A dusty expanse of land home to yurts and carts, as well as golden statues and sumptuous palaces, Turkmenistan is so far off most traveler’s ‘to go’ maps it may as well not exist at all. Those who do make this unusual trip are in for a pleasant surprise: a thoroughly unmodernised, welcoming culture, sparsely populated lands that beg to be explored, and cities that haven’t changed – aside from the odd stuttering mid-century petrol engine - in hundreds of years.
Capital Ashghabat sometimes feels like one great big shrine to former president Niyazov, who’s stature seems to stare out from every square. Having been raised to the ground by a vicious earthquake in the 40s, Ashghabat has a Soviet tinge to its rebuild, with gaping squares and expansive parklands built with the income generated from that desert oil. It’s the ideal place to rest before heading out in to the sands, and sample Turkmenistan’s unusual cuisine, which in the towns focuses on a bread and meat combo called ‘diorama’, and in the desert seems to revolve around a hearty breakfast of fermented camel’s milk, ‘chal’.
The aging desert towns are the real reason to visit Turkmenistan, though, and negotiate the slightly controlling presence of the heavy-handed police force and you’ll find places like Konye Urgench, where all the glories of the ancient state of Khorezm still stand tall, from mosques to mausoleums, and animals walk the town’s streets at the far end of the crumbling Silk Road. Merv and nearby Gonur are perfect stops for the historically focused, featuring expansive ruins, relentless excavations and an oasis in the unyielding desert, all but destroyed by the offspring of a certain Genghis Khan.
For natural beauty, the Karakum Desert’s lunar landscapes are dotted with tiny Turkmen villages where the world seems to come to a standstill, while the huge expanses of the Yangykala Canyon welcome daring explorers into a region of unbelievable natural beauty.
Immerse yourself amongst the magic carpets, camels and almost North Korean politics, and absorb a culture that very few others ever explore, and don’t forget your camera.