Transport in Turkmenistan
Entering Turkmenistan - Entering the country overland tends to invite more scrutiny than arriving by air. Baggage checks can be very thorough at lonely border posts, while the undermanned airport in Ashgabat seems more interested in processing people quickly rather than in pawing through your underwear. You’ll need to pay your arrival tax and collect your Entry Travel Pass if you’re travelling on a tourist or business visa.
AIR - The only international airport in Turkmenistan is Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport in Ashgabat. The terminal, built in the 1990s, is clean and rarely crowded, though offers little in the way of facilities for departing or transit passengers. Anyone arriving at Ashgabat with an onward flight connection but no transit visa will not be allowed out of the airport's transit area. A little more comfort on arrival and departure can be gained by use of the 'commercially important persons' (CIP) lounge. This costs US$20 in each direction. The travel agency or other organisation which has invited you must apply in advance for permission for you to use the CIP lounge. CIP does nothing to insulate you from the bureaucracy of getting into and out of the country, and it is probably not worth the extra hassle and expense.
The country's national carrier offers a pleasant surprise to travellers used to the ageing Soviet planes of some other airlines in the region: it has an all-Boeing passenger fleet. Turkmenistan Airlines has good flight connections to London (two direct flights weekly). Relatively few passengers on these flights start or finish their journeys in Ashgabat, however. The flights head on to Delhi/Amritsar, and most of the passengers are members of the Sikh community in the UK.
Turkmenistan Airlines flies the only direct flights from Ashgabat to the UK, and is much cheaper than other options between Ashgabat and western Europe.
Turkmenistan Airlines serves most main cities with a fleet of modern Boeing 717s. As the main hub, most flights go in and out of Ashgabat, though there are also flights from Dashogus to Turkmenbashi, Mary and Turkmenabat, a Mary–Turkmenbashi flight and Turkmenbashi–Turkmenabat flight. Flights are extremely cheap and generally very reliable. Flights are generally full, but relatively large price increases of late have meant that fewer locals fly and so demand is not as ridiculous as it was before, when your only chance to get a seat was to book months in advance.
Within Central Asia, Uzbekistan Airways links Ashgabat and Tashkent in both directions every Wednesday. Turkmenistan Airways flies between Ashgabat and Almaty three times a week (one way 220M). Domestic Turkmenistan Airlines flights are heavily subsidised to make the ticket prices amazingly low. Consequently, demand is high and flights need to be booked in advance. Timetables also change regularly but there are approximately five daily flights to Dashogus (48M), three daily to Turkmenabat(50M), two daily to Mary (42M) and two daily to Turkmenbashi (54M), as well as regular flights to Kerki (also known as Atamurat, 58M, via Turkmenabat) and three weekly connections to Balkanabat (38M).
Airline offices - The following airlines fly to/from Turkmenistan and have offices in Ashgabat. Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com; Main Concourse, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport) Several weekly flights to Frankfurt via Baku. Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com; Yimpashu Business Centre, Turkmenbashi shayoli 56) Daily flights from Istanbul to Ashgabat. Turkmenistan Airlines (www.turkmenistanairlines.com; Magtymguly shayoli 82) From Ashgabat to Abu Dhabi, Almaty, Amritsar, Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kiev, London, Moscow and St Petersburg. Uzbekistan Airways (Main Concourse, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Airport) Flies from Tashkent to Ashgabat and back every Wednesday.
LAND Visitors with visas can enter Turkmenistan from all bordering countries, although the borders with Uzbekistan and Iran are the most frequently used. There are no international train or bus services to or from Turkmenistan. All land borders are open from 9am to 6pm daily.
Bus, Marshrutka & Shared Taxi - Bus stands in Ashgabat are organised by destination, and are used by shared taxis and marshrutki as much as buses. Fares for private cars fluctuate by demand and the make of the car – bargain hard and ask several drivers before agreeing to a price. Transport for Mary and Turkmenabat leaves from a makeshift bus station known to locals as the Mariiskaya stoyanka about 3km east of the centre on the main road out of the city. There are marshrutki to Mary (four hours, 12M) and Turkmenabat (6,5 hours, 20M). There is also one daily bus to Seraghs from here (five hours, 14M).
Car & Motorcycle - If you are planning to bring your own vehicle into Turkmenistan, and are applying for anything other than a transit visa, this fact will have to be made clear in your LOI. A valid international driving permit is required. Driving through Turkmenistan is perfectly possible, but expensive and full of hassles. A carnet is not needed, though you’ll need to pay the following: US$30 transit fee (US$30 for cars, US$15 for motorbikes and US$100 for lorries); US$50 obligatory third-party liability insurance (US$50 for cars, US$20 for motorbikes and US$70 for lorries); US$2 bank fee; US$5 documentation fee; and also US$10 for disinfection of your vehicle (US$10 for cars, US$5 for motorbikes, and US$20 for lorries [you pay whether or not any 'disinfection procedures' are actually carried out]). Significantly, there’s also a road tax calculated by the kilometre for your route through the country. One element of this fee is what is termed 'petrol difference', charged at the time of research at six cents per kilometre for petrol-driven cars; four cents per kilometre for diesels. Buses and lorries are charged at 13 cents per kilometre. The authorities will work out the distance in kilometres between your designated arrival and departure points, and charge you a lump sum. The logic here is that petrol prices in Turkmenistan are heavily subsidised: the fee serves to counterbalance the subsidy received by the foreign visitor at the pumps, so that the government is not out of pocket. Usually this totals around US$75 for cars and up to US$250 for larger vehicles. This effectively raises the cost of petrol (gas) from US$0.02 at the pumps to around US$1.50 in reality. Be aware that taking your vehicle on the ferry to/from Baku is an invite to be bribed. Driving in Turkmenistan is a veritable freestyle sport, with drivers weaving indiscriminately through traffic and drag racing off green lights – you can do nothing but adapt. The drivers of Mary are notoriously bad – even Ashgabat drivers avoid cars with Mary tags. One last warning: fines can be imposed if you enter a city with a dirty car; make sure your vehicle is spotless after hauling it across the desert.
