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TURKMENISTAN

Last updated on April 12, 2001

The most curious of the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan resembles an Arab Gulf state without the money. It's the second largest Central Asian country, but four-fifths of it consists of an inhospitable lunar-like desert called the Karakum which conceals unexploited oil and gas deposits. The country is sparsely populated and its people, the Turkmen, are only a generation or two removed from being nomads. Turkmenistan is as much a culture as a country since the Turkmen have never formed a real nation and have allowed their cities to become predominantly populated by other peoples. They place most esteem on a rural life revolving around their famous, traditionally patterned carpets, their ceremonies, hospitality and fleet Akhal-Teke horses.


Map of Turkmenistan:

Turkmenistan

Facts at a Glance:

Full country name:Republic of Turkmenistan
Area: 488,100 sq km (302,620 sq mi)
Population: 4.2 million
Capital city: Ashghabat (pop 450,000)
People: 73% Turkmen, 10% Russian, 9% Uzbek
Languages: Turkmen
Religion: Sunni Muslim
Government: Republic
President: Saparmurad Niyazov


State Structure:

Turkmenistan's political system is characterized by a strong presidency and a centralized decision making structure. The President is also the Prime Minister and chairs the only political party. He has declared his support for a transition toward democracy and a multi-party system. However, at present, political stability and continuity are viewed as essential pre-conditions for economic stability and growth. The President's role is of central importance to all aspects of economic and human development in the country, and major decisions at all levels of government are cleared by the President's office.

In December 1999, the Khalk Maslakhaty appointed the President unanimously to an unlimited term in office. The Khalk Maslakhaty is the only body empowered to make changes to the constitution, but its main function is to approve the overall direction of government policy. The unicameral Mejlis (parliament) is the main, but compliant, legislature. The Mejlis' 50 members are directly elected, by constituencies through an absolute majority of the votes cast. The latest elections took place in December 1999. There is little separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary bodies. Specialized bodies such as the Procurator General's Office and the Central Bank are subordinated to the President's authority as well.


Hotels in Ashgabat:

Sheraton Grand Turkmen Hotel
7 Gerogly St.
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-20-50
Fax: (+993 12) 51-20-48
Four-star hotel with two restaurants, bar, casino, health club, swimming pool and tennis court. In the downtown area. Visa and American Express are accepted.

Four Points Ak Altyn Hotel
141 Makhtumkuli Ave.
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-21-81
Fax: (+993 12) 51-21-77
Four-star hotel with two restaurants, bar, casino, health club, swimming pool and business center. Five kilometers from the downtown area. Visa and American Express are accepted.

Azatlyk (Independent)
Berzengi St.
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-87-00, 51-81-55, 51-87-01, 51-87-02
Fax: (+993 12) 51-81-55
Four-star hotel with a swimming pool. Next door and under the same management as the Ahal. The two hotels share the same restaurant. Visa accepted with a 4 percent service fee.


Restaurants in Ashgabat:

Altyn Turkmenistan
Location: 19 Neutral Turkmenistan St., Hotel Turkmenistan
American and Middle Eastern dishes. Selection of kebabs, steaks, chicken and omelets in a pleasant setting. Azeri, Turkish and Western music with dance perfomers. Visa card accepted. Moderately priced.

Four Points Ak Altyn Plaza Hotel Coffee Shop
Location: 141 Makhtumkuli Ave., Ak Altyn Plaza Hotel
American and Turkish dishes. Good selection of sandwiches and light fare. On the weekdays there is also a buffet of Turkish salads, meats and desserts. Visa accepted with a service fee. Moderately priced.

Four Points Ak Altyn Plaza Hotel Restaurant
Location: 141 Makhtumkuli Ave., Ak Altyn Plaza Hotel
Indian cuisine. Selection of steak, pasta and chicken. Pleasant environment. On the weekends, chamber and jazz groups perform. Visa accepted with a service fee. Moderately expensive.


