Turkmenistan’s dual persona is omnipresent. The lavish palaces in the capital, gold statues and marble monuments are as captivating as the deep mysticism and legend that hangs over pilgrimage sites and ancient ruins. This is a land that is at one time gripped by authority and yet overcome by spirituality.
Ancient cities like Merv, Dekhistan (also known as Misrian) and Konye-Urgench inspire visions of slow-moving caravans plodding along the ancient Silk Road. Remnants of their urban tissue are still there, slowly disintegrating under the weight of tribal warfare and time. The modern and manicured Ashbagat (otherwise known as the city of love) will give you another slant on Turkmen culture, while Eastern Turkmenistan's fertile plains and numerous historical sites make it a must. Nature-lovers will appreciate the haunting beauty of the Karakum (Black Sand) desert and the occasional quirks of coloured canyons, dinosaur footprints and burning gas craters.
The full Turkmen experience is ultimately about mingling with the Turkmen themselves, only a couple of generations removed from a nomadic lifestyle, they are a welcoming people whose hospitality is the stuff of legend. Proud of their heritage, women are seen decked out in colourful headscarves and ankle-length dresses decorated with Turkmen motifs. Everyone from young boys to aksakals (literally ‘white beards’, revered elders) will greet you warmly with a two-hand clasp and a slight bow.
Xenophobia runs deep in the upper echelons of Turkmen authority, a fact that constricts independent travel. Anyone with a tourist visa is required to hire a guide and despite hopes for change, the situation remains the same in this post-Niyazov era. While this may dampen your independent spirit, it is for now the only way to fully experience the country. Despite this inconvenience, Turkmenistan offers numerous off-beat experiences; you can overnight in a yurt, ride an Akhal-Teke horse or simply disappear for a few days into the desert wilderness.