Turkmenistan - Why are the streets so empty?

The biggest indoor Ferries Wheel in the world is in Turkmenistan

Until a few years ago, Turkmenistan was one of those countries I had never heard of or known that it existed. Turkmenistan is one of the countries from which it is very difficult to get a visa for a visit. This is probably because the country has a lot of corruption and the rulers can do whatever they want.

And as there is always enough gas that is easily being sold for good money. So they don’t need much help from the neighbor countries, or any other country at all. No marketing is needed to advertise the country outside.

Interesting place, but strange

What I've seen here is visually alien-like with architecture like nowhere else on the planet, but I was wondering, why this city is so empty. There are dozens of huge white marble apartment buildings but I saw no people going in or out in any of them.

Locals don't like to talk about that topic and it's even forbidden for them to talk in public about politics. My only answer is that these buildings are not meant to be for locals but mainly used as status objects, to show the richness of the government.




Is it really that difficult to get a Visa for Turkmenistan?

Getting a visa seems to be very difficult and the internet tells me all over that it is. The internet ranks it as one of the hardest countries to enter. Compared to most countries I've been to, some effort is indeed necessary but in the end, it was actually an easy and straight forward process, without even going or applying to an embassy.




The situation is that Turkmenistan does not want to take any risks and wants to keep the dead bodies hidden in the basement. As long as there was no Internet and as only a few strangers and tourists were streaming into the country, this was also quite possible without too much effort.

Meanwhile, it becomes easier from year to year to receive a visa, as the Turkmen slowly get used to tourism. Therefore it has become more normal to issue visas to westