A peculiar and inward-looking country known as the ‘North Korea of Central Asia’, modern Turkmenistan is alluring in its eccentricity. It is little known internationally, being rarely spoken about in the media. Having been at the crossroads of civilisations for centuries and an important trading point along the Silk Road network, there are a pleasingly large number of sites to discover inside this country as well as the chance to explore the engulfing desert of the Kara Kum.
KARA KUM DESERT
The southern brother of Uzbekistan’s Kyzyl Kum Desert, the Kara Kum (“Black Sands”), covers 70% of Turkmenistan. It remains sparsely populated and there are considerable swathes of the interior that have likely never been explored except by the nomadic Turkmen. A true wilderness.
Sandwiched between the Kopet Dag mountains range and the Kara Kum, Ashgabat is the largest city and capital of Turkmenistan. Given its grand, Soviet-style architecture it makes for an incomparably unique city in appearance. Gleaming, spotless white street bake under the desert sun. Sites of interest include the Independence Monument, National Museum of History and the rocket-ship like Neutrality Monument.
DARVAZA GAS CRATER
Sometimes called the ‘Door to Hell’, you may well have seen the images of explorer George Kourounis dangling above the middle of this flaming pit. Located in the isolated centre of the Kara Kum desert, the stark locality has starkly empty wilderness views to add to a trip. As a true oddity on the world’s landscape, it is not to be missed.
Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Merv was once a major oasis city in Central Asia, important from the age of Alexander the Great to that of Genghis Khan. It may have been the largest city in the world in the 12th Century. As a result, there are a considerable number of ancient sites to see here ranging from Bronze and Iron Age Settlements; the Erk, Giaur and Sultan Fortresses, and numerous mosques and bazaars. The modern city of Mary (whose name derives from Merv) is a cultural centre with a museum for the region and has hosted the world’s largest yurt.
Nearly 2000 years ago Konye Urgench established itself as an important trade town along the northern section of the Silk Road which leads to the Caspian Sea. For a time it was an imperial capital until a series of disasters consigned it to provincial obscurity. There are fortresses, mosques, ruins of the ancient caravanserai and dozens of mausoleums, a legacy of its historic importance in the Islamic world.
The far west of Turkmenistan is mostly known for the extensive oil fields, which makes this unearthly natural phenomenon an extraordinary place to visit. 20 km of wind carved landscape, with layered coral-like rocks in pinks, reds, and oranges. This remote spot is well worth the sidetrip to view the “jaws of the crocodile”.
Once the centre of a fertile oasis and a trading town, the drying up has left this region remote and desolate. The ruined towers and buildings are mostly untouched and rarely visited, a contrast to the well trodden streets of Samarkand and Bukhara. A rare treat for silk road explorers.
Letter of invitation will be provided by Untamed Borders in order to obtain visa on arrival.
It can get cold in Central Asia, especially at night. Temperatures at night can drop below freezing.
For up to date exchange rates please have a look at www.xe.com
Strong agricultural sector means rich in vegetables and fruits. Chorek – national bread. Normal meals similar to other Central Asian countries featuring meat alongside noodles or rice.
Poor internet connection/speed.
Bread is a staple. Regional variations but popular dishes include dumplings, grilled meats and rice, all frequently served with vegetables.
Alcohol is permitted and is widely available.
Turkmen. Russian commonly spoken.
Islam with Christian Orthodox minority.
No special dress code.
SAFTEY & SECURITY
The FCO considers Turkmenistan to be a low risk region to travel.
Christopher Baumer – The History of Central Asia (tetralogy)
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