What is Turkmenistan famous for

Turkmenistan at a glance

Mostly it was reports of the bizarre airs of the rulers, now and then also impressive figures from the natural gas business that reached us, but of the country itself only hazy outlines remained. And that was definitely wanted, since the regime has been systematically isolating its population from external influences for years. Contacts with strangers are subject to strict controls and so it is not exactly easy for the few visitors between the Caspian Sea and Amu Darya.

At the independence monument
Photo: © michalknitl - Fotolia.com

The country on the historic Silk Road has an abundance of gorgeous landscapes to offer and there are world heritage sites, extremely interesting archaeological excavations, magnificent buildings and city complexes to explore and the traces of the greats of their time to discover - from Macedonian king Alexander and Mongol ruler Genghis Khan up to the founder of the empire, Timur, who brought Islam.

But also - according to his own assessment - the greats of our time, Saparmurat Nijasow, who proclaimed himself the leader of all Turkmens in the world, "Turkmenbaşi", and his no less boastful successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow have immortalized themselves forever. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the capital, Ashgabat, where buildings that are supposed to promote identification and unrestrained personality cult have created a cityscape that a dismayed visitor tried to classify "somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang". Astana, Kazakhstan's glittering metropolis set in the steppe, could have been a model and certainly one has also cast an eye on Dubai. It is a megalomaniac back and forth between cold, beautiful splendor and traditional architectural motifs, between massive, almost brutal mausoleums and gilded statues, snow-white marble facades and extensive green spaces, empty boulevards and lavishly moving water features. A city tour touches the most important buildings, including a memorial to Nijazov's literary work “Ruhnama” and bookshops replete with works by “Türkmenbaşi”. The National Museum of History is well worth a visit with a variety of archaeological, geological and ethnological exhibits, including vases, carpets, costumes, weapons, household items, documents, paintings, etc. and the National Carpet Museum shows all types and sizes of the famous Turkmen carpet production from the Middle Ages to in our time. Also of interest is the Earthquake Museum, which was built to commemorate the more than 100,000 victims who suffered a magnitude nine earthquake in 1948. The city was then razed to the ground. It was only established as a Russian military base in 1881 and served as the administrative center of the Trans-Caspian region of Russia until 1918. After the devastating earthquake, it was rebuilt in the "Stalinist" style.

Splendid boulevard
Photo: © Velirina - Fotolia.com

To Nisa and the Caspian Sea

A few kilometers west of the capital lies an extensive excavation site with the remains of the ancient city of Nisa, once the center of the Iranian horsemen, the Parthians. They controlled the important east-west trade. Their empire extended temporarily over all of Iran and Mesopotamia. Since its western border on the Euphrates touched Roman interests, there was fierce fighting with the legions of Rome for many decades. Barracks, temples and a royal palace as well as a fortress with meter-thick walls made of rammed earth were uncovered. They prove the close interaction of cultural influences from Central Asia and the world on the Mediterranean. Nisa is on the World Heritage List. Nearby is the small village of Kipchak / Gypjak, the birthplace of Saparmurat Niyazov. Turkmenistan's first president had a pompous family mausoleum and an even bigger mosque, the largest in Central Asia, built there, and there is also a Niyazov monument.

Mosque and mausoleum in Kipchak
Photo: © Velirina - Fotolia.com

The tireless self-promoter and first president left another mosque named after him as a landmark that cannot be overlooked in Geok Tepe in memory of the defenders of the local fortress who fell in 1881.

The journey continues along the mountain ranges of the Kopet Dag, which is lined with dry forest and is known for its strong seismic activities and its enormous diversity of plants - 332 endemic plants alone grow here - and as a retreat for animals threatened with extinction such as leopards, Indian porcupines and Turkmen wild goats to Dehistan, a once important city on the caravan route from the Persian Gorgan to the Khorezm region south of the Aral Sea. Its heyday was between the 10th and 14th centuries, in the 15th it was abandoned by the inhabitants. The ruins of minarets and mosques and the double row of their city walls bear witness to their heyday.

Balkanabat at the foot of the bare rocks of the Balkan Mountains is the capital of the Balkan Province in the far west of Turkmenistan. From here there is a direct connection to the coast of the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk, as the city was called in Soviet times, before the great helmsman Niyazov imposed his honorary title "Turkmenbaşi" on it.

Türkmenbaşi with around 100,000 inhabitants is Turkmenistan's only large port city on the Caspian Sea. This is where the Trans-Caspian Railway begins, which crosses the south of the country from west to east and ends in Bukhara in Uzbekistan. The port is of great importance for the movement of goods and people. Ferry ships drive over to Baku in Azerbaijan and to the southern Russian city of Astrakhan in the Volga Delta. The port is currently being considerably expanded and modernized (everything should be ready in 2017) and at the same time the prestige project “Avaza National Tourist Zone” is being continued. The project initiated by Niyazov - who could be otherwise - about 12 km west of the city is supposed to become a flourishing tourist center one day. Independent experts, of course, have their doubts as to whether “Avaza” will be the desired model of success. So far it shines with low occupancy rates and the absence of foreign tourists with high foreign exchange rates. Why should you come here by inconvenient ways and accept visa requirements, restricted freedom of movement and other inconveniences? The resort is far too expensive for local vacationers - apart from a few well-heeled. Conferences, festivals and business forums are currently making ends meet.

In Kunya-Urgench

The flight from Türkmenbaşi to the northernmost corner of the country, to Daşoguz, takes a good hour. Thanks to its proximity to the Amu Darya River, cotton and jute thrive in the vicinity of the city. For visitors, the provincial metropolis is a suitable starting point for a tour to Kunya-Urgench, an important medieval trading center on the Silk Road, the ruins of which are still impressive today. These include mosques, the gates of a caravanserai, fortifications, magnificent mausoleums and a 64 m high minaret from the beginning of the 14th century. Building techniques and embellishments of the Islamic architecture of Central Asia are exemplarily represented here. Their influence extended to Iran and Afghanistan and was also reflected in the architecture of the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century. Kunja-Urgench was added to the World Heritage List in 2005.

Trans-Caspian mountain sheep
Photo: © Vladimir Wrangel - Fotolia.com

At Amu Darya and with the dinosaurs

The plane operated by the Turkmen airline of Daşoguz makes it to the province of Lebap and its capital, Turkmenabat, in 55 minutes. The city on the banks of the Amu Darya had a predecessor named Amul, who took part in the trade on the Silk Road, was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221 and was only reborn many centuries later under the Tsarist regime. It has been called Turkmenabat since 1999 and Turkmen natural gas has been flowing from here to China through a pipeline since 2009.

The journey from Türkmenabat to the Koytendag Nature Reserve on the border with Uzbekistan, which takes several hours, follows the broad river bed of the Amu Darya, which has washed up fertile soil on its banks, but only on a narrow strip, beyond the endless sandy desert flickers on both sides. On the way is the Astana-Baba mausoleum, which reminds of a man nobody knows who he was. The complex of mosques and tombs that was built in the 11th and 12th centuries is considered a holy place. Every year thousands of sick people come here in the hope of a cure. Legend has it that clay and water were brought from Mecca and mixed with the sand from the area and then the buildings were erected.

The Koytendag nature reserve was established to secure a terrain for the largest population of the long-horned Bezoar goat in Central Asia and the no less endangered mountain sheep. They inhabit the deeply cut canyons and the flower-strewn valleys of the Koytendag Mountains with Turkmenistan's highest elevation (3,139 m). There are waterfalls to marvel at and a myriad of natural karst caves that combine to form one of the longest cave systems in the world. The "Dinosaur Plateau", Turkmenistan's "Jurassic Park", has also made a name for itself with hundreds of fossilized dinosaur footprints. In the Jurassic period 150 million years ago there were lakes and marshland that quickly silted up and preserved the traces. Nowhere else on the planet have so many prints been found as on this plateau.

Alt-Merv - Potpourri of Nations

The connection from Türkmenabat via Merv to Ashgabat crosses the southeastern part of the Karakum. After an hour's drive in the desert, you reach the Repetek Nature Reserve, which was established in the early 20th century to learn more about the behavior of flora and fauna under extreme climatic conditions. The region is one of the hottest in Central Asia. The sand dunes, which are 15 to 20 m high and up to 8 and more kilometers long, characterize the terrain. Valley-like depressions run between them. White Saxaul has settled with sedge on firm sandy ground, while black Saxaul thrives in the depressions. The Repetek Territory is one of the few desert regions with large populations of the Saxaul tree, a resilient desert dweller only found in Central Asia. Bird species typical of the Karakum Desert are native here and migratory birds, including those threatened with extinction such as European roller, Dalmatian pelican, imperial eagle and corncrake stop here. A larger population of the crop gazelle also lives in the Repetek.

