This ambitious, all-encompassing tour of Turkmenistan, kicks off in Ashgabat, the capital city, described by some as the “Dictator’s Playground” with its white marble facades, gold monuments and buildings with titles such as the “Wheel of Enlightenment” and the “Arch of Neutrality”. From Ashgabat, we’ll take a drive through the Karakum Desert to the eternally burning fire crater known as the “Gates of Hell”, before visiting the futuristic ghost-town beach resort of Avaza and a canyon grander than the Grand Canyon, that even many Turkmens don’t know exist.
Then as if it wasn’t exciting enough already, this is where it gets really off the beaten track. After heading back to Ashgabat, the tour will head east to Merv – the Silk Road city that was once the largest city in the world. Heading even further east into the remotest corner of Turkmenistan we’ll climb onto the largest repository of dinosaur footprints in the world, see a cave covered in cloth stalactites, take a natural mud bath and bend over for a goat massage.
The LOI application process for Turkmenistan is quite complicated and time-consuming. For the best chance of approval, please get in at least 3 months in advance. Late applications are accepted but the approval rate goes down, in most cases you will get a full refund if the application is rejected.
• Meet your local and YPT guides at Ashgabat International Airport.
• Driving tour of Ashgabat’s main sites including Independence Park and Independence Monument, the Monument to the Constitution, the Arch of Neutrality, Lenin Park, Ertogrul Ghazi Mosque and the Alem Centre which is the complex that is home to the Wheel of Enlightenment, the largest indoor ferris wheel. And YES, for just $1 you can even take a ride!
• Stop for lunch at Berkarar Shopping Centre, where you can go ice-skating, play in the games centre, ride a miniature double-decker bus, and even have a cappuccino in a hipster’s face (don’t get your hopes up too much about the cappuccino, it is still from a machine which has a “cappuccino” button).
• Visit the university bookshop where you can find books written by and about the president, Ashgabat and Turkmenistan in English. They also have postcards and posters, and if you’re lucky they might even have a copy of the Ruhnama, the book written by Turkmenbashy.
• Visit Anau on the eastern outskirts of Ashgabat and see the remains of Anau Fortress and Sheikh Jamaluddin Mosque which was destroyed in the 1948 earthquake.
• Return to Ashgabat.
• Night tour of Ashgabat. With the white marble buildings lit up by brightly coloured neon lights, Ashgabat is a truly spectacular place after dark.
• We’ll make a stop at the Palace of Happiness in the foothills of the Kopetdag Mountains, from where you can get a fantastic panorama of the whole city.
• And another stop at the Altyn Asyr Sowda Merkezi, a new shopping centre in Independence Park which is in the shape of a pyramid, and the outside of which is covered in fountains and colourful lights. From the restaurant and viewing deck, you’ll get 360-degree views of the city lights, whilst enjoying a nice cold draught beer.
• Dinner and drinks at a local pub in Old Ashgabat which serves shashlicks, kebabs and local draught beer. Approximately $8 pp.
• Spend the night at the Ak Altyn Hotel.
Day 2 – Sunday July 22nd
• Drive to the outskirts of Ashgabat to Nisa, a UNESCO site which was once the capital of the Parthian Empire.
• Next, you’ll visit Kipchak to see the resplendent Turkmenbashy Mosque, where Turkmenbashy is buried beside his mother, father and two brothers in their white marble mausoleum.
• Continue on to Kow Ata. This natural underground thermal spring is said to have many medical attributes but is also used by locals as a swimming hole and makes for a very fun and relaxing swim. Admission included.
• After a revitalising swim in the lake, we’ll enjoy lunch at one of the shashlik restaurants just outside the entrance to the cave. Approximately $3-6 pp.
• Drive 175km north-west into the Kopetdag mountains to Nokhur, a traditional tribal village.
• Visit Nokhur Cemetery where each grave is adorned with the horns of a mountain goat.
• Relax in the mountains and learn about the culture of the Nokhuris.
• Dinner (included) and overnight in a homestay.
Day 3 – Monday July 23rd
• Drive 450 km west to Avaza.
• We’ll stop for lunch along the way at a local chaykhana. Approximately $2-5 pp.
