Turkmenistan travel guide
For hardcore overland travellers, getting from Central Asia to the Caucasus can be a challenge. To the north lies Russia which poses the near impossible task of getting visas while on the road. To the south is Iran, which some nationalities have serious difficulties getting into at all. That leaves crossing the Caspian Sea as the only alternative. Luckily, the Turkmen seem to have figured this out. Cargo ships leaving the port of Turkmenbashi headed for Baku, Azerbaijan will take passengers (for a fee). Information is scarce as there are no schedules. And on a 5-day Turkmen transit visa, waits of days at the port could be a serious issue. But for those with a bit of luck, the boat trip makes for some serious bragging rights.
Darvaza means 'gate', but it was quickly dubbed 'The Gate to Hell'. It's one of the most spectacular, amazing and wicked sights in the world. 70 metres in diameter and 25 metres deep, it sure lives up to its name. Set ablaze in 1971 by Soviet scientists who were trying to reach the oil reserve under a chamber of natural gas, they estimated it would burn out in six days. More than 40 years later the gas is still burning with no sign of stopping - much to the frustration of a government unable to quell the fire. In the middle of the desert it can be difficult to reach, luckily small roadside restaurants in the nearby village of Derweze will be able to take you there. Best experienced on an overnight visit.
The fall of the Soviet Union in the early '90s saw the rebirth of 15 independent countries. October 27th, 1991 saw the nation of Turkmenistan declare its independence. As any good nation does, the Turkmen like to celebrate this freedom by holding a parade. But the annual parade in Ashgabat is no small ordeal. Thousands dress in traditional clothes and march along military ordinances of various shapes and size. This is a scene right off the old propaganda films still used in much of the western medias stock footage. Although visas are hard to come by for this time of year, for anyone managing to get in, Turkmen Independence Day is a great time to see the country at its best.
The origins of Merv are prehistoric, possibly as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Leaders came and went but Merv kept growing. There's even a claim to fame that it was the largest city in the world in the 12th century. Today, little remains. Essentially, there are several small walled cities that became amalgamated into one. The few ruins are rather scattered and a car is almost a necessity for a visit. For the few that actually make it to the areas, a visit is well worth it. Rarely does one have the opportunity to roam around a UNESCO world heritage site with quite literally nobody else around (it is Turkmenistan after all).
Megalomania can be defined as "delusion about one's own power or importance (typically as a symptom of manic or paranoid disorder)". But as opposed to looking up the meaning in a dictionary, it is best to see in real life. Perhaps nowhere in the world, and no other leader, better personifies self-love than Turkmenistan's former president, Saparmurat Niyazov, and the surreal Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. Serving as president (and later president for life), Niyazov ruled the country from 1990 until his death in 2006, but did he ever leave his fingerprint on the country's landscape. Throughout the capital (and most other cities in the country), massive golden statues stand in honour of the self-proclaimed "Turkmenbashi" (leader of the Turkmen). From rotating statues guiding the sun across the sky to golden babies sitting atop an earth-shaking bull, one monument seems to out-bizarre the next.