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Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million km2, a bit larger than California or almost the size of Spain.
It has a coast on the Caspian Sea, but is otherwise landlocked. Neighboring countries are Iran and Afghanistan to the South, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North.
The traditional life of the Turkmen is that of nomadic shepherds, though some have been settled in towns for centuries. The country has extensive oil and gas reserves undergoing exploration and development.
The great Kara-Kum desert occupies over 80% of the country in the West and center. The Eastern part is a less desolate plateau. The country shares a mountainous, or at least hilly, border with Iran.
Ashgabat, the capital
Balkanabat (formerly Nebit-Dag)
Dasoguz (formerly Tashauz)
Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) - a Caspian port
Historically, most of these towns were oases along the Silk Road.
Darvaza Flaming Crater — At this spot near the town of Darvaza, an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas in 1971. The rig collapsed into the cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. It was decided to let the fire burn rather than let the poisonous gas escape into the nearby town. The fire burns to this day and it is popular as being easily mistakable for the gates of Hell.
Pay a visit to 'Kow Ata' underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in - unless you're handy with your towel.
North Korea may get all the press, but even Kim Jong-Il's cult of personality fades when compared to the surreal totalitarian state set up by Turkmenistan's all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15-meter tall golden statue that rotates to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat. The month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after himself, while the month of April and the word "bread" became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of Niyazov's mother.
Decrees emanating from Niyazov's palace have banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. Through it all, Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great (his official title) remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said.
Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death in December 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow has slowly peeled back the worst excesses of the Turkmenbashi, restoring pensions and old names.
The people of Turkmenistan are predominantly Turkmen, also spelt Turkoman, in both ethnicity and language. Turkmenistan traditionally was home to sizable Russian and German populations, but they largely emigrated to their mother countries following the break up of the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert, with intensive agriculture located in irrigated oases. One-half of its irrigated land is planted with cotton, making it the world's tenth largest producer.
Most all nationalities need a visa to enter Turkmenistan, and it has a reputation for being one of the more difficult to obtain. The hoops you'll need to jump through vary by nationality, but often involve needing to apply in person at their consulate in your home country, and letters of invitation from someone within Turkmenistan.
Arranging a tour may make things easier, as the company can help in getting the LOI and visa. Bear in mind that you might well have to be met by a guide, regardless of how you enter Turkmenistan. This can be particularly important, especially if your inward journey is delayed as is possible when entering across the Caspian Sea by boat.
Internal flights are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines which flies daily between Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi, Dashoguz and a couple other destinations. Flights are subsidised, and due to fuel costs, extremely cheap. Prices are around $5 US for a flight from Ashgabat to Mary or Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines operates with a new fleet of Boeing 737s, purchased in 2001. Be aware that you might not be able to photograph freely in and around the airport, though this is not unheard of elsewhere.
At least in Ashgabat, like in much of the former Soviet Union, "taxis" are mostly unofficial - and can be hailed by flagging down a car by the roadside. Haggle, and agree on the destination and price in advance - knowledge of Russian will definitely come in handy at this point.
The usual sensible precautions apply here. If your instincts suggest that something might be not quite right, then it's best to go with your instincts.
Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.
It is possible to travel by train between some of the major cities in Turkmenistan, but journeys are slow (up to 16 hours from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi) - so unless you have a specific interest, plane travel is the best way to get around the country.
Around 70% of the people in Turkmenistan speak Turkmen, and 50% speak decent Russian.
Turkoman rugs are famous, tending towards rich reds with geometric patterns. Sometimes they are called Bokhara rugs because Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan was a center for their trade. Turkoman designs are now often copied in India and Pakistan.
The classic book on Turkoman rugs is "Tappiseries de l'Asie Centrale", in Russian and French by A.A. Bogolyubov, Tsarist governor of Turkmenistan, 1905. It was a limited edition with hand-painted illustrations, now rare and extremely expensive. A translation (the original French plus English), "Carpets of Central Asia", was published in Britain in the 60s. Even it is now hard to find and expensive. However, if you intend spending a lot on these carpets, it is definitely worth reading. Look for it in libraries.
Why not add to your own despotic library by adding Turkmenbashi's self-penned 'Ruhnama' book, exploring his views on what it means to be a Turkmen. Surprisingly, this is a fairly sensible read.
Expect distinctly average Russian cuisine in restaurants. As in Uzbekistan, plov and more central Asian-type fare can be found in markets.
If you can find it, try sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, sometimes prepared in a 'tempura' style.
It is possible to take photographs relatively freely in Turkmenistan. However, you are best advised to exercise caution when photographing anyone in uniform or government buildings. Play it safe early on in your visit to give yourself an idea of what is acceptable.
It should not be necessary for your guide to accompany you if you wish to leave your hotel, and go for a wander.
Currency Turkmen manat (TMM)
Area 488,100 km2
Language Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7%
Religion Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, others 2%
Calling Code 963
Time Zone UTC +5
Hotels in Turkmenistan
Hotels in Ashgabat
Hotels in Mary
Hotels in Turkmenbashi