Lying on the banks of the mighty Amu-Darya, between the Karakum desert and the fertile plains of Uzbekistan, sprawling Turkmenabat sits at a crossroads of cultures. Turkmenistan's second city, Turkmenabat (pop. 200,000) is, however, a sleepier, impoverished distant cousin of Ashgabat rather than an energetic sibling rival to the capital.
On its streets you’ll hear as much Uzbek as Turkmen and will likely be enjoying Uzbek produce, driven across the border a few kilometres to the north. The town itself feels as if it’s in the geographic centre of nowhere, yet after the mind-numbing drive through the desert from either Dashogus or Mary, it’s something of a surprise to find such a large city appear out of the sand.
It has a long history, based around its geographical position as a suitable crossing point of the broad and treacherous Amu Darya. Initially named Amul, it was first settled more than 2,000 years ago, and gradually became a prosperous crossroads for Silk Road routes heading east to China, south to India and north to Khorezm. Amul was razed by the Mongols in 1221, but the city re-emerged, now called Charjou ('Four Channels'), a name you’ll still hear used by the remaining Russian-speaking locals. It fell under the control of the Khanate of Khiva and then the Emirate of Bukhara in the 18th and 19th centuries. The construction of a railway bridge over the Amu Darya in 1886 marked a new stage in the development of the town.
Following the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948, some suggested that the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic be moved to Charjou, as it was less earthquake-prone than Ashgabat, but nothing came of the idea, and the town has slipped into an increasingly provincial existence. By a decree of President Niyazov issued in July 1999, Charjou was renamed Turkmenabat, the city of Turkmens, in order to reflect the 'great ideas of unity and stability of the country ... as well as taking into consideration the wishes of the population of Lebap region'. Many local people still refer to the place as Charjou. In 2009 a new gas pipeline opened here taking Turkmen gas to China, thus ensuring the city’s economic prosperity.
Despite being the second-largest city in the country, there’s nothing much to see or do here, though it’s an obvious stopover on the long journeys to Kugitang Nature Reserve, Mary, Dashogus or Uzbekistan. Like Turkmenistan's other regional capitals, Turkmenabat serves as a base from which to explore its region. The shortage of accommodation options towards the top end of the market, however, makes it less than ideal in fulfilling that function. Its sights, which include a regional museum and the unexcavated ruins of the town of Amul, are by no means unmissable, but Turkmenabat is a friendly place, it not a particularly dynamic one.
Getting There & Away - There are around three flights a day between Turkmenabat and Ashgabat (50M, one hour). The airport is 2km east of the Hotel Turkmenabat. The brand new train station, in the centre of town, has two daily trains to Ashgabat (4.76/7.66M, 12 hours) via Mary (3.61/6.51M, four hours). Outside the station you can catch marshrutki or taxis to Mary (20M per place, 80M per taxi), Ashgabat (60M per place, 240M per taxi) and to Dashogus (600M per taxi). A ride to the Uzbek border will cost 3M per seat, but you may need to bargain hard as starting prices can be much higher. There is another, more formal bus station 9km south of the centre of town, near Dunya Bazaar, but the transportation links from the lot outside the train station are just as good.