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Turkmenistan - Adventure awaits, but play it safe in this police state
Turkmenistan - about the size of Spain and home to roughly five million people - remains a tightly controlled police state, so understanding the realities of travelling on the ground will mean an easier trip, and less surprises all round.
One of the most off-putting facts for all visitors to Turkmenistan is that outside of the capital and it's limits, you are required to have a guide, which is both costly and restrictive. However, there are plenty of rewarding and exciting sights in store for prepared travellers who are up for a bona fide adventure - from dinosaur footprints and Arabian camels; to golden Akhal-Teke horses and burning gas craters.
Turkmenistan Weather Worries
Weather is also a major factor - 90% of Turkmenistan is made up of the Karakum desert and in the summer temperatures in the capital soar up to 50° C, making travel in those months only suitable for masochists.
The country is also well known for it's abundance of gold and gas, yet the reality is abject poverty for most citizens – case in point: gas is free for all but lighters and matches aren't, so some Turkmen leave their stoves burning 24/7.
Crime & Curfews
It is also, without doubt, one of the most perplexing – and potentially problematic - ‘stans for visitors to travel through. According to official statements there is no crime in Turkmenistan, yet of course this isn't true. It is fair to say though, that it is a safe country to travel in, with very low incidents of violent crime.
The Draconian 11pm curfew in the capital inevitably helps to keep street crime down at night.
Currently, Turkmenistan does not suffer the scourge of terrorist groups that neighbouring countries are working to combat - such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), al-Qa'ida, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement - however it does suffer from ‘Vodka Terrorism.'
This may sound funny, but it is a real threat for visitors. Vodka is, like the rest of the region, the tipple of choice and low employment rates and poverty have led to a boom in alcoholism with this violent brawls and incidents.
‘Vodka terrorism' is a name given to the phenomenon where a local Turkmen either wants a fight, or to rob you, after drinking too much vodka. This can happen in day light hours not just at night, and is most likely to occur on trains – steer clear of obviously drunk men.
No Go Areas
Do not walk alone through the areas to the north-east and east of the capital Ashgabat, especially after sunset. These are the most recognised areas for drugs and violent crime.
Women should not walk alone at night in the capital – or anywhere in Turkmenistan- a local woman would not do so and, regardless to whether it's fair or not, you will be eyed with suspicion.
In the capital you will, like everyone else, have to observe the curfew in place in the capital Ashgabat – which means strictly no strolling about after 11pm.
During the day it pays to watch your belongings at large bazaars like Tolkuchka (good for picking up a reasonably priced Turkmen rug) – the usual wallet, passport, camera should be tucked away safely under your clothes on in a zipped bag.
To keep your money safely hidden is of extra importance in Turkmenistan which being a cash economy (the national currency is the Manat, which is convertible) means you are likely to be carrying far higher amounts than you might at home.
The other places to be on your guard in the capital are in nightclubs – check your change and note that local vodka and beer aside, imported drinks will be very expensive.
Prostitutes frequent the infamous Florida Disco opposite the The Grand Turkmen Hotel on Gorogly Street, so steer clear of there. Foreign men seen in the company of alleged prostitutes – have been subject to police harassment, detention, and deportation.
If you are the victim of crime in Turkmenistan, or if you are suffering from police harassment, to add to your woes you'll need to find a translator (ask for assistance from your Embassy, friend or hotelier) as police officers speak only Turkmen, making communication difficult for English or Russian-only speakers. Bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many Turkmens.
Play it safe in Turkmenistan, and stick to cooked food - typhoid is not uncommon and can linger in salads and cold meat.
Do not drink the tap water anywhere which may contain traces of metal.
HIV is a growing health threat in Turkmenistan.
You're not in kansas anymore, Toto. Avoid discussing politics or criticising the President – be wary if strangers spark up these conversations at random with you.
(Don't criticise or you'll do time.)
Bugging in hotel rooms is common - telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched.
One thing to be aware of as a visitor is that unless married, two individuals of the opposite sex are not allowed to share, or inhabit, a hotel room. If the hotel is suspicious that this is the case, hotel security will actively investigate, and then the police may arrive to solicit bribes.
