Our (Mis)Adventures In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

After our horrendous entrance into Turkmenistan, we decided to go to the capital city of Ashgabat, which is where we would be leaving from to go to Iran. We pulled up at the hotel we wanted to stay at and asked for a room. “Full” is all the Russian-Turkmen woman said. So we asked her to call the others in the guidebook for us. Each of them either said “no English” and hung up on us, or if she chose to speak with them on our behalf, they were full.

We’ve literally never, ever called every guesthouse/hotel listed in our guidebook and been told that they were full. What was going on?! Since it’s Turkmenistan, there are only a select few hotels that tourists are able to stay at. Our only option was to call the Top End hotels in our guidebook – which we’ve never had to resort to.

ak atlyn hotel ashgabat
Everything’s full! Guess we’ll have to stay in this 5-star

The hotel we ended up staying at is a 5 star place where group tours can stay and lots of business men stay there as well. The room, however, was very average. The decor and furnishings were really dated, the heat was blasting out and couldn’t be turned off and as with most hotels, it had no character. The only thing good about it was the buffet breakfast. We would compare it to a Best Western or something in Canada, definitely not 5 star quality!

Ak Atlyn hotel room
Our room at the Ak Atlyn Hotel

We spent 2 nights in Ashgabat and to be honest, didn’t really enjoy our time there. The city is so strange. Massive, white marble palaces, government buildings, universities and apartment complexes cover the horizon. The late president wanted it to be known as the “white city”. With everything being made of marble, we figure it must be the heaviest city in the world.

marble buildings in ashgabat
One of the many white, marble buildings in Ashgabat, guarded by a policeman

The streets in many parts of the city were eerily quiet, where were all the people? We tried to take photos of this strange place but were always whistled at and told “no” by the many, many police officers that guard the streets and buildings. We also weren’t allowed to walk down certain streets and felt very annoyed the entire time.

ashgabat park
Where are all the people?

So, we made use of our overpriced hotel. I had a bath, we brought beers back to the room, played cards, watched t.v. and hung out. After two nights, we were more than ready to leave this strange and unwelcoming land.

We got in a taxi and were on our way. As we got closer to the road that leads to the border, we noticed a policeman not letting any traffic through. Great, another road we can’t go down, for whatever reason. We tried another road, all roads leading to the border were apparently closed. After about an hour of this, we found one that was open. We waited in a massive line up to do a passport check (not stamping out, just a check).

rules in turkmenistan
No horns, can’t go down certain streets, no photos…what exactly can you do here?!

We kept flashing our Canadian passports and saying “tourists, tourists” and after about an hour, they let us bump up in the line. We then took an overpriced minibus the 25kms of no-man’s land between Turkmenistan and Iran. We filled out another form that we’re not entirely sure of what it said and waited in yet another line to stamp out of the country.

travel in ashgabat
Your move!

It was already noon by this point and we had left our hotel at 8:00 – we were getting nowhere fast. Finally, it was our turn at the passport counter…and they closed the window. Lunch time. We had to wait an hour until it opened. By this point we were furious and so sick of the bureaucratic nightmare Turkmenistan had been. I pressed my passport up against the glass and said “Come on! One more. Tourists, let us through”. He didn’t care and went off to eat.

When the window re-opened an hour later, everyone ran up and tried to budge in line. Each person that went through took about 15 minutes at the counter, which is totally unheard of and unnecessary. Maybe the man behind the glass remembered the pissed off look in my eyes, or maybe he was just feeling full and generous, but the guy flagged us up to the front from the back of the line and stamped us in!

photo of turkmenistan president
Goodbye Turkmenistan!

Hallelujah, we were out of Turkmenistan, well…after showing our passports 2 more times we were. We were so happy to be out of that country and heading into one that we’ve been looking forward to for years, Iran!

Tell us about your worst border-crossing experience below! 

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Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

Written by

Dariece Swift

Dariece is a co-founder of Goats On The Road, and an expert in saving money, finance management, building an online business and of course... travel. She loves meeting new people, trying new cuisines, and learning about the unique cultures of our world. She has over 12 years of experience helping others to realize their travel dreams and has worked in numerous jobs all over the world to help pay for travel.

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19 thoughts on “Our (Mis)Adventures In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan”

  1. I find that often with so-called ‘high end’ hotels, the lobbies are super flashy (presumably to impress you) but the rooms are just average – we found this in South America too, unfortunately. I love the pictures of Nick and the giant chess player, by the way! Otherwise, looks like a pretty lame country. Sorry.

