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.
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.
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.
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.
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.