Deep in the Karakum Desert, nestled between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Afghanistan, is the least-visited and most mysterious of the Central Asian countries: Turkmenistan. This often-overlooked country is home to fascinating history, incredible architecture, great culture and welcoming locals. Here are just five reasons why you need to visit Turkmenistan.
1. The City of White Marble
Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, is aptly nicknamed, as it holds the Guinness World Record for the most white-marble clad buildings; 543 in total. The brilliant white of the city is broken only by the glinting of gold monuments, many of which are dedicated to Saparmurat Niyazov, former President for Life of Turkmenistan. A visit to Ashgabat is a must for anyone with an interest in architecture, with the 600ft Constitution Monument, the Monument to Neutrality and the "Palace of Happiness" all standouts, alongside some truly bizarre sights, such as the giant thermometer adjacent to a screen playing a loop of official ceremonies. The wheel atop the Alem Entertainment Centre holds the record as the world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel and cost $90 million to build. More than 150ft high, it offers incredible views of the city. The five-star Yyldyz Hotel resembles a teardrop glistening under the sun. The Oguzkent Hotel is the height of opulence, with spotlights hypnotically reflecting off pristine white surfaces. The gilded domes atop the Ruhy Mosque are enchanting under the sunlight whilst at night, Ashgabat Tele-radio Centre is a sight to behold. The city’s tallest building, Turkmenistan Tower, holds the record for “the largest architectural star”. The city is so immaculately clean that smoking, the driving of dirty cars and anything “untidy, slovenly and tasteless” is illegal. Truly, this surreal desert mirage must be seen to be believed.
2. The Gates of Hell
Deep in the Karakum desert is the most incredible sight. The Darvasa Gas Crater, known as the ‘Door to Hell’ or the ‘Crater of Fire’, lights up the desert in spectacular fashion. But how did it come to be? In 1971 Soviet geologists were drilling at a natural gas cavern when it collapsed, releasing gas. Fearing the gas would poison the nearby Darvasa village, they lit the gas assuming it would quickly burn out. Almost fifty years later, it’s still burning. Desert campers have repurposed this 230ft crater as the ultimate campfire. Watching the sun go down over this fiery pit is an unforgettable experience. We still don’t know when the gas will run out, so this is an experience with a time limit. If this is on your bucket list, be sure to travel to Turkmenistan soon!
3. The Yangykala Canyon
Turkmenistan’s best kept secret is the stunning beauty of the Yangykala Canyon. Indeed, most Turkmen don’t even know it exists! Far off the beaten track, the striking pink, yellow and red stripes of the rocks are breath-taking to behold. Take in the most beautiful sunset you’ll ever see in almost complete solitude. As night sets in, you’re in an excellent spot for a bit of star-gazing. As the site is so little-known, it is perfectly untouched and a great place to observe the local wildlife. The incredible beauty of this area must be seen to be believed.
4. Parthian Fortresses of Nisa
Nisa, or Parthaunisa, was an ancient city that was the first seat of central government of the Parthians. It is believed to have been founded by Arsaces I around 250 B.C. It is also presumed to have been the royal necropolis of the Parthian kings. Nisa was a major trading hub in the Parthian Empire, and excavations have unearthed many Hellenistic art works alongside numerous ornate ivory rhytons, decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes. Allow yourself to be transported into ancient times by taking a walk through the mausoleums and shrines, passing through the old gates separating walls 9m thick. As soon as you set foot on this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can feel how important this ancient city once was, a crossroads between east and west, north and south; a major trade route on the Silk Road.
5. Relax by the Caspian Sea
The 5-star Awaza beach resort is a sight to behold. Turkmenistan's foreign ministry describe it as a "Turkmen Las Vegas", with plans to build an aqua park and Dubai-style artificial islands. Extravagant buildings and luxury facilities are available at bargain prices at this impeccable yet oddly ghost town-like resort. Like Ashgabat, the hotels are marble-clad, and the resort features a restaurant reserved solely for the president. Relax in a luxurious spa, indulge in delicious food or take a yacht ride from the river to the sea, all whilst never worrying about queueing. This picturesque and perfectly-maintained tourist oasis is as strange as it is opulent.