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Travel to Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan - just few ever heard about the country, even less had a chance to visit it. It is the least visited and most difficult to get in country in the Central Asia, yet those lucky who will visit it will be amazed by how much it can offer to a curious traveler. The least-visited country in Central Asia consisting mostly of desert, is not, perhaps, instantly alluring. Yet this is a remarkable place to visit. This is ancient land of great spirituality, tradition and natural beauty. The ancient cities of Merv, Misrian and Konye-Urgench inspire visions of slow-moving caravans plodding along the ancient Silk Road, while the haunting beauty of the Karakum desert and other quirky natural phenomena, from vast coloured canyons and dinosaur footprints to burning gas craters, are less expected but equally mesmerising sights. The capital city was totally transformed in the recent years and is worth a visit as it presents a blend of Dubai & Vegas with outstanding central asian authentity.

Major sites representing different ages and rulers can be visited without fear of encountering jostling crowds of visitors. The Silk Road city of Ancient Merv was long one of the most important capitals of the Islamic world, where the recently restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar stands as a proud tribute to the Seljuk Empire. Yet the camels here outnumber the tourists. The visitor can feel a pioneer too at Konye-Urgench, capital of the once mighty Khorezm Empire, or the Parthian royal residence of Old Nisa, where fabulous carved drinking horns were unearthed.

But the full Turkmen experience is ultimately about mingling with the Turkmen themselves, only a couple of generations removed from a nomadic lifestyle and a welcoming people whose hospitality is the stuff of legend. Women are seen decked out in colourful headscarves and ankle-length dresses decorated with Turkmen motifs, white-bearded ciders sporting apparently oversized woollen hats, telpeks, throughout the height of summer, while everyone from young boys to aksakal (literally ‘white beards’, revered elders) will greet you warmly with a two-handed clasp and a slight bow. This is a people proud of its traditions: the magnificent Ahal Tekke horses; the burgundy-toned Turkmen carpets; the brides bedecked in heavy silver jewellery who are the bashful centres of attention in lavish and noisy wedding celebrations.

Turkmenistan may not be an easy destination for the tourist, but for those who come here the rewards are great. Xenophobia runs deep in the upper echelons of Turkmen authority, which constricts independent travel. Anyone with a tourist visa is required to hire a guide to accompany them through the country. While this may dampen your independent spirit, it is for now the only way to fully experience the country.

The Niyazov personality cult was everywhere. From the Arch of Neutrality, whose apex is crowned with a twelve-metre high, revolving golden statue of the man, to the walls of all government buildings, shops and restaurants, centres of every park and square, President Niyazov looks down on his people. Streets, hospitals and universities are named after him. His face is on the money. He is the government. He is the country In 1993, as if to underline this, he even took the modest name 'Turkmenbashi', meaning 'Father of all Turkmens', and coined the ubiquitous motto 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi'. 'People, Nation, Me.'

There is another entity beside President Niyazov which the visitor to Ashkabat cannot fail to notice, one that had far greater significance to us. Its image is also seen on the money, it too has streets, hotels and buildings named after it, and, in an honour greater even than anything bestowed on the President, its likeness is carried at (the centre of the nation's flag: it is the Akhal Teke horse, Turkmenistan's national symbol.

As one of the most ancient and distinctive breeds of horse in the world, forebear to the Arab and the English Thoroughbred, it is perhaps not surprising that the Akhal Teke is held in such high regard by the nomadic Turkmens. Originating around the Akhal oasis in southern Turkmenistan, reared and used by the Teke tribe, it is said to be descended not from heaven but from a wild steppe horse, known as Turanian - meaning 'horse of quality'. Renowned for their tremendous stamina and speed, Turkmen legend has it that they were used in the expansive military campaigns of King Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great. In the 1930s, to publicise their native breed, twenty Turkmen horsemen staged a 4,000-kilometre trek from Ashkabat to Moscow - including crossing 400 kilometres of baking Karakum desert - completing the journey in an incredible eighty-four days, which is just one of the long-distance records established by the horse.

"Silk Dreams, Troubled Road" by Jonny Bealby

 

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