This past week, I took a break from Kyrgyzstan and spent a few days traveling through Turkmenistan, visiting the cities of Ashgabad, Mary, Merv, Geok-Tepe, and Turkmenabad. This trip was arranged by The School of Russian and Asian Studies and The London School of Bishkek for participants of The Central Asian Studies study abroad program.
If you’ve never heard of these great Turkmen cities before, book your ticket today and join the current busloads of Asian and European tourists who are pouring into this beautiful, fascinating, and historical country every year. Don’t be scared, America. Turkmenistan may be considered a “closed country,” but it’s not locked. It may be bordered by Iran and Afghanistan, but since 1995, is a permanently neutral country. In fact, its Day of Neutrality, celebrated on December 12th, is considered the second most important holiday after its Independence Day.
Still not convinced? Here are ten reasons why you should visit Turkmenistan. Давай (Let’s go)!
1. You’ll be the Cool Kid on the Block. Get a peek behind the most closed country in Central Asia. This should be the most obvious reason. Why let tourists from Japan, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Portugal have all the fun? Just remember to not take any pictures of any government buildings. And don’t wander over the mountains into Iran.
2. Go Big or Go Home. Be in a place where the phrase, “Everything is Bigger” takes on global proportions. Ashgabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, has the world’s largest flagpole; carpet; representation of a star; and facility with the greatest number of fountains in a public space. How many cities can boast that many Guinness World Records?
3. Underground Swimming. Swim in the Kow Ata Underground Lake, located in a mountain about an hour from Ashgabad. Can you think of a more fantastical, quixotic experience than descending 65 feet into a dark cave and wading in a pool of water, naturally heated at 96 degrees Fahrenheit, to the music of screeching bats? The lake contains 38 chemical elements, including sulfur, chlorine, sulfate, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, and health tourists flock to it believing that it will help cure all manner of ailments. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, after you go for a dip, there is a local shashlik joint right outside the cave with low wooden tables spread outdoors, where you can kick off your shoes, lay on a colorful carpet, and get served hot black tea and freshly grilled shashlik. I tell you, you won’t find anything more relaxing.
4. Hi-ho Silver… Away! Ride like a Turkmen on the world-famous Ahal Tekke horse, one of the fastest and strongest horse breeds in the world. The Ahal Tekke horse is Turkmenistan’s national emblem, and is thus the main reason Turkmen do not eat horses like their fellow Central Asian compatriots. Today, there are only about 2,800 of these horses left in Turkmenistan, in large part due to the Bolsheviks, who slaughtered them for food. Today, 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, private ownership of Ahal Tekke horses in Turkmenistan is increasing steadily.
5. (Want to) Be Indiana Jones. When you visit Old Merv, the biggest archaeological site in Central Asia, and literally hear the crunch under your shoes of rubble from the previous empires of Alexander the Great, Chingiz Khan, Russia, and the Soviet Union, you will never be more inspired to become an archaeologist. This is tangible history at its finest, and worst. It really is mind-boggling how easy it is to bend down,pick up a dusty fragment of ancient history, go “Ooh!,” and stuff it in your pocket — and many tourists do. While I won’t recommend you do this, it does seem to be common practice. For whatever reason, archaeologists have simply not fully excavated Old Merv and perhaps never will. So, don’t expect to see its riches in any museum – come see them for yourself.
6. Buy a Camel. Go to the largest bazaar in Central Asia, the Tolkuchka Bazaar in Ashgabad, and not worry about being pick-pocketed. Go because this is the anti-bazaar: It is spacious, clean, calm, peaceful, and reportedly crime-free. You can come here and just…buy things, from Iranian fruits, to Turkmen rugs, to camels. And, according to the guide, the prices are actually quite reasonable for tourists, unlike in other places where prices get hiked up as soon as a foreign accent is revealed. Having experienced the chaos that is the Dordoi Bazaar in Bishkek, or the Samarqand bazaars in Uzbekistan, where you’re literally manhandled by gypsies, this Turkmen bazaar is definitely a unique experience, if not an eerie one. Bazaars are also typical facets of everyday life in the Central Asian communities they serve, so visiting them can be helpful in gaining insight to real life-on-the-ground. Even if you don’t need a camel.
7. Visit a Mega-Mosque. The biggest! This mosque, built by first President Niyazov in 2006 in Geok-Tepe, can service 15,000 worshippers at any given time, and offers an underground parking lot for 400 cars and 100 buses. Every December 12th, on Turkmenistan’s Neutrality Day, President Berdymukhomedov pays a visit. You should, too.
8. Innovative Wine Disposal Systems. Visit Old Nisa, a 2nd century BC Parthian Empire fortress. In 2007, this fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Though Old Nisa is still being excavated, tour the premises and see current renovations taking place. Best to go with a knowledgeable guide like the one I had, a prestigious Turkmen professor of archaeology, whose humor and colorful anecdotes can bring to life the rich past of Old Nisa. Listening to his stories, you can almost taste the red wine that flowed within Nisa’s walls. Did you know that there were actually wine pipes between rooms, so that old wine could be deposited into the kitchen to be used as cooking wine? Genius. (Warning: After the tour, you may want to buy a couple bottles of Turkmen wine.)
9. Lenin at his Central Asian Best. Visit my favorite monument in Turkmenistan, a small Lenin statue on top of a beautiful, colorful Turkmen tiled foundation, located in the humble Lenin Park. I love this monument because it is unique from the rest of the ostentatious white marble buildings in the capital, and from any other Lenin statues I have seen in Central Asia. For example, Lenin’s name is written in Arabic script, paying homage to Turkmenistan’s original Arabic script (before it turned to the Latin script, then Cyrillic script, and now back to Latin). This Soviet monument is also not monstrous and ostentatious, like the one in Bishkek, nor is it completely torn down, as it is in Tashkent. I appreciate that Turkmenistan does not ignore its Soviet history, however painful.
10. Best Birthday Ever. Last but not least, come to Turkmenistan to celebrate a birthday with sweet red wine from the country’s ancient wine region (the area of Old Nisa), while wearing a fuzzy black afro sheep hat (телпек). Enjoy all this in your white-marble hotel room, with a Snickers-flavored cake, while listening to Italian news (because there aren’t any English channels). It will be a birthday you will never forget.
So, my dear, adventurous American travelers, be like Indiana Jones and go off the map. Venture out to this much-unexplored frontier of Central Asia and see for yourself a country more stunning, gentle, and historic than the spoofs and “Silly Dictator Stories” you hear about in the Western media. Free yourself from the myth, and immerse yourself in the beauty of Turkmenistan’s natural landscapes, people, pottery shards, and camels.
I won’t lie, it won’t be easy getting over there. And yes, if you come a tourist visa, you will be required to hire a guide to accompany you throughout your journey. And you will be restricted in what you can photograph and what you can’t. But if Indy Jones has taught us anything, it is that, at times, getting to that final golden destination is worth the trouble.