Kyz Kala Palace
Photo: © tracingtea- Fotolia.com

Off the road, perhaps 70 km north of Bayramaly, lies a Bronze Age settlement in the middle of the desert. Was embedded in a cultural landscape that can hardly be imagined today. It was the waters of the Murghab River that fanned out into a vast inland delta in this area, creating the livelihoods for at least 21 settlements, of which Gonur Depe was the most important. In addition to Bronze Age settlements, settlements from the Iron Age (1200 to 300 BC) were uncovered, and in the early and late Middle Ages new villages emerged, the ruins of which cover the area in large numbers. For several thousand years the fertile delta attracted peoples from all directions. After the Bronze Age settlers followed those of the Iron Age, then the Persian Achaemenids, the Seleucids, Parthians, Sassanids, finally Arabs and Christian Nestorians, Seljuks established themselves, Mongols under Genghis Khan's son came as destroyers as did Timur's plundering Soldateska, Uzbeks took over power , after them Persians and finally the tsar's troops. The sequence of new urban foundations, the urban “layout”, the fortifications and cult buildings, houses and workshops are witnesses of the civilizational development of Central Asia over the millennia. The spacious complex with the legacies of various cultures is part of the world cultural heritage and bears the somewhat cumbersome title "Historical and cultural park Alt-Merv".

Back in Ashgabat, the special end of the tour is a train ride through the Karakum to Ichoguz. From the stop in the middle of the desert, the jeep continues to the fire crater of Darwaza, the “gateway to hell” for the locals. Actually a natural phenomenon, although humans helped a little. It has been burning out of the torn earth since 1971. At that time, a cavity collapsed during exploratory drilling and escaping gas was flared in the hope that it would be a matter of hours, at most days. Experts tried their best, but it still burns today and the most beautiful sight is at night when the crater area is bathed in orange light.

Eckart Fiene

More about Turkmenistan

- By train from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan

You might also be interested in


General travel information and current Entry requirements as well as notes on security and medical care can be found on the following pages of the Foreign Office (Berlin): Foreign Office

Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt / Main to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat in 6.55 hours with a technical 50-minute stopover in Baku / Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan Airlines also operates the same route non-stop. From Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, Ashgabat can be reached in 4 hours.

Turkmenistan Airlines connects the Turkmen metropolis Ashgabat with the provincial capitals Balkanabat, Daşoguz, Mary, Turkmenabat and Turkmenbaşi from Saparmyrat Türkmenbaşy Adyndaky Halkara Aeroporty.
Anyone traveling with a rental car has to be prepared for unusual circumstances, for the risky and reckless driving style of the locals and the incalculable behavior of the countless pedestrians. Animals cross the streets, there are usually no hard shoulder stripes, but there are - at least outside of the cities and the main routes between the centers - lots of potholes and gullies are often not covered.
A relaxing alternative can be traveling on the rails, e.g. B. with the Trans-Caspian Railway from the Caspian Sea via Ashgabat and Mary to Turkmenabat and from there on to Bukhara in Uzbekistan. A 540 km long stretch from the metropolis of Ashgabat has been crossing the Karakum desert for several years and ends in Daşoguz on the northern border of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan belongs to the Turkmenistan Time zone. The country is three hours ahead of CEST and four hours ahead of CET.

Because of the low rainfall and moderate temperatures, the period from mid-April to mid-June and the months of September / October are particularly suitable for a visit.

The Turkmenistan manat (TMM / 1 manat = 100 tenge) replaced the Russian ruble in 1993. The US dollar is very valued in the country, more so than the euro. It therefore makes sense to take dollars with you when traveling to Turkmenistan, which can be exchanged for the local currency in banks and authorized exchange offices. As a rule, larger amounts are also paid directly in cash. Cashless payment is unusual. Exception: a few hotels. The EC card cannot be used and there are only a few ATMs that allow you to withdraw money with Visa or MasterCard.

