Though Turkmenistan is relatively young, being comprised of territories that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the land is ancient. Once, it was a stop along the Silk Road, where European traders would rest before making the arduous trip to India and China. The national language is Turkmen, but many locals also speak Russian. Before visiting, make sure to obtain a tourist visa.
The Akhal-Teke horse is the pride and joy of Turkmenistan. This beautiful animal has been gifted to queens and presidents, and its shiny coat has earned it the nickname 'Golden Horse.' It's reputed to run faster than birds can fly, and you can see it in action racing each week at the Ashgabat stadium. Every year, the last Sunday in April is dedicated to celebrating this magnificent horse.
On the western slopes of the Kugitan mountain range is a limestone expanse over a thousand feet long where dinosaurs left their tracks. Paleontologists believe the tracks were made by Megalosaurs, Iguanadons, and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Start in the nearby village of Khodjapil, and walk for about half an hour to reach the site. There are over 150 paw prints to compare your own hands and feet to.
In 1971, geologists found a reserve of toxic methane gas and decided to set it on fire to prevent it from spreading. They assumed the fire would burn itself out in a few days, but it's still going to this day. Reaching this place is a bit of a drive, as it's fifty miles away from the nearest village, so plan to arrive just before sunset. The surrounding area is suitable for desert camping. However, these sites don't have any rangers looking after them.
This mighty empire's capital, Nisa, was once rival to the Roman Empire. Today, Nisa lies in ruins, but you can still visit what's left. The crumbling, painted walls capture a unique style of architecture, a blend of Roman and Asian influences seen nowhere else. You can explore mausoleums, forts, and even see the remains of a looted treasury. To visit, you can book a tour through a travel company.
This stunning natural treasure is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of Central Asia. Ridged plateaus rise hundreds of feet into the air, the striated rock changing colors throughout the day. Book a multi-day tour out of Ashgabat, or make a day trip from Balkanabat; some people choose to camp. If you decide to visit on your own, be advised the terrain is quite rough, so bring extra supplies in case of emergency.
Bazaars are large, open-air markets that have been an integral part of Turkmenistan since the days of the Silk Road. Located just outside the capital city of Ashgabat, Altyn Asyr has over two thousand shops selling textiles, spices, and local art, including the region's famous luxurious carpets. Take a break from shopping in one of the many cafes or bistros around. The market's busiest day is Sunday, so make sure to save that day for a visit!
Once called Khwarazm, this area has monuments that date back to different eras. The Kutlug-Timur Minaret, the Tekesh Mausoleum, and the Ak-Kala fortress ruins are some of the architectural treasures you'll find while exploring the municipality. Plan to spend the whole day here, and bring extra batteries for your camera--you'll need them!
Every second Sunday in August, the entire country celebrates its favorite fruit, the Turkmen melon. The festivities focus on a particular variety of muskmelon called the Turkmenbashi melon, but many other types are celebrated. Outdoor vendors sell fresh melons along with jams, juices, candies, and slices of dried fruit. Music and dance performances round out the party.
Not for the faint of heart or those scared of bats, this journey two hundred feet underground takes you to a natural thermal spa and bat cave. Located about an hour and a half away from Ashgabat, the lake's admission price is at around $45 per person. Since the water contains large amounts of sulfur, people are advised to bring a change of clothes for after swimming.
Originally President Saparmurat Niyazov's answer to Disneyland, the park is worth a visit due to its whimsical yet slightly sinister decorations. The attractions are frequently in need of repair, but why go on rides when you can take dozens of selfies against imaginative, colorful murals? Or snap an Instagram photo of a diorama of a wolf stalking two gazelles?
Located in the Koytendag mountains, the cave is accessible by dirt trail. Legend says that anyone who soaks a strip of cloth in mud and throws it onto the cave's ceiling will have a wish granted if the fabric sticks. Many people have tested this belief, for thousands of cloth strips have now formed some rather unique stalactites.
Built by Turkmenistan's first president, these two concrete paths were inaugurated to improve public health. Government workers were forced to complete the longer walk at least once a year. If you decide to do the walk yourself, be advised that conditions can be quite harsh along the route. There's no shade, so remember to wear sunscreen and bring a parasol and extra water.
Written in 2001 by President Turkmenbashi, the Ruhnama captures the essence of Turkmen's recent history. Part history book, religious treatise, and storybook, the President once made every student read this book. He then built a massive monument for the book itself at Independence Park in the heart of Ashgabat.
Another statue commissioned by President Turkmenbashi, this spaceship-esque monument features a gilded representation of the leader that rotates to always face the sun, a metaphor for the nation's neutral status. Once in the heart of the city, the monument was disassembled in 2010 and reassembled just outside Ashgabat. People can visit daily, and elevators are available to bring you up to a unique view of the city.
Though President Turkmenbashi banned ballet and opera, the performing arts still thrive in the country. In Ashgabat, the Pushkin Russian Drama holds performances every Saturday and Sunday, while the Mollanepes Drama Theater has shows Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is minimal, though Mollanepes frequently closes down for the summer.