Main Cities & Tel. Codes:

Turkmenistan (country code)993
Ashgabat (the capital)12
Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk, Balkana velayat)00222
Chardjev (Lebap velayat on the East)00422
Mary (Mary velayat east from Ashgabat)00522
Nebit Dag (oil capital, principal city of Balkan velayat)00243
Dashkhovuz (Dashkhovuz velayat on the North)00322
Buzmeyin (town 30 minutes driving west from Ashgabat)00138
Bayram Aly (town near to Mary)00564
Tedjen (town on the way from Ashgabat to Mary)00135


Environment:

Bounded by the Caspian Sea in the west and the Amu-Darya river to the east, Turkmenistan covers 488,100 sq km (190,360 sq mi), making it the second largest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics after Kazakhstan. It's very sparsely populated, the major reason being that four-fifths of the country is waterless desert. The Karakum (Black Sands), one of the largest sand deserts in the world, fills the entire central region of the country with great crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked, baked-clay surfaces. To the south, the Karakum is fringed by the Kopet Dag (Lots of Mountains), an earthquake prone range that forms a formidable 1500km (930mi) natural border with Iran and, farther east, Afghanistan. Smaller ranges of the north-west edge of the desert mark Turkmenistan's border with Kazakhstan. Apart from the Amu-Darya there are precious few water courses to bring life to the arid region.

Turkmenistan's wildlife has a Middle Eastern streak, understandable when you consider that parts of the country are as close to Baghdad as they are to Tashkent. Leopards and porcupines inhabit the parched hills. Also eking out a living in the desert are the goitred gazelle, gophers, sand rats, jerboas (small jumping rodents) and the varan or 'sand crocodile', actually a type of large lizard. Turkmenistan is also noted for its big poisonous snakes including vipers and cobras. In the southern mountains there are ancient forests of wild walnut and pistachio trees.

Unsurprisingly for a desert nation, Turkmenistan is characterised by a lack of rainfall, lots of searing sunshine and high temperatures. During summer, daytime temperatures are rarely lower than 35?C (95?F) with highs in the south-east Karakum desert of up to 50?C (122?F). By contrast, in winter the temperature in Kushka, on the mountainous Afghan border, drops as low as -33?C (-27?F). In the capital, Ashghabat, there are rarely more than a couple of days when it drops below freezing and by April the heat is already uncomfortable.


History:

Though never a goal in itself, the sun-scorched, barren land between the Caspian Sea and the Amu-Darya passed in ancient times from one empire to another as armies decamped on the way to richer territories. Alexander the Great established a city on his way to India, the Romans set up near present-day Ashghabat and, in the 11th century the Seljuq Turks used Alexander's old city, Merv, as a base from which to expand their empire into Afghanistan. Two centuries later, the heart of the Seljuq empire was torn out as Jenghiz Khan stormed down from the steppes into Trans-Caspia (the region east of the Caspian Sea) on his way to terrorise Europe.

While the empire-builders tussled, nomadic horsebreeding tribes of Turkmen drifted in through the cracks, possibly from the Altay mountains, and grazed from oasis to oasis along the fringes of the Karakum desert and in Persia, Syria and Anatolia. With the decline in the 16th century of the Timurid empire, the region became a backwater dotted with feudal Turkmen islands. From their oasis strongholds, the Turkmen preyed on straggling caravans, pillaging and stealing slaves or skirmishing with other tribes. It was only when they started kidnapping Russians from the strengthening tsarist empire that the Turkmen fell into trouble. Military forces were sent to Trans-Caspia to rout the by now wildly uncontrollable tribes: In 1881 the Russians marched on the fortress of Geok-Tepe and massacred an estimated 7000 Turkmen. A further 8000 were cut down as they fled across the desert. Not surprisingly, the Russians met little more resistance and by 1894 had secured all Trans-Caspia for the tsar.

A group of counter-revolutionaries briefly held sway in Ashghabat when WWI and the Bolshevik revolution distracted the Russians. A small British force, dispatched from northern Persia to back up the provisional Ashghabat governemt, skirmished with the Bolsheviks but withdrew in 1919 and the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was formed in 1924. Soviet attempts to settle the tribes, collectivise farming and ban religion inflamed the nomadic Turkmen and a guerilla war raged until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into the desert or into northern Afghanistan and a steady stream of Russian immigrants began settling in their stead to undertake the modernization of the SSR. A big part of the plan was cotton: Massive irrigation works bled the Amu-Darya and the Aral Sea all in the cause of crisp white shirts. Turkmenistan was slow to pick up on the political changes in the other Soviet republics during the 1980s. The first challenge to the Communist Party (CPT) came in 1989 when a group of intellectuals formed Agzybirlik (Unity), a socially and environmentally progressive party. Agzybirlik was banned when it showed signs of garnering too much support, though the CPT did declare sovereignty in August 1990. In October 1990 Saparmurad Niyazov, unopposed and supposedly with the blessing of 98% of voters, was elected to the newly created post of president. One year later, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan became an independent country.

