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What’s Travel to Turkmenistan Really Like? Journey to Ashgabat & Beyond | Koryo Tours

Turkmenistan may be the oddest and most intriguing country I’ve ever visited. Making travel to Turkmenistan a pretty unique experience. 

I’ve been regularly travelling to Turkmenistan for around 12 years now. The interesting and bizarre nature of this desert republic never ceased to amaze me.

Koryo Tours’ Rich Beal walks us through his first time of travel to Turkmenistan. His first impressions of Ashgabat. And the best hot chocolate he’s ever had.

The Long Road to Travel to Turkmenistan

Despite the 12 years of trips, no part of travel to Turkmenistan is odder than the marble-clad capital, Ashgabat.

Nestled amidst the deserts of Turkmenistan, which itself stretches out to the shores of the Caspian Sea, Ashgabat is full of contradictions. Myths. Rumours. Stories. And history.

It’s for this reason, I’d spent years wanting to visit.

In fact, before my time at Koryo, I’d made multiple attempts to lead a tour and travel to Turkmenistan. All of which fell through.

Whether it be some local event, an unplanned border closure… Or even my ill-fated ‘Five Stans’ tour which turned into four stans very quickly when the Turkmen authorities closed the border to foreigners just before our arrival.

At the time, travel to Turkmenistan was in its infancy. So things were always a bit more fluid and unreliable.

Luckily, we’ve moved on from those days. But getting into the country still took me a good few years.

It wasn’t until I started my work with Koryo Tours that I finally had a lucky break.

I’d been working my way into becoming our Central Asia specialist. A role which I would eventually morph into running multiple adventures through the region every year.

When we had one of our Turkmenistan tours overbooked, a second tour leader was required.

Finally, this was my chance to board a flight to Ashgabat and travel to Turkmenistan.


Flying into Turkmenistan

An early start was required to catch our Turkmenistan Airlines flight from Beijing Capital International Airport.

The first thing which struck me, through the fog of tiredness, was the sheer amount of luggage the Turkmen passengers were checking in.

Huge piles of goods were being loaded onto the plane by local Turkmens travelling abroad for business, trade, or even just on holiday. All intending to bring back half of the Western world with them in the cargo hold.

Eventually, we boarded the aircraft, admiring the portrait of the President which used to be displayed at the front of the cabin.

Turkmenistan Above the Clouds

It was the best entertainment we had during the flight, as our in-flight entertainment screens displayed nothing but images of clouds for 6 hours.

This left me and my fellow tour leader with nothing to do but play “What animal can you see in the clouds?” for 6 hours until we began our descent.

I’ll never forget the view which greeted me out of the window as we descended towards Turkmenistan.

The vast nothingness of the desert gradually gave way to a patchwork of green fields. Mud houses were replaced by staggering marble buildings, shining like an oasis amidst the harsh surroundings.

The city was further highlighted by the unmissable backdrop made up of mountain peaks rising behind the city.

This was Ashgabat.

Landing in Ashgabat

After we landed at Ashgabat, we navigated the endless customs procedure. We made our way to the luggage carousel where the Turkmen passengers who had loaded up all their goods were standing around waiting to collect them.

Televisions, microwaves, piles of clothes, everything you could imagine.

Finally, we headed for the arrivals hall. For the first time, I felt that I had finally achieved one of my great ambitions.

After all the paperwork and planning, I arrived in Turkmenistan.

We met our guides, one of whom identified himself as Rustam.

He told us the driver was also called Rustam, and introduced us to our second guide, Rustam.

He leaned over to me and said “But don’t worry, I am the funniest Rustam”. A joke which made me trust that we would work well together.

So much so that we remain very firm friends to this day.

He is indeed the funniest Rustam I’ve ever met.

ashgabat turkmenistan koryo tours

Walking in Ashgabat

The first day in Ashgabat was taken up with a walking tour.

We decided it best that I should get some on-the-ground experience before the tour group arrived. So, we wandered the streets of Ashgabat marvelling at the various oddities and monuments it had to offer.

