For decades, the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan was one of the most remote and isolated places on the planet. Now it's reinventing itself -- as a playground for Western tourists.
A former Soviet republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan was long synonymous with the antics of its president, a willful dictator who reigned with Stalinist repression and paranoia and did his best to cut the place off from the outside world. By transforming the capital, Ashgabat, into a monument to his surreal personality cult, Saparmurat Niyazov also created what's probably the country's biggest tourist attraction.
Beyond the city, Turkmenistan offers exotic bazaars, the ruins of a Silk Road metropolis, a hellish, continually flaming crater and guided visits to tentlike yurts to drink camel's milk with villagers. To Nigel Fisher, operations director at the London-based tour firm Silk Road & Beyond, Turkmenistan's appeal is the aura of remoteness and mystery that surrounds it. "Most people haven't even heard of it, let alone know where it is," he says.
That appeals to the kind of intrepid older travelers who have already done Peru's Machu Picchu and Cambodia's Angkor Wat. "It's the over-55s who are running out of destinations," says Mr. Fisher.
Since Mr. Niyazov died in 2006, the country has tentatively begun to open up. Regular visitors say it used to take two hours, and wads of dollars in bribes, to get out of the arrivals lounge of Ashgabat airport. Now passengers are waved through in minutes.
Tourist visas are a bit easier to come by -- though you still require a letter of invitation that can take up to three weeks to arrive -- and Turkmenistan is now a fixture for specialist tour operators geared to Central Asia. Ashgabat-based Ayan Travel says it handled 2,200 tourists in 2008, up from 1,500 in 2007. "People's perception of Turkmenistan is changing -- it's seen as safer and more accessible," says Ayan sales manager Dovran Orazgeldiev.
Certainly access isn't a problem for the capital's sights. The city comes across as a kind of Soviet Disneyland, with Mr. Niyazov taking the place of Mickey Mouse. The manicured parks and squares are full of golden statues of the portly president, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmens. (He named one month of the calendar after himself, another after his mother.)
WHAT TO DO
Besides the sights mentioned in this article, there's ancient Konye-Urgench, once one of the most important cities in the Islamic world, with a 200-foot minaret that's the tallest medieval structure in Central Asia; Old Nisa, residence of the Parthian kings; and the Kow Ata underground lake. Ayan can organize off-road 4x4 adventures in the Karakum desert, camel treks and horseback riding trips. Tel.: 993-12-352-914. Also, consider buying a carpet (one of the best exports) at the Tolkuchka Bazaar.
Mr. Niyazov had whole neighborhoods demolished to make way for white marble, golden-domed palaces and grand public monuments, many of them named for the supreme ruler. A vast three-legged tower, the Neutrality Arch, reminiscent of a 1970s Apollo rocket and crowned by a gilded statue of the dictator that rotates to face the sun, overlooks it all.
In contrast, Turkmenistan's relics of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China with the West, are far less grand -- and pale in comparison with the spectacular ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in neighboring Uzbekistan.
To bring alive Merv, Turkmenistan's equivalent, "you really need a good guide," says Mr. Fisher. Luckily, Merv, about 220 miles from the capital, has plenty of them, local English-speaking experts provided by Turkmen tour firms who know all about the sprawling 48-square-mile site and can conjure up from the ruins of ancient citadels, mosques and mausoleums the Merv of old -- a major metropolis for 2,500 years and long the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire.
Another top sight is natural, not historical -- though caused by man. In the middle of the Karakum desert, some 160 miles north of Ashgabat, lies a huge flaming crater that some visitors have compared to the gates of hell. Reports on the origin of the crater conflict, but the most widespread story is that back in Soviet times, Turkmen were prospecting for natural gas in the area when the ground under their drilling rig suddenly collapsed, leaving a deep, circular hole about 200 feet across. The gases that seeped out of the ground were set alight and have been burning ever since: At night the profusion of small flames lights up the desert for miles around. The crater now shows up regularly on itineraries for Turkmenistan, but can be reached only by a 4x4.
Another popular activity: visiting with the locals. More than 80% of the country is covered by desert, and many outside Ashgabat lead a traditional lifestyle in simple villages, weaving carpets and tending to their camels and goats. Visitors can stay overnight in traditional yurts, observe carpet-weaving and drink chal, naturally fermented camel's milk. Or they can ride on the famed Akhal Tepe horses, one of Turkmenistan's national symbols. The legendary Tolkuchka bazaar, where everything from tiny amulets to camels and used cars is sold, is also a big hit with tourists.
Returning to Ashgabat means one final chance to appreciate its bizarre monuments, perhaps touring Ruhnama Park, named after "The Book of the Soul," a collection of Mr. Niyazov's philosophical musings that every Turkmen child once had to study. The park features a giant replica of the book, with its distinctive green and pink cover. On special occasions, the Ruhnama opens, forming a screen onto which are projected images of Turkmenistan's achievements since independence.
There is, however, one threat to the country's tourist future. The post-Niyazov government has been gradually removing the most brazen relics of his rule. The Neutrality Arch is supposed to move to a distant suburb, and other monuments may follow. That may be good for Turkmen self-esteem, but Carl Meadows, tours manager at Britain's Regent Holidays, notes that after the dismantling, some "people might be less interested in going there." He adds, "For many, Niyazov's personality cult really was the biggest draw."