The years since independence have belonged to President Niyazov, authoritarian head of the Democratic Party (DPT), the new name judiciously adopted by the old (and in no way altered) CPT. With his statue on every available pedestal, a clutch of towns renamed after him and enough public portraits to fill the world's galleries, Niyazov is the focus of a personality cult that makes Lenin look shy and retiring. He's now adopted the modest title of Turkmenbashi (Head of all Turkmen) and parliament has extended his term in office until 2002. Opposition parties and newspapers are banned and, though there are grumblings of dissent, Niyazov genuinely does enjoy considerable popular appeal. The failure of oil and gas wealth to make an impact on empty shop shelves combined with rampant corruption may see this support erode.


Economic Overview:

Economic Performance

Currently, the Turkmen economy is tightly controlled by the government, with President Niyazov making all key decisions. From 1991 to 1993, the Turkmenistan economy was able to thrive because of its high-value gas and cotton exports. Of its NIS neighbors, Turkmenistan suffered least from the breakup of the USSR. National income during this period increased by 45 percent. Agricultural production was stable, while industrial production declined by only 10 percent. However, despite an improved revenue base as energy export prices increased, rising prices on imported food and other consumer goods forced the government to raise retail prices sharply several times in 1993, resulting in one of the highest rates of inflation in the NIS. Introduction of the country's new currency - the manat - in Fall 1993 was accompanied by the largest price hikes for the year. In 1998 the inflation rate fell modestly, from 21.4 percent to 19.8 percent.

The inability of Turkmenistan's NIS neighbors to pay post-Soviet higher gas prices created a severe cash flow crisis for Turkmenistan in early 1994. Russia's refusal to transmit Turkmen gas to hard currency customers in Europe has financially hurt the country. Ukraine, the primary recipient of Turkmen gas, fell behind in its gas payments in 1993 and 1994, but in November 1994, in response to Turkmen threats to cancel gas delivery because of nonpayment, Ukraine's debt was restructured as a loan at eight percent annually for seven years. As of April 1995, Ukraine has begun repayment in hard currency and barter. Azerbaijan decided to pay its gas debt to Turkmenistan with its own gas reserves by the end of 1998. Gazprom's agreement to purchase Turkmen gas exports has provided some financial relief.


Consulting Services:

Central Asian American Enterprise Fund
Direct investments, Joint ventures, and small business loans

Ernst & Young
Auditing, accounting, tax and business consulting services

Mayer, Brown & Platt
Consulting with the Oil and Gas Ministry of Turkmenistan


Culture:

The energy-rich Central Asian country revives its most ancient rituals and customs, and discovers old taboos that were thinly papered over during Communist rule. Many marriages are arranged, but marriages-of-love are becoming more popular. Young women with two braids and a small scarf are unmarried; those with one braid and a big kerchief have been wed.

Yurta, the traditional tent (it has a collapsible wooden frame and is covered with reeds and felt) is still used today. The tent is erected in the front yard and used as a summerhouse.

National dress: men wear high, shaggy sheepskin hats and red robes over white shirts. Women wear long sack-dresses over narrow trousers (the pants are trimmed with a band of embroidery at the ankle). Female headdresses usually consist of silver jewelry. Bracelets and brooches are set with semi-precious stones.

Tea and fruits are commonly served before dinner. As well as after, though. Alcohol is not popular in families. But you may always have something to drinks in bars, restaurants or in other public places. If you visit local family, be sure that you will be offered to have a dinner, and you'd better have it, this is the way you may express your respect to your hosts. Dinner is commonly consists of first and second courses. Tea and fruits are dessert. Dinner is served with lots of vegetables. If you're afraid of eating strange food, try to reject it. Congratulations if you succeed.

If you visit local families you will most likely be offered the following dishes:

  • Plov. Rice cooked with meat and carrot.
  • Shurpa. Soup made of lamb.
  • Chorek. Home made bread.
  • Dry fruits. Dry grapes, melon etc.
  • Tea. Green tea is the most popular of national soft drinks.


