What you’ve always wanted to know about travelling to Turkmenistan
I heard getting a Visa is hard, what should I do?
Getting a Visa to Turkmenistan is not exactly hard, it just doesn’t always work. In order to get a tourist visa to Turkmenistan you must be booked through a tour company that is registered with the Ministry of Foreign affairs. In this way every company has the same chance of success or failure in getting your Tourist Visa LOI approved. There are periods of time during the year that are considered more sensitive in which the rejection rate for all Visa LOIs becomes higher.
What is an LOI?
An LOI or Letter of Invitation is actually what you receive when you are approved for your Tourist Visa. This is the most important document as it means the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has approved your visit. Once you have your LOI you are entitled to get a Visa at your nearest embassy or at the Airport on arrival. Some embassies are cheaper than at the airport thus why some people will choose to get it in their own country.
What about getting a Transit Visa?
For those who really really don’t want to go on a tour of any kind there is one option A Transit Visa. A Transit Visa allows an individual to travel from one country to another bordering Turkmenistan. It’s not all smooth sailing however. The first criteria is that the two countries in question must have no other way of avoiding Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan to Iran is the most popular route but some have also used Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan as an excuse. Before you can apply for a Transit Visa you must have a visa for both of these countries in order to prove that they are the two countries you are travelling between. You can apply at most Turkmenistan embassies however there is a very high rejection rate and processing time can take up to one month. A Transit Visa also legally limits you to the quickest route between your entry border crossing and your exit border crossing. They are usually given for 3 to 5 days.
Do I have to go in a group tour?
No you don’t. At Young Pioneer Tours Central Asia we can organise also organise independent tours. Essentially you can tell us where you want to go, what you want to see or your budget/time frame and we can organise a trip for you. It is of course more expensive as on a group tour the costs are shared between many people as are the memories.
When is the best time to go?
The best time of year to go in Spring and Autumn. Summer can be really hot in Turkmenistan getting into the 40s (Deg. Celsius) and can go for weeks without even a single cloud in the sky. Winter can also get quite cold especially in the dessert with snow falling and temperatures dropping well below 0.
What should I see?
It all depends on how long you’ve got. The top of everyone’s list should always be the Gates of Hell (Davarza). This is one of the most spectacular sites in the world and all because of a drilling accident in the early 70s by Soviet engineers. If you’ve only got 3-4 days then other than your trip to the Gates of Hell (Darvarza) you should stick to exploring Ashgabat – The White Marble city, and its surrounds. Around Ashgabat is Kow Ata, the Turkmenbashy Mausoleum, the Ancient city of Nisa.
If you’re planning on spending a week in Turkmenistan then a trip to Nohkur for a family homestay as well as venturing further west to Turkmenbashy (The city, not the person) where you can go to the Yangykala Canyons and see the deserted beach resort of Avaza. If you’ve got any longer than a week then you should also head east to Mary/Merv, the Kyrk Gyz caves and the Dinosaur plateau, where apparently the largest Dinosaur footprints in the world are located.
Is it safe to travel to Turkmenistan?
Turkmenistan is one of these countries that in actual fact is amazingly safe for tourists. Everything is very strictly controlled and as such there are never incidents of petty crime against tourists. As a tourist you just need to ensure that you don’t say or do anything that could offend the local people.
Do I need to take cash?
This is a part of the world where cash is still king. While there are some ATMs in Ashgabat, sometimes they may not have money, while bringing your spending money with you means you’ll never have problems.
Questions People Ask Us About Central Asia
Young Pioneer Tours has always taken interesting people to even more interesting destinations. It now happens to include an area commonly referred to as Central Asia. By Central Asia, we refer to the five exSoviet ‘Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It’s one of the least known, least travelled parts of the world and as such we get some pretty amazing questions, from the downright ridiculous such as “No, that’s not a real place. Surely you’re making this up?” to the simply misinformed such as “Isn’t that where ISIS is?”
While it would take ions to write down all these type of questions and in the specific manner in which they are asked, what we’ve done is grouped together some of the types of questions we do get most commonly.
Is it safe?
The ‘Stans are surprisingly safe. A common misconception is that Central Asia is somehow interlocked with the problems in the middle east or those nearby in Pakistan and Afghanistan. No doubt it is because they have ‘stan’ in their names. The truth of the matter is that Turkmenistan is one of the safest places one could visit, while Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are all at least as safe as most Central/Eastern European destinations. There is very little petty crime and violence on the street is just about unheard of. The only concern, though still minor, is if you are travelling by yourself you might encounter a corrupt policeman.
Are they Muslims?
The short answer is yes, most people in Central Asia are Muslims. But in saying that, more often than not, it is in the same sense that most people in Australia, Britain or France are Christians. It’s more of a cultural identification than a religious one. One thing the Soviet Union did and did well was to beat religion out of people. At one point in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for example, there was only one mosque in each country. Even before the Soviets came, Islam’s influence in the region was minimal. A famous quote is that the people of Central Asia “took as much Islam with them as they could fit in their saddlebags”. Another question of this mould is “Do women need to cover up?” to which anyone who has ever been to a beach in a former Soviet Union will respond, “the only thing you might need to cover is your eyes”.
Are they ‘dry’ countries?
This question almost always follows on from the last question. The answer is the most resounding “no” that is possible. Central Asians drink like fish. Fish with drinking problems. They love their vodka and cognac, just to name a couple of favourites, and they are mostly drunk straight. Beer is at best a refreshing beverage to enjoy as one might have a juice and is reserved mostly for women and children. In this way they have taken after their former Russian overlords.
What’s the food like?
Occasionally you can come across some of the most delicious and succulent marinated meat you may ever have eaten, but at other times you will feel like you’re eating leather. One thing is for sure, the variety is minimal and Central Asia is certainly not a great place for vegetarians. On one tour we had an amazing individual, but unfortunately his vegetarianism meant he mainly ate chips (Frenchfries for the Americans out there) until he managed to find a box of cereal. Of course in the cities there are more options than in the country, and there are some local dishes that you might really like, but all in all, this isn’t a region to be visited for its fine cuisine.
Is it really backward?
So many of the questions we get are along the lines of “Do they have internet?” “Do they have television?” “Do they live in houses?”. Being part of what was the second world meant that the basic infrastructure and social safety net was developed to a reasonable standard. Today you will find all your world wide sport live on satellite TV. You’ll be able to read your emails and watch Netflix and while some small communities, not unlike the indigenous people you might find in North America or Australia, live more traditional lifestyles, most people live in anything from brand new modern condos and skyscrapers, lovely quarter acre blocks with large houses to brutalist Stalinist reinforced concrete Soviet style apartment blocks.
Of course the most common question/statement of all is:
Isn’t that where Borat is from? (Kazakhstan)
Which of course many of you will know is simply not true. Borat was filmed in Romania, using a language derived from Polish and Yiddish and more closely resembles certain aspects of Europe than could ever be the case here in Central Asia. The actor Sacha Baron Cohen is a pretty good British comedian/actor of the Jewish faith and certainly isn’t a Kazakh.