Remote Turkmenistan: 7 Surprising Ways to Go Off-the-Beaten-Path
The most mysterious and under-explored of Central Asia’s five ‘stans, Turkmenistan is an unparalleled travel destination like no other. Those who visit this little-known nation tend to focus their attentions on Ashgabat — Turkmenistan’s glittering modern capital with gleaming gold and white marble monuments — with little time dedicated to anything else. But travelers who look beyond the showcase city will discover that Turkmenistan is rich in captivating curiosities just waiting for further exploration.
Even the most remote corners of the country mesmerize with sights both unique and unusual, from ancient Silk Road cities slowly crumbling away into the desert, to oddities like the flaming “Door to Hell” gas crater, Darvaza. Few tourists visit these remarkable places, giving those who make the journey the sense of feeling like a true travel pioneer.
Here’s our guide for how and where to get in touch with the real, remote Turkmenistan.
1. Marvel at the Mysteries of Merv
Formed along the mouth of the Murghab River where it soaks into the Kara Kum Desert, the fertile oasis of Merv has supported human life for over 4,000 years. Several cities existed here throughout history, the earliest of which is attributed to Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. Throughout its evolution, Merv was a major center of Islam, a busy hub on the Silk Road, and a city absolutely integral to Central Asia’s development.
The ruins of Merv were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 because of the wealth of ongoing information they offer regarding the evolution of urban centers. Among the most important sights travelers can explore are the tall square mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, built in the 12th century, and the massive ribbed Kyz Kala, or “Maiden’s Fortress.”
Travel to Merv
2. Camp on the Edge of Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell”
At the heart of the Kara Kum Desert is the Darvaza Gas Crater, one of Turkmenistan’s most unusual sights. Nicknamed the “Door to Hell,” Darvaza was a site of Soviet natural gas exploration in the 1970s. The story goes that while workers were drilling into an underground cavern, the ground collapsed and created a large sinkhole, swallowing the drilling rig and releasing deadly methane gas. Engineers decided to burn off the gas to make the cavern safe for more drilling. More than 40 years later, Darvaza’s fire is still burning strong.
(click on photo to see a larger version)
You can visit the site during the day, but Darvaza is best seen at night, when the crater’s eerie glow is visible from miles away. The experience is even more amplified if you camp overnight in tents pitched near the crater’s edge. You can easily get lost staring at Darvaza’s flickering flames, just like when you’re sitting around a campfire. Enjoy an al fresco barbecue-style dinner at the camp before venturing out to snap stunning pictures of the crater under the night sky.
Travel to Darvaza
You can also travel on our Essential Turkmenistan private independent travel itinerary, which includes an overnight in Darvaza. Or, design a hand-crafted custom private journey to Turkmenistan customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
3. Step Back in Time at Kunya-Urgench
Deep in the remote northern deserts near the Uzbek border is Kunya-Urgench, the capital of the once mighty Khorezmian Empire. Prominently positioned along the Amu Darya River, Kunya-Urgench became one of Central Asia’s most important trading cities and a major center of learning and culture in the Muslim world. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane successively razed the city in the 13th and 14th centuries, and although it was later rebuilt, it never returned to its former glory.
Today, Kunya-Urgench is an everyday agricultural center, but evidence of its extraordinary past can still be seen in the remains of the old city about half a mile south of town. The UNESCO-listed complex includes the 11th-century Kutlug-Timur Minaret, ringed with 18 bands of decorative mud brick and blue majolica tiles. The minaret was for many years the tallest in Central Asia.
Also admire the domed hall of the Turabek Khanym Mausoleum. Notable for the remarkably preserved interlocking design of its ceiling, the mausoleum was built for the daughter of one of the leaders of the Golden Horde.
Travel to Kunya-Urgench
You can visit Turkmenistan’s UNESCO-listed ruins of Kunya-Urgench on one of these small group tours:
Or, design a custom private journey hand-crafted to fit your interests, pace, and dates.
4. Visit a Traditional Tribal Village in Nohur
3,600 feet above the Kara Kum Desert lie the cool valleys and hillside villages of the Nohur people. The tribal Nohuri have long been isolated from the rest of the country, and to a great extent have held on to their culture and traditions. Families grow tomatoes, pomegranates, and almonds that are prized in the markets of Ashgabat. But it’s Nohuri women who are particularly renowned for their silk embroidery and the special pre-Islamic patterns of their felt.
You can get a better understanding of Nohuri culture and customs by visiting their small mountain villages nestled in the Sumbar River Valley. The tiny alleyways of the villages are lined with houses made of stacked stone, ornamented with carved timbers found nowhere else in Turkmenistan. In one of the villages is an old yurt workshop, with a kiln used to steam the wooden ribs of Nohuri yurts.
You’ll notice that Nohuri gravestones are decorated with the horns of Urial mountain sheep, an animal associated with prosperity and fertility. Not far away is a sacred cave where village women go to pray to Kiz-bibi, the goddess of fertility, for harmony in their families, or to conceive a child. Women often tie colorful cloths and little cradles to the branches of a nearby “wishing tree” in the hopes that the goddess will answer their prayers.