Museums:

National museum of Turkmenistan
30 Novofiryuzinskoye Shosse (highway). National Museum of Turkmenistan is located south of Ashgabat in Berzengi.
There are 8 permanently functioning exhibition halls in four different areas: history of Turkmenistan and Turkmen nation, history of Turkmen carpets, nature, and ethnography. Historical exposition covers the period from primeval times to modern days. Visitors to the museum can purchase Turkmen crafts and souvenirs in the shop located in the museum.

Carpet Museum
5 Gorogly Street, Ashgabat (next to the Grand Turkmen Hotel)
Tel.: (+993 12) 39-88-87 or 39-88-79
This museum has a large impressive collection of antiques and world-renowned Turkmen carpets, as well as the largest hand-knotted Turkmen carpet in the world. It also has a carpet shop where visitors can buy new handmade carpets.

Historical Site "NISSA"
The ruins of Old Nissa are situated near the Bagir Village, about 15 km west of Ashgabat.
Old Nissa was the capital of the Parthian Empire, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Nissa is mentioned in the Zend - Avesta - sacred book of Zoroastrianism. Old Nissa is located on the territory that constitutes the core of the Parthian Empire. It was the land where the Parthian kings started their conquests and turned small Parthia into a huge empire of the ancient world that stretched from the Indus to the Euphrates.

Historical site "Geok-Depe Fortress"
Akhal Velayat, town of Geok-Depe (40 minutes outside of Ashgabat by car)
Tel.: (+993 12) 23-24
Geok-depe is a fortress from the nineteenth century where a bloody battle (1881) was fought between the Turkmen and the Russians who were attempting to take over Turkmenistan. In 1995, a mosque was built to commemorate the battle of Geok-Depe.

Historical site "Abiverd"
Akhal Velayat, village of Kaakhka (An hour and half by car from Ashgabat)
This site is near the ancient oasis of Sarakhs. Here, the visitor can see ruins of the mausoleum of Abu-Said Meyhene, an oriental philosopher (1049 A.D.)

Historical site "Sarakhs"
Akhal Velayat, village of Sarakhs (4,5 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (993-134) 2-12-44
The mausoleum of the religious leader Abul-Fazla (1024 A.D.) is located here. This mausoleum is one of the most complete architectural works of art still standing in Turkmenistan.

Historical and Ethnographical Museum
1 Komsomol'Skaya Street, city of Mary (5 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (+993 37022) 3-27-22
This museum has just opened an exhibit of archaeological finds from sites excavated in the Mary oasis, including material from the bronze age sites of gonur and togoluk and the cities of ancient Merv. The building in which the museum is housed is itself worth a visit, as are the museum's other exhibits.

Historical Site "Ancient Merv"
About an hour by car from the city of Mary
Tel.: (+993 37064) 2-22-17
For many centuries, Merv was regarded as one of the richest, most highly cultured centers of the Ancient East. Merv comprises a group of sites of ancient towns which arose and perished. Along with Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, Merv was one of the most important capitals of Islam. Its greatest period of glory was during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when it served as the Eastern capital of the Great Seljuks.

Historical and Ethnographical Museum
35 Shaidjanov Street, city of Charjou (7 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (+993 422) 4-80-79
This museum possesses an interesting collection of artifacts from the Lebap velayat, which also included cities on the Great Silk Road.

Historical site "Kerki" (3 hours by car from Turkmenabat)
Tel.: (+993 444) 22-98
The mausoleum of Astan-Baba is a unique structure located at this site, northwest from the town of Kerki. It has been rebuilt many times during the centuries.

Ethnographical Museum
2 Magtymova Street, Turkmenbashi (7 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (+993 222) 7-62-13
Although the history of the city begins in 1717 when the Russians marched on Khiva, the museum has interesting artifacts from the Seljuk Empire when Genghis Khan invaded from the Steppes through Trans-Caspia (the east of the Caspian Sea).

Historical site "Dekhistan" Kizilatrek, village of Madau
(About 7 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (+993 43242) 1-34
Dekhistan is considered the most important oasis in Southwest Turkmenistan. On this site the city of Misrian reached its peak when it belonged to the Shahs of Khoresm (end of the fifteenth century). Only a few impressive ruins remain.

