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Turkmenistan> Continuing on from The Silk Road Turkmenistan - Central Asia

Turkmenistan

A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Continuing on from The Silk Road
Turkmenistan - Central Asia

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CONTINUING ON TO TURKMENISTAN FROM THE SILK ROAD

If you have followed our recommendation and itinerary for The Silk Road, since you have traveled so far to this part of the world and are so close to Turkmenistan, which lies just to the south of Uzbekistan, we thought you might want to include it as a destination to trip to Central Asia. We think that Uzbekistan has more intriguing old cities, but Turkmenistan is also very interesting. If you choose to do this, we suggest the following itinerary.

DAYS 1, 2, 3                     ASHKABAD, TURKMENISTAN

From Khiva, your driver can take you to Tashauz (about an hour or so by car) which is the border town between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Your guide can only take you as far as the customs office, but once through customs, you will be greeted by another friendly guide and driver so you won't have much time on your own. The customs officers seem stern, but are actually quite accommodating and friendly. Depending upon how many people are ahead of you determines how long the process will take. You just need to be sure you have all your papers in order.

Once through the Uzbekistan customs there is a sort of a "No Man's Land" that stretches for about a kilometer to the Turkmenistan border. It reminded us of film clips of people going through Check Point Charlie and crossing over into West Germany. There are small mini buses that shuttle back and forth between the two custom stations. There is a charge for the shuttle bus, but it is very reasonable and the alternative is to drag you luggage across desolate strip of land between the counties. Once you arrive in Turkmenistan, you need to repeat the custom formalities. The guide who meets you at the Turkmenistan border will take you to the airport and check you in for your flight (it takes about an hour to fly to Ashkabad).

Ashkabad is a modern city that is new and sparkling and very attractive. The government has obviously splurged on creating a showcase of elaborate buildings that are newly-built. Everywhere there are wide boulevards, many parks, lots of fountains, towering statues of important dignitaries, and opulent white marble buildings. In fact, the entire city seems to gleam with white marble. Huge amounts of money have been spent on dramatic modern public buildings, mosques, and museums, but very little is visible of the city's ancient heritage.

WHERE TO STAY: Tashkent is a large city and not conducive to exploring on foot as there is a lot of traffic and the sights are somewhat spread out. However, you certainly do want to be in the center of town. We stayed in the Grand Turkmen Hotel, a large, pleasant, modern hotel that is comfortable and well-located. There are expansive vistas from many of the balconies that look out over the rooftops, domes and minarets to the mountains that form a backdrop to the city.

ASHKABAD SIGHTSEEING SUGGESTIONS:

TOLKUCHA MARKET: Plan your stay so you will be in Ashkabad on a Sunday when the Tolkucha Market is held in the outskirts of the city. This is the largest market in Central Asia, and without a doubt one of the most fascinating we have ever had been to. The name of the market "Tolkucha" means a lot of elbowing, which you will feel is quite appropriate. The market is held out of doors and spreads over a vast amount of land. You can buy absolutely anything here. This isn't a tourist attraction as such, but rather the people's market where everyone goes to shop each week. Start out at the Camel section where men proudly displaying their animals to potential buyers. There are camels everywhere of all shapes and sizes and personalities. But camels are not the only game in town. Trucks are parked willy nilly everywhere as men download a myriad of creatures large and small. From the trunks of cars and the back of trucks tribesmen in traditional costumes struggle to download ducks, donkeys, goats, pigs and everything in between. However, the market includes much more than the camel section which is spread out in an open field. The largest part of the market is approached through a gate which opens into countless stalls selling fruit, jewelry, clothing, kitchen wear, shoes, hats, and about anything you could think of buying.  The largest displays are carpets and this is a great place to purchase one. Your guide can help you negotiate the price if you decide to buy one. All carpets bought in Turkmenistan must be documented and you need to purchase a letter of authenticity.  Shops are used to doing this.

NISA (UNESCO World Heritage Site): On the day you visit Tolkucha Market t, plan to stop at Nisa, which is also located on the outskirts of Ashkabad. This archeological site dates back to the time of the Parthians in the third century B.C. As would be expected, only ruins are left, but it enough for you to glimpse back to the building expertise and architectural skills of so long ago. You park quite a distance from the actual site and at first glance it looks look a jumble of crumbling mud dwellings. But as you approach via the long path and get close to the ruins, it becomes apparent that at one time a great city stood here. The empire of the Parthians rivaled that of Alexander the Great and Nisa remained an important city until the 13th century when it was sacked by the Mongols.

