Smaller Crater with a Small Fire Near Darvaza

The second one was probably about the same size as the first, but had a bit of a lake happening at the bottom. It looked quite lovely, until you walked around the crater a bit and saw a ridiculous amount of plastic bottles floating in it. Just like the first crater, there was a section where you could see and hear gas bubbling through, but obviously there was no fire there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Frontier to Fire. Smaller Crater with a Little Lake Near Darvaza

As the rules regarding tour guiding are very strict in Turkmenistan, guides are only allowed to have the tourists whose names are on their paperwork in their vehicles. Martin’s guide said he would take me all the way to the capital, Ashgabat if that wasn’t the case. Instead, he would take me to a service station just before the next police checkpoint, about 100km down the road. Once we got to the service station, he found someone to drive me the rest of the way to Ashgabat.

Stay tuned for more Turkmenistan adventures in my next post.

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Getting the Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Turkmenistan Visa with Entry and Exit Stamps

Rumours about the difficulty of getting a visa for travel to Turkmenistan and the low approval rate are abundant on the internet. But it’s really not as hard to acquire as some people would have you believe. Below are accounts of the visa application process from the recent experiences of 10 travellers that were granted both tourist and transit visas in July 2019.

Tourist Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan

As stated above, there are 2 visa options for travel to Turkmenistan; a tourist visa and a transit visa. The tourist visa is issued for up to 30 days but comes with a huge caveat. A certified guide must accompany for your whole trip. As you can imagine, that will get expensive. Three of the ten people, who coincidentally happened to be European, went for this option. They paid around US$150-200 a day for their guide, including the guide’s accommodation, food and fuel. That was without their own food and accommodation expenses. Applicants must state their entry and exit point when applying.

All 3 chose a 6 day itinerary, as that was about the limit of what they could afford to spend. One of them chose to take flights between some cities, to maximise their time. That meant that they met different guides in different cities. While guides are being hired by tourists, they can’t officially have anyone else in the car with them. All their paperwork shows the name of the tourist/s allowed in their car and the dates they can carry them. There are many police checkpoints along Turkmen roads and they often check, so guides will always err on the side of caution.

Documents Required and Payment

For this visa, you need proof that you’ve hired a local guide or joined a local tour. Normally the travel agent would take care of the visa application for you as they would be the ones with the documents. From what I can gather, this visa can be picked up at the border upon presentation of an invitation letter and US$50. This letter is either emailed to you or given to you by the travel agent. There may be delays at the border and you may have to hand over more money. The 3 people I met on tourist visas spent around 3 hours at the border waiting for paperwork. That could’ve possibly been because the travel companies they booked through missed something.

Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenmistan

The second option, the transit visa, is said to be one of the hardest visas to attain. Seven people managed to get this visa from both the Bishkek and Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassies in the first 3 weeks of July 2019 with no problems. This visa is issued for 5 days. It is valid for transit through any Turkmenistan border with Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea or Iran via Artyk. No other exit points, ie: Afghanistan or Kazakhstan, are accepted. Entry and exit points must be listed on your application and will be stated on the visa placed in your passport.

Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent at the Embassy of Turkmenistan in the Republic of Uzbekistan

Discussions online indicate that you need to get to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Tashkent, (found at Afrosiyob Street, 19, about a 400m walk from the Kosmonavtlar Metro station), at 7am. Then put your name on a waiting list and wait for the embassy to open at 9am. This actually isn’t necessary. As long as you arrive at any time before 1pm, they will see you and let you submit your application. Even if you end up leaving after 1pm. Some waiting outside the embassy could be required. No more than 20 minutes worth. The processing officer will come out to guide you in. You can wait in a nice shaded area across from the embassy so that you don’t melt in the Uzbek heat.

