The Pros & Cons of Booking a Private Tour in Turkmenistan

Merv, Turkmenistan

Over the last month, I’ve read quite a few lists of the so-called best places to visit in 2013. These lists come out every year and every year there seem to be a couple destinations that show up on list after list: Jordan has been a big one in the past; Myanmar seems to be the trendy pick this year. One country that likely will not be appearing on any of these lists in the near future, though, is Turkmenistan.

If you’re like 99.9% of the population, visiting Turkmenistan has probably never crossed your mind. And for those few who do visit, most tend to hurry through en route from Azerbaijan or Iran to Uzbekistan or vice versa. That makes sense because it is easier to obtain a transit visa than a tourist visa – not that either is particularly easy.

I decided to defy convention and stay for 11 days and 10 nights. Therefore, I had to get a tourist visa, which in turn required me to work through a travel agency and basically book a private tour. Doing so definitely came with its pros and cons.
 

Pro: Booking a tour allowed me to get a tourist visa

 
This is how it works in Turkmenistan: in order to apply for a tourist visa, you need a letter of invitation from a licensed travel agency. You also need to be accompanied by a guide at any time you are outside of the capital city of Ashgabat. Since scheduled group tours in Turkmenistan are virtually unheard of, booking a private tour is really the only way to go if you want to get a tourist visa.

Even if I hadn’t wanted to stay longer than the five days allowed by a transit visa, Turkmenistan takes the definition of “in transit” very seriously. I was coming from Uzbekistan and planning to return to Uzbekistan, which meant that I was not really visiting Turkmenistan “in transit” and wouldn’t have been eligible for a transit visa anyway.

Nokhur, Turkmenistan
 

Pro: It made my border crossings easy.

 
As soon as I got through the border on the Uzbekistan side, my guide and driver, Oleg, met me on the Turkmenistan side. He had already completed my customs form for me and was able to work with a very young, somewhat clueless, immigration officer to sort out the issuance of my visa. While I am sure I would have figured it out on my own eventually, I know it was ten times easier with Oleg’s help. The same was true when I left the country – Oleg got me fast-tracked to the front of the line and I passed through immigration and customs in less than five minutes.
 

Con: It was expensive.

 
The total cost of my “tour” was around $2,500. This included all accommodations, meals outside of Ashgabat, transportation in an air-conditioned four wheel-drive vehicle, one domestic flight and the services of a guide for 7 full days and his expenses. Considering my budget for the rest of my trip ranged from $50 to $70 per day, shelling out $250 per day was a huge investment.
 

Pro: I had time to see a lot more than most people ever see.

 
Tourists traveling through Turkmenistan on transit visas generally just see the infamous Darvaza Gas Crater, the surreal capital city of Ashgabat and the ancient Silk Road ruins at Merv – at the very most. Because I had a week and a half, I was able to check out the remote Yangykala Canyon, explore ruins in Dekhistan, stay with a local family in the mountains in Nokhur, see the ancient city of Konye Urgench and still have a few days to wander around Ashgabat.

Ashgabat statue
 

Con: I couldn’t alter my itinerary.

 
To obtain a letter of invitation, and later the tourist visa, I had to spell out not only where I was going in the country, but in exactly what order I would visit each locale. Upon entering Turkmenistan, I received a card that included my designated itinerary and, according to my guide, it could have meant trouble if I had been stopped at a checkpoint in an area where I wasn’t supposed to be. Heck, we couldn’t even change things up for me to exit at a different border crossing than the one specified.
 

Pro: I was able to get to places I could not have visited on my own.

 
Turkmenistan is a vast country covered with dry, sandy desert terrain. Roads are not well-maintained and public transportation to any of the sites I mentioned above simply doesn’t exist. Even if I had been able to visit independently, I would have been scrambling to find drivers with four-wheel drive vehicles to take me to places like the Yangykala Canyon and Dekhistan. Having a single driver and guide for my entire visit made things easier and, because it was arranged through a travel agency I had grown to trust, I felt more comfortable than I would have if I’d arranged things on the fly.

Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenistan
 

Con: I had to adhere to someone else’s schedule.

 
I was in Turkmenistan in August, with temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every single day. If it had been up to me, I would have risen at the crack of dawn and hit the road before the heat became unbearable. But it wasn’t up to me – Oleg called the shots. That meant leaving later in the morning than I preferred and stopping when he wanted to. I also had to continuously ask for more time to explore sites because he underestimated how long I might want to explore.
 

Pro: I learned more about the places I visited than I would have otherwise.

 
Most of the places I visited in Turkmenistan lacked typical tourist facilities. There were few explanatory signs and no guides were available for hire, so if I had been on my own, I would have been left in the dark. But with Oleg by my side, I soaked up more information that I ever could have retained. For example, visiting the ancient site of Merv, he took me through the entire site chronologically so I could appreciate how the layers of the city developed over time. It was so much more meaningful than if I had just wandered around on my own with a guidebook. Having Oleg with me also meant I had someone to question about random things I saw or encountered throughout my visit.

Erbent, Turkmenistan

In the end, despite the expense, the pros of booking a private tour outweighed the cons for me.  Visiting Turkmenistan was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would not have been the same if I had tried to go it alone – I would have missed out on the things that I ended up loving the most.

So if you’re one of the 0.1% of people out there with Turkmenistan on your must-see list, I highly recommend you consider the splurge of a private tour. It will be worth it.

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14 thoughts on “The Pros & Cons of Booking a Private Tour in Turkmenistan”

  1. Very cool. Do you know if the tour would have been the same or similar price if you could have had someone along with you? A fourwheeler should be able to hold a few ppl right?

    1. I definitely would’ve been cheaper per person if I’d had others to split the cost with. And the company I went with actually made an effort to pair me with someone else for part of it, but it fell through.

      1. Hi,
        So you travelled by yourself and it costs $250 per person per day? Who is the travel agency since I am looking for one.
        thanks.

        1. I traveled with a guide from Stan Tours (stantours.com). It could be less depending where you want to go – I went to some pretty remote places like the Yangykala Canyon and Dekhistan so that was more. Also, if they have other travelers going around the same time, they can try to match you together to save costs if you’re open to it. I was going to travel with someone else for a couple days to save $ but the guy’s visa got denied.

  2. thanks for this, Katie! I have to admit Turkmenistan may not be high up on my travel list, but your write up has piqued my interest. I like being able to visit “off the beaten path” places and sounds like a tour guide is my only option at this point.

  3. Hi, Katie!
    Do you mind indicating your agency and contacts? I would like to return to the region and visit Turkmenistan, it’s good to have an indication of a trustful agency.
    Thank you.

  4. You’re right – Turkmenistan certainly doesn’t appear on many must-visit lists. Good to hear that, in the end, the pros outweighed the cons, though. It has certainly been interesting to read about your travels through the country!

  5. I wish I had been able to visit with you. Turkmenistan certainly is not a country that comes to mind when making bucket lists, but you definitely made it sound interesting!

  6. I noticed that Koryo Tours has a package to Turkmenistan. I was interested in them when I was living in Korea a few years ago. They specialize in trips to North Korea. I did entertain the idea of going to NK, but now I am chickening out. I haven’t used them for Turkmenistan and I don’t know anyone who has. I just thought I’d share them though. http://www.koryogroup.com/turkmenistan/index.html

    1. Funny you mention that – I was just looking at a friend’s blog who went to North Korea with Koryo, so was checking out their site and saw they also go to Turkmenistan. He seemed to have a good experience with them for NK, but since there are locally based companies that do Turkmenistan, I’d probably recommend going with someone local over them.

  7. Hi Katie,

    I’m looking for a tour to just Ashgabat and Derweze, since I am not super keen on the desert views or the inherent culture of Turkmenistan – just its most extraordinary sights. Do you foresee any problems with using just a transit visa and a tour agency within Turkmenistan for accommodation and transport for the city tour and the drive to Derweze?
    Thanks!

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