Visiting Turkmenistan

Add former Soviet satellite Turkmenistan to the growing list of countries that were once off limits to visitors from the West, who are now opening their borders to tourists for the first time. According to this story from the Wall Street Journal, the Central Asian country is making a concerted effort to market itself to travelers who have “been there, done that” and are now looking for a new experience.

Governed by an iron fisted ruler named Saparmurat Niyazov for many years, the country was effectively cut off from the outside world by his Stalinist approach to ruling his people. But Niyazov passed away back in 2006, clearing the way for Turkmenistan to rejoin the international community, and opening its doors to visitors. Visas that once tooks hours, and lots of dollars, to obtain, are now easily acquiried, whisking tourists through the process in no time.

And what does Turkmenistan have to offer to prospective visitors? The country is an interesting mix of ancient history, strange natural wonders, and a Soviet style cult of personality. Statues of Niyazov are everywhere, although many are being taken down or moved to other locations, giving travelers a look back into an era of communist dictators. And for those wanting to look even further back in history, there are remnants of the old Silk Road that still remain in remote regions of the country.
Perhaps the oddest draw for tourists though is a giant crater found in the Karakum Desert that is perpetually in flames. Reportedly the Turkmens were once searching for naturl gas in the region when an accident occurred causing the ground to collapse, forming the creater, and igniting the gas. The result is a 200 foot hole in the ground that burns day and night, and has caused many to compare it to the Gates of Hell.

Of course, Turkmanistan could have picked a better time to open those doors. Economic conditions will probably keep tourists from really finding the place for a few more years, But for those that do, they’re in for a unique experience. A place that has truly been untouched by the outside.