Turkmenistan is probably one of the most off-the-beaten-path destinations we visited. The difficult process of getting the visa doesn’t help travelers either. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, is the main and largest city in the country.
On the off chance that you had heard the name previously, you might still ask the question as we did: “Ashgabat is the capital of what country?”. To be honest, we did not know much about Turkmenistan and its capital before our trip!
We are not big fans of cities in general, and while we would not choose to live in Ashgabat, the city is worth visiting. And one of the reasons is that the grandeur of many of the buildings is simply astonishing.
The History behind Turkmenistan Capital
Prior to becoming the Capital of the country then called Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924, the ancient city of Konjikala was mentioned around the 2nd century BCE as a Silk Road trade post, and was a well developed and successful city until the Mongols destroyed it in the 14th century. From then until the Russian Empire came, only a small village remained of that prior glory. After the country became an independent Turkmenistan in 1991, Ashgabat kept its position as the capital.
The 1948 Ashgabat earthquake flattened down the city, which was then rebuilt with expensive white marble by Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He continued to rule Turkmenistan for 15 years after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. These marble buildings led the city to be known as the “White City”. Gone with the old traditional yurts and abode houses. On with modern and over-the-top structures.
Things to Do in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Capital
As mentioned during the short historical introduction of Ashgabat, the city was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in white marble, giving the capital its nickname of the “White City”, or the “The City of White Marble.”
And indeed, most of the buildings we saw in the capital of Turkmenistan were flamboyant and white! Now, we visited at the end of December and unfortunately, it was pouring rain for the 24-hour time we had there. Given that we also had to find a place where to change money, and plan our next journey to Mary, the visit was indeed quite short.
Downtown Ashgabat Top Attractions
Ertugrul Gazi mosque (Artogrul Gazi Mosque)
Built with white marble similar to the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, Turkey, the massive mosque is impressive. Seeing it at night is also a great way to appreciate the way the mosque is illuminated.
Oguzkhan Presidential Palace
The official residence of the Turkmenistan President, the building is located close to Independence Square. Note that you can’t linger too much around the area, as several policemen patrol around and will keep you moving.
Turkmen Carpet Museum
The museum is known for its large collection of Turkmen carpets, some pieces going back to medieval times.
A nice park featured along a water canal and fountains. Perfect for a city stroll, and numerous statues. Many of these statues are in honor of famous Turkmen, Turkic, or Islamic artists. These characters include Lenin, Russian novelist Alexander Pushkin, Ukrainian poet Kobzar Taras Shevchenko, and Turkmen literature figure Magtymguly Pyragy.
Attractions Around Ashgabat
A couple of sights are right at the skirt of the city, while a few others are several miles (kilometers away). So if you are on limited time, you might have to pick and choose what you want to see.
National Museum of Turkmenistan
Also known as the Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Museum, many artifacts and items take you through the history of the country.
The 298-feet (91-meter) tower is said to be inspired by the shape of traditional Turkmen tents, while the top represents the headgear of Turkmen girls.
Ruhy Mosque (Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Metjidi)
Also called Gypjak Mosque as the mosque is actually located in Gypjak, a village about 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) west of Ashgabat city. The architecture of the mosque is said to be grandiose.
Altyn Asyr Bazar
Known as Täze Jygyldyk by the locals, this massive market is actually the fifth-largest in Central Asia. There are over 2,000 shops, and it takes several areas to explore the different areas. The Sunday market is the best time to go as these mornings are the busiest. The bazaar is in the Choganly area, about 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) north of Ashgabat city center.
Ancient City of Nisa Turkmenistan
Quite possibly the most important city from the Parthian Empire around 250 BC, settlement remains predated the Old Nisa fortification and royal residence as far as the fourth Millenium BCE.
Changing Money in Ashgabat
The Turkmenistan currency is the Turkmenistan New Manat (TMT).
There is the official rate when you take money from one of the few ATMs, and there is the street rate. While this is the case in most countries, trainthe difference between the two is almost 1 to 3 different in Turkmenistan. Indeed, the official rate at that time was 3.5 Manat to 1 US Dollar from an ATM machine, while the street rate was from 15 to 20.
It is, however, hard to find a place to change dollars. The one place we managed to do so was the Hotel Nisa.
Hotels in Ashgabat Turkmenistan
Due to the high costs of living, Turkmenistan Ashgabat hotels tend to be also at a high price point. Budget travelers will have only a few options, which are still expensive for the limited and low-quality services.
The Kuwwat hotel is a Soviet-like hotel located at 101 Kemine street, Ashgabat +993 12 93 66 51. We stayed there for a night, and while it was better than spending hundreds in a fancier hotel, the services and building could definitely improve.
Expect a hard bed, a crumbling building, a foul bathroom, no wifi, and no breakfast. The staff was disagreeable, individuals smoking all over the place inside. And for a night, the fees were US$15 for a dorm bed, US$20 for a twin bedroom with a shared bathroom, and US$30 for a double bedroom with an ensuite private bathroom.