Turkmenistan is one of the Central Asian countries. It borders Iran to the south and Afghanistan to the southeast. Uzbekistan is its neighbor in the northeast, in the northwest it is Kazakhstan. The western parts of the country overlook the Caspian Sea. About 200 km to the west lies the Azerbaijani metropolis of Baku on the opposite bank. With an area of ​​488,100 km², the country is almost as large as Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria combined.

Turkmenistan is located in the southern part of the Central Asian lowlands of Turan. This almost 2 million km² large, inhospitable desert landscape extends from the Kopet Dag Mountains, which mark the Iranian-Turkmen border area, right through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to deep into Kazakhstan. In addition to the Kopet-Dag in the southwest, the southeast of the country on the border with Uzbekistan also has a mighty mountain range, the Köýtendag. Its peak, which reaches 3,139 meters, is Turkmenistan's highest point. It has not been called Aýrybaba since 2004. It was renamed "Turkmenbaşi" (leader of the Turkmen) after the nickname of the autocratic ruler at the time. The Karakum Desert, which, as its name suggests, does not consist of black sand, occupies around 80% of Turkmen’s territory. It is light sand and that predominates. Scree sections and silt / clay zones are only seen in isolated cases. Foothills of the stony desert of the Ust-Jurt plateau determine the landscape in the northwest.Central Asia's longest river, the Amu Darya, which has its source in the Afghan Hindu Kush, flows through Turkmenistan's east and north-east, where so much water is taken from it for irrigation purposes that it can no longer feed the Aral Sea as it used to be. , shrunk over 41,000 km² (1987) to 13,900 km² in 2010.

There is a continental climate in Turkmenistan with very hot summers, extreme drought and winter cold spells, especially in the northern parts of the country, which cause the thermometer to drop to values ​​of minus 30 degrees. Little snow falls, and the amount of rain is low, only 80 mm in the north, up to 150 mm in the Karakum desert and in some years around 300 mm on the southern mountain edges. In the midsummer months, especially in the southeast of the Karakum, temperatures can reach maxima of 50 degrees. The winds blow fairly steadily from the north, less often from the west, sandstorms are not uncommon.

Only grasses, shrubs and small trees that can withstand the widespread drought and heat thrive, such as tamarisks, seling grass, sand acacias with deep-reaching roots, and the shrubby saxaul tree. In the mountain valleys of the south you come across fig, walnut and pistachio trees, wild vines and creeping junipers. The mountains are also home to the caracal, the desert zones are home to the jackal, the gerbil with their extra-long hind legs, desert monitor and sand cat, some species of gazelle, steppe fox, long-eared hedgehog and ground squirrel. An important habitat is the form of vegetation known as "Tugai", which is rarely found, along rivers such as the Amu Darya (poplars, olive willows, buckthorns, salt herbs). The pheasant is at home here, as are other ratites and the very rare Buchara deer.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the Turkmen country was conquered by the tsar's troops. In 1924/25 Turkmenistan received its state borders, which still exist today, and at the same time it became part of the SU as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. Later a man made a career in the Communist Party of the republic who was to have a lasting impact on the country. As chairman of the party, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov even rose to the political bureau of the CPSU in order to proclaim the independence of Turkmenistan while the SU collapsed (October 1991), to dissolve the Turkmen CP and to transfer it to the successor organization Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. President of the state since March 1990, Niyazov also took over the office of prime minister and declared himself "Turkmenbaşi" (leader of the Turkmen), the head of the ethnic Turkmen in all Middle Eastern countries. It was the first step towards an increasingly grotesque personality cult around the head of state, which eventually also included other family members: cities, squares, schools were named after him, portraits were erected, gilded statues were erected, months and days of the week were renamed after him or family members and always invented new honorary titles for him. His simple-minded excursions into literature were made compulsory reading, but what weighed more heavily were his violations of human rights, brutal interventions in the pension system, bans on public libraries, theaters, and cinemas. In 1999 Niyazov was appointed president for life by parliament. After his unexpected death in 2006, the then Minister of Health Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took power, bypassing the constitution, with the promise to end the country's “self-imposed isolation”. The living conditions of the Turkmens, however, did not change. As under Niyazov, an extremely repressive surveillance apparatus dominates public life, foreign contacts are prevented, civil society activities are prohibited, only the strictly controlled Sunni faith, Catholic and Russian Orthodox are allowed, even Shiite Islam is banned, its mosques have been destroyed. Freedom of the media is radically restricted, Internet sites are blocked, critical statements about leading personalities or the political system are assessed as a "threat to national security" and severely punished. And a bizarre personality cult has long been practiced around Berdimuhamedow. Turkmenistan is only an associate member of the CIS. It cultivates relations with Russia, but at the same time emphasizes its independence and its reluctance to join Central Asian alliance systems. The influence of western states is minimal, while the PRC is valued as it refrains from interfering in internal affairs.