Male homosexual activity is illegal, punishable by a custodial sentence.
Police - who have the power to stop and search - can ask anyone to present identity papers at any time. If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession. If you are asked to pay a fine for any reason – if at all possible do it at a bank, and get a receipt.
Be very careful taking photographs in Turkmenistan. If you're unsure of taking a photo of a public building, especially in Ashgabat – check with the police, who will inevitably be watching you anyway.
Your tour company will register you with the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens (OVIR) – make sure they have done this within three working days and to ease the process, bring plenty of passport photographs with you, and photocopies of your passport.
You will need a letter of invitation to get a tourist visa (LOI) from a tour company, there's no way around this. Plan ahead, talk to your travel agent and leave 6 weeks to get the visa.
Smoking is banned in all public spaces – this means anywhere outside, however in classic Central Asia style at most indoor venues – restaurants, cafes etc, you can puff away with abandon.
Your postcards – if you manage to find any – will be scrutinised by government agents, be careful what you write.
Getting There and Around
Tourists, although welcome, will be expected to hire a guide and be accompanied on an official tour. This is a pain, and an unavoidable one. No only will you pay a day rate for the guide (upwards of $50) you'll also be expected to pay for their meals and lodging while they're with you – at hotels and restaurants though they will pay the local rate, which is no more than $2-$5 for room and board. Tipping is not expected.
You do not need a guide in the capital Ashgabat, nor in the immediate surrounding areas. You can visit the following unescorted - Tolkuchka Bazaar, Kipchak Mosque (with Turkmenbashi's tomb next door), and Nissa – your hotel should be able to assist you with booking a car to visit these places – by far the easiest way to do it, and not expensive.
Do not be fooled by the reference to ‘ferries' that are often discussed in online forums and that are referred to in popular guidebooks. These ferries – that travel the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the port of Turkmenbashy in western Turkmenistan - are in fact cargo ships that take passengers if space allows.
The main issue with embarking on this adventure is that there's no food or water, the conditions are basic and toilet/washing facilities worse. It's a risky trip as when ships arrive in Turkmenbashy, they often wait up to a week for a vacant dock – some travellers have had the unfortunate experience of having their Turkmen visa expire while they wait, when food and water has run out too.
No Travel Zones
Several zones in Turkmenistan have been declared ‘no travel zones, or restricted areas' by the Government – these are mainly the border areas next to Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, the region of Dashoguz (including Dashoguz city), and areas of the Caspian coast.
Special permission from the Government of Turkmenistan may be possible if you're really determined to visit, but also note that Turkmenistan Airlines, the national airline, will not sell a ticket to any traveller who intends to travel to a restricted zone without verification of permission from the government. The wait will be long – the processing time for such permits is 10 working days.
As is often the case in Central Asia most ‘taxis' are not licensed are most likely to be a man using his family car to make some extra money – these are sometimes known as ‘gypsy cabs.' Most locals flag a car down and then anything that stops is a ‘taxi', there's no official fares, so give what you think is fair. This of course leaves you wide open to being ripped off, but there's no alternative. If you get in and feel uncomfortable, simply ask them to stop politely, get out and wave them to carry on. This is what locals do and it's perfectly acceptable.
For a safer ride, use the hard-to-find Yellow Cabs, which are usually located at the airport and near large hotels. Yellow Cabs are the only registered taxis and are discernable by their yellow colour and green Turkmen license plates. If the meter isn't working, agree a price before getting in. There's a flat fee of 8 Denominated Turkmen Manat (about AUS $ 2.80 at the March, 2011 exchange rate) within the Ashgabat city limits.
Road conditions outside of major cities are highly variable and usually poor and most public transport, including taxis, will not normally have seat belts provided. Common issues on the roads include dilapidated streets, unlit roads, and surprise camel crossings. Cars also frequently make left-turns from the right lane and vice-versa making driving dicey.
Road blocks occur regularly (whenever you enter a new welayat(province). Your guide will help you with the inevitable document checks that will follow.