How Best To Travel Around Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has been a bit of a restricted country and still is, but that should not prevent you from visiting this beautiful place, with the recent 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games held here, the city has been transformed into a sports arena with beautiful architecture based stadiums and sprawling sports campuses
Not many would have thought of visiting this country as it does not appear in any of the so-called must go places as this country is not very active in promoting tourism, or that’s how we felt.
You need a Transit or a Tourist to visit and there is no on-entry tourist visa that allows you to stay more than 5 days as of 2017, the process is not a very quick one either, you need a tour agency or someone in the country to send you a Letter of Invitation clearly stating the dates of Travel and the purpose and the travel plans, with this letter you apply for a Tourist Visa and you will be given for the dates mentioned.
A Transit visa only allows you a max of 5 days if you are entering the country from any of the neighbouring countries and its bit more easier to obtain than a Tourist visa.
Our Travel agency warned us not to book any tickets or arrangements until the visa has been granted, the agency did tell us there have been cases where a visa was denied and no reason was provided either.
Is Guided Private Tour The Best Option ?
Many who visit Turkmenistan either plan it en route from Azerbaijan or Iran to Uzbekistan or vice versa and just touch the major highlights along the main route, but we decided to visit the lesser known parts of the country over 7 days and to do that you need to go through a Travel Agency who will get the LOI for the visa, we are not guided tours people and not very much for it, this definitely had it pros and cons.
Turkmenistan requires you to go through a licensed travel agency that also helps you get a Tourist Visa, you also need to be accompanied by a guide anytime you are outside the capital city of Ashgabat.
There aren’t that many scheduled tours available, so the best option was to take a private tour with a 4x4 and a driver/guide.
We even had a pass that listed all the regions which we will be visiting, which meant we can’t visit any other places not mentioned explicitly on the pass!
Turkmenistan is vast, the Karakum desert covering most of the central area of the country, with a very thin population, public transport to any of the attractions is almost non-existent so having a car and a driver made it so much easier to visit off beat places.
We were able to visit a local family in the traditional old village of Nokhur and experience their daily way of lives and the kids in the home was so much fun playing with them.
The colourful canyons of Yangykala was a long way out from the town of Balkanabat, most of the off beat locations are not signposted and roads are not well maintained, we drove 2 hours on bumpy desert roads to reach the top for such amazing views of the canyon.
We learnt quite a lot about the different place, people and culture, chit chat and stories were the best thing to do on such long drives, lot of places lacked the usual tourist facilities or explanatory signs, and our guide was at hand to explain, it was like a live guide book with us.
- Increases the cost of the Trip, we spent a total of 3000 USD for the two of us for 7 days with a 4x4 car and a driver/guide, this could have been considerably less if we can opt for a self drive option.
- As our whole trip was recorded by region in the pass card, we couldn’t change the itinerary or visit a different region if we wanted to.
- We had to constantly ask the driver to stop at scenic places on the way for photos and ask for more time to explore certain places which we liked to stay around a bit more than his usual expectations.
Which Travel Agency
We always try and go local whenever possible, so in search of finding a local operator, we found Ayan Travel, they are well established and had the best prices for the tours, we paid 3000 USD (2 people) for a 7 day tour with 4x4 car and driver/guide and included lunch and dinner on most of the days and accommodations in 4 or 5 star hotels.
Despite a few disadvantages, the advantages far outweigh the cons, if you have the budget, go for the private tour, we would have easily missed quite a lot if we did all this by ourselves, but if independant travel was doable, the tourism infrastructure would have been much better and wouldn’t need a guided tour to start with, so in the absence of that the best option is to sit back and relax while the driver takes around the beautiful sights of this wonderful country, it will be worth the spend.