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.
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. The mausoleum is a simple cube with a barrel-mounted dome on top. Originally it had a magnificent turquoise-tiled outer dome, said to be visible from a day’s ride away, but that is long gone. Interior decoration is sparse, though restoration has brought back the blue-and-red frieze in the upper gallery. Inside is Sanjar’s simple stone ‘tomb’ although, fearing grave robbers, he was actually buried elsewhere in an unknown location. The name of the architect, Mohammed Ibn Aziz of Serakhs, is etched into the upper part of the east wall. According to lore, the sultan had his architect executed to prevent him from designing a building to rival this one.
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. There are 365 sections on the sparkling mosaic underside of the dome, representing the days of the year; 24 pointed arches immediately beneath the dome representing the hours of the day; 12 bigger arches below representing the months the year; and four big windows representing the weeks of the month. The cupola is unusual in early Islamic architecture and has its equal only in Shiraz, Iran.
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. Inside the History Museum, the lavish Ancient History Hall includes Neolithic tools from western Turkmenistan and relics from the Bronze Age Margiana civilisation, including beautiful amulets, seals, cups and cult paraphernalia. There is also a model of the walled settlement uncovered at Gonur. The Antiquity Hall houses amazing rhytons – horn-shaped vessels of intricately carved ivory used for Zoroastrian rituals and official occasions. The Presidential Museum might appeal to those intrigued by personality cults, with its huge photos of the president.