Travel to Nohur
Explore the mountain village of Nohur on MIR’s Silk Road Backroads & Byways small group tour, where you can visit the home of a family that has been weaving the special patterns of the Nohur people for generations.
Our Essential Turkmenistan private independent travel itinerary also includes a visit to Nohur. Or, design a hand-crafted custom private journey to Turkmenistan customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
5. Admire the Alluring Colors of Yangykala Canyon
Hidden in the desert plains east of the Caspian Sea is gorgeous Yangykala Canyon, one of the most remote and spectacular natural sights in Turkmenistan. An ancient seabed that dried out millions of years ago, the canyon was gradually formed as the receding waters eroded away at the landscape, creating a staggering number of deep-cut gorges and steep, folded cliffs in the process.
Yangykala means “fire fortress” in Persian — a perfectly poetic name for the canyon’s brilliant bands of red, white, and pink rock that seem to set alight at sunrise and sunset. Many visitors like to spend a few hours hiking through the beautiful desert landscape to admire its panoramic views. But you can also choose to camp on the plateau above the canyon, where you’ll have a truly unique vantage point from which to admire this breathtaking natural wonder.
Travel to Yangykala Canyon
You can see glorious, striated Yangykala Canyon on MIR’s Silk Road Backroads & Byways small group tour.
Our Essential Turkmenistan private independent travel itinerary also includes a visit to Yangykala Canyon. Or, design a hand-crafted custom private journey to Turkmenistan customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
6. Discover the Ancient Ruins of Gonur-Depe
Uncovered by Soviet archeologists in the mid-20th century, the fortress town of Gonur-Depe was once a thriving urban center of the mysterious Bronze Age Oxus Civilization. Dating back to around 2500 BC, the site was surrounded by strong fortress walls and made up of adobe homes and buildings, the remnants of which still subside in this rural corner of Turkmenistan some 45 miles north of Merv.
Gonur-Depe is still being excavated, but visitors can still walk around and explore some of the city’s most fascinating discoveries, which include a palace, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a necropolis. Scholars believe that Gonur-Depe may have been the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, the world’s first religion to promote monotheism and the belief in a final Judgment Day and resurrection.
The excavations at Gonur-Depe have produced a multitude of artifacts, ranging from figurines and pottery to advanced infrastructure and a drainage system that indicates a highly complex society for the time. Archaeologists have also uncovered thousands of graves both human and animal, including a royal tomb that illustrates the unique burial practices of the ancient Zoroastrians.
Travel to Gonur-Depe
Discover the remarkable ruins of Gonur-Depe on a custom, private tour hand-crafted to your travel interests and style. You can also add a visit to one of our private independent itineraries or small group tours to Central Asia.
7. Follow in the Footsteps of Dinosaurs at the Koytendag Nature Reserve
One of Turkmenistan’s most pristine natural areas is the beautiful Koytendag Nature Reserve, formerly called the Kugitang Nature Reserve. Located on the western slope of the Kugitang Mountain Range, the reserve was founded in 1986 to help preserve the habitat of the endangered markhor, or wild mountain goat. Koytendag encompasses the country’s highest peak, Mt. Airybaba, along with several enormous gorges, karst caves filled with glittering stalactites and stalagmites, and forests of walnut, maple, and wild grape.
Perhaps its most famous attraction, however, is Dinosaur Plateau, where more than 400 fossilized dinosaur footprints were discovered. Created over 40 million years ago, the prints were perfectly preserved by a layer of volcanic lava until decades of geologic activity and erosion gradually exposed them. You can freely explore the hundreds of footprints and imagine what it must have been like to walk among the dinosaurs.
Travel to the Koytendag Nature Reserve
Explore the Koytendag Nature Reserve on a custom, private tour hand-crafted to your travel interests and style. You can also add a visit to one of our private independent itineraries or small group tours to Central Asia.
Read More About Turkmenistan
It’s an exciting time to travel to Turkmenistan to experience this remote country for yourself and reap the benefits of its hospitality. Want to find out more?
Travel to Turkmenistan with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia, with an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
MIR has unparalleled destination expertise in creating immersive cultural experiences in our destinations, including lesser-traveled Turkmenistan.
You can admire Turkmenistan’s fascinating and unusual collection of sights on a small group tour:
Or on a rail journey by private train:
- The Silk Route by Private Train (Westbound)
- The Silk Route ‘Stans by Private Train (Eastbound / Westbound)
- Caspian Odyssey by Private Train
- Essence of the Silk Road by Private Train (Eastbound / Westbound)
- NEW! Republics of the Silk Road by Private Train
You can also book a custom private journey or tour extension to Turkmenistan based on your interests and preferred dates of travel. Take a look at our Essential Turkmenistan and Essential Central Asia itineraries, which are ready-made for your private trip. You can even use them as a starting point for your own custom itinerary.
Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to remote Turkmenistan by phone (1-800-424-7289) or email today.
(Top Photo: Living life on the edge at the Darvaza Gas Crater. Photo credit: Jeremy Woodhouse.)
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2019