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Highlights of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan emerged as a newly independent state only in 1991, but the land has been shaped by the legacies of many occupants. The Kugitang Mountains in the east bear traces of the footprints of dinosaurs. At Margush in the heart of the country, archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has toiled for decades in the hot desert to unearth a civilisation of Bronze Age fire-worshippers.

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.

The legacy of Turkmenistan's membership of the Soviet Union during much of the 20th century is recalled in many unusual monuments quietly decaying across the country. The MiG plane standing outside a fire station in the town of Mary. A spring deep in the western desert, where surely no Bulgarian has ventured for years, which announces itself as a monument to friendship between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. The apartment blocks in the oil town of Balkanabat decorated with symbols of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

These fragments of Turkmenistan's recent Soviet past are, however, disappearing fast, to make way for the structures and symbols of its present. Turkmenistan has been ruled since independence for a long time by President Saparmurat Niyazov, the local Communist Party boss when the Soviet Union collapsed, who has consolidated his hold over the state. The capital, Ashgabat, once an unremarkable provincial Soviet city, is being transformed into a fantasy of white-marble palaces, modern apartment blocks and large fountain complexes. In the centre of the city is the three legged Arch of Neutrality, a monument to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution which gave Turkmenistan its neutrality status. Until recently it was topped by a golden statue of President Niyazov, which revolved to face the sun. The president is still known as Turkmcnbashy, the father of the Turkmen. The president cult is not so obvious with the new president and there is no Niyazov's state paranoiya any more when his image was literally everywhere, from billboards to vodka bottles. The country's main port has been renamed Turkmenbashy, as has the month of January.

Situation is still strict, no independent travel is possible at the moment. All visitors with the visa has to be accompanied by the local guide and it is still worth exploring this little visited and least known country, the last tourist dark point in Central Asia.

Depending on whether you are a lover of archaeology or scenery, monuments or carpets, the following are the core highlights around which a good Turkmenistan programme may be built.

Ashgabat With Turkmenistan's only international airport, most hotels, and the hub of the domestic transport network, Ashgabat is difficult to avoid. Not that you would wish to do so. Its white marble buildings, golden statues and fountains are an evolving monument to the nation-building programme of President Niyazov. The National, Fine Arts and Carpet museums are interesting and help set the context for a visit to Turkmenistan. And there are worthwhile side trips to the Parthian fortress of Old Nisa and ruins of the mosque at Aneu.

Historical sites The two top attractions are Merv and Konye-Urgench, both of which make obvious building-blocks around which to construct a Turkmenistan programme. Other, less widely known, sites which also fascinate include the ongoing Bronze Age excavations at Gonur, the remote city site of Misrian in western Turkmenistan, and the cave settlement of Ekedeshik near Tagtabazar.

The mountains The Kopet Dag may be modest as mountain ranges go, its peaks never troubling the 3,000m mark, but it offers good riding and trekking, and some splendid scenery, for example around Nohur and in the Sumbar Valley. The Kugitang Nature Reserve in the far east of the country, which does have a 3,000m peak, is another excellent upland destination, offering potentially superb but largely untapped prospects for speleological tourism and, for non-troglodytes, a remarkable plateau pock-marked with the footprints of dinosaurs.

The desert The Kara Kum Desert, the vast empty heart of Turkmenistan, demands respect. Trips here require careful planning, but considerable rewards can be earnt from the effort. Targets include the stunning polychrome canyon at Yangykala and the burning gas crater near Darvaza, but the attractions of the desert are captured too around a camp-fire on a still, silent evening, beneath a rich canopy of stars.

The people The Turkmen people, welcoming and curious, will offer the real highlight of your trip wherever you go. Some travel agencies in Turkmenistan offer specially designed 'ethnographic' excursions, to see traditional village life in places like Erbent or the desert oasis of Damla. In many parts of the world, such trips would be artificial touristic kitsch, but here they are much more authentic. Turkmenistan's bazaars, especially the sprawling Tolkuchka market outside Ashgabat, are ideal places to watch and interact with local people. And we recommend the inclusion of at least one of Turkmenistan's main shrine pilgrimage sites on your itinerary. These sites, which provide an insight into the religious beliefs of the Turkmen people, are often at their most animated on Thursdays and Fridays. The hillside mausoleum of Parau Bibi, near the town of Serdar, is one of the most interesting.