Historical Site "Kunya-urgench"
Contact address: 79 Moskovskaya Street, Keneurgench city (8 hours by car from Ashgabat)
Tel.: (+993 36047) 2-10-08
Kunya-Urgench (120 km. from Dashoguz) is the heart of ancient Khorezm. Fortunately, several outstanding architectural monuments have been preserved in Kunya-Urgench (Old Urgench). Visit the mausoleums of Fahrad-din Razi (13th century), Tekesh Khorezmshakh (13th century), Turabek-khanum Kala (14th century), the fortress Ak-Kala & the minaret of the mosque (62m height). It is a brilliant testament of the extraordinary skill of the Urgench school of architecture and construction.


Theaters in Ashgabat:

Turkmen State Mollanepes Academic Drama Theatre
Address: 79 Kemine St.
Tel.: 35-69-58; 35-12-87 35-79-88
Performance days : Wednesday to Sunday. Starting time: 7:00 p.m.
Entrance fees : 3000 - 5000 Turkmen Manats
Performance Language : Turkmen
Repertoire : National-historical plays, folklore plays and world classic plays, world classical and modern comedies and dramas.

Young Peoples Theatre
Address: 115 Magtymguly Ave.
Tel.: 35-49-74, 35-39-74
Performance days : Thursday to Sunday. Starting time - 11:00 a.m., 7:00 p.m.
Entrance fees : 1000 - 3000 Turkmen Manats
Performance Language : Turkmen
Repertoire : Plays by Turkmen and foreign playwrights; children's plays

State Russian Pushkin Drama Theatre
Address: 11 Gerogly St.
Contact person : Director Nepesov Serdar Kurbanovich
Tel.: 35-11-39, 35-46-03, 35-43-82
Performance days: Friday to Monday. Starting time: 7:00 p.m. Sunday: 12:00 noon.
Entrance fees : 1500 - 4000 Turkmen Manats
Performance Language :Russian and Turkmen
Repertoire : Popular modern and classical plays of Russian and European playwrights.

Turkmen State Theater "Jan"
Tel.: 35-10-76

State Philharmonic Society Named After Mylly Tachmuradov
Address: 3 Gerogly St.
Tel.: 47-43-12, 47-43-13

Turkmen National Conservatory
Address: 22 Pushkin Street
Tel.: 35-52-19, 39-86-08

National Variety Art And Circus Center
Tel.: 36-13-43


Events:

Holidays in Turkmenistan:

January 1New Year's Day
January 12Memory Day
January 30Ramadan
February 19National Flag Day
March 8Women's Day
March 21Novruz-Bairam (religious)
April 6Drop of Water is a Grain of Gold Holiday
April 27Horse Day
May 9Victory Day
May 18Revival and Unity Day
May 19Holiday of Poetry of Magtymguli
May 25Carpet Day
June 21Day of election of first President
July 10Turkmen Melon Holiday
July 14Turkmen Bakhsi Holiday
October 6Remembrance Day
October 27-28Independence Day
November 17Student Youth Day
November 30Harvest Holiday/Bread Day
December 1Day of Neutrality
December 7Good Neighborliness

One day a year (refer to Muslim calendar) Kurban-Bairam (religious).
One day a year (refer to Muslim calendar) Ramadan-Bairam (religious).

Turkmenistan isn't known for its jolly street parades. Public holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Remembrance Day (anniversary of a 1948 earthquake on January 12), National Flag Day (February 19), International Women's Day (March 8), Labour Day (May 1), Victory Day (a commemoration of the end of WWII for Russia on May 9, 1945) and Independence Day (October 27).

The spring festival of Nauryz ('New Days') is one of Turkmenistans biggest holidays. It's an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations and can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.


Facts for the Traveler:

Passport & Visa

A passport and visa are required. Visas for Turkmenistan are issued:

2207 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington D.C. 20008,
tel. (202) 588-1500
URL: http://turkmenistanembassy.org.

A valid letter of invitation stamped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is required at the time of application. The stamp must be obtained in Ashgabat by the issuers of the invitation. Travelers may also obtain 10-day visas at the airport if they have with them the stamped letter of invitation. Any traveler arriving without a visa or without the needed documents to obtain a visa at the airport may be sent back immediately to the point from which he/she embarked for Turkmenistan. American citizens who arrive in Turkmenistan by car or train without visas should obtain visas at the Velayat Hakimliks (Regional Mayor's Offices) closest to their point of entry upon presentation of a letter of invitation. Americans arriving in Turkmenistan by ferry from Azerbaijan are required to present entry documents to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative at the post of Turkmenbashi. Visa extensions may be obtained by applying at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and paying an additional fee. Because of frequent changes in visa policy, the Embassy of Turkmenistan should be contacted prior to travel for the most current information.

