While the city of Turkmenbashi may share Niyazov’s legacy in name, the coincidence ends there. Turkmenbashi is a relaxed seaside city, with beaches and cafés and a pleasant atmosphere that is more mellow than bold.
As one of the last Soviet republics to secede (in 1991), Turkmenistan is still a relatively young nation—but one that holds the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves. As such, Turkmenistan thrives on its fossil fuel industry to keep its economy stable, and, much like many of its neighbouring former Soviet Union republic states, Turkmenistan is an interesting dichotomy of old-world mystery and new-world wealth. Gold statues and fancy cars can be seen in its major cities, but visitors don’t need to wander far to find themselves in the middle of ancient religious pilgrimage sites and historical ruins.
Language: Russian and Turkmen
Currency: Turkmen New Manat (TMT)
Government: Presidential Republic Single-Party State
DID YOU KNOW?
- You are required to hire a guide to travel within Turkmenistan; the country is not far displaced from its ancient and nomadic ways, and there is a fairly high level of xenophobia still in place.
- In 1999, Turkmenistan adopted a program called The National Turkmen AIDS/HIV Prevention Program. Through the use of many special events, workshops and seminars, Turkmenistan has managed to become one of the only nations in the world where the threat of contracting the HIV virus is next to zero.
- The Karakum Desert covers almost 80 percent of Turkmenistan. It also forms one of the largest sand deserts of the world. It is here that the Golden Eagle, one of the largest birds of prey, calls home.
- A good portion of people living in Turkmenistan still lead the nomadic way of life, including living in yurts. These are simple structures made with a wooden frame and a tent.
- Because it’s a small country with very high natural gas exports, the citizens of Turkmenistan do not pay for gas or electricity!
Turkmenistan has a subtropical desert climate. Summers (May through September) are hot and dry, while winters are generally mild and dry, although occasionally cold and damp in the north. Most precipitation falls between January and May and is very slight. Average annual temperatures range from highs of 16°C to lows of -5°C.
Turkmenistan history has seen many armies moving through the area on their way to Asia or central Europe. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the land. Later, the region was conquered by the Parthian kingdom, and then by the Arabs in the 7th century.
In the 11th century, the Seljuk empire emerged and the Turkish gained power in the area—until the infamous Genghis Khan and the Mongols arrived and took control.
By 1894, the Russian empire had absorbed Turkmenistan. In 1924, after the Russian Revolution, Turkmenistan became a republic of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country gained full independence in 1991. The first president was Saparmyrat Niyazov, who was, at that time, declared president for life.
DARVAZA GAS CRATER
The Darvaza gas crater, or “The Door to Hell,” is a 60-metre wide and 20-metre deep crater in the Karakum desert that has been on fire for the last 42 years. Far from being a wonder of nature, the crater is the result of a gas exploration accident that occurred in 1971. Soviet scientists had run into some poisonous gas that damaged their equipment, so, they decided to try to burn it off—and the fire’s been going for 42 years and counting.
In ancient times, this quiet and remote town was the centre of the Islamic universe. While it no longer holds that title, the history in this city makes it a popular tourist destination. Konye-Urgench is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many magnificent architectural memorials of the 13th and 14th centuries, including mausoleums and ancient fortresses. Note that it lacks tourist amenities, so travellers typically stay in a neighbouring town and make a day trip in.
A perfect starting point for desert adventures is the city of Ashgabat. Powered by the money made off fossil fuels, Ashgabat is like a strange and wonderful Atlantic City. As the city continues to grow, it is used as a display for the progress being made in Turkmenistan. Entire old neighborhoods are being leveled and beautiful and modern new ones are taking their places.
In 1948, a 9.0-magnitude hit Ashkabad, completely destroying the city. Its reconstruction has taken it through the eras of Stalin to modern-day capitalism, making it a city that intrigues in all its excess.
It’s the end of the Mongol Rally adventure for Pamela MacNaughtan. What happened, how did she get home and will she ever brave it again?
Many Mongol Ralliers never make it all the way to Mongolia. Sadly, after making it to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, with just 6,000 more kilometres to Ulaanbaatar, it looks like Pamela MacNaughtan is one of the ones who won’t finish.
Our Mongol Rallier, Pamela MacNaughtan, finds some unexpected comfort at the Turkmenistan border—from an immigration official bearing a watermelon.
The Mongol Rally will chew you up, spit you out and expect you to keep going as if nothing happened, says Pamela MacNaughtan. Follow her as she braves the world’s most outrageous road trip—and takes Travel+Escape along for the ride!