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  • Unlikely tourist destinations: Turkmenistan



    For much of the general population, Central Asia is still a bit of the blur, and often people hardly know which countries exactly are located on the map between the Caspian Sea and China, and even less of them have actually visited them. Turkmenistan has a couple of pretty (in)famous neighbors, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, but of the country itself little is heard in the news, and even in tourist circles.

    However unusual a destination it might be, Turkmenistan is a place full of promises, where tourists are welcome as long as they stay out of the country’s politics. Here’s a guide to a fascinating,  unlikely tourist destination: Turkmenistan.

    About Turkmenistan

    Turkmenbashi, photo by Oleg1975 on Flickr

    Turkmenistan is a truly interesting case: the only Stalinist country in existence, other than North Korea, which means that it has a pretty authoritarian government that keeps everything in check.

    The head of the state built a 15 meter tall gilded statue of himself, and he is called Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen. But as a tourist, as long as you don’t discuss politics or make any comments about the president, you will be welcomed with open arms.

    Although the traditional way of life of Turkmen has been nomadic for centuries, most of them have settled down by now, and yet  many of the age-old traditions and customs are still preserved.

    Needless to say, any sort of misbehavior will be very harshly punished in Turkmenistan, and as a tourist you don’t want to get into trouble with the police, who rarely speak any English and have a reputation of being corrupt. Keep in mind that there’s a curfew at 11 PM, and being on the street after that time is illegal.

    Things to see

    Konye Urgench, photo by David Stanley

    The capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, is the Stalinist capital par excellence, and a unique sight, save for those North Korean destinations that  most people are unlikely to see anytime soon. Simply walking around the city will be a lot of fun for history buffs, but there are many more things to see in the capital.

    The National Museum is very interesting, and so is the Turkmen Carpet Museum (traditional Turkmen carpets are exquisite, some of the most beautiful you can find anywhere). For souvenirs, visit Tolkuchka Bazaar to pick up some traditional arts and crafts and other knick-knacks.

    Konye Urgench is a a great introduction to the best parts of Turkmen society and culture, and the sights you’ll see are a reminder of the less repressive past of the country. Turabeg Khanum Mausoleum, dating back to the 14th century, is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Central Asia, and Kutlug Timur Mínaret, Sultan Tekish Mausoleum,  Il-Arshan Mausoleum (plus more than a dozen other mausoleums) are also fascinating relics of the past.

    Things to do

    Karakum desert, photo by flydime

    If you prefer to see Turkmenistan on the move, then you can sign up for a horse trekking tour on the famous Turkmen Akhal Teke horses through the Karakum Desert and several nomadic villages. If horses are not your thing, you could give camels a chance, and trek through the desert on camelback.

    Kugitang Nature Reserve is a great destination for hiking, although you will need to secure a travel permit to visit it (the Dinosaur Plateau in the reserve is really fascinating, it has over 400 dino footprints!).

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