The Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is not one that pops up during our travel planning. Like many other Central Asian gems, Turkmenistan has also, for the longest time, suffered the fate of being lost in the frenzy to look for European vacay. Looking at its architectural, topographic, archaeological, historical, and cultural uniqueness, we think it’s only fair to bring it to your notice. With Caspian Sea as its guarding waterbody and the Kara Kum desert laying claim to most of its land, Turkmenistan is filled with surprises! By Shubhanjana Das
The capital of Turkmenistan, situated south of the Kara Kum desert, is one which has the key to much of what you need to know to unveil Turkmenistan’s cultural mystery. The white-marble palace of Turkmenbashi attracts a lot of the crowd this country receives while the National Museum of Turkmenistan is both a local as well as international tourist hotspot. There is also a carpet museum for those who fancy the gorgeously crafted Central Asian carpets and rugs, mostly handmade by the women. The showstopper of it all is the Arch of Neutrality, a 75-m high monument which has a revolving statue built as a tribute to the late President Niyazov.
2. Kov Ata Underground Lake, Bakharden
90 km west of the capital is Bakharden, which is home to unarguably one of the most distinct natural features of Turkmenistan — the Kov Ata underground lake (Kov Ata translates to ‘Father of Lakes’). Fed by hot springs, this mineral lake is accessed after you enter a cave at the base of a mountain and walk down a 65 m staircase. The sulphurous lake is always at a naturally maintained temperature of 36 degrees Celsius. After a swim, which has medicinal values and is said to help with joint pains, enjoy a much-deserved lunch at one of the three shashlyk restaurants here on-site.
3. Darvaza Gas Craters
An outcome of the 70s Soviet gas exploration, the Darvaza Gas Craters is not for the faint hearted. The three gas craters are artificial and one of them, the fire crater, blazes with such incredible might that it is visible from miles away, while the other two contain bubbling mud and water. Even though there is a camping place south of the crater, behind the hill, getting to the crater is quite an adventure in itself. But, without proper precautions and safety, it may turn into an misadventure given that drivers often get lost on the way or stuck in the dunes. The lack of any population around doesn’t make matters easy either. There are no hotels around, except for chaikhanas, which offer bed and food for the night.
4. Yangykala Canyon
The vividness of the canyon is a stark contrast to its isolation in the desert, so much so that even very few Turkmen know about the Yangykala Canyon. 160 km east of Turkmenbashi, Yangykala’s pink, red, and yellow bands of rock on the sides of the canyon make for one of the country’s most alluring and distinct natural sites. Consider camping on the plateau above the canyon, given that you have a strong tent that won’t give in to the strong winds.
Once the ‘second city of Islam’, Merv is now a site of brick-built mausolea of rulers and holy men including the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, which dates back to 1140. A trip to Merv may as well be planned with a visit to Mary, Turkmenistan’s second city. The only claim to Mary’s fame is the Regional Museum, which houses a collection of taxidermy, temporary exhibits, Turkmen art, and a lot more in its vast premises.