AZADI MOSQUE: Another sightseeing target outside of the city is the Azadi Mosque, which adds another potential stop on the day you visit the Tolkucha Market and Nisa. It is quite incredible that such an imposing structure would have been built in such a non-descript village, but as I understand, the town was the birthplace of a politician-though I can't recall which one. However, the mosque is truly extraordinary and worth a visit. It is surrounded by an enormous area of gardens, parks, lakes, ponds, and fountains-truly a showcase for the astounding creation.  The mosque resembles the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but it is even larger. However there is an obvious difference: the Blue Mosque is ancient, the Azadi Mosque is new. Also, when we visited the Blue Mosque recently, we had to wait in a long line to enter. When we visited the Azadi Mosque we were the only people there. We heard that one reason for the lack of enthusiasm for the mosque is that there were several accidental fatalities during its construction and some people think it is jinxed.

TEXTILE & CARPET MUSEUM: You will definitely want to visit the Textile and Carpet Museum. It is housed in a beautiful white marble building in the center of Ashkabad. The carpets are dramatically displayed and there is even a model of a herdsman's hut with a hand-made carpet on the floor. There is a map on the wall that shows the regions where various carpets are woven and which tribes made them. A gigantic carpet (which is supposed to be the largest in the world) hangs on one wall. The museum also has wonderful exhibit of elaborately carved ivory drinking horns, many of these were discovered when excavating the ruins at Nisa. There are also beautifully displayed figures of men and women dressed in various costumes representing the styles of clothing used in different regions of Turkmenistan.

MISCELLANEOUS INFORMATION:

VISAS: Before planning your trip, be aware that you cannot decide on the spur of the moment to go to Central Asia. The visas take months to secure, and the process is long and tedious. Happily, there is an excellent company called Passport Visas Express that knows all of the inns and outs of how to go through the process. They even helped us secure a duplicate two-year passport since we had plans to travel out of the country during the time our "original passports were being processed. The person who helped us, Sapto Pradonggo, gave us outstanding service. Passport Visas Express: 888-596-6028.

SPELLING: Don't be dismayed to see towns and names of places and people spelled in different ways. They are usually very similar and all correct.

THE PEOPLE: Without exception we found the people in Central Asia to be welcoming and gracious. Only a few speak English, and those who did were usually involved in some form of tourism or international business. It delightful to see how many young people tried to experiment with their English. They must have all had the same textbook since we were often stopped by young women who all asked the same memorized phrases, such as "How old are you?", "Where do you come from" and "Do you have children". Although often shy, they were always lots of smiles and giggles. Children whispered amongst themselves and then one would be chosen to come up and practice English with "Hello" and "Goodbye" being the common greeting. Although it is customary throughout the world to smile and ask permission before taking a photo, we found most of the people we met eager to pose. In fact, on several occasion they wanted us to continue taking pictures and even called their friends to join in the picture. For some reason, many also wanted us in the picture and would hug us and we would all smile and pose together.

TO READ: Before you leave home, be sure to read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. This really is an incredible story that you just mustn't miss. It lays the groundwork for places along the way that you will visit and will make your trip come alive. The tale is about the exploits of the British and Russians as they struggled during the 19th century to secure the "prize" of Central Asia, which was the strategic key to the riches of India. The book includes true stories of the perils, intrigues and adventures of various British spies who frequently traveled in disguise. The tales of their exploits exceed anything you would read in fiction.

WORDS IT MIGHT BE HELPFUL TO KNOW:

MADRASSAHS: Madrassas are schools. The emphasis is on religious studies, but other courses are also taught there. Usually the boys board there and sleep in rows of small cubicles that usually face onto a courtyard (these reminded me of monk's cell in monasteries). Madrassas have been newsworthy in recent years since some of the radical ones have been hotbeds of terrorist philosophy. However, in Central Asia they seem to be authentic schools of traditional religious education. Many people we met made a point to explain that they abhor terrorism in every form.

CARANVANSERAI: Caravanserai are inns where weary travelers stopped to rest as they made their way along the Silk Road. The architecture was usually similar: a huge square building enclosing a large central courtyard faced by rows of sleeping rooms. These were full service hotels of their day: meals were served, camels boarded, drinks available, and probably lots of business transacted. It is fun to imagine what staying in such a "hotel" would have been like with tradesmen speaking many different languages, and a blend of traditions and cultures blending from across the huge expanse of Asia.

MOSQUES: Mosques are holy places of worship for the Muslim religion. Although they can be simple, many are large and crowned by a dome.  There is usually an expansive central room where men come to pray. Many bring their beautiful prayer rugs to for comfort as they kneel.

MINARETS: Minarets are tall, slender towers with an open area at the top from which a sing-song call goes out at regular intervals of the day calling the faithful to prayer.  The minarets are usually part of a Mosque. Some are truly exquisite works of art.


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