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On this sweeping, eclectic adventure through Turkmenistan, marvel at the towering white-marble structures of Ashgabat, roam through barren deserts and a world-class canyon, and spend the night camped out beside the flaming Gates of Hell. For 10 action-packed days, we’ll zig-zag around Turkmenistan to experience Soviet relics, salty underground lakes, and Sufi shrines, and relax in the seaside city of Turkmenbashi, named for the controversial former president. The top highlight: a night in the desert spent sleeping alongside a crater that has been continuously burning for nearly 50 years—the most beautiful accident ever created by well-meaning Soviet geologists.
Arrive in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital that’s been described as “Las Vegas meets Pyongyang.” (Note that many flights land around 2 a.m.) After being picked up from the airport, settle into the hotel and take some time to rest and relax from your travels. Our group will meet in the late afternoon for introductions, a short briefing about the region and the route, and a set of rules to observe while traveling in Turkmenistan. We’ll then enjoy a welcome dinner and the chance to start getting to know fellow travelers. Enjoy a good night’s rest to prepare for the next day’s adventures.
Local Hotel, Ashgabat
After a leisurely breakfast, we’ll spend the day touring Ashgabat, a brave new world of marble skyscrapers and totalitarian monuments. Among the towering shapes, imposing statues, and futuristic environs of the city we'll also be able to find old Soviet charm, dusty narrow alleys, crumbling 19th-century Russian houses, and lively bazaars, reminding us that even under the shadow of postmodern totalitarianism, remnants remain of the USSR. There’ll be some free time in late afternoon to explore on your own before we reconvene for dinner.
Local Hotel, Ashgabat
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
This morning we’ll leave the steel-glass-and-concrete cityscapes of Ashgabat and make the 40-minute flight to Mary, an oasis town located in the Karakum Desert along the road to Bukhara, Uzbekistan. After a quick visit to Mary’s sleepy and archetypically Soviet downtown we’ll tour the stunningly preserved ruins of ancient Merv, formerly known as Alexandria Margiana. Merv was once known as the Queen of the World and it has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1999. We’ll spend the entire day touring the legendary sights and historical landmarks of Merv and its surrounding areas such as the towering medieval kalas (fortresses), the splendidly preserved Islamic mausoleums, the rickety minarets of some of the earliest mosques of the region, and the odd Sufi shrines scattered all around the site. While touring Merv you’ll also have the chance to meet with local tourists and silver-bearded holy men who enliven the Sufi shrines with their prayers. We’ll have dinner and spend the night in Mary.
Local Hotel, Mary
In the morning we board the short return flight to Ashgabat. From the airport, we’ll head toward the remote Nokhur region, famous for its picturesque villages and traditional architecture. In Gokdepe we’ll stop at Saparmurat Haji Mosque, built within the former Teke stronghold, which is known for the 1881 battle that led to the Russian conquest of Turkmenistan. From the mosque we’ll proceed to a private stud farm, where you’ll have a chance to see fabled Akhal-Teke horses. We’ll then continue to Kow Ata, a natural underground thermal lake and a popular weekend escape among the busy citizens of Ashgabat, who flock here to enjoy the therapeutic attributes of the salt- and mineral-heavy holy waters. After a rejuvenating bath at Kow Ata, we’ll move on to remote Nokhur, a picturesque village famous for the unique culture and peculiar language of its inhabitants. After relaxing over tea, we’ll then head to the rather anonymous but pleasant Turkmen backcountry town of Serdar for the night.
Basic Hotel, Serdar
Today we will head further inland across Turkmenistan's Wild West. We’ll admire otherworldly landscapes and moving sand dunes near Boydag and tour extremely remote hamlets scattered along the way. In the early afternoon, we’ll then arrive in Balkanabat, a quintessentially Soviet town in the barren badlands of western Turkmenistan. Just north of Balkanabat, right in time for a splendid desert sunset, we'll visit the Uly Balkan Gershi massif, a hidden natural treasure of green pastures and flaming red rocks.
Local Hotel, Balkanabat
We’ll depart from Balkanabat early in the morning and head to the Yangykala Canyon, a stunningly wide geological landscape that rivals its more famous American counterpart, the Grand Canyon. With bands of pink, red, and yellow rock searing across the sides of steep walls, Yangykala is a breathtaking sight and one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Central Asia. After these postcard views, we’ll continue to the shores of the Caspian Sea, stopping at the awe-inspiring pilgrimage site of Gözli Ata along the way. In the afternoon we'll reach the lively seaside town of Turkmenbashi, where we’ll enjoy a lazy afternoon on the beach, observe the local fishermen, visit the seafood market, and have dinner at the Pyongyang-meets-Las-Vegas Awaza resort area. We’ll stay in Turkmenbashi for the next two nights.