Once the officer comes out, you must leave your mobile phone with security. You’ll get a numbered tile so you can claim your phone back on the way out. They will also ask if you have any other cameras, but they won’t check. There’s a big sign out the front saying that no photos are allowed. I guess they want to make sure you don’t have the chance to break their rules. This Turkmenistan embassy only requires you to fill out 2 one page forms. The first form is the application form, in English and Uzbek. You need to attach a passport-sized photo to the top right-hand corner of it. The second form is completely in Uzbek, but the staff will guide you. Both forms are available at the embassy.

Documents Required and Payment

The documents required for submitting your application for a transit visa for travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of visa for country of transit, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran

Upon submission of your documents, you need to pay a US$10 fee to the embassy. Staff will give you a receipt. They will tell you that you will need to bring that receipt with you when you pick up the visa. I wasn’t asked for it when I returned though. Staff initially told me to come back in 10 working days. I managed to convince them to have it ready in 10 days/a week and a half.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassy Visa Application Fee

I had heard that they can email the visa approval letter to you so that you don’t have to physically attend the embassy again. The first staff member I spoke to said that they could email the visa approval letter to me and I could pay the visa fee at the border. The officer who took my application said that wasn’t possible anymore, so I would have to attend the office. Three other people were given similar information by the embassy in Tashkent.

Picking Up the Visa

When you pick up the visa, you’ll need to pay the US$45 visa fee directly to the embassy. They will ask you what your exact entry date is. That is the date that they will put on the visa. The visa is valid for five days including the day of entry and exit. Make sure you’ve allowed enough time to get yourself to the border you want to use to enter Turkmenistan. Keep in mind that the closest Uzbek/Turkmen border to Tashkent is about 10 hours away by car, with the most popular entry point, Nukus, being a 16-20 hour drive from Tashkent. The Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassy website is here

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassy Visa Fee Receipt

Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek at the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic

The Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, located on Baytik Baatyr Street, opens at 10am. It is a lot quieter than it’s counterpart in Tashkent. Do take note that it appears to be closed on Wednesdays. There’s no need to rush as you will most likely be the only one there at the time of application.

Like the embassy in Tashkent, there’s a big sign saying that no photography is allowed, but they do allow you to keep your phone on you when you enter the building. There’s no waiting at this embassy, you can just go straight to the window and submit your application. This Turkmenistan embassy requires you to fill out 2 application forms, one with 2 pages and one with 1 page. Both forms are in Russian and English. They also require a hand-written letter stating the visa you’re applying for and a detailed itinerary. A sample letter for you to follow is available at the embassy. The application forms can be downloaded from the embassy website, or are available at the embassy.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Turkmenistan Visa Application Hand Written Letter

Documents Required and Payment

The documents required for submitting your application for the visa to travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of your visa for the country you’re transiting to, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran

Before you can lodge the forms with the embassy, you will have to go to the KICB bank to pay the US$10 application fee. It’s a 3km Mashrutka (minivan) ride from the embassy. When done, take the receipt for the transaction back to the embassy, as proof of payment. The processing time for the visa at this embassy is one month, unless you write ‘urgent’ on your hand-written letter. In that case, the processing time will be 10 working days. They will email the invitation letter for the visa to you on the 10th working day.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Getting the Visa. Turkmenistan Visa Invitation Letter to Present at the Border

This invitation letter will be valid for entry for up to 3 months, but you still only have 5 days, inclusive of your entry and exit dates, once you enter. When you present the letter at the border, you will need to pay a US$55 visa fee and they will place the visa in your passport with a validity of 5 days, including your entry and exit dates.

Pros and Cons of Getting the Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan at Each Location

Acquiring the visa for travel to Turkmenistan at the Turkmenistan Embassy in Tashkent is US$10 cheaper. That could be negated by the fact that you will either have to wait in Tashkent for 10 days or re-enter Uzbekistan later to collect the visa. Getting the visa through the Turkmenistan Embassy in Bishkek is US$10 more expensive, but not having to return to the embassy later could save some time.

Now that you know that the application process for the visa for travel to Turkmenistan is relatively painless, what are you waiting for?

Check out my next post to see what the north of Turkmenistan had to offer.

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