Transport for Dashogus and Konye-Urgench leaves from the Dashogus Bazaar (also called Azatlyk Bazaar). A marshrutka to Konye-Urgench costs 28M (seven to eight hours), while a seat in a shared taxi is 30M. Chartering a whole taxi will cost 120M. Prices to Dashogus are slightly higher: regular daily buses take around nine hours for the trip (30M), while marshrutki (35M) make the trip in six hours. A place in a taxi will cost 36M and the trip takes 5,5 hours. Short-distance destinations west of Ashgabat (eg Old Nissa) depart from the western side of Tekke Bazaar. A spot in a minibus to Bagyr (for Old Nissa) costs 0.5M.
Train - The brand new Ashgabat train station is at the northern end of Turkmenbashi shayoli, a short taxi ride from downtown. Following large investment in the network and a fleet of new Chinese trains, this is now a good way to get around the country if you don’t mind taking things slowly. There are daily trains in both directions to Turkmenbashi (15 hours, 4.76M/7.66M), Balkanabat (seven hours, 3.84/6.20M), Mary (7,5 hours, 3.22M/5.24M), Turkmenabat (12 hours, 4.76M/7.66M), and Dashogus (20 hours, 5.08M/9.58M). There are also trains to the Iranian border at Saraghs (nine hours, 3M/5.74M) twice a week in both directions. Prices quoted above are for platskartny/kupeyny (hard/soft sleeper). Note that tickets are not sold in the main station building, but in the ticket office a short distance away down the platform.
There are no cross-border buses or passenger trains. The train from Dashoguz to Turkmenabat crosses Uzbek territory, but passengers are not allowed to join or leave the train in Uzbekistan. Other train routes across the Turkmen border, such as the crossing into Iran at Serakhs, are currently freight only. So the use of land borders requires you either to use your own transport, or to take a taxi or any available public transport to the border, walk across, and pick up another taxi at the other side. Most travel agencies in Turkmenistan can sort out taxis to collect their departing clients from the Uzbek or Iranian borders, and take them on to their first night's accommodation in the neighbouring country.
To/From the Airport - The best way to get into central Ashgabat from the airport is to take a taxi. They are both plentiful and cheap, especially if you choose to go with a shared one. You should expect to pay 10M, but agree before getting in, as drivers are likely to try their luck and ask for much more.
Public Transport - A fleet of new, white buses now serves the local populace, making this a quick and cheap way to get around. Tickets cost 0.2M and can be bought on board. There are however no maps or lists of routes, so you’ll need to ask locals which bus to take wherever you want to go. As with almost every other city in the former Soviet Union, you can just hold out your arm on the street and a car will soon stop and give you a lift to wherever you need to go. Short hops in the city cost 2M, rising to 3M for longer journeys. Agree a price before you get in, or hand over the money with supreme confidence when you get out. To order an official taxi call. Ashgabat has no metro or tram system.
SEA The only regular passenger option is the ferry route between Baku and Turkmenbashy. The main business of the ferry is goods transport: the human cargo is something of an afterthought, and the ferries leave not to a regular timetable, but when they are loaded. The number of passengers who can be taken is also influenced by the nature of the goods being transported (potentially dangerous cargoes such as oil products mean fewer passengers). So there is a certain unpredictability about using the route, and potentially a good deal of waiting around, but at least one ferry seems to make the trip on most days, and most tourists report that they secured a place on the first available feriy. The journey takes around 14 hours. Ticket prices for foreign nationals range from US$45 for a seat on deck to US$100 for the nicest available cabin. Motor vehicle charges range from US$87 to US$214, depending on the length of the vehicle. Motorcycles are charged between US$22 and US$35. Bicycles are US$5.
The ferry terminal at Turkmenbashy is at the eastern end of the port. The port facilities in Baku were reconstructed recently and now boarding the ferry has to be done not from the main Passenger Terminal (as it used before 2012), but from Cargo Terminal couple km further away. Tickets are sold in the morning on the day of departure. Since they can't say whether the ferry will run the day before you ar eleft with no other option but to check every morning and rely on your luck that this exact day it will run. Generally this is a daily service but be ready to have 2-3 days delay. So make your plans accordingly.
The main land crossing points are:
Turkmenistan's border crossings are generally open from around 09.00 - 18.00, but there is some variation both between crossings and seasonally, and you should plan to get to the Turkmen side of the border in good time. Crossing procedures can be lengthy.