Local Hotel, Turkmenbashi
We’ll explore the Turkmenbashi area today, enjoying the pleasures of the seaside in the morning and an afternoon drive through the dystopian badlands surrounding the Garabogazköl depression. This shallow lagoon is characterized by a salinity level comparable to that of the Dead Sea. We'll also visit the abandoned Soviet city of Bekdash before returning for dinner in the evening.
Local Hotel, Turkmenbashi
This morning we’ll board our domestic flight to Dashoguz, a frontier town with a diverse population of Turkmens, Uzbeks, Koreans, and Tatars. After a quick drive around downtown Dashoguz we’ll stock up on food at the lively central bazaar and start our adventure across the mythical sands of the Karakum Desert. We’re heading to the most famous sight in the country: the Darvaza Gas Crater. En-route we’ll stop at Izmukshir and Shassenem medieval fortresses, which used to be some of the largest outposts of Southern Khoresm along the caravan road from Khiva to Nissa. We’ll reach Darvaza in the early afternoon. The burning crater is also known as "The Gates to Hell," being indeed quite reminiscent of the entrance to Dante’s inferno. While drilling in 1971, Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a hole 200 feet wide and 66 feet deep. To prevent gas discharge, the geologists decided to burn it off, hoping the fire would use all the fuel in a matter of days. The gas is still burning. As night falls, we’ll admire the spectacular view of the glowing gas crater and enjoy a shashlik dinner on its edge. We’ll stay in top-quality tents at Darvaza Camping Site, taking time before bed to appreciate the fire below and the stars above.
Darvaza Camping Site
After a picnic-style breakfast at the camp, we’ll slowly head back to Ashgabat, traveling through a classic desert landscape of moving dunes, camel caravans, nomadic settlements, and ramshackle Soviet outposts. After a reinvigorating rest at the hotel pool in Ashgabat, we’ll drive to Kipchak to visit the shining Turkmenbashi Mosque, where the president of Turkmenistan from 1990 to 2006, the notorious Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, rests beside his family. While in office, Niyazov banned lip syncing, exiled all dogs from Ashgabat, and renamed the month of September after a largely nonsensical book he wrote. After wrapping our heads around these feats and many more, we’ll head back to Ashgabat for our final delicious Turkmen dinner.
Local Hotel, Ashgabat
Enjoy one last lavish Turkmen-style breakfast together, then we’ll take care of your transfer to Ashgabat International Airport. Depart for home or perhaps set off for another unique destination in the region. Until next time!
A specific trip leader will be confirmed for each trip closer to the departure.
The listed price of the trip is per person based on double occupancy.
You’re in good company. Solo travelers typically make up about half of our small groups. With curiosity at the center of our experiences, there’s a natural camaraderie that develops over the course of a trip. We have two options for you:
Shared Room (subject to the latest Covid-19 guidelines): You'll be matched with another solo traveler of the same gender.
Private Room: Have your own room, subject to availability, for a supplemental cost of $415 USD. After booking your trip, please request a private room when you fill out your traveler information form and we’ll add the option to your booking and final balance.
You should plan to arrive by 3 p.m. on Day 1, and depart anytime on Day 10. Ashgabat International Airport (ASB) connects to a range of flight hubs in Asia and Europe. The best flight connections to Ashgabat are offered by Turkmenistan Airlines and Turkish Airlines.
Travelers should be reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking three to five miles over the course of each day, and remaining on their feet for long periods of time. We’ll be spending a good amount of time outside and in rural areas, walking up and down stairs, and on dirt paths. We’ll also spend a night camping out in the desert.
Turkmenistan is currently issuing visa's on arrival (as of April 2023). Atlas Obscura will arrange for the required Letter of Invitation that you will need to bring with you to secure the visa*.
The cost of the Letter of Invitation is $185 USD and non-refundable if you are denied.
It is important to understand that a visa on arrival is at the discretion of the local government authorities and cannot be guaranteed. We recommend purchasing a travel insurance policy that specifically covers this scenario (look for a package with a 'Cancel for Any Reason' policy). We're happy to connect you with our friends at Yonder Travel Insurance should you like to speak to someone directly about travel insurance options.
Note that journalists are screened out during the visa application process; your application will likely be rejected if you have a notable journalistic internet profile.