Turkmenistan’s harsh desert conditions and terrain mean that tourism has been relatively undeveloped. Almost all the attractions lie around the fringes of the desert and in ancient ruins such as Merv (now Mary).

ASHGABAT : The capital, on the southern rim of the Kara-Kum desert, is a modern city. It replaced the one founded in 1881, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1948 that measured 10.5 on the Richter scale, killed 30 per cent of the population and razed the city to the ground. Some of the more recent additions to the capital include the Arch of Neutrality, a 75m-high (246ft) monument with a revolving 12m (39ft) tall golden statue of President Niyazov at its peak. At the base of the monument, there is a cafe and lifts which can be taken to the viewing platforms. Nearby stands the magnificent white marble Palace of Turkmenbashi, decorated with gold-mirrored glass together with an Islamic-motif dome. There are a number of museums, including a fine-art museum and the National Museum of Turkmenistan. There is a small carpet museum attached to the carpet factory on ul. Kuragli (formerly Piervomaiskaya), which houses the world’s largest handwoven rug. The Tolkuchka bazaar (Sunday market) in Ashgabat is the best place anywhere to buy Turkmen carpets, mistakenly called Bukhara carpets in the West.

EXCURSIONS : Close to Ashgabat are the remains of Old Nisa, the capital of the Parthian kings who ruled from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD over an empire which included Iraq and stretched as far as the Syrian Arab Republic. The national horse stud, Turkmenbashi Stud Farm, is 10km (6 miles) from Ashgabat and pure-bred Akhal-Teke horses can be viewed here. Trips are best organised through a local travel agency. The modern town of Anau, once the site of the destroyed 15th-century city, is 20km (12 miles) east of Ashgabat.

The ruins of the famous mosque (revered for its striking mosaic tiles and 8m-long (26ft) dragons) can still be seen. Chuli is a popular mountain resort reached by taxi or private car through a picturesque gorge. Climbing and hiking trips can be arranged, and visitors can stay here. A pleasant day trip is to Bakharden, 90km (56 miles) west of Ashgabat. The underground mineral lake (known in Turkmen as Kov Ata which means ‘father of lakes’) is fed by hot springs and has a constant temperature of 37°C (97°F). Bathing is permitted although there is an admission fee. Accommodation is not available.

MARY : Due east of Ashgabat, Mary is Turkmenistan’s second city. A large industrial centre, Mary has little to recommend it other than its interesting Regional Museum. However, it lies near the remains of the city of Merv, which was once the second city of Islam and known as the ‘Queen of Cities’ until Ghengis Khan’s son, Toloi, reduced it to rubble and reportedly killed a million of its inhabitants in 1221. The ruins of Merv and of the many that both preceded it and succeeded it are spread over a large area. Most of what remains are the brick-built mausolea of rulers and holy men - including the impressive Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, completed in 1140. Time, weather and invasions have taken their toll on the mud-built cities of the Turkmen.

DASHGOUZ & KONYE-URGENCH : Dashgouz is the largest city in the northern region of Turkmenistan, on a direct train route, 500km (311 miles) from Ashgabat, across the Kara-Kum desert. Although there are a few places to stay and eat, the main sights lie outside the city. The ruins of Konye-Urgench, an ancient fortress town with relics dating back to the 14th century, are well worth visiting. Entry is approximately US$2, payable in Manat. Things to see include the Kutlug Timur Minaret, one of the tallest minarets in Asia at 67m (220ft) high and built in the 1320s; the Sultan Tekesh, Turabeg Khanym and Najm-ed-din Kubra Mausoleums.

TURKMENBASHI : Situated to the west of Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi was known as Krasnovodsk, but it was renamed in honour of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who has been given the title ‘Turkmenbashi’ or ‘leader of all the Turkmen’. Situated on the shores of the Caspian Sea, it is a Russian creation, built as a bridgehead for the campaign to subdue Central Asia, and later to become the terminal for the Trans-Caspian Railway. There are some panoramic views from the mountainside surrounding the town and visitors can enjoy some good beaches and swimming a little further out of town. The Museum of Regional History and Natural History makes an interesting visit.

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Information provided by Turkmenistan Tourism Board.


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