Health risks: Hepatitis A & E, diphtheria, tuberculosis & undulant fever. Don't drink the water even if locals say it's OK to drink.

Time: GMT/UTC plus 5 hours.

Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz, using European two-pin plugs (round pins, no earth connection). Bring a torch.

Weights & Measures: Metric.


Money & Costs:

Currency: Manat (M)

Relative costs:

  • Budget meal: US$1-5
  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$10-15
  • Top-end restaurant meal: let us know if you find one
  • Budget room: US$5-10
  • Mid-range hotel room: US$25-60
  • Top-end hotel: let us know if you find one

Turkmenistan is one of the cheaper Central Asians destinations. If you twin share in modest hotels, get your food from cheap restaurants and street stalls and travel by bus and train, you should be able to keep daily costs to around US$25-40 a day. Budgeteers relying on trains, streetside cafes or bazaars and truckers' hostels may need little more than US$10 a day. Foreigners often pay substantially more than locals for services, and there's not much you can do to avoid this. Watch for budget blowers like imported beer and chocolate bars.

Turkmenistan is effectively a cash-only zone. The local currency is the only legal tender, though in practice US dollars and German Deutschmarks may be accepted or even requested for some transactions. Tourist hotels are your best bet for currency exchange; there is a black market for dollars and Deutschmarks in Ashghabat, but it's typically at no better than official rates. Be aware that most changers accept only crisp, brand new banknotes, convinced somehow that anything older is worthless. Travellers' cheques are of limited use - there may be a Vneshekonobank in Ashghabat which changes US dollar travellers' cheques but don't count on it. Credit cards are most useful for picking your teeth.

Tipping runs counter to many people's Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.


When to Go:

As summers are ferociously hot and winters bitterly cold, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best seasons to visit Turkmenistan. In April the desert blooms briefly and the monotonous ochre landscapes explode in reds, oranges and yellows. Autumn is harvest time, when market tables heave with freshly picked fruit. If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season.


Attractions:

Ashghabat

Ashghabat is not the end of the world, but it feels like it can't be more than a short bus ride away. It has a dust-blown, shutter-banging-in-the-wind quality, and on a sun-scorched afternoon all that's missing are vultures wheeling in the burning blue sky. Belying the seductive imagery of its name, nobody seems too excited about this 'City of Love'. It's out of sight, out of mind as far as Moscow is concerned, and Turkmen traditionally don't care for cities. The fact that Ashghabat was wiped off the face of the earth by an earthquake in 1948 doesn't help either; 110,000 people died and for five years the area was closed to outsiders while bodies were recovered and the wreckage cleared.

Consequently there are no great camera-friendly monuments, no shady tree-houses from which to watch the world go by, and travellers have to work hard to make a stay worthwhile. The highlight of the city is definitely the huge Sunday Tolkuchka bazaar which attracts a colourful Cecil B de Mille cast of thousands. It sprawls across acres of desert on the outskirts of the city, and consists of corrals of camels and goats, avenues of red-clothed women squatting before silver jewellery, and clusters of trucks from which Uzbeks hawk everything from pistachios to car parts. The bazar is a great place to purchase Turkmenistan's traditional dark red carpets. If you can't get enough of the famous rugs, there's a Carpet Museum which, among other things, includes the world's largest handwoven rug.

The remains of the vanished ancient cities of Nisa and Anau are just outside Ashghabat, but there's little to see unless you're an archaeologist, historian or have a good imagination. Firuza, the old hunting reserve of the Persian royal family, is now a popular mountain escape for those seeking relief from the heat of the plains. The settlement is squeezed into a gorge 30km (19mi) south-west of Ashghabat and is the closest independent travellers can get to exploring the Kopet Dag mountains which form the Turkmen-Iranian border. Buried 60m (200ft) underground in the accessible lower slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains is a hot-water mineral lake known as the 'Father of Lakes' where you can take a dip in 36?C (97?F) waters, if you don't mind surfacing to the smell of rotten eggs.

