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Cradled between the vastness of a sweeping desert and rugged mountains, eventually giving way to a slip of Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan was a major Silk Road respite. It was also one of the great cultural capitals in medieval times. The ancient city of Merv (near today’s Mary) was the pride of Islam and the largest city on earth at one point in the twelfth century, earning the nickname “the mother of the world.” (This history later led to the city gaining its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.) After the Mongols crushed Merv, the city and nation both declined in power, and by 1881, Turkmenistan had been absorbed by the Russian empire. After spending most of the 20th century as part of the Soviet Union, the nation declared independence in 1991. But some old habits die hard: autocrats have ruled ever since, including the former President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, whose quirks included banning gold teeth and lip-syncing.
Today, even under the thumb of a controlling ruling party, Turkmenistan has emerged from the Soviet shadow as one of the leading cotton producers on earth, with abundant natural gas and oil. As Turkmenistan’s doors have opened to the west, comparatively few travelers around the world have yet discovered the history, culture, and friendly welcomes that the country offers. That means the lucky few who do journey here find memorable locales—including bazaars that evoke the Silk Road past—and yet no crowds, a combination which allows greater insight into authentic local life. But like any hidden gem, it’s a secret that will only last so long.
Click on map markers below to view information about top Turkmenistan experiences
Akhal-Teke Horse Farm
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
For a relatively young city—established at the end of the 19th century—Ashgabat has evolved quite a bit over time. The capital of Turkmenistan, named “the City of Love,” was built atop the remnants of an old Silk Road village destroyed several times by earthquakes more than a millennium before. Its fate was to repeat the past and a 1948 earthquake leveled it again. When it was reborn, it was full of gleaming monuments and palaces that together yielded the highest concentration of white marble architecture on earth. Its treasures include a towering Monument to the Constitution, the world’s largest number of fountain pools in one space, and the tallest indoor Ferris wheel on the planet. But the city’s grandeur is brought down to earth by its quirks: in 2003, nearly all street names were replaced with four-digit numbers; among the very few exceptions were streets renamed for the President and his parents.
For a village of only 10,000—with just one school and a few shops—Gypjak has an outsized influence. It is home to the largest mosque in Central Asia, big enough to hold a congregation the same size as the town’s entire population. It was built to be the mausoleum for former President Niyazov, who was born there, and that remains its primary calling card. It is a site not without controversy, as Niyazov ordered that the walls be adorned with inscriptions from not only the Koran but from the Ruhnama, the spiritual guidebook he wrote himself. Debates aside, the mosque is stunning, with gold domes gleaming atop white marble that, from certain angles, seems to float on a series of sparkling pools. The mosque’s beauty makes it a source of national pride, its iconic status made official by placement on the 500 manat banknote.
As the bald eagle is to the U.S. and the Gallic rooster to France, so is the Akhal-Teke Horse to Turkmenistan. One of the oldest still-existing horse breeds, with roots clearly traceable back for thousands of years, the Akhal-Teke appears on the nation’s coat of arms, countless stamps, and in statue form around the country. Beloved for its blend of intelligence, speed, agility, and endurance, these steeds have been called “golden horses,” due to the shimmering almost-metallic coat of the purebreds. The breed is taken so seriously that there is a government agency dedicated to them, and its first Horse Minister after independence made waves by unveiling that some breeders weren’t keeping the bloodlines pure. Traditional horse farms are considered guardians of the culture and farmers can proudly recite the history and lineage of their animals, literally the longest-lasting facet of Turkmenistan life.
For the camel caravans of the Silk Road, trekking through desert dunes and across windswept steppes could be punishing. No wonder Tashauz—whose original name Dashogus means “spring”—was such a welcome sight. The oasis was never especially big in size and it didn’t really begin to expand until the Russians built a 19th-century fort here. The later Soviet influence is clear in the city’s sprawling apartment blocks and industrial districts. Visitors will, however, also find evidence of the classic Turkmen style in its white marble buildings and its statues of Turkmenbashi (the honorific by which late president Niyazov was known). But if you ask a local what the city’s claim to fame is, they’d say football (soccer), with not one but two stadiums; the top local team is as big a source of pride as the gleaming monuments in the city squares.
Films featuring Turkmenistan from international, independent filmmakers
A visual odyssey through Turkmenistan from a flaming pit in the Kara-Kum Desert to golden war horses.
Witness the beauty of Turkmenistan’s stallions—the pride of the country.
Produced by Najib Saidi
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
With the average temperatures near 40⁰ F, winters are considered mild in comparison to neighboring countries. There is occasional snowfall, especially in the north, but accumulation is limited. Lighter crowds this time of year make exploring cities and observing highlights easier.
Symbolizing the unity of its people, the Turkmenistan flag flies high atop one of the world’s highest flagpoles in the capital city of Ashgabat. Various concerts, performances and military parades mark the occasion of Flag Day. The event is concluded with a spirited display in the Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat.
Spring is the best time to visit this desert country, when the weather is mild and outdoor activities are comfortable. Take advantage of the chance to see the desert flowers in bloom and witness a landscape awash in reds, oranges, and yellows. The bright sunshine and moderate temperatures coax locals out of their homes and street festivals and outdoor celebrations begin.
During the Horse Festival, equestrian fairs, riding exhibitions, a racing competition and demonstration of ornately dressed horses in traditional costume celebrate the Akhal-Teke horse.
Known as the hottest country in Central Asia, the heat can be fierce in the summer months. With temperatures going up to 100⁰F and occasionally reaching 120⁰F, outdoor activities and exploring are difficult. The exception to this is the coast on the Caspian Sea, where the weather is milder, although more humid.
Fairs, markets and competitions all highlight the importance of melons in the region’s cultural heritage. Live music and displays of ornately carved melons showcase the local adoration of this tasty crop on Melon Day.
The mild weather makes autumn a wonderful time to experience the breadth of the region’s highlights. The markets feature a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, while discovering ruins or traveling to the ancient Silk Road is pleasant this time of year.
Find out more about the adventure, including activity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, included meals, and more
Small Group Adventure
Days in Turkmenistan
7 nights from only $2495
6 nights from only $2595
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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