I did not go to Turkmenistan. I applied for my 5-day transit visa in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Nov 3rd and I received the code by email (the title of the email said wisa) 🙂 at noon on November 17th, 15 days later, on the last day of my Uzbekistan visa that is not to be overstayed. The visa is date and entry/exit point specific and I was to enter at Nukus/Konye-Urgench, 1000kms and 21 hours by train from where I was in Tashkent. I had to get out of the country.
Many travellers don’t make it to Turkmenistan because of their crazy visa rules. My recommendation would be to apply at least 3 weeks before you need it – I wish I had applied in Bishkek when I was there.
By far the most bizarre and unexplained of Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan became famous for the truly unusual dictatorship of President Saparmyrat Niyazov, who ruled as the “leader of the Turkmen’, until his death in 2006, covering the little-known desert republic with golden statues of himself and grandiose monuments to the achievements of his ‘golden age’. But the least visited of Central Asia’s countries is more than the totalitarian theme park it’s often portrayed as – it is an ancient land of great spirituality, tradition and natural beauty.
The ancient cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench are Silk Road icons. The haunting beauty of the Karakum desert and other natural phenomenon are interesting, but the best experience may be with warm Turkmen people whose hospitality is legendary.
Area. 488,100 sq km
Languages. Turkmen, Russian, Uzbek. The state language, Turkmen belongs to the Turkic language group. It has significant amounts of Russian vocabulary. Almost everyone speaks both Russian and Turkmen. Four different scripts have been used to write Turkmen: first Arabic, then a Turkish-Roman alphabet, a Cyrillic alphabet since 1940, and a modified Roman alphabet since 1996.
Population. 5.1 million
Famous for multiple personality cults, gas reserves, Akhai-Teke horses, carpets
MONEY. Turkmen Manat. In Spring of 2015, 1US$ got 2.85 manat. In November 2015, 1US$ got. There is no black market currency exchange which makes things more expensive for visitors. Exchange offices are everywhere, take no commissions, and will freely exchange US$ back and forth. Us dollars remain the currency of choice and bring in various denominations.
Everything bought in the country will be paid in manats ATMS were not common in 2014. Credit cards are rarely used. Travelers cheques are not accepted anywhere.
A Turkmen visa is date-specific, meaning it has fixed start and expiry dates. You cannot enter Turkmenistan before the start date or leave after the expiry date, but you can enter after the start date and leave before the expiry date.
Tourist Visa. Getting a Turkmenistan tourist visa ìs expensive as you must book a tour through a tour company. Prices range from 120 to 250 USD per day, including guide, driver, accommodation and food. You can cut your costs considerably by sharing with other people, but you need to find them yourself. It is not possible to go on a standard tour with a bunch of strangers. To receive your visa, your tour company will tell you what to do.
Travelers on a Turkmen tourist visa need to be registered with OVIR, but this will be handled by the tour company arranging your visit.
Visa on arrival. It is possible to get a Turkmenistan tourist visa on arrival in the airport of Ashgabat, as well as on the land borders. You will need a letter of invitation from a tourist agency, which means a booking with them. The Turkmenistan visa on arrival is valid for 10 days, with extensions possible based on the duration of the booking.
Getting a transit visa might require a long wait, but you do not need to book a tour and do not need visa support (LOI). A transit visa allows for a visit of 3 to 7 days but 5 days is standard. How many days you get is essentially up to the whims of the official granting the visa. A transit visa means you need to go from one country to another through Turkmenistan. You cannot go back to the same country you came from on a transit visa. Flying in and out is possible. Visa requirements for transit visa application:
1. 1 filled out Turkmenistan visa application form
2. 1 passport-sized photo
3. 1 passport with minimum 6 months validity after the expiry of the Turkmen visa and 2 empty pages
4. 1 letter from yourself stating your purpose of transit and route
5. photocopies of your main passport page and of visas of the two countries to be traveled to/from (some embassies may not require the visa for the country you are traveling from, only the visa of the country you are traveling to). If you do not need a visa for the countries you are going to next, explain that to the embassy staff and they will understand.
