Turkmenistan is a weird and wonderful place, and there’s really nowhere else like it. It definitely fits into the category of “off the beaten path” with only 6,000-ish foreigners entering every year, and very little information about the country circling throughout the rest of the world.
We’ve been running tours to this Central Asian gem for six years and still there are places we’re discovering and exploring.
There are two types of visas that you can use – a tourist visa, or a transit visa.
To be eligible for a tourist visa you’ll need to book a tour through a tourism agency, who will then apply to the State Migration Service for your Letter of Invitation (LOI). Depending on your nationality and exactly what information that you provide them with, the approval rate for most Western passports is about 90%. Once you have the LOI, you can get the visa at any embassy, the airport on arrival, or most land borders on arrival. Once you’ve got the LOI you’re all good – the LOI is the key.
What counts as a tour?
Within Ashgabat you don’t need to be accompanied so can have “free time” to explore the city on your own. However, all your accommodation will still need to be pre-arranged. Outside of Ashgabat though, you must have all your transport booked as well and have an “escort” with you. This might be a driver, or a guide, depending on the exact nature of your trip.
Transit visas have the advantage of not requiring a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from a tourism agency, and thus you don’t need to book a tour or be accompanied while you’re there. However, it’s not just that simple. A transit visa is is only for up to 5 days as an absolute maximum, and you must be literally transiting through the country ie. travelling between two countries that don’t share a border with each other, for example, Uzbekistan to Iran, or Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. You also need to have the visas for both of those countries already approved before you can even apply for a Turkmen transit visa. Transit visas usually take 2-4 weeks to process at most embassies, and unfortunately, about 80% of transit visa applications get rejected, and this number has been steadily rising over the past several years.
Getting In and Out
Most people arrive in Turkmenistan by flying into Ashgabat International Airport, and depart the same way. It’s not a very connected airport, but there are regular flights to and from Dubai, Istanbul, Moscow, and a few other cities around the world. flydubai, Turkish Airlines, S7 and Turkmenistan Airlines are the main carriers providing these services.
There are also several land borders that it’s possible to cross at, though if you’re doing this, it does need to be stipulated on your itinerary before your LOI is applied for. The main ones are Bajgiran/Howdan between Ashgabat and Masshad in Iran, Shavat/Dashoguz between Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan and Khiva in Uzbekistan, and Farap/Alat between Turkmenabat in north eastern Turkmenistan Bukhara in Uzbekistan.
See and Do
Turkmenistan has plenty to offer, from Soviet-exploration disasters, to bizarre dictatorial architecture, to the wonders of the Karakum Desert, and plenty more. Here are a few of our favourite sites:
Ashgabat – not just a capital city, the “white city” of Ashgabat is definitely somewhere worth exploring. Made almost entirely of white marble, trimmed with gold and punctuated with gold statues and depictions of the president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, you’ll come across some of the craziest buildings you’ll ever find.
Darvaza – Otherwise known as the Gates of Hell, this is the one place in Turkmenistan you might have already heard of. Right in the centre of the country, it’s a huge pit of fire, burning since 1971 with no end in sight.
Turkmenbashy Mosque and Mausoleum – the largest single domed mosque in Central Asia, the white and gold mosque is entirely in honour of, you’ve guessed it, Turkmenbashy (First President, Saparmurat Niyazov). Next door to the mosque is the matching white marble and gold domed mausoleum, the final resting place of Turkmenbashy alongside his parents and brothers.
Avaza – Ready for an influx of luxury tourism, which has of course never come, the Caspian coast beachside resort of Avaza is both strangely deserted and eerily quiet, whilst also being bizarrely futuristic and exceptionally opulent.
Yangykala Canyon – The remnants of an ancient sea, the vast Yangykala Canyon stretches 25km through the Karakum Desert, with 100m high walls in places.