Ashgabat in southern Turkmenistan, near the border with Iran. Western sources estimate the population to be 810,000 (2018).

According to World Bank calculations, Turkmenistan had 5.8 million people in 2017. The census of years ago found 85.6% of the total population for the titular Turkmen nation, 5.8% of the country's inhabitants were Uzbeks, 5.1% Russians, 1.2% Azerbaijanis, and there were also smaller minorities of Armenians, Kazakhs , Baluch, Ukrainians and others
Since residents of Russian descent were no longer granted dual citizenship, they had to choose one and then left the country in large numbers. Tribal identities still play a big role. The Akhal-Tekke tribe is dominant because it is “systematically preferred in terms of both power politics and finance”. Niyazov belonged to him and so did his successor Berdimuhamedow.

Turkmen has been the state language since 1990. It belongs to the south-western group of the Turkic languages ​​and is closely related to Azerbaijani and Turkish. The standard Turkmen language was only created from a single dialect in the 20th century, but has not yet established itself in everyday oral use; instead, different dialects dominate. Since 1993 the alphabet based on the Latin script has replaced the Cyrillic spelling. Turkmen, written in Latin, has been the sole state and administrative language since 1996.

The information on the religious orientation of the Turkmens is incomplete and, on top of that, contradicting itself. Muslims are said to make up around 90% of the population. Of these, the followers of Sunni Islam of the Hanefi school of law form a large majority, with Shiites making up around 2% of Muslims. There are Bahá`i communities and a tiny Jewish community. Approximately 7% of the population are said to be Christians (Russians, Armenians, followers of the Roman Catholic Church, Adventists and Baptists).

The most important branch of the economy is the production of natural gas and crude oil. In terms of natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan ranked fourth in the world in 2017 with conventionally stored reserves of 9.9 trillion m³ after Russia (47.8), Iran (33.7), Qatar (24.1) and ahead of the USA ( 8.5). The large natural gas fields are not in the Caspian Sea but on the mainland. Two thirds of natural gas production is exported (90% of all exports). In terms of production, Turkmenistan was 13th in 2017 with 62.0 billion m³ = 1.7% of global production. Crude oil and oil products are becoming increasingly important. The country's enormous dependence on natural gas exports harbors dangers such as the collapse in energy prices on the world market or the effects of a slowing economy such as B. in the PR China, by far the largest consumer of gas. Whether future production targets can be achieved depends on the urgently required investments in the infrastructure, some of which still originate from the Soviet era. Foreign investors have to be won over for this, but the security of investment leaves much to be desired, legal security is not guaranteed, state institutions are considered opaque, ineffective and inflexible, corruption is enormous (Amnesty International ranked Turkmenistan 167 (!) Out of 183 in the 2018 corruption index rated states and the US-American NGO Freedom-House has for two decades unchanged Turkmenistan for political rights and civil liberties with the worst grade 7 = not free). In addition, the constant change of personnel in management positions has a disruptive effect, a game of substitution and disempowerment invented by Berdimuhamedow to secure control of the government apparatus and prevent the rise of competing figures. Another export product is cotton, which is grown on over half a million hectares of irrigated land. With a world share of 1.4% in the production of cotton, Turkmenistan ranks 9th and for exports with 120,000 t 10th place. India, China, the US and Brazil are the leading quartet. Agriculture (primarily cotton, also arable crops for staple food and livestock farming) gives more than 40% of the workforce a job.
The tourism sector is underdeveloped. While up to 300,000 visitors came to the country after independence, the number of guests has decreased dramatically since 2000 to only 3,000 to 15,000 per year. In addition to bureaucratic problems, the reasons for the decline are the repressive conditions in the country and the obligation to have to endure an accompanying person at all times.