6. photocopy of your airline ticket, if applicable
7. You do NOT need a LOI for a transit visa
To apply for a transit visa, go to a Turkmen embassy with the documents listed
The transit visa has a set start and expiry date, so it is essential to be ready to enter the country when the visa starts. The cost is around 55$ (155$ for Russians). Note also that you need to use your entry and exit points on the visa application form. When you get back your passport, check which entry/exit point you got, it might be different from what you asked for. Don’t exit from a different border crossing than the one stated on your visa, it will not be fun!
If you get a 7-day visa, you need to register with OVIR.
Recently, the embassies of Tashkent, Dushanbe and Vienna have started handing out transit visas, saying they can be picked up at the border with Uzbekistan after you get a code e-mailed to you. This has worked well but some have not received anything and were refused at the border, were sent back to Uzbekistan with no other country to exit to and 24 hours left on his visa. So this tactic, although tremendously time-saving, comes with risks. I received my visa my code by email and everyone I talked to had no problems getting the visa at the border.
Opening hours: 9.30-12.30 and 14-? It is located in the northern part of the city, off Karamov Street. To apply for the transit visa you need to submit a completed application form (provided at the embassy), write a letter of request for a transit visa (he gives you a sample to copy out), one passport photo, a color photocopy of your passport, and a photocopy of your onward visa.
The time for processing the transit visa is 1 week. You keep your passport during the process. On the day of collecting your visa, you should turn up in the morning and get the payment slip that you pay at a bank on the other end of town (take a taxi). The visa costs USD $55. When you return to the embassy with the payment slip you get the visa in your passport.
See the warning above with e-mailing the visa code. Usually it works but to be safe, get the visa in your passport in the embassy.
Opening hours: 10am-1pm, only Monday to Wednesday? This is a crazy, busy embassy, with long waiting times and frustration. You must put your name on a waiting list to leave your passport at the embassy. 6am is already late in peak season so play safe and arrive early. The total processing time is 7 days (including weekends). Can apply at another embassy and pick it up there. Visa pick-up is at 4pm, usually the same day. Important to have 2 colour copies of your passport and Uzbek visa but they don’t keep it.
In June 2015, they didn’t send the visas to the border anymore. They said it’s because the Uzbeks wouldn’t cooperate. Watch the exit point, as you may not get the exit point you requested.
Azeri customs do not allow passengers on the Caspian Sea ferry without having the actual visa in their passport, be it a transit or a tourist visa. Letters with a visa reference number will no longer do. If you are coming on a regular transit visa on the Caspian Sea ferry, and you happen to arrive early, you can avoid trouble two ways: either a bribe to put the date stamp a day forward or, you will be let to linger in the terminal before customs. Similarly, if your visa is running out in Turkmenbashi and the ferry has not arrived yet, customs might stamp you out earlier and leave you to hang out in the terminal past customs until the boat shows up. Bring enough food.
Transit visas are not available at Ashgabat airport. However, there is a transit area in the airport for passengers in transit for which no special visa is required.
Visas for onward travel. Turkmenistan tends not to be a good place to pick up visas, with long processing times and embassies not used to independent travellers.
Travelers on a transit visa do not need to be registered with Migration Police (OVIR), unless they have a 7-day visa. But if you need to register, first, you need to stay at a hotel. Not all hotels are allowed to give registration to foreigners. In general, it seems the backpacker joints are not counted as a valid address. One hotel that does register is Aşgabat Mynmanhanasy, but it is not the cheapest.
Having settled in, the registrations stamp is obtained easily and for free at OVIR on Gogol Street. They just need a copy of your passport (main page and visa of the country you are traveling to next) and a passport picture. A copy service can be found inside the building.
Visitors with visas can enter from all bordering countries. There are no international train or bus services. All borders are open from 9am to 6pm.
To/From Uzbekistan. Each crossing requires a 10-20 minute walk across a ridiculously wide band of no-mans land.