Merv

Once one of Central Asia's greatest cities, Merv is an archaeologist's dream and has moved travel writers to muse for pages on the life and death of civilizations, but for the casual visitor it can be a bit of a disappointment. The area contains the remains of no less than five walled cities from different periods, though don't expect an alfresco museum of ancient architecture. What you'll see is a lumpen landscape scarred with ditches and channels, grazed by camels and dotted every now and then with an earthwork mound or a battered sandy-brick structure. Merv's origins are shrouded in conjecture and romance - one legend suggests it was founded by Zoroaster - but this oasis settlement was definitely a Silk Road staging post and reached its greatest heights in the 11th and 12th centuries when the Seljuqs made it their capital. It retains a certain melancholic charm, and Sultan Sanjar's mausoleum is impressive in size and solidity. Merv is a short drive east of Mary, seven hours east of Ashghabat by train.

Konye-Urgench

The ancient state of Khorezm, which encompassed the whole Amu-Darya delta area in Northern Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan, rose to its greatest heights at Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench). For a short period in the 13th century, Old Urgench was the heart of Islam, until its ruler antagonised Jenghiz Khan and the city was on the receiving end of Mongol wrath. Old Urgench regained its former glory, only to be flattened again by Timur in the late 14th century. It didn't recover a second time, which is why modern Konye-Urgench is a fairly humdrum place, but its handful of ancient buildings make it well worth visiting. The best include the cluster of sights around the Najm-ed-din Kubra Mausoleum, the Torebeg Khanym mausoleum and the 67m (220ft) high Kutlug Temir minaret - the highest minaret in Central Asia. Konye-Urgench is 480km (300mi) north of Ashghabat. Trains run between Ashghabat and Dashkhovuz from which regular buses make the 100km trip on to Konye-Urgench.


Off the Beaten Track:

Turkmenbashi

The port town of Turkmenbashi is enclosed by a crescent of mountains looking out over the turquoise-blue Caspian Sea. The surrounding pocked desert shoreline seems composed of gray dust frosted with salt rather than sand and looks more like NASA footage of the moon. Turkmenbashi is Central Asia's sole port and sea link to European Russia. It has been variously described as `miserable', `joyless' and a 'desolate dust-heap', but while it's definitely hot and dusty, it's also quite attractive in a sleepy Mediterranean sort of way. If you can cope with a little grime and aren't too choosy about what you eat, then this single-storey, pastel-painted port is a relaxing spot to rest up for a day or two, and there are hikes into the surrounding mountains that offer fine views of the town. Ashghabat is to the south-east, 12 hours away by train.

Repetek Desert Reserve

With recorded air temperatures of over 50?C (122?F), and the surface of the sand sizzling at a soul-scorching 70? (158?F), you wouldn't expect the Karakum desert to be inhabited by cuddly creatures, but the animals that call these rolling sand ridges home are a particularly repulsive lot. Among the thousand-plus indigenous species of insects, spiders, reptiles and rodents are bronze-colored cobras, large black scorpions, tarantulas and prehistoric-looking monitors which grow to over 1.5m (5ft) in length and still put on an alarmingly good show at the 100-metre dash. All of these lovable critters are objects of study at the Repetek Desert Research Centre, which boasts a visitors' centre, museum and herbarium. Visits can be arranged with tour operators in Charjou, in Turkmenistan's central-east and 70km (43mi) to the north of the reserve.

Gaurdak

Gaurdak is in the extreme eastern corner of Turkmenistan, squeezed between the Amu-Darya and Uzbekistan. The mountainous landscape of this region is starkly beautiful, and contains interesting gorges, waterfalls and cave complexes. The Kugitang reserve, right on the Uzbek border, is a geological research centre, the pride of which is a rock plateau imprinted with hundreds of dinosaur footprints. It's believed that 150 million years ago, in the Jurassic period, the plateau was the bed of a lagoon which dried out, leaving the wet, footprinted sand to bake in the sun. Charjou, in Turkmenistan's central-east, is the only place from which you can fly to Gaurdak.


Activities:

Trekking is possible in the Kopet Dag mountains, though much of the range is out of bounds as it forms a sensitive border with Iran. The safest way to proceed is to engage a guide through a reliable agency. Bring your own equipment since gear is hard to come by. The best trekking season is between June and September, though be prepared for bad weather at any time. Some of the agencies that arrange treks can also set up horse or camel treks. If lurching across the Karakum desert on a camel appeals or you'd love to gallop across the sand on one of Turkmenistan's famed Akhal-Teke horses, get on down.


