Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, was one of the highlights of my two-month Silk Road journey. Here’s a look at why this bizarre city is worth a visit (plus a detailed guide)!
Welcome to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan!
An Introduction to Ashgabat
When it comes to peculiar sights, Turkmenistan is off the charts. First it’s the Darvaza gas craters, burning gas craters that resemble the gates to hell, that tops my list of the strangest sights I’ve seen. And. as if it weren’t bizarre enough, Ashgabat brings it to a whole new level.
After a month of traveling Central Asia overland, we emerged from the desert to suddenly find this spanking new and clean city. It doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in the region. The capital city of Turkmenistan is over-the-top and outlandish, with white marble buildings flanking wide and empty boulevards, psychedelic government edifices looming over perfectly manicured gardens. Through the last decade, the country has prospered tremendously from their vast natural gas and oil resources. The government has since poured their wealth into reforming their capital city.
Ashgabat: Las Vegas Meets Pyongyang
Lonely Planet describes Ashgabat as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang — it’s easy to see how accurate this description is once you’re here. With the glitzy marble facades and bright neon lights, Ashgabat resembles Las Vegas especially by night. Like Las Vegas, it’s a bright and flashy city that stands in the middle of the desert.
On the other hand, the artificially clean look, starkly empty streets and the Stalinist-like regime that governs the country reminds me of North Korea. Coming to Ashgabat is like stepping into the future and yet knowing fully well that you’re stuck in the past. Turkmenistan is a relatively wealthy country but its people are still living in a controlled regime imposed by the government.
Today, modern Ashgabat is jokingly called the “city of the dead”, because it is almost impossible to see people in the new districts of white marble. The city holds the Guinness Book of Records title for most white marble on Earth. It holds several records, in fact: the world’s largest enclosed observation wheel, the largest fountain, the largest mural of a star. The new airport has the world’s largest image of a Turkmen carpet, adorning the main passenger terminal.
Is Ashgabat Worth Visiting?
Turkmenistan is number 7 on the list of the least visited countries in the world, receiving only 7,000 visitors per year. Many travelers choose to skip Turkmenistan due to the strict visa rules. You can only get a tourist visa if you join a guided tour and that means added cost and limited freedom. You can get a transit visa — but that’ll only give you three to five days in the country (more details in the visa section below). I would definitely recommend a visit, especially if you are a curious traveler keen on places that are unconventional and under-the-radar.
Turkmenistan was definitely one of the highlights of my two-month journey on the Silk Road. Ashgabat was the icing on the cake. While I’m not usually much of a city person, Ashgabat intrigued me tremendously, the way places like Pyongyang piqued my curiosity. We only spent a total of five days in Turkmenistan but the little bit that we saw was enough to make me want to return some day and dig deeper.
The History of Ashgabat
A major earthquake in 1948 wiped out the entire city of Ashgabat, killing almost 110,000 people even though Stalin refused to admit that and reported only 14,000 deaths. Ashgabat was then rebuilt in the Soviet style. In 1991, Turkmenistan finally gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Its leader Turkmenbashi (an eccentric dictator of sorts who named himself the ‘leader of the Turkmen’) immediately carried out major construction plans to welcome in “the golden era of Turkmenistan”. The result is a brand new city with a jumble of lavish golden-domed palaces, Bellagio fountains, neon-lit monuments and Stalinist ministries of state.
Turkmenbashi ruled the country under an obscure dictatorship – he banned men from wearing long hair or beards, outlawed opera, banished dogs from the city and renamed months of the year after his family members. Photography of official buildings like the presidential palace is forbidden. Foreign media criticised him as one of the world’s most totalitarian and repressive dictators.
How to Get to Ashgabat
The main airport in Tajikistan is the Oguz Han International Airport. The national airline is Turkmenistan Airlines which operator flights from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Almaty, Tashkent, Delhi, Istanbul and Moscow.
Ashgabat is definitely not cheap to get to. Flights to Ashgabat from London and other parts of Europe tend to cost around US$700-900 return. But you can get better deals if you fly via Almaty or Dubai and have longer layovers.
To fly from New York to Ashgabat will set you back around US$1100 return. You can find good deals by flying to Almaty first.
Check for Flights to Ashgabat
If you’re planning an extended trip in Central Asia, you’ll most probably travel to Turkmenistan overland. Turkmenistan shares borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. On entering Turkmenistan by land border, you have to pay $12 entry tax, to be paid in dollars only.
Uzbekistan – There are a few border crossings from Uzbekistan. The Farap-Alat is the most popular one, connecting Bukhara with Turkmenabat. Shared taxis are available on both sides of the border. A taxi to Bukhara from the border will cost around 25$ for the whole car (you can share this with others).
Kazakhstan – It is possible to cross overland from Western Kazakhstan along the Zhanaozen-Turkmenbashi road but conditions are bad. There is no public transport available, and taxis can be expensive: 6000 tenge to Zhanaozen, $45 to Turkmenbashi.
Iran – The most popular border is the Sarakhs – Saraghs crossing. It takes three hours to get from Mashad to Sarakhs in Iran and roughly two hours from Saraghs to Mary in Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan – The only border that is opened to tourists is the Imam Nazar – Aaqina crossing. The road is a dirt track that will require a 4WD and good preparation. There is no settlement on either side of the border, so you will likely continue straight to Atamyrat (previously Kerki) or Andkhoy.
It is actually possibly to cross the Caspian Sea and travel from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan by ferry. The coastline views of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are beautiful, and definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of boat trips.