Farab. Closest to Bukhara and Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan, 45kms away by taxi (80,000som) or a share taxi (8000som) to Karakol then a taxi 10kms (10,000som).
Dashogus. From Khiva or Urgench, taxi (30,000s) to border, then taxi ($3) to Dashogus. Or bus from Khiva.
Honye-Urgench. Public transport to Hojeli by shared taxi to border (3000s), then share taxi to Kony-Urgench ($2).
The first signs of agricultural settlements appeared in Kopet Dag in the 6th millennium BC. The Bronze Age had a sophisticated culture. Rivers shifted over the centuries caused the abandonment of these settlements , but paved the way for a great civilization around Merv. Alexander the Great established a city here on his way to India.
Around the time of Christ, the Parthians, Rome’s main rivals in the West, set up a capital in Nissa, near present day Ashgabat. In the 11th century, the Seljuq Turks appropriated Merv as a Silk Road staging post and as a base to expand into Afghanistan.
Two centuries later Chinggis Khan came through east of the Caspian Sea and razed Merv and Konye-Urgench and their populations slaughtered. Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, these cities failed to recover.
The modern Turkmen probably arrived in the 11th century as a collection of displaced nomadic horse-breeding tribes to found pastures in the oasis fringing the Karakum desert. With no interest in statehood, they existed in parallel to he constant dynastic shifts, so common in Central Asian history.
Russians. They arrived in the early 19th century who were terrorized by the Turkmen, capturing thousands of the tsar’s troops and selling them into slavery in Khiva and Bukhara. The Russians quelled the wild nomads by massacring thousands at Geok-Depe in 1881.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the communists took Ashgabat in 1919. After the Turkestan Autonomous SSR came the Turkmen SSR in 1924.
Turkmen SSR. Inflamed by Soviet attempts to settle and collectivize farming, a guerrilla war raged until 1936. More than a million fled into the Karakum desert or Iran and Afghanistan rather than give up their nomadic ways. The Moscow-directed campaign against Islam destroyed all but 5 of the 441 mosques by 1941.
Waves of Russian immigrants brought farming technology and cotton. To supply the vast quantities of water, the 1100km Karakum Canal was started in the 1950s, running the length of the country and bleeding water from the Amu-Darya River. A fertile band across the south was created, cotton production quadrupled and the Aral Sea was devastated.
Independence. Saparmyrat Niyazov was elected head of the communist party in 1985 and declared independence on Oct 27 1991. Niyazov banned all other parties and he started a personality cult, erecting gold statues of himself and plastering buildings with his image. His slogan “People, Nation, Me” was ubiquitous. Most of the countries vast oil and gas reserves ended up funding ostentatious public-works projects. Public dissent was somewhat placated by large subsidies for gas, water and electricity. Control of the press got the country rated second to last in press freedom (behind N Korea). At age 66, he died in 2006.
Despite there being no heir groomed, Deputy PM Gurbanguly Berdhmukhamedov smoothly grabbed power. In the 2007 elections, he won 90% of the popular vote as only his ‘Democratic Party of Turkmenistan” fielded candidates and even his opponents voted for him. Rumors are that he is Niyazov’s illegitimate son and they bear an uncanny resemblance.
Today. Initial reforms toned down some of Nizazov’s policies, such as renaming the days of the week after Nizarov’s family members, a ban on ballet, the prohibition of listening to music in cars and the pathological state paranoia. No further changes occurred. Visa rules remain rigorous.
The personality cult of Nizazov still survives with monuments and statues everywhere. Portraits of Merdymukhamedov are ubiquitous creating a new, but less intense personality cult.
He won an unsurprising re-election in 2012 with 97% of the vote and unanimous praise from his ‘rivals’. A high opinion is not held by all. He does not like people smarter than him, as he is not a very bright guy, and he is suspicious of a lot of people.
