Ashgabat is the capital city of Turkmenistan. Its name literally translates to the “city of love,” and there really is no shortage of that there. The lavish palaces and vast parks add a very romantic feel to a city that has reinvented itself to become a modern capital. Funded by Turkmenistan’s oil and gas revenues, the city continues to undergo development, with structures and landscapes being modernized amidst a peaceful setting.
Despite being almost completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in October 1948, Ashgabat was rebuilt from the ground up, and has since become a city thriving with activity. With great accommodations and a relaxed aura, the city is a great starting point for your Turkmenistan travels.
Located in central Turkmenistan, the village of Darvaza is 260km north of Ashgabat. The village itself is a simple one, but tourists flock the area because of something unique – the “Door to Hell.”
The “Door to Hell” is the name locals have given to a burning gas crater located near the village.
During a gas drilling operation in 1971, an underground gas chamber was discovered. However, because the find was unexpected, the drilling rig collapsed, exposing a chamber filled with poisonous gas. Before the fumes could reach the nearby village, it was decided to set the chamber on fire to eliminate the poisonous gases.
To this day, the gas chamber still continues to burn. The geologists who uncovered the chamber thought that the gas would run out after a few days, but it’s been 40 years since then.
With a diameter of about 70 meters, the Door to Hell is certainly a sight to behold. Ironically, “Darvaza,” the village near this infamous door, can be translated into English as “The Gate.”
Merv was once known as Marv-i-shahjahan, which means Merv, Queen of the World. It was one of the great centers of Islam in ancient times, along with Cairo,Damascus and Baghdad. Aside from being a center of religious activity and study, it was also a prominent stop along the fabled Silk Road, making it a center of commerce as well.
Today, almost nothing remains that would tell of the grandeur the city once possessed. What once was a melting pot of religion and culture disappeared in a day, after the sons of Genghis Khan slaughtered the city’s population.
When you visit Merv, you will see scattered ruins of pottery, walls, and foundations – the only remnants of the palaces, mosques, and thousands of residences that used to stand in the ancient city.
The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Konye-Urgench, which means Old Urgench in Persian, is currently a rural backwater town with simple plazas and agricultural fields. However, this site was formerly the capital of the Khorezm empire, making it one of the most important cities in the ancient Central Asian deserts.
The region has a rich history that can bee seen in the ruins that you will see. Khorezm was attacked and captured by Genghis Khan in 1221, and rebuilt into a prosperous trading town as part of Khan’s Golden Horde. In 1338 it was destroyed by Timur, then rebuilt in the 16th century. It was later abandoned after the Amu-Darya river changed its course away from the city.
What you will see in the buildings is just “the tip” of the history of Konye-Urgench. Most of Old Urgench is buried underground, and excavations in the area continue to dig up ruins of buildings and smaller cultural items. Because of this, UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 2005.
The Ertugrul Gazi Mosque, also known as the Azadi Mosque, is a beautiful mosque located at the heart of Ashgabat.
The Ertugrul Gazi Mosque was built in honor of the late Ertugrul, the father of the founder of the legendary Ottoman Empire, Osman I. A striking landmark in the capital, the mosque features four towering minarets and a picturesque central dome. The lavish design of the mosque’s interior, along with its colorful stained glass windows, adds elegance to an already captivating structure.
Reminiscent of the fabled Blue Mosque that can be found in Istanbul, the Ertugrul Gazi Mosque was inaugurated in 1998. The mosque can accommodate more than 5,000 worshippers at a time, which is a necessity during special days in the Islamic calendar, when followers flock to the mosque to pray.
Turkmenbashi Stud Farm
Whether you know your horses or not, you may want to see the Akhal-Teke horse, a species that is found only in Turkmenistan. These horses are known worldwide for their potent combination of intelligence and speed.
Visiting the Turkmenbashi Stud Farm will allow you to see these horses up close, from young foals to fully-grown horses. Visitors are allowed to pet the horses, and even ride on the well-trained ones.
Talking to the breeders will let you know how much effort goes into raising these horses properly. This is actually of great importance as the Akhal-Teke horses have a special place in the culture ofTurkmenistan, and are sources of great national pride. There is even an old saying in the country that goes “After waking up in the morning, go greet your father and then see your horse.”
Balkanabat is a city in Western Turkmenistan that is the most common starting point for traveling in the region. A generally peaceful town, there was a fair bit of clamor in the area in 1874 when oil was discovered in the vicinity and an oil refinery was built. However, the refinery became bankrupt after 50 years in the face of competition with bigger oil companies.
The city was originally named Nebit Dag. Nestled in between mountain ranges and surrounded by a vast expanse of desert, Balkanabat is the safest stopover you can go to before heading out for trips to attractions such as the Yangykala Canyon. The city has both good and bad options when it comes to accommodations, so be careful where you choose to stay for the nights.
A good night’s rest in Balkanabat is a must before you set out into the deserts of westernTurkmenistan. Many travelers stay for a night or two in the city to recharge before they set off for another adventure.
The city of Mary(pronounced mah-rih) features a collection of administrative buildings and sprawling public gardens – both of which seem misplaced in such a small area.
Mary is the center of the main cotton-growing belt in Turkmenistan– cotton is one the country’s major income earners. Because of this, there is a sense of prosperity in the city, especially in the weekend markets when commercial activity is at its highest.
The main attraction of Mary is theRegionalMuseum, which features the area’s rich and colorful history, including the Russian occupation in 1884.
Mary is a great starting point for the exploration of the ruins of Merv and Gonur. There are accommodations for all budget levels, so you would surely see fellow tourists walking around in the city’s streets. It is easy to get around Mary with the convenient transport system, and the shashlyk joints here are wonderful, to say the least.
Before Merv constructed its first building, villages were already being put up along the Murgab River, in an area known as the Margiana Oasis. It was during the Bronze Age when the village in Gonur Depe was put up. The village was then slowly abandoned as the Murgab River slowly changed its course, cutting off the city’s water supply.
The site was discovered in 1972 by archaeologists, and excavations have been carried out since then – with new finds coming in constantly. One find shows that Gonur is one of the oldest civilizations that worshipped fire, with four fire temple sites unearthed.
When you visit Gonur, you may freely talk with the archaeologists at work. You may even be lucky enough to inspect new findings yourself. The most interesting structures that have been excavated are the Royal Palaceand the Necropolis.
Kugitang Nature Reserve
Of the several nature reserves in Turkmenistan, the Kugitang Nature Reserve is the most impressive and unique. Created in 1986 as a means of protecting the Kugitang Mountain Range, the reserve boasts of a unique ecosystem that includes Turkmenistan’s highest peak, several massive canyons, lush forests, clear mountain streams, and voluminous caves.
The main attraction of the Kugitang Nature Reserve is the famous Dinosaur Plateau. The plateau is thought to be once the bottom of a dried-up lake, featuring a variety of dinosaur footprints that were baked under the heat of the sun and eventually covered with lava when a nearby volcano erupted. The footprints are in surprisingly excellent condition after millions of years.
Other things to look for in the Kugitang Nature Reserve are the Karlyuk Caves, which require special permits for you to explore its cavities, and a sighting of the rare Markhor mountain goat.
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