Today I invite you to join me to travel without leaving home to Turkmenistan, a very special country in Central Asia that I love. In my blog post on Russia I discuss my decision to travel from home during these pandemic times. I chose the most sustainable way that I could think of – revisiting my travel memories. This time, I’ll revisit the summer of 2004, when I embarked on a six-month internship to support refugees in Turkmenistan.

The president and the new Ashgabat

When you mention Turkmenistan to people, they often bring up its previous president Saparmurat Niyazov and his peculiarities. For instance, that he constructed a very impressive Ashgabat where one can find palace after palace in marble. These palaces are actually offices for various government agencies.

Travel from Home Turkmenistan Ashgabat

Among these palaces stands this one, the house of the president:

Travel from Home Turkmenistan president house

And impressively luxurious hotels where you would find yourself mostly as the sole guest, sitting all alone in their incredibly lavish restaurants. The country was very difficult for tourists to visit at that time, so these extravagant hotels were mostly empty. Another facet of this new Ashgabat was its numerous statues. These have been built mainly in praise of President Niyazov and you can see them on the photos below, without leaving home:

Travel from home Turkmenistan president statue

Niyazov rewrote the history of his nation, a book called Ruhnama. It is a spiritual guidance of the nation that all Turkmen citizens had to study.

Travel from Home Turkmenistan president book

Travel without leaving home: Ashgabat, where I lived

The locals did not go to this marble city much (unless they worked in one of the government offices). I also stopped going to this fancy part of the city after my first visits there as a tourist. The locals’ Ashgabat looked very different. For instance, these were the buildings where I lived during my stay:

Travel from Home Turkmenistan Ashgabat


Travel from Home Turkmenistan Ashgabat

This shows the face of the other Ashgabat. I came to love this old Ashgabat, the incredible markets …

Travel from Home Turkmenistan market

… and the ovens outside the buildings to bake bread.

Travel Turkmenistan bread baking

Time travel, without leaving home

In many ways, life in Turkmenistan also took me back to my childhood. My country Estonia had tried to cut out as many “Soviet things” as possible after independence. Yet Turkmenistan had quite a few of them still present in its daily life. For instance, many people drove Soviet cars or had a trying to get to be the first when queuing. The latter was a necessary survival skill in perestroika time with prevailing deficit of everything. The first time I boarded a plane in Turkmenistan, I remember a physical fight. This broke out between some elderly Turkmen women as who could board the plane first! What made it so absurd was that we all actually had seats indicated on our tickets. I also recall the flight attendant who saw me shocked beside these fighting women. She “rescued” me, helping me get to the plane.

Such help was not always there, unfortunately. Once I decided that I would go by myself to buy flight tickets to Uzbekistan. Although I was before the opening and second in the queue, I never managed to get the tickets. The next day, a local colleague had to help me with that. I never mastered the skill of cutting queues—I just was not bold enough to do it.

Karakum desert and Darvaza gaz crater

The name of Karakum desert was familiar to me, as this was the best-known desert that one could visit during Soviet times. Visiting the Sahara was not an option then.

Along with the president’s marble city and the Karakum desert, the burning hole was what impressed me the most in Turkmenistan. After having driven some hours in the Karakum desert, we reached the Darvaza gaz crater. It is also called the “Door to Hell” and is presented on one of the featured photo. The crater is very impressive, beyond what I could imagine.

I also remember that we stayed nearby and camped in tents. And I was afraid of scorpions coming and biting me.

Travel without leaving home: The dinosaur’s footprints

When I was first told about the dinosaur’s footprints that you can see in lava, I thought it was a joke. But we visited this place, and it is quite incredible. As in the case of Sarykum sand dune that I described in my post on Russia, the dinosaurs’ footprints on this little stripe of lava…

Travel from home Turkmenistan dinosaure

…were so out of place compared to the rest of the landscape of the country.

Travel from Home Turkmenistan

Caspian sea and Türkmenbashy

My time in Turkmenistan also included my first meeting with the Caspian Sea, during our office retreat in Türkmenbashy. Although it is called a sea, I had learned in school that it is actually the world largest lake. It is also well-known for caviar. I still remember my first time swimming there. Because of the oil industry, it was not as clean as I had imagined.

Working with refugees in Turkmenistan

I was able to travel around quite a lot in Turkmenistan, but this was not my main activity. Most of the time I was visiting Afghan refugees in Ashgabat. My work was to help assess who was particularly vulnerable and should receive financial support. Additionally, an important Tajik refugee community resided in Turkmenistan, and I was able to visit them as well. This mission to Turkmenistan was one of my early experiences working with and for displaced communities—something that I also do now, 17 years later.

Turkmen clothes, carpets, and scarves

We have national clothes in Estonia, but with only a few exceptions (like the little island called Kihnu that I described in my sustainable vacation blog post), no one is walking around in national clothes in Estonia. Those who have them mostly participate in a choral or national dance group and use the traditional clothes during performances. Yet in Turkmenistan, at least in 2004, most women wore traditional clothes all the time!

Turkmen woman weaving

I even got a traditional garment for myself! And it is not only the clothes – even shoes can be made from this traditional embroidery.

And then the Turkmen carpets! The best-known are the red ones, but there are many different kinds. The silk ones from neighbouring countries can also be bought there, and at the time they were not expensive compared to the prices in Europe, so many expats bought a lot of them.

In short, an amazing country that I recommend you to visit and very nice people to get to know! What country would you like to travel to without leaving home?