Getting There & Away:

Flights to Ashghabat most commonly transit through Istanbul (Turkey), Abu Dhabi (UAE), Damascus (Syria) and Moscow (Russia). There's one flight a week from London and another from Delhi. If you're more into travelling than arriving, there's a hybrid journey by air from Turkey to Baku (Azerbaijan), by cargo vessel across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, and from there to Ashghabat, Bukhara and beyond by train. The Iran-Turkmenistan border is officially closed to foreigners even though there is a bus which runs between Mashhad in north-eastern Iran and Ashghabat.

AIRLINES

Turkmenistan Airlines
Address: 80 Makhtumkuly St.
Tel.: (+993 12) 35-48-57, 39-58-53, 51-00-16, 51-00-24, 35-06-13

Turkish Airlines Address: 71 Makhtumkuly St.
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-16-66, 51-22-19, 51-06-66
Fax: (+993 12) 51-22-18

Lufthansa
Address: Located at the new airport
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-06-84, 51-06-94
Fax: (+993 12) 51-07-28
E-mail: lufthansa@cat.glasnet.ru

British Airways Address: 7 Gerogly Street
Emperial's Grand Turkmen Hotel
Tel.: (+993 12) 51-17-99, 51-18-00
Fax: (+993 12) 51-17-98


Getting Around:

Domestic Travel: Air travel within Turkmenistan is often unreliable, with unpredictable schedules and difficult conditions. Travelers may experience prolonged delays and sudden cancellations of flights on the Turkmen National Airline Company (Turkmenistan Airlines). Air travel to Ashgabat is available on other reliable carriers via Frankfurt and Istanbul. Train travel in Turkmenistan is irregular, arduous, and not on par with western standards.

Air and Train Travel: Air travel within Turkmenistan is often unreliable, with unpredictable schedules and difficult conditions. Travelers may experience prolonged delays and sudden cancellations of flights on the Turkmen National Airline Company (Turkmenistan Airlines). Air travel to Ashgabat is available on other reliable carriers via Frankfurt and Istanbul. Train travel in Turkmenistan is irregular, arduous, and not on par with Western standards.

Road Conditions/Traffic Safety: Since independence, Turkmenistan has seen an increase in the number of cars, leading to heavy congestion on major routes in Ashgabat during rush hour. Drivers can be undisciplined and aggressive. Primary roads in Ashgabat are of high quality and well maintained and lit, but side streets are often in disrepair and poorly lit. Drivers should exercise extreme caution on intercity roads. Although paved, rural roads are narrow, often in a state of disrepair, and not lit. Livestock and large agricultural vehicles in the road also present hazards.


Recommended Reading:

Ella Maillart's Turkestan Solo is the engaging account of a Swiss woman's low-budget travels in the early 1930s.

Sacred Horses: The Life of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathon Maslow is a good, if abrasive, account of this naturalist's visits to the Karakum desert.

Johannes Kalter's Arts and Crafts of Turkestan is a detailed, beautifully illustrated historical guide to the nomadic dwellings, clothing, jewelry and other applied art of Central Asia.

Somewhere East of Life by Brian Aldiss is one of the few English-language novels ever to employ Ashghabat as a backdrop. Unfortunately the author didn't visit Turkmenistan until after he had written the book, so his Ashghabat is rather more colorful than the one you're likely to encounter.

The Silk Road: A History by Irene Frank and David Brownstone is a well illustrated and mapped history of the caravan routes that began crossing Central Asia in the 2nd century BC.

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk is a very readable history of the 19th-century cold war between Britain and Russia as it unfolded across Europe and Asia. Kim by Rudyard Kipling is the master storyteller's classic epic of the Raj during the Great Game.


Useful Links:

General Information:
Turkmen International homepage with any links, especially culturally oriented ones
Turkmenistan on the web; including information on flights, culture, national kitchen and tourism
Business Information Service for the Newly Independent States, an extended site concentrating on the economical situation of Turkmenistan, but also offering general information.

Embassies, Consulates, Visa
Turkmen embassy in the USA good info on history, culture, visa-regulations, etc.
US embassy in Turkmenistan

Travel Agencies and Travel Tips
The Lonely Planet
Travel info
Turkmenistan Consular Information Sheet

Miscellaneous
IMF
UN in Turkmenistan
The Holiday Site: Turkmen holidays
A culturally oriented site
The Turkmen International Homepage

Last updated on April 12, 2001


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