Since then, we’ve started including this optional walking tour as part of all our Turkmenistan trips.

I felt it added a lot to the experience and for those on their first travel to Turkmenistan.

Ashgabat Old City

We wandered through the old city of Ashgabat, dispelling myths that Ashgabat is uninhabited. But also realising how that myth arose.

The intense heat and the way the city is built means it is easy to mistake the quiet streets being the result of a lack of people. Indeed, if you don’t know where to look you can miss the people entirely.

Although they are there, nestled inside shops and cafes.

Meeting Local Turkmens

One memory which sticks in my head is meeting a group of students outside the Turkish embassy.

They were surprised to see a foreigner, and even further surprised that I wasn’t Russian.

I suppose it was a rare chance for some English practice!

This little interaction was my first example of how hospitable and lovely the people of Turkmenistan are. Despite limited contact with outsiders, they show incredible friendliness and kindness at every opportunity. It’s one of the reasons I keep going back.

But above all, Ashgabat is incredible.

A mix of Central Asian culture with Soviet and Russian history.

The statue of Lenin in the city is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Depicting him standing on a Turkmen carpet mosaic.

Similarly incredible, yet less historically important, Ashgabat was home to the best hot chocolate I’ve ever enjoyed.

Not something you might expect to find in this desert country.

As our walk continued, we passed some of the city’s enormous Presidential Palaces.

Guards guarding gates so huge you could easily climb through the bars without even touching them!

Getting Around Ashgabat

To get around this entirely marble city was a bit tricker in those days than it is today.

Back then there were few cars and no taxis. So instead we had to just flag down local drivers and try to convince them to take us where we needed to go.

Local workers, angry old ladies, policemen… Everyone was a taxi in those days.

Horse Racing in Downtown Ashgabat

One of my favourite memories from the adventure was taking our tour group to Ashgabat’s horse racing stadium.

As a result of my time in Mongolia and my rural upbringing in the UK, I was always partial to the odd horse. And this was a rare chance to catch one of Turkmenistan’s famed Ahal-Teke horses in action!

We arrived at the stadium in the blazing heat, surrounded by hundreds of Ashgabat locals hoping to catch a glimpse of the day’s racing.

Gambling at the Races?

Whilst gambling is, technically, illegal, we decided as a group that we would have our little internal bet. Each of us put a dollar on our favoured horse.

Oddly, as the start of the race neared, the hustle and bustle of our surroundings descended into an eerie silence, reaching its peak moments before the gates opened.

After a few seconds of deathly quiet, the gun sounded and the hustle and bustle returned with a vengeance as our fellow spectators went crazy with excitement.

I noticed, as the horses neared the finish line, my favoured competitor was coming out on top.

Eventually, he won.

A slightly awkward situation was that I was the Tour Leader taking my winnings from the tour group… However, it was made much worse when we repeated the bet. I won a second time!

Eventually, I agreed to buy the group beer during our later trip to the Darvaza Gas Crater, so that was ok.


Visiting Ashgabat

Ashgabat is a city I can recommend to anyone.

If you like people, food, oddities, architecture, history, or culture… Ashgabat is a place for the bucket list.

Its bizarre mix of strange and normal is unlike any place I’ve ever seen. And whilst the many myths and legends of the city are broadly untrue, it does come with a mixture of weirdness which I’ve yet to encounter elsewhere.

A restaurant that might be completely silent at 7 pm might be heaving with patrons just two hours later.

Streets may seem completely devoid of locals. That is until you poke your head inside a small tea house or café and see what seems like half the city enjoying a coffee or a beer together.

On top of all of that, Ashgabat is the gateway to the rest of Turkmenistan. Whether it be the ancient ruins at Merv. The Gateway to Hell that is the Darvaza Gas Crater. Or the strange lifeless (yet very beautiful) resort town of Awaza on the Caspian Sea.

There is so much to see.

If you’re interested in visiting Ashgabat, we head there twice a year on scheduled group tours in May and October, and we’d love to have you join our next adventure!

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