A new gas pipeline to China opened in 2006 offering further economic stability beyond the control of Russia. Political reform and democratization is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Turkmen people remain nomadic at heart, if not still in practice and have a dignified manner reflecting their rural lifestyle. Nomadic rules, including the treatment of guests, still dominate home life.
Religion is a unique form of Central Asian animism – holidays are used for pilgrimages, especially by women heading to shrines around the country to camp, cook and pray.
By Central Asian standards, women have a good amount of freedom and choice. The are mostly home-makers and mothers but work in the fields. An educated, Westernized urban elite exists in Ashgabat who work in all fields and enjoy most of the freedoms of men. Very few women wear a veil, but most wear colourful scarves.
Population. Of the 5 million people, about 5% are Uzbeks living in the border areas. Russians have left in huge numbers since independence as it became increasingly hard to work without speaking Turkmen, and dual citizenship was phased out in 2012.
They are deeply spiritual without being particularly religious. Animism is blended with Sunni Islam: mosques are often decorated with snakes and ram’s horns, pilgrims bear tokens indicating a desire for children. The only other freely practiced religion is Orthodox Christianity.
Carpets are world-famous and silk, embroidery, silver and jewellery are perfected. Theatres show only Turkmen song-and-dance, concerts and drama. Songs deal with folklore, battles and love, accompanied by a 2-string guitar. Literature has been all but destroyed. The best literary hope was jailed in 2004. President Berdymukhamedov writes voluminously, including a book on wild flowers.
Effectively a giant desert ringed by oasis, there are still varied landscapes. To the east are canyons and mountains of the Kugitang Nature Reserve. To the south, the Kopet Dag range rise up in a line towards the Caspian Sea. Next to the Caspian, vast mud flats, colored canyons and the enormous bulk of the Big Balkan massif make a bleakly beautiful place.
Wildlife. The Akhai-Teke horse is a beautiful golden creature and the ancestor to the modern thoroughbred. Dromedary camels are everywhere, wandering between villages and towns. Large monitor lizards are rare but there are desert foxes, owls and squirrels. Tarantulas, scorpions and cobras also exist in the desert.
Environmental issues. Turkmenistan has paid a heavy price for the irrigation of is southern belt, using source water bound for the Aral Sea. While the Aral Sea is in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it disappearance has led to desperate environmental problems in northern Turkmenistan, with the salination of the land taking its toll on the health of local people. Overfishing or the caviar-bearing sturgeon in the Caspian makes them rare. There is very little environmental consciousness in Turkmenistan, where no one bothers to save gas, electricity or water because all are subsidized by the government.
FOOD & DRINK
Shashlyk – a staple.
Samsa – meat filled pastries
Plov – meat, rice and carrots
Fitchi – larger and rounder meat filled pastry
Dograma – bread and pieces of boiled meat and onions
Chorba (sharpa)– soup of boiled mutton with potato, carrot and turnip
Manty – steamed dumplings served with sour cream
Hotels. Either dilapidated Soviet-era behemoths or newer 3-4-star built since independence. Turkmen citizens stay at a discounted price, 60-80% less than the price for foreigners. Foreigners must also pay in US$ cash
Private homes. It is illegal for foreigners to stay here if a licensed hotel exists in the same city. This law does not apply to those traveling on a transit visa who do not require registration.
Camping may be the only option in remote places such as the Yangykala Canyon and the Darvaza Gas Craters.
It is now available in all big towns through state-run internet cafes. Out-going emails may be monitored and many websites (news, political sites, FaceBook, twitter) are blocked. In 2014, the only reliable wi-fi in the country was free at the Sofitel Ashgabat Oguzkent Hotel.
Air. Is very cheap as it is heavily subsidized. Demand is high and so must book early.
Car and motorcycle. Possible but expensive and full of hassles (road blocks and poor roads) and extra charges (a road tax based on kms driven)
Marshrutkis, minibuses. The most effective way to get around. Must wait till they are full.
Share taxis are faster and more comfortable.
Trains. Slow but comfortable. A good way to see the countryside and meet people.