  2. Just read this and your other post about entering Turkmenistan. I went in 2012 with a guide for 10 days and had such a different experience. It was pricey but so incredibly worth it. My guide met me at the border and got me through quickly. He doubled as a driver and took me on a wonderful tour of Merv (the whole site is very spread out, I don’t think you could really see the whole thing without a car and little would make sense without a guide). Also got to see a lot of the remote parts of the country like the Yangykala Canyon and Dekhistan, which was amazing.

    Agree about Ashgabat – such a sterile city and they do everything they can to make you feel uncomfortable.

  3. I don’t know if I would be able to handle a place with that much bureaucracy. It would be so frustrating not being able to go around and explore freely!

  4. Hey Katie,

    Thanks for sharing your experience of Turkmenistan. We didn’t have the time, or the money, to join a tour, but it sounds like you had a completely different take on the country than we did! To be fair, we only saw 2 places there and it would have been great to see some of the more remote parts of the country like you did.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Cheers and happy travels!

  5. Wow some adventure through Central Asia you guys had. My wife and I had a similar experience at the Ecuador/Colombia border on a busy weekend almost 3 hours to get through. Was this trip through the Stan’s an expensive part of the world to travel it sounds very intriguing.

  6. Hey Barry,

    There’s nothing more annoying than long waits at border crossings!

    It wasn’t expensive. It costs more than a trip through SE Asia or Central America might, but at the end of almost 5 months, we averaged about $75/day, not including our flight back to Canada though.

    Happy Travels.

  7. I have read so much about Ashgabad’s strangeness and clandestine character that even though I know I will be troubled I want to visit this place! All those high and polished buildings, super clean roads but not a single human found on the road! I want to interact with an Ashgabad local someday to know what goes on and how they spend their life being invisible all the time!

  8. Totally feel sorry for your bad experience in my country. I don’t really understand why people are so thrilled when they hear about North Korea as being a closed country. It doesn’t impress me due to the same feeling of being isolated in Turkmenistan. Even locals feel the same way about taking photos of some building and you can’t get rid of the feeling of being watched all the time. I’m sure the hotels never get that booked in Ashgabat no matter what holiday and it was just a scam to make you get an expensive hotel.

  9. Hi Irina,

    I feel for you! I would have liked to meet you while we were there 🙂 We actually called the hotels and went to them, and they were full, so I dont’ think it was a scam (which is surprising!)

  10. Hi Irina

    Personally I really enjoyed Turkmenistan and found it fascinating, even though Ashgabat is not your standard city and I was there during Independence day holidays it was intriguing. The bureaucracy isn’t great I must admit and I had to be very careful taking some pictures but it was one of my favourite experiences in Central Asia. I got to spend some time with some locals, which definitely helped my experience and knew the country would be interesting as soon as I started the lengthy visa process in the Turkmenistan embassy in London…

  11. Hey guys,

    I truly feel that you arrived in Turkmenistan with a completely wrong attitude. It’s almost like you expected it to be (a) isolated, (b) repressed and (c) unwelcoming from the start. Sorry, but your every line just bleeds prejudice. I wish you had tried to make the most of the situation, even if you were unlucky with the weather and could not speak any other language besides English.

    I had a fantastic time in Turkmenistan just days ago. Ashgabat was surreal, but local people were among the most welcoming I have encountered anywhere else in the world. That holds for the rest of Turkmenistan. The country has some of the most fascinating historic sites and natural (partly man-made, fine) wonders I have ever, ever seen. I really hope you can change your opinion one day.

    And sorry, but I do not understand why you expected to be waved through the border on the virtue of being “tourists”. Plenty of people were probably in a rush and just as frustrated with the delay as you were, so not sure why there should be privileges to westerners.

    In any case, happy travels!

  12. This seems like a truly sincere experience which I am so glad to read before planning any trip to Turkmenistan. Ashgabat was on my bucket list, but after reading your post, I will definitely have to reconsider that. Do you know why there are certain streets that you weren’t allowed to walk on?

  13. Thanks Agness, it was definitely our honest opinion. Many people find Ashgabat unique and interesting – and it is, but in my opinion, it’s not worth spending more than a night. We’ve recently read that people walking “spoils” the beauty of the buildings and streets. The new city is meant to look postcard perfect.

  14. Sadly, we didn’t have a great experience there, it was a total hassle. Having already been to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan was definitely a bigger challenge to travel through. As soon as we passed the border into Iran, we were MUCH happier 😉


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