It’s a fast ferry which can cover the route in 8 to 10 hours, but you should still budget 1-2 days as loading on and off can take ages. Ferry is tourist class, and there are bars, buffet and shops (though sometimes they’re closed for no reason). Beds are great, good ship bathrooms with hot water showers. They even have lounges and large flat screen TVs with hundreds of useless channels, so bring some USB movies for the Turkish drivers.
Visa regulations make it quite difficult to enter Turkmenistan (Central Asian visas are notoriously hard to get). There are two types of visas:
Tourist visa – Getting a Turkmenistan tourist visa is not possible without booking a tour. Once you sign up for a guided tour, the operator will handle everything. I traveled to Ashgabat as part of a Central Asia overland trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, we traveled along the Silk Road on an overland truck, camping in deserts and gardens.
Transit visa – Getting a transit visa might require a long wait, but you do NOT need to book a tour. A transit visa allows for a visit of up to 5 days (Embassy workers in a bad mood might only give you 3 days). I’ve heard that some embassies have started asking for a LOI (Letter of Invitation) for the transit visa. Note that it is a transit visa: this means you need to go from one country to another through Turkmenistan. You cannot go back to the same country you came from on a transit visa.
To apply for the transit visa, you’ll need to go to your nearest Turkmen embassy. The cost is around 73$ (155$ for Russians). Processing times differ from embassy to embassy. Expect anything from 1 to 6 weeks. Read here for more details.
How Much Time to See Ashgabat
We only had five days in Turkmenistan, three of which were spent in Ashgabat. The city is rather spread out, but there are tons of bizarre and interesting sights to see, so I definitely think it’s worth spending at least three days there. I would definitely recommend spending more time for those who are able to.
Note that transit visas only allow you to stay in Turkmenistan for 3-5 days, and tourist visas are only valid for the whole duration of your trip (booked with a tour operator).
Where to Stay in Ashgabat
Ashgabat has next-to-no budget options, very few mid-range options and tons of high end hotels. But the high-end hotels are surprisingly affordable, so it’s worthwhile looking around at the upscale hotels even if you’re on a budget.
Yyldyz Hotel (Pictured below) – A new hotel in a hill overlooking Ashgabat, with a sail design that resembles the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. The over-the-top hotel has three restaurants specializing in Chinese and Italian food, three bars, spa facilities and a massive pool. The hotel is an attraction in its own right and the iconic landmark can be seen from everywhere in Ashgabat. Read reviews here.
Oguzkent Hotel – No longer a Sofitel but still one of the best hotels in Ashgabat. Location is right next to the Presidential Palace, so close to all the city’s main sights. The continental restaurant on the top floor has nice views (it’s possible to snap photos of many buildings not allowed on the ground) while the Turkish restaurant has quality food at reasonable prices. Read reviews here.
Hotel Nissa – Apparently owned by family of Turkmenbashi, this is an old-school four-star hotel with more traditional flair than the first two hotels mentioned. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the war memorial and book shop. Read reviews here.
What to See in Ashgabat
Ashgabat was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2013 for having the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world. In a city of just 22sqkm, there are 543 buildings covered with 4.5 million cubic metres of imported Italian white marble. Some of them are government buildings and photography is not allowed. Here are some of the highlights:
Alem Entertainment Center
One of the most prominent landmarks in Ashgabat is the Alem Entertainment Center, named the world’s largest covered Ferris wheel by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2012. It cost the government more than 315 million Turkmen manat to build. It’s all lit up in techni-colors at night. But like many other attractions in Ashgabat, the ferris wheel actually doesn’t work.
Ashgabat National Museum of History
The Ashgabat National Museum of History is a historical museum featuring over 500,000 exhibits of paintings, artifacts, historical documents, jewelry, religious idols, fossils, geological items, and many more. The perfect place to visit if you want a glimpse of the history of Turkmenistan. The building itself features an impressive interior. There is also a small collection of carpets on display. Be warned, photography is prohibited unless you pay a comparatively steep camera ticket.
Monument Arch of Neutrality
Another oddly eccentric building in Ashgabat is the Wedding Palace. The lower floors of the white and gold structure are star-shaped and stacked in a staggered fashion so that their points do not overlap. Atop the initial floors is an oversized disco ball, enclosed by a frame of eight-sided Turkmen stars. Inside, the building acts as both the office where newlyweds can legally register their union, as well as a venue in which to hold the ceremony. There are 11 floors in the complex, all devoted to getting people hitched.
Palace of Knowledge
The Palace of Knowledge is three large buildings found south of Independence Park. The palace is a combination of an extensive library, concert hall, and Turkmenbashi Museum. The museum houses the many awards and gifts presented to President Niyazov by various people, organizations, and countries around the world. You’ll find a collection of beautiful displays and extravagant gold exhibits.
Like everywhere in Central Asia, bazaars are an important part of the Turkmen culture. One of the largest and oldest bazaars in Turkmenistan is Ashgabat’s Russian bazaar, called Gulistan. Found in the centre of the city Gulistan is an excellent place to interact with locals and get a taste of Turkmen food. Rows upon rows of spices are stacked sky high, with fresh-from-the-oven naan bread piled in heaps and small eateries serving up steamy laghman noodles. There is more than food too – everything from electronics to clothing and souvenirs can be purchased here. I bought a few fluffy Turkmen hats here home, best buy ever!
Ertugrul Gazi Mosque
This mosque honors Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. It is a prominent landmark in Ashgabat with its four minarets and central dome and has a lavish interior decoration with fine stained glass windows. The mosque was inaugurated in 1998 and this white marbled building is reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. The craftmanship and artistry are spectacular. This is a living mosque, still used by people to pray.
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