Turkmenbashi (population of 60,000 people) is the end of the line for travellers heading on to the Caucasus, and the first taste of Turkmenistan for those arriving on the ferry from Baku. Either way, it serves its function fairly well – there’s nothing much to actually keep you here for any length of time, but it’s a pleasant and friendly town with a more Russian feel than most Turkmen cities and an enjoyable Caspian Sea location.
Turkmenistan's main port occupies a striking geographical location. Its houses nestle in a series of parcels of low ground along the shores of the Caspian. Steep, arid cliffs form a natural amphitheatre around the town. Turkmenbashy sits on the northern shore of a gulf, providing an obvious harbour which first drew the interest of tsarist Russia almost 300 years ago. Prince Alexander Bekovich, from an elite family of the Caucasus, arrived here in the early 18th century, to pursue the interests of Peter the Great in the trade routes of Central Asia and rumours of abundant gold along the banks of the Oxus. The first settlement here, Krasnovodsk, was established when a unit of Russian troops under Prince Alexander Bekovich set ashore in 1717 with the intention of marching on Khiva. They chose this spot because it was close to the place where the Oxus River (now the Amu-Darya) had once drained into the Caspian Sea, and the dry riverbed provided the best road across the desert. But Bekovich's attempts in 1717 to persuade the Khan of Khiva to accept Russian protection resulted in his murder, and the massacre of most of his troops. Russians didn’t come back for more than 150 years.
But in 1819 a young captain named Nikolai Muraviev arrived at this natural harbour, then known as Krasnovodsk, as part of another Russian expedition. Travelling eastwards across the desert to Khiva, Muraviev was able to deliver to the khan the message that the tsar was keen to develop his trading links, by way of a new port at Krasnovodsk. Muraviev was lucky that, unlike Bekovich, his mission to Khiva concluded with his head still attached to his body, not least because he had also been tasked with covertly gauging the state of Khiva's defences, with a view to possible Russian conquest, including to free the many Russian slaves held by the khan. But Russia was not yet ready to launch an attempt to bring the region under its control.
That moment was to come in the 1860s. Following the annexation of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, Russia found itself increasingly in need of a port on the eastern shore of the Caspian which could help serve as a launch-pad to bring, Transcaspia under its control and improve its lines of supply to its new domains. In 1869 a Russian force under the command of Nikolai Stoletov landed at Krasnovodsk, and established a permanent fort. By the end of the 19th century, the port of Krasnovodsk had become the western terminus of the Transcaspian Railway and a town of vital strategic importance. This was not reflected in any grandeur of urban planning. Its most impressive building was long its ebullient railway station, and Krasnovodsk acquired an out-of-the-way feel. Karlis Ulmanis, the first prime minister of independent Latvia, died here in detention in 1942. Thousands of Japanese POWs were dumped here after WWII and ordered to construct roads and buildings. Since then the town has become somewhat cosmopolitan, with a mix of Russians, Turkmen, Azeris, Turks and a handful of Western oil workers. The main buildings in the town centre were the work of Japanese prisoners of war. In the Soviet period many people were sent here who had been deprived of Moscow residence permits.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Krasnovodsk has been renamed Turkmenbashy, 'leader of the Turkmen', the title now held by President Niyazov. The Turkmen government has made substantial investments in the modernisation of the oil refinery, the largest in Turkmenistan, which was moved here during World War II to keep it out of German reach. A redevelopment of the town's coastal strip has been launched too, bringing better hotel accommodation, but at the cost of some of the nicest single-storey brick buildings of the old town. The town's ethnic mix has been changing rapidly since independence, especially through the emigration of Russians and other non-Turkmen minorities.
Turkmenbashy is a pleasant place to while away a couple of days in summer, with some good accommodation options and an impressive natural setting. As the terminus of the Baku ferry route, it is also for some travellers the first point of contact with Turkmenistan, or the last.
Sights - The Museum of Regional History (Garayeva koshesi; 9am-1pm & 2-6pm) is located in a quaint old structure west of Magtymguly Sq. The collections include disintegrating taxidermy, some interesting maps, models of the Caspian Sea, traditional Turkmen clothing and a yurt. In the last room a photo exhibition recalls an expedition made in 1936 by a group of fishermen from Krasnovodsk to Moscow.
There’s a charming Russian Orthodox church set back from the sea front, a testament to the city’s past as a Russian fortress town. All that remains of the fortress itself are the gates – distinct creations with red stars mounted about them – which can be found in the park below the museum.
Japanese travellers often pay their respects to their dead countrymen at a Japanese memorial located near the airport. The monument commemorates the thousands of Japanese POWs who spent years in Krasnovodsk constructing roads and buildings. A Japanese graveyard is nearby. The beaches near town are a bit rocky and not great for swimming, considering the proximity of the town oil refinery. There are better beaches at Awaza, 8km west of the city. North of Awaza it’s a 20-minute drive to some spectacular sand dunes, sea views and an abandoned lighthouse, but you’ll need a 4WD and a driver who knows the way.
Getting There & Away - From the Turkmenbashi ferry terminal there are frequent untimetabled cargo ships to Baku in Azerbaijan, most of which take passengers, although there’s always the chance that there won’t be a departure for several days. Turkmenistan Airlines flies to and from Ashgabat (54M) twice daily and to Dashogus (58M) on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The airline office is in the same building as the Hotel Hazar. The airport is 8km east of the ferry terminal. Shared taxis leave outside the colourful train station on Atamurat Niyazov koshesi for Ashgabat (50M/200M per seat/car, five to six hours) via Balkanabat (20M/80M per seat/car, 1,5 hours). They also run north along the bad road to Kazakhstan (120M/480M per seat/car, seven hours), crossing the border and stopping at the town of Zhanaozen (Novy Uzen in Russian). Marshrutki also leave from here to Ashgabat via Balkanabat; they cost the same as a seat in a shared taxi and are far less comfortable. An overnight train leaves daily from Turkmenbashi at 3.35pm for Ashgabat (arriving at 6.15am the next day). A platskartny/kupe ticket is 4.76M/7.66M.
Getting Around - Turkmenbashi’s local bus station is just off Balkan koshesi, about 500m west of the museum. From here you can catch infrequent transport to the airport, the seaport and Awaza at prices that are almost negligible. Taxis also hang around here, as well as near the train station, and charge around 1M for most destinations around town, or 2M for a ride to Awaza