Tour leader Rich Beal's first journey into amazing Turkmenistan in Central Asia.
When I first joined Koryo Tours, I was aware that we ran tours to Turkmenistan, my colleague Simon Cockerell had been leading tours there since 2005. Turkmenistan is one of those countries where I was very keen to explore myself and also to take along our travellers, sure enough, around four years ago, my opportunity arrived! We had a large group and I was to join Simon on the tour to learn the ropes of leading a tour in this unique place. It was one of those places I must admit that I knew very little about.
One of the tour companies I had worked for previously had planned to stop there on a Silk Road tour, although they had failed to obtain the required visas so we had to bypass this secluded country. For many a year, I put it to the back of my mind. Turkmenistan is one of those countries where I was very keen to explore myself and also to take along our travellers, sure enough, around four years ago my opportunity arrived! We had a large group and I was to join Simon on the tour to learn the ropes of leading a tour in this unique place.
Before visiting my first concern was the visa: in order to obtain this you need a Letter of Invitation (LOI) this can take up to one month to obtain but we arrange this via our local partners and Koryo Tours manage the application process for you-you have to do very little yourself! Once the Turkmenistan LOI is received its simple you can use it to collect a visa at any Turkmenistan Embassy, or simply fly there and exchange your invitation and around 110 USD for your visa on arrival. Simple!
For my first journey, I flew with Turkmenistan Air direct from Beijing. The check-in counter was chaotic but exciting as many Turkmen were returning home with their Chinese goods all sealed and packed in giant boxes - looking like they were bound for sale in Ashgabat. Ashgabat can be reached from a range of cities such as London, Istanbul, Dubai, Moscow, Bangkok, etc and on Airlines such as Fly Dubai, Turkish Air, Lufthansa, and S7 as well as the national airline
On arrival four years ago, it was the at the old terminal in Ashgabat. Since then the city has changed a great deal, with the famous marble-clad buildings proliferating at an even greater rate, mainly linked to the 2017 Asian Indoor Games (known locally as ‘the Olympics’) In 2017 a brand new airport was opened, an incredibly fancy looking place built in the shape of a grand falcon with its wings outstretched. Alongside a smaller falcon which is home to domestic flight arrivals and departures as well as VIP flights.
One of our local friends met us on arrival and then were off into the city - there were no words to describe this amazing capital – shining marble everywhere, wide streets, white cars, just an uncanny feeling of both familiarity and alienation at the same time! Many visitors describe Ashgabat as a cross between Pyongyang and Las Vegas – with it’s empty streets, massive buildings, stunning architecture, giant golden statues, wide boulevards, all wrapped in the embrace of the towering Kopet Dag mountains.
After visiting many times I now know the different scales of the place - there are indeed people to be found; you just need to know where to look! Fuel is cheap, as are cars, so driving rather than walking short distances is the order of the day. In the old town (all built since the Earthquake in 1948 up to 1991; the pre-independence era) many apartment complexes are very Soviet in their design housing small shops and restaurants. Advertising is there but still kept to a minimum. Larger shops and retail outlets are underground or behind mirrored windows - great for locals who need to find them but tricky for many a foreign visitor. Markets, parks, shopping malls, and the numerous cafes and restaurants are the best place to meet your everyday Turkmen local.
If you thought that the city was the only place to see in this vast gas-rich desert country you would be very much mistaken! A select few other highlights include;
Darvaza Gas Crater | A vast flaming fire crater – something unimaginable frankly and a life-changing experience. Formed by an industrial accident more than 450 years ago, and for many years a state secret of the USSR, this pit in the desert in the very centre of the country hypnotically attracts visitors, birds, insect life and is simply one of the strangest and most spectacular things you can possibly see. We arrive early before sunset so that you may view the transition from day to night as the burning gas gradually lights up the night sky, making for an amazing experience. Great for relaxing, sharing travel tales over a drink, or taking some unbelievable photographs and videos to impress those back home who have never even heard of this place!
Nisa Fortress | On the outskirts of modern Ashgabat, this UNESCO listed site is the former capital of the mighty Parthian Kingdom; a dominant force in this region in ancient times, and a match even for Rome at its height. It’s earthen ramparts and fascinating layout, as explained by a local archaeologist, give an idea of the deep history of this region.
Kow-Ata underground lake | A 2 hr drive from Ashgabat this sulphur-heated lake can be found 100m deep underground. Take a swim, explore the cave, and then relax outside with a delicious meal of BBQ shashlik.
Yangykala Canyon | known as the ‘Turkmen Grand Canyon’ this place is pretty much unknown outside of Turkmenistan. A visit to this remote area, however really does not disappoint - see the pinkish rocks rise out of the desert to form various formations, sheer cliffs, vast mesas, and more. As the sun and light change the colours shift and offer amazing opportunities for photography as well as just gazing in wonder. Dare you stand on top of the ‘Alligator’s Head’ – an outcropping hundreds of feet above the valley floor?
Ancient Merv | At one time this was the most important city in the world – the centre of the Great Silk Road, a multicultural and multi-ethnic metropolis of trade and exchange at the centre of the world both geographically and economically. Here is the ideal place to learn about the history of Central Asia, the rise and fall of dynasties and cities, the silk road, and human civilization in this part of the world in general. Now a ruin and major archaeological site, but with enough extant buildings to give a visitor a sense of wonder, this large site really shows you how history gives and takes away; one day you’re on top, the next you’re a desert ruin!