• Turkmenistan
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Turkmenistan

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile
This 5 000-year-old country is not an easily explored destination. Most of its mountains are inaccessible. A former Soviet Union country, few tourists travel to Turkmenistan. However, this is the country producing the famous Bukhara carpets, and breeding the mythical Akhal Teke horses. Its subtropical-desert climate means that three quarters of this region is covered by desert. Its lunar landscapes take you back to another era. It is the same with the humans rights situation: The Turkmen dictatorial regime is one of the most autocratic in the world.

Our Editorial team's advice

Do not fail to visit the Tolkuchka bazaar, lying around the Karakoum desert, behind the canal, close to Achkhabad. This unusual bazaar bustles with life, especially on Sundays. It remains the best spot in the country to find out souvenirs, such as a lovely Turkmen carpet or the original Telpek, this Turkmen traditional cap made of sheep wool. You can wander in the centre of Achkhabad, which is entirely dedicated to the glory of the Turkmen leader and discover the general architecture of the new buildings, symbols of hero-worship for the president. Finally, do not fail to cross the Karakoum desert, from east to west, via the only main road of a country that is 75% desert.
It is advisable to always carry your passport with a valid visa. Foreigners with a tourist visa should be registered within three days upon arrival by the State department. They will complete a form specifying their identity and the purpose of their journey. They will then pay a tax of USD 10. They should always carry a duplicate of this form along with their passport and visa for presentation upon request. They will only be allowed to leave the country after returning this document at the border through which they entered Turkmenistan.

pros

  • +Discover this young and unknown repubic, kept in isolation within the Soviet Block for many years.
  • +The first-sight austerity of Turkmens often hides their very welcoming nature and love for French culture.

cons

  • -Infrastructure similar to western designs is rare. It is important to remember that the country has known 70 years of communism and is still marked by its bureaucratic style.
  • -It is not possible to travel unaccompanied in this country, as in other countries in the region, unless you are an adventurer.
  • -English is scarcely spoken.
  • -Besides a few ruined cities, Turkmenistan has few historic and cultural sites.

Traditions

The Turkmen Muslim community is not little practiced but more tolerant and traditional. Customs demand that visitors take off their shoes before entering a Turkmen home and sit on the bare floor.

Food

Most dishes in Turkmenistan are similar to those of other central Asian countries. Though the country is a vast uncultivated desert, the local cuisine offers several vegetarian dishes. Treat yourself to plov, mutton mixed with rice and assorted with dry raisins, vegetables (onions, carrot), and spices (cumin, coriander...). Enjoy shashliks or kebabs; small mutton, beef, chicken or chicken liver kebabs, often served with raw onion; mantys, a sort of large vapour-cooked ravioli; laghman, spaghetti broth mixed with mutton, vegetables and spices. Also enjoy the large plain flat round breads sold in every street or market and served well with soups or shashliks. Quench your thirst with tea, green or black.

Souvenirs

In a country eaten up by the desert (80%), places to shop for souvenirs and other things are very few. The most unusual and furnished bazaar in Turkmenistan remains that of Tolkuchka, by the desert, backing the Karakum canal, close to Achkhabad, 5 miles from Makhtumkuli. Shop there on Sunday between 7:00 and 13:00. Find silk sold per metre, headscarfs, carpets (one of the country's prides and specialties), thick and coloured wool socks and slippers, telpeks; impressive Turkmen traditional headgear, camels, sheep and puppies. Bazaars in Achkhabad (said to be Russian) and Tikinskii sell foodstuffs, daily needs, regional music cassettes. Otherwise, the Univermag shopping centre opposite Hotel Achkhabad, sells everything. Shops open from 9:00 to 17:00 or 19:00.