• Arrive in Avaza and have a driving tour of the beach resort. Although the facilities are extravagant and the buildings futuristic, the town is somehow best described as a ghost town.
• Dinner in one of the glamorous hotels of Avaza. Approximately $10-12 pp.
• After dinner, we’ll take a walk along the coast of the Caspian Sea.
• Overnight in Turkmenbashy, a ten-minute drive from Avaza.
Day 4 – Tuesday July 24th
• Yangykala Canyon. Many Turkmens don’t even know that this place exists, but once you’ve been there you’ll start calling the Grand Canyon the “Pretty Good Canyon”. In 4×4’s, we’ll drive over the canyon walls, through the canyon itself, and up the other side, to an excellent vantage point from where you will be able to see all the shapes and colours of this spectacular natural phenomenon.
• We will take a packed lunch with us so we can enjoy it at the canyons. You can either buy yourself something at the bazaar on the way, or we can organise a cooked lunch for $10 pp.
• Return to Turkmenbashy.
• Dinner at the hotel. Approximately $8-10 pp.
Day 5 – Wednesday July 25th
• Return to Ashgabat on Turkmenistan Airlines.
• Lunch at the Russian bazaar, where you can also buy some snacks, drinks and dinner for camping.
• Drive 250km to Darvaza (The Gates of Hell) in 4WD’s.
• Visit two other craters – one full of mud, one full of water.
• Traverse the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to get to Darvaza.
• Watch the sunset over the fiery crater and experience dusk turn to dark at this breathtaking site.
• Set up tents near the Gates of Hell and camp near the fiery crater.
Day 6 – Thursday July 26th
• Drive back towards Ashgabat, stopping at Tolkuchka Bazaar on the way, where you’ll be able to buy lunch, with some time to explore the largest bazaar in Central Asia (by floor size).
• Arrive in Ashgabat.
• Free time in the afternoon.
• Spend the night at the Ak Altyn Hotel.
• Catch the train to Mary, arriving at around 10pm.
Day 7 – Friday July 27th
• Group A
• Transfers to the airport according to flight times.
• Group B
• Drive to Merv, which is just half an hour’s drive from the modern city of Mary and now a UNESCO world heritage listed site. Merv is the oldest and best preserved ancient oasis city along the Silk Road, and at one point during the 12th Century was possibly even the largest city in the world.
• Spend the morning exploring the shrines, temples, towers, city walls, fortresses, castles and mausoleums, the most notable of which is that of Sultan Sandzhar Dar-al-Akhir which reaches forty metres into the sky, topped by an almost completely intact brick dome.
• Leaving Merv, drive towards Turkmenabat, stopping along the way to admire and take photos of the Karakum Desert.
• Arrive in Turkmenabat.
Day 8 – Saturday July 28th
• Drive into the Koytendag mountains.
• Stop along the way at Astana Baba mausoleum, Alamberdar mausoleum.
• Stop in the small town of Atamyrat, where we’ll have lunch at a local chaykhana. More than likely you’ll be spotted by some locals who’ve never seen a tourist before and end up with some good company over lunch.
• Spend the night at a lodge in Kugitang.
Day 9 – Sunday July 29th
• Continue exploring the Koytendag mountains, climbing through gorges, swimming in waterfalls and most excitingly – get a goat massage.
• Cross Amudarya river and drive along Kugitang mountains.
• Return to the lodge in Kugitang.
Day 10 – Monday July 30th
• Walk up onto the Dinosaur Plateau, the largest repository of dinosaur footprints in the world. Discovered in 1980, the limestone slab that sits at a 20-degree angle on the side of the mountain, is covered in pre-historic footprints ranging from 20-70cm in size. Although scientifically explained as this, one local legend tells us that the plateau was a place where white elephants gathered to perform sacred dances, and another tells us that the footprints are those of battle elephants brought by Alexander the Great.
• Continue on to Kyrk Gyz Cave. This cave is covered with a peculiar layer of stalactites, which are in fact cloth rags dangling from the ceiling. Legend has it that anyone who can fling a mud pie with a cloth attached to it, and make it stick, will have a wish come true.
• Return to the lodge in Kugitang.
Day 11 – Tuesday July 30th
• Drive back to Turkmenabat.
• Fly back to Ashgabat and spend the night at the Ak Altyn Hotel.