The capital of Balkan Region is no longer Turkmenbashy, but the unassuming town of Balkanabat (pop of 110,000 people), pleasantly situated at the foot of the steep-sided arid massif known as Big Balkan. Until 1999 the town was named Nebitdag ('Oil Mountain'), and it is to the oil industry that Balkanabat owes its foundation and development.
Oil was discovered in the vicinity in 1874 and a small refinery was built, bores were drilled in the following decade, but the area was eclipsed by the rapid development of the oilfields of Baku, and refinery got bancrupt. And it was not until the 1930s that commercial oil production from the Nebitdag area really started in earnest. Today no oil remains in the town itself, though it’s still a small centre for the oil industry, as reserves nearby are still to be exhausted.
The settlement of Nebitdag, built around the railway station to service the oilfields, was given city status in 1946. The Turkmen press reported in 1999 a request from local residents to rename the city Serdarabat ('Leader City'), in honour of President Niyazov. The president suggested the name Balkanabat instead.
Balkanabat is laid out in a grid pattern, with Soviet-era apartment blocks dominating the western side of town, and Turkmen bungalows forming the eastern suburbs. The main axis is Magtymguly shayoli, running east–west and parallel to the railway. At its midpoint is Niyazov Sq, watched over by a lonely statue of the former president. Note that Balkanabat uses both street names and block (kvartal) numbers. Buildings are addressed not according to their street number, but by the block, or kvartal, in which they lie. Higher numbers usually suggest more northerly and westerly addresses. While not a town of great intrinsic tourist interest, the one good hotel and decent food options make this a useful base for exploring the southern and eastern parts of Balkan Region. Balkanabat is a staging point for trips to Dekhistan and Yangykala Canyon.
Sights - There’s nothing worth seeing in Balkanabat, but if in a bizarre set of circumstances you need to pass some time here, then the largely uninteresting Regional History Museum (Gurtgeldi Annayew koshesi; admission 2.5M; 9am-6pm) is for you. It contains ethno graphy, archaeology and wildlife exhibits of the Balkan region including a display of local carpets (look for the anchor designs, symbols of the Caspian dwelling Yomut Turkmen). There are also photos of Dekhistan to whet your appetite if you are headed that way. The museum is located opposite the Cultural Palace of Oil Workers. Museum is open 09.00-18.00, with a lunch-break 13.00-14.00, but closed on Mondays.
You enter into a room devoted to the achievements of post-independence Turkmenistan, including photographs of President Niyazov's visits to Balkanabat. A hall to the left contains a mix of ethnography, archaeology and ecology. The former section includes a display focused around a segment of yurt, displays of jewellery worn by ladies and horses, a selection of carpets and assorted agricultural and domestic implements. There is a small display devoted to the early oil industry, when the precious liquid was extracted from shallow deposits just as water from a well, and then transported in barrels loaded onto camels. The underwhelming archaeology section manages a few pots, and a couple of models of the sights around Dekhistan. The ecology section involves numerous stuffed animals. The final room in the museum is a large hall displaying the paintings of local artists. These include some ideological works of the Soviet period, featuring oil workers, cotton pickers and a sulphate worker from Bekdash. There is a painting depicting the construction of the Kara Kum Canal, and another of a group of actors performing in remote pastureland to an audience of shepherds.
To the northeast of here, along Azady Kochesi, the Balkanabat Carpet Factory has a small museum (no fixed opening times), displaying some of the products of the factory, including entries to past competitions of carpet design. There is a set of decorations for a camel, a carpet design named Unity, combining the guls characteristic of different Turkmen tribes, and one called Peace to the World, whose guls incorporate numerous doves.
On the west side of the city, you can take a look at the pretty Russian Orthodox Church, which stands just north of the defunct oil rig.
Heading west, just off the road to Turkmenbashi, is the Monument to the Builders of Nebit Dag, one of the most attractive statues in Turkmenistan: a monument to the desert explorers who first identified the oil wealth of the area. A camel strains forward amidst a fierce sandstorm, the men around it shielding their eyes from the harsh sand-laden wind.
A golden statue of President Niyazov stands atop a tribune on Magtymguly Shayoly, looking out across a pedestrianised central square. The offices of the city and regional authorities, and the headquarters of the state oil concern Turkmennebit, are all immediately to the west of here. Further west along Magtymguly Shayoly, beyond a statue to the poet, there are some nice Soviet mosaics on each end of one of the buildings of the oil and gas institute. The mosaic on the western side of the building depicts a blond oil worker, surrounded by derricks, a 'nodding donkey' and a helicopter. On the eastern wall, a Turkmen girl impressively manages to hold an ear of wheat, a bunch of cotton and an oil rig.
Opposite the Hotel Nebitchi, in the northern part of town, is the Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Park, a large open space with a few pieces of independence-era statuary amongst rows of saplings. A tall marble obelisk in the centre of the park is part of a monument which also includes mosaic panels depicting scenes from Turkmen life: baking bread in the tamdyr, scything wheat, and playing the dutar. The central panel is a portrait of President Niyazov. To the east of this monument is a statue of the president, seated in a comfy armchair in front of a semicircular arcade. Immediately to the north of this somewhat sterile park is a cluster of tliree-and four-storey apartment blocks of the Soviet period, with murals 011 their end walls devoted to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Some of these feature the cute bear mascot of those games.
The steep slopes of Big Balkan frame the town to the north. This dry massif rises to a height of 1,880m. Along its base, at the northern edge of town, a concrete Serdar Health Path was opened on Niyazov's birthday, 19 February, in 2004, aping the larger version in Ashgabat. A sign at the start of the path offers a presidential quotation to the effect that a healthy nation is a strong nation.
Getting there and away - Balkanabat Airport reopened for passenger flights in 2004, following modernisation, but there are currently just three flights a week between Balkanabat and Ashgabat, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight time is one hour. The tiny airport is 2km east of town, off the Ashgabat road. There is a Turkmenistan Airlines booking office in the railway station, open weekdays.
The railway station is an ugly brown block on the southern edge of town. Its main hall is enlivened by mosaics of oil workers in action. There are two trains daily to Ashgabat (7 hours), and two to Turkmenbashy (3 hours or so), although the latter both currently depart inconveniently in the early hours of the morning.
The bus station, just in front of the railway station, is a sleepy affair. A daily public bus makes the trip to Ashgabat in six and a half hours. Private taxis cluster around the back of the bus station, anxious to take you to Ashgabat, Turkmenbashy or Hazar. A taxi to Ashgabat should take around four and a half hours.