On the plus side, the shower was hot, and the room quiet. While there was no breakfast, we could prepare some tea in the morning thanks to a hot water dispenser in the kitchen area. The staff doesn’t communicate in English, however, they can get somebody on the telephone to assist
Note that Google map is incorrect (the name of the street is but not the house number location). Use Maps.me instead. The hotel is about 1 mile (1.5 km) from the railroad station and a few buses pass by to take you to various areas and transport terminals.
Another choice is the Syyahat Hostel, Ashgabat’s only hostel, located at Gorogly St 19-21, Ashgabat. Costs are said to be less expensive at US$10 for a bed in a dorm per night, or a room from US$25. Because of the cheaper prices, the hostel fills up fast but the rooms can’t be reserved ahead of time; only walk-ins are accepted. No wifi there either.
How to arrive in Ashgabat
There are two options to travel to Turkmenistan. Either as an independent traveler if you can get a 5-day transit visa. Or as part of an organized tour which will give you more time to visit, but tends to be on the expensive side.
If you are on an organized tour, you can of course cross from one of these countries, but you might be also flying into Turkmenistan. If you come on a transit visa, you most likely come from Uzbekistan or Iran, as you need to “transit” from one of the neighboring countries to another. Read about our experience crossing Turkmenistan on a 5-day transit visa. Once in the country, buses, shared taxis, and trains are the way to arrive and travel from Ashgabat.
Ashgabat International Airport (ASB)
With flights from all major cities of Turkmenistan, Asia, and Europe. Airlines that deserve Ashgabat include Turkish Airlines, Fly Dubai, China Southern Airlines, and Turkmenistan Airlines.
Ashgabat Train Station
There are 3 lines, though one line is the major line running from Turkmenbashy west of the country to Balkanabat – Bereket – Ashgabat – Mary – Türkmenabat in the north bordering Uzbekistan (and for access to Bukhara there), Serhetabat in the east heading to Afghanistan.
- Purchase your tickets ahead of time as there are a couple of trains for every day to every destination
- There is little distinction in costs between a ticket for the second and first classes, so we picked the first class
- Payment is cash only, credit cards are not accepted
- Trains from Ashgabat to Mary arrived in the middle of the night so a shared taxi would be a better option for earlier arrival time.
- If you are exiting Turkmenistan into Iran, you can book train tickets to Mary but stop at Artyk one hour from Ashgabat.
International passenger Bus Terminal of Ashgabat
The terminal offers buses between Ashgabat and Turkmenbashy, Dashoguz, Turkmenabat, Archman, Konye-Urgench (and the Uzbek border to Nukus), and Mollagara
How to move around Ashgabat
There are a fair number of buses across the city and even to the outskirts. And if you can’t find what you are looking for, taxis are usually readily available, though you will have to do a fair share of negotiation (almost 50% of the initial price).
Taxis are gathered at key areas of the city, and as soon as you arrive, you will be surrounded by taxi drivers eager to get your business. It’s common in most countries, but it felt rather overwhelming in Ashgabat as the drivers were forceful and almost physical in grabbing our arms to get our attention. I had to shout and push them away to get some space. Before agreeing to any driver, check on many people are in the car already. One car might be cheaper but if there is no one else in the car or only one person, you might need to wait for a long time before you actually depart. Which could be an issue if you are on a schedule.
- From Taxi terminal Ashgabat city limits to Kuwwat Hotel: 20 TMT manats
- From Tekke Baazar to Nisa: 20 TMT manats
Buses are very cheap, around 0.50 TMT per trip per person. Bring the exact amount as there is no change.
- #29 Bus between Kuwwat Hotel up to 1 block to the railway station “vokzal.”
- #38 Bus from Melbourne Burger restaurant to Tekke Bazaar (terminal for the Nisa buses)
- #28 Bus from Melbourne Burger restaurant to the Kuwwar Hotel
- #77 Bus from Kuwwat Hotel to Tekke Bazaar
Food in Ashgabat
There are plenty of places to eat in Ashgabat, from fancy restaurants to simple food stalls. The Ashgabat train station is packed with small shops where you can grab snacks and hot meals, all of which are cash only. Some restaurants offer Wi-Fi and can be paid with credit cards (at the official rate!), making the meal a triple treat in terms of price.
Costs for Ashgabat Food:
- Train station restaurants:
- Dinner of simple local food of chicken, rice: 31 TMT manats
- Breakfast: 15 manats
- Melbourne Burger: one burger, one cake, one beer: 66 TMT manats
Street food is quite good, and we had some tasty kebabs a few times.
Interesting Facts about Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
- Only Ashgabat-licensed cars can enter Ashgabat.
- Since 2019, the city is listed as one with the highest costs of living in the world. The expensive costs are mostly driven by the country’s inflation and controlled economy
- Black cars are not allowed in Ashgabat, as President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov believes black cars are bad luck
So what’s your take on Ashgabat? Please add a comment, we would love to hear from you!
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