Turkmenistan

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Introduction to Turkmenistan

The most curious of the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan resembles an Arab Gulf state without the money. It's the second largest Central Asian country, but four-fifths of it consist of an inhospitable lunar-like desert called the Karakum which conceals unexploited oil and gas deposits.

The country is sparsely populated and its people, the Turkmen, are only a generation or two removed from being nomads. Turkmenistan is as much a culture as a country since the Turkmen have never formed a real nation and have allowed their cities to become predominantly populated by other peoples.

Caution

Though Turkmenistan is generally calm, neighbouring Afghanistan is still the site of military operations led by the USA and its allies. In light of the ongoing instability, travellers are advised to stay clear of the areas bordering Afghanistan. Other areas within Turkmenistan that are designated as 'restricted' by the government are definitely off-limits.

Full country name: Turkmenistan

Area: 488,100 sq km

Population: 4.5 million

Capital City: Ashgabat

People: 85% Turkmen, 10% Uzbek, 3% Russian, 2% others (Azeris, Iranians and Kazakhs)

Language: Russian, Turkmen, Uzbek

Religion: 89% Muslim, 9% Eastern Orthodox

GDP: US$7 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,630

Annual Growth: 5%

Inflation: 19.8%

Major Industries: Natural gas, oil, petroleum products, textiles, food processing, cotton, grain, livestock

Major Trading Partners: CIS, Hong Kong, Switzerland, US, Germany, Turkey, Cyprus

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Every visitor to Turkmenistan needs to obtain a visa and a letter of invitation before turning up at the border. Failure to have such a letter, or at the very least, a personal statement with an itinerary, is likely to mean that your experience of Turkmenistan will be limited to what you can see as you fly straight back out of there.

Health risks: hepatitis, diphtheria, tuberculosis

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +5

Dialling Code: 993

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Turkmenistan isn't known for its jolly street parades. Public holidays include New Year's Day (1 January), Remembrance Day (anniversary of a 1948 earthquake on 12 January), National Flag Day (19 February), International Women's Day 8 March), Labour Day (1 May), Victory Day (a commemoration of the end of WWII for Russia on 9 May 1945) and Independence Day (27 October).

The spring festival of Nauryz ('New Days') is one of Turkmenistan's biggest holidays. It's an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations and can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.

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Best time to Visit

As summers are ferociously hot and winters bitterly cold, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best seasons to visit Turkmenistan. In April the desert blooms briefly and the monotonous ochre landscapes explode in reds, oranges and yellows. Autumn is harvest time, when market tables heave with freshly picked fruit. If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: manat

Meals

Budget: US$1-8

Mid-range: US$8-12

High: US$12-15

Deluxe: US$15+

Lodging

Budget: US$5-20

Mid-range: US$20-40

High: US$40-70

Deluxe: US$70+

Turkmenistan is one of the cheaper Central Asian destinations. If you twin share in modest hotels, get your food from cheap restaurants and street stalls and travel by bus and train, you should be able to keep daily costs to around US$25-40 a day. Budgeteers relying on trains, streetside cafes or bazaars and truckers' hostels may need little more than US$10 a day. Foreigners often pay substantially more than locals for services, and there's not much you can do to avoid this. Watch for budget blowers like imported beer and chocolate bars.

Turkmenistan is effectively a cash-only zone. The local currency is the only legal tender, though in practice US dollars and German Deutschmarks may be accepted or even requested for some transactions. Tourist hotels are your best bet for currency exchange; there is a black market for dollars and euros offering rates far better than official rates. Be aware that most changers accept only crisp, brand new banknotes, convinced somehow that anything older is worthless. Travellers' cheques are of limited use - there may be a Vneshekonobank in Ashghabat which changes US dollar travellers' cheques but don't count on it. Credit cards are most useful for picking your teeth.

Tipping runs counter to many people's Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.

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Attractions

Ashghabat

Ashghabat is not the end of the world, but it feels like it can't be more than a short bus ride away. It has a dust-blown, shutter-banging-in-the-wind quality, and on a sun-scorched afternoon all that's missing are vultures wheeling in the burning blue sky. Belying the seductive imagery of its name, nobody seems too excited about this 'City of Love'. It's out of sight, out of mind as far as Moscow is concerned, and Turkmen traditionally don't care for cities. The fact that Ashghabat was wiped off the face of the earth by an earthquake in 1948 doesn't help either; 110,000 people died and for five years the area was closed to outsiders while bodies were recovered and the wreckage cleared.

Consequently there are no great camera-friendly monuments, no shady tree-houses from which to watch the world go by, and travellers have to work hard to make a stay worthwhile. The highlight of the city is definitely the huge Sunday Tolkuchka bazaar which attracts a colourful Cecil B de Mille cast of thousands. It sprawls across acres of desert on the outskirts of the city, and consists of corrals of camels and goats, avenues of red-clothed women squatting before silver jewellery, and clusters of trucks from which Uzbeks hawk everything from pistachios to car parts. The bazar is a great place to purchase Turkmenistan's traditional dark red carpets. If you can't get enough of the famous rugs, there's a Carpet Museum which includes the world's largest handwoven rug.

The remains of the vanished ancient cities of Nisa and Anau are just outside Ashghabat, but there's little to draw you there unless you're an archaeologist, historian or have a good imagination. Firuza, the old hunting reserve of the Persian royal family, is now a popular mountain escape for those seeking relief from the heat of the plains. The settlement is squeezed into a gorge 30km (19mi) south-west of Ashghabat and is the closest independent travellers can get to exploring the Kopet Dag mountains which form the Turkmen-Iranian border. Buried 60m (200ft) underground in the accessible lower slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains is a hot-water mineral lake known as the 'Father of Lakes' where you can take a dip in 36C (97F) waters, if you don't mind surfacing to the smell of rotten eggs.

Konye-Urgench

The ancient state of Khorezm encompassed the whole Amu-Darya delta area in Northern Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan, and rose to its greatest heights at Konye-Urgench (Old Urgench). It was the heart of Islam, until its ruler messed with the wrong Khan and the city felt severe Mongol wrath.

Old Urgench regained its former glory, only to be flattened again by Timur in the late 14th century. It didn't recover a second time, which is why modern Konye-Urgench is a fairly humdrum place. The highest minaret in Central Asia, some mausoleums and other relics still make it well worth a visit.

Merv

Once one of Central Asia's greatest cities, Merv is an archaeologist's dream and has moved travel writers to muse for pages on the life and death of civilisations, but may leave the casual visitor a bit nonplussed. The area wears the remains of no less than five walled cities from different periods.

To the untrained-eye Merv is a lumpen landscape scarred with ditches and channels, grazed by camels and dotted every now and then with an earthwork mound or a battered sandy-brick structure. It retains a certain melancholic charm, and Sultan Sanjar's mausoleum is impressive in size and solidity.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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