Experience the legacy of Turkmenbashi
If most Westerners know only one thing about Turkmenistan, it is this: Turkmenbashi. This first President of Turkmenistan (born Saparmurat Niyazon) would go on to build massive monuments to himself, rename months in honor of his family members, and eventually have himself declared President for Life. Busts and statues still dot the capital, and museums across the country often devote rooms to all the many talents of Turkmenbashi.
Visit the metropolis in the desert
The Karakum Desert, home to an average of one person every 2.5mi2, is also the location of the million-or more capital city of Ashgabat. Once the bane of Imperial Russian troops who tried to cross this desert in numerous failed campaigns against the Turkmen tribes, Ashgabat is now a beautiful city dotted with fountains and parks. Walking through the city center is at times odd due to a relative lack of pedestrians, but epic building projects initiated by Turkmenbashi and continued by his successor make it an architecturally overpowering area to explore.
Ride world-famous Akhal-Teke horses
Turkoman horses are world-renown for their strength and beauty, and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to ride one in Turkmenistan. Numerous stables outside of Ashgabat can accommodate you, and a ride in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag Mountains to the south of Ashgabat is probably one of the highlights of a visit to the country.
Try on traditional Central Asian headgear
Most of the nations of Central Asia have some sort of identifying headwear, and the Turkmen are no exception. The telpek hat, in particular, is often a favorite with tourists. Ashgabat’s Tolkuchka Bazaar is a great place to try on or purchase a telpek, because you probably ought not ask the Turkman-on-the-street if you can check out his.
Seek out lingering Soviet relics
Like much of Central Asia and the broader former-USSR, it isn’t hard to find the occasional anachronistic reminder of Soviet times in Turkmenistan. These are seemingly becoming rare, though, so be sure to spot them while they’re still around.
Be stunned by Central Asia’s formerly-largest mosque
Built by Turkmenbashi, full of quotes from his self-written holy book the Ruhnama, and finally also his tomb. The Ruhy Mosque in the former leader’s hometown of Gypjak is rumored to seat 20,000 worshippers, though no longer considered the largest in Central Asia. Regardless of your thoughts on the man and his legacy, the building itself is certainly an ostentatious display of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas wealth.
Swim 200 ft underground
Though swimming is perhaps not most travelers’ first thought in this desert nation, the Kow-Ata springs more than 200 ft. under the Kopet-Dag Mountains are a strange and exciting day trip from the capital city. Don’t swim too far into the cave, though, or you risk the ire of the Turkmen lifeguard and his whistle.
See the ‘Gates of Hell’
Ok, so that first comment about Turkmenbashi was a lie. If foreigners know much of anything about Turkmenistan, it is likely because they’ve seen a picture of the Gates of Hell. In the desert dunes near the former site of the village of Darvazs, this burning natural-gas crater was accidentally ignited by Soviet drilling in 1971 and has burned without interruption to the present-day. Public transit through here can be a bit of a pain, but the surreal experience of camping near the crater makes the effort entirely worthwhile.
Explore the ruins of the city once known as ‘Mother of the World’
Though now a collection of perimeter walls and mud-brick ruins, the city of Merv was once considered the largest and one of the most culturally important cities in the world. The ongoing Ancient Merv Project is still unearthing the history of Merv and the several other cities that preceded it on the same site, so this makes an excellent opportunity to explore an active archaeological site.