Ashgabat (or Ashkhabad) is usually the first point of entry for everyone visiting Turkmenistan - one of the most secluded, eerie and peculiar countries on Earth. And, believe me, there are not many who would choose it as a holiday destination. For me, however, traveling to Central Asia was always a dream. I love discovering all the unpopular and seemingly not attractive from a tourist's point of view places. And I love getting surprised that those places are in fact a lot better and exciting than some overrated spots in Western Europe! So why not start the Central Asian journey from the state reputed to be the most difficult to enter? In this article I will describe my expectations and reality, what is true and what is a myth about Ashgabat, from my own perspective.
How to get to Ashgabat
The easiest and probably the only way to get to Ashgabat (considering you're not coming by land from the neighboring countries like Uzbekistan with an organized tour or a transit visa) is to travel by air. Turkmenistan Airlines have direct connections with important European cities like Paris or London. Other carriers, for example Turkish Airlines fly from Istanbul, and some Asian and Russian airlines from the East.
How to obtain a visa to Turkmenistan
Claims that it is incredibly difficult to get a visa to Turkmenistan are false. If you are a regular tourist, unfortunately, the only way to enter the country and stay for more than 3 days is to book a tour with a travel company in Turkmenistan. The only drawback is the price (starts from around 1000 USD for a week, depending what you want to see - drivers, transport, accommodation and some meals included).
It's NOT true that the guides will be following your every step in Turkmenistan. You will have your own time in Ashgabat and basically you can go wherever you want by yourself. It's easy to contact a tour agency online. I traveled with Owadan Tourism - the guides and drivers were extremely helpful and friendly. They arranged everything for me - the letter of invitation (LOI), visa and transfer to all the places I wanted to see.
To obtain your visa at Ashgabat Airport, you just have to show the papers, pay the visa fee (85 USD) and the taxes (12 USD). The procedure is fast and straightforward so the claim that you must deal with enormous bureaucracy is also untrue. Turkmenistan indeed was the country where border control went really fast comparing to others.
However, be prepared to wait a considerable amount of time to go through security check (yes, your luggage must be scanned before you may leave the airport) as it may take quite long, especially when you fly from Istanbul, from where people bring enormous amounts of clothes and other things.
Another myth is that the security staff at the airport or police will ask you to turn on the camera, show them all your photos and delete most of them. To be honest, when I was leaving Ashgabat, security staff were watching some Russian soap opera on their iPhone while the luggage was being scanned! I also had a chance to joke with many of them, however in broken Russian it was not easy.
Adventure before Ashgabat
When you visit a place like Turkmenistan, the adventure starts even before you get on the plane going there. I flew from Istanbul and the departure gate to Ashgabat was really peculiar. There were no other westerners nor tourists. All other nationalities (mostly Asian and Middle Eastern) seemed to be traveling with business or diplomatic purposes. What's interesting, Turkey is the only country that Turkmen citizens can enter without a visa. So, in reality, Turkmenistan is not completely closed off.
The number of luggage cases, all sorts of bags and huge cardboard boxes that the passengers had was really overwhelming. The women were wearing many layers of clothing which made them all look pretty big. They even had hidden some items beneath the traditional shawls they were wearing on their heads. I wondered why they carried so many boxes and luggage and, as I found out, they import as many things as possible from Istanbul to sell them later in the bazaars of Ashgabat.
Then, when the gate opened the chase started. Forget western manners and savoir-vivre. It seems that in Turkmenistan the way of waiting in the line is unknown. People push from the front, back left and right. Don't expect anyone to be polite in a western way.
Truth and myths about Ashgabat
Ashgabat was a totally unknown city for me and I had no idea what to expect. I had read a lot of stories online saying that it's a capital of a police-state with curfew and where no one is free and even photography is not allowed. Some of it is true, but from my point of view I can say that most of the online stories were overly exaggerated.
Yes, you can't take photos of the presidential building and some of the government buildings. That said, if you respect this ban, there's plenty of things to photograph around and to be honest they are even more interesting that the presidential palace area.
Yes, there is a lot of police in every corner and if you want to take a snapshot of something just come up and ask politely, they usually agree, smile and shake your hand. It happend only once that a policeman told me I'm not allowed to take a photo.
No, no one will check you and ask for a bribe. If this ever happens, must be extremely unlikely. I walked in many parts of the city alone, also after dark, and I didn't come across anything like that.
Yes, Internet access is not widely available and facebook and youtube are banned. However, the locals know how to get over it using some special plugins. If you want to use the Internet in your hotel, you must pay ridiculous 5 USD per hour.
Yes, the presence of the president is ubiquitous and a bit overwhelming. He will look down on you portrayed as a golden statue that revolves with the sun from numerous monuments, you will see his paintings in every hotel, restaurant and museum (even on board Turkmenistan Airines!). He will be on the cover of every magazine and newspaper.
Yes, Turkmenistan is a Muslim country, but it's also very relaxed at the same time. It's easy to find and buy alcohol, vodka is cheap and there are cool night clubs. Women do not cover their faces but they wear traditional shawls over their heads. However, it is not mandatory and everyone can dress as they wish. I had a chance to go to a nightclub and it was really modern and nice. People were a bit calmer and not as drunk as it happens in the West. The music was a nice mix of Western, Middle eastern and Russian dance songs.
Yes, Ashgabat is really safe considering the number of guards in the streets. The president states that Turkmenistan has no crime, it is of course exaggeration, however it's much safer than Western Capitals.
Impressions of Ashgabat
Ashgabat is incredibly neat and clean (even driving a dirty car is not allowed!). The airport, as well as the whole city is white. The photos of Ashgabat Airport on wikitravel are outdated.
The Turkmen capital seems extremely modern and new. Indeed, after the earthquake in 1948, when the city suffered enormous destruction it was rebuilt in a Soviet style. Now, the old Soviet Era buildings have been renovated and painted white. Even the city's street lamps look like a piece of art, with many various designs and shapes. There are many little squares with fountains everywhere. The streets are exceptionally wide. All the constructions have been wrapped up in marble, and Ashgabat made it to the Guinness Record book for a city that has the highest number of marble buildings in the world. It's worth mentioning that the marble is not local, it's imported from Italy and other far away places.
At night, Ashgabat resembles Las Vegas. Neon lights flickering everywhere, illuminated buildings, gargantuan monuments and really original architecture make this place one of a kind. The only difference between popular cities and Ashgabat is... people. To be precise, the lack of people. It seems strangely empty and too perfect. More like a movie set than a real capital city bursting with life.
What to see in Ashgabat
If you get a tour in Ashgabat, you will have a day or two to go around the city and visit its most important monuments. You can change the places of interest according to your wish and the driver will take you wherever you want to go. If you are on a transit visa, you can use taxis (yellow are the official ones - they are not too expensive). Knowledge of Russian is advisable! Or, you can visit Owadan Tourism - their office is just opposite Russian Bazaar. They can make a day tour for you in Ashgabat and around. It shouldn't be too expensive.
I'm the most interested what the place I visit is like for real. I'm not a fan of museums and I decided to skip some museums in Ashgabat to have free time to visit something else in the city. You can't use cameras in the museums and in some cases they will charge some astronomical fees for a photo, like 5 USD for a photo in a carpet museum. It's much better to go to a bazaar and see some real carpets made by real locals for free!
White marble squares and buildings
You will have a chance to experience Turkmenistan's capital firsthand just by having a ride down the wide roads: white, sterile surroundings interspersed with fountains, billboards, displays and statues topped up with gold. The wealth of the country is represented in every bit of the new part of Ashgabat.
Some may say that Ashgabat's architecture is trashy, too lavish and pretentious. One the one hand the style is big, still heavy, as if the Soviet Era entered a new, modern level, and on the other, you just can't deny the beauty and originality of some constructions. You'll feel like you got into a different world.
Presidential Palace is the richest monument in the city. You are not allowed to take photos around. It looks really stunning with white columns and golden domes. I asked if the golden domes are made from real gold, and one guide said they are, another said they aren't so I have no clue now.
Neutrality Arch symbolizes the neutrality of Turkmenistan. It's true, you will find very little western influences, no McDonalds, no KFSs. Anyway, I think they are better off without it - they have delicious local cuisine. The controversy regarding this monument is that it was dismantled, for unknown reason, from the city center and moved to the outskirts which cost quite a good deal of money. To enter the monument, you must pay a very little fee of a couple of manats (less than 1 USD) and the golden lift will take you up to the top from where you can admire a beautiful panorama of Ashgabat.
Ferris Wheel doesn't look like an ordinary Ferris Wheel you can find, let's say, in London. It looks like a gargantuan white gem with a golden heart. Truly impressive, inimitable architecture - impossible to find anywhere else. The building also houses entertainment center and 3D cinema. The entry fee is around 2 TMT (less than 1 USD).
Bagt Kosgi (Happiness Palace) - The Wedding Venue is my favorite building in Ashgabat. A huge globe with Turkmenistan marked in gold, inscribed in two cubes creating a geometrical shape similar to a star is without a doubt more than impressive. The venue has 4 entrances, each looks the same. It's lavishly decorated, and, I suppose only the high class of Turkmen society is able to hold a wedding ceremony there.
Bagt Kosgi is located on a hill where you can admire the panorama of Ashgabat, especially outstanding after dark.
6 star Yyldyz hotel (our guide claimed it's 6 star) is located right beside Bagt Kosgi and it has a shape of either a drop of water or flame. To some, it also looks like an iron. It's supposed to be the most luxurious hotel in Turkmenistan. It reminds of Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai a little.
Olympic Village is the venue that will hold the 2017 Asian Olympic Games. It's still under construction but already incredibly impressive, especially at night with all the colorful lights on.
Buildings of different Ministries - It is really interesting to mention that Turkmenistan seems to have Ministries of almost everything, for example: Ministry of Carpets, Ministry of Horses, Ministry of Gas etc... All the buildings have something to represent given ministry: Ministry of Gas has the shape of a lighter and Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a globe on top with Turkmenistan marked on the map.
Russian Bazaar in the center if Ashgabat - it's very interesting, you can find some unusual hand made items like the traditional hats, real camel wool souvenirs, delicious and very cheap cakes, fruit, veg and aromatic spices. There's also plenty of golden stuff and carpets, however those are really expensive.
Yimpas Shopping Center - very modern, beautifully designed with posh boutiques and nice restaurants. However, I would recommend local restaurants as they are cheaper and even tastier.
The things I have described here relate strictly to the city of Ashgabat. There are many other places worth visiting around, like: The Cable Car, The TV Tower, archaeological UNESCO ancient Parthian silk road city of Nisa and numerous mosques. I will write another post about all those places around Ashgabat in the near future.
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