By far the most mysterious and unexplored of Central Asia’s 'stans, Turkmenistan became famous for the truly bizarre dictatorship of Saparmyrat Niyazov, who ruled as ‘Turkmenbashi’ (‘leader of the Turkmen’) until his death in 2006. Niyazov covered this little-known desert republic with grandiose monuments and golden statues of himself. Although many of these statues have since been dismantled, plenty of visitors still think of Turkmenistan as a sort of totalitarian theme park. But the least-visited of Central Asia’s countries is far more than this – it's an ancient land of great spirituality, tradition and natural beauty.
The ancient cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench inspire visions of caravans plodding along the ancient Silk Road, while the haunting beauty of the Karakum desert and other quirky natural phenomena are equally mesmerising. The full Turkmen experience is ultimately about mingling with the warm and fascinating people themselves, whose hospitality is the stuff of legend.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Turkmenistan.
Long before Merv raised its first tower, Bronze Age villages were assembling along the Murgab River in what is called the Margiana Oasis. The greatest of these ancient settlements, currently being excavated around Gonur Depe, has stunned the archaeological world for its vast area and complex layout. The Royal Palace and necropolis are the most fascinating sites to visit.
One of Turkmenistan’s most unusual sights, the Darvaza Gas Craters are the result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1970s. The three craters are artificial. One has been set alight and blazes with an incredible strength that’s visible from miles away, while the other two contain bubbling mud and water. There have been rumours for years that the burning gas crater will be put out to enable gas exploration in the area, but it was still burning in 2017.
The best remaining testimony to Seljuq power at Merv is the 38m-high Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, located in what was the centre of Sultan Kala. The building was restored with Turkish aid and rises dramatically in the open plain. Sanjar, grandson of Alp-Arslan, died in 1157, reputedly of a broken heart when, after escaping from captivity in Khiva, he came home to find that his beloved Merv had been pillaged by Turkic nomads.
Like entering Milton’s underworld, only with changing rooms and a staircase, a visit to the Köw Ata Underground Lake is a unique experience. You enter a cave at the base of a mountain and walk down a staircase, 65m underground, which takes you into a wonderfully sulphurous subterranean world. At the bottom awaits a superb lake of clear water naturally heated to about 36°C (96.8°F).
Turabeg Khanym Complex, opposite the Konye-Urgench ticket office, is still the subject of some debate. Locals and some scholars consider this a mausoleum, though no one is too sure who is buried here. Some archaeologists contend that it was a throne room built in the 12th century (it appears to have a heating system, which would not have been used in a mausoleum). Whatever its function, this is one of Central Asia’s most perfect buildings. Its geometric patterns are in effect a giant calendar signifying humanity’s insignificance in the march of time.
Looking like a lost palace in the urban desert, the National Museum occupies a striking position in front of the Kopet Dag. It’s actually a collection of three pricey museums – the History Museum, the Nature & Ethnographic Museum and the Presidential Museum. The History Museum is the only one that approaches value for money.
With bands of pink, red and yellow rock searing across the sides of steep canyon walls, Yangykala is a breathtaking sight and one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Turkmenistan. Just as alluring as the beautiful views is its solitary isolation in the desert; few Turkmen are aware of its existence. It’s possible to camp on the plateau above the canyon, although it can get windy there.
This museum is housed in a sparkling white-marble palace across the river from the centre of town. The enormous premises is home to a collection of taxidermy, temporary exhibits and a gallery of Turkmen art, but the real reason to visit is the superb archaeological collection on the upper floor, full of discoveries from Margush (Gonur) and Merv, as well as impressively detailed models of both sites.
Unveiled in 2014, this vast complex features three memorials honouring those that died in the 1948 earthquake, soldiers who perished in WWII and those killed in other Turkmen battles. The Earthquake Memorial features a bombastic bronze rendering of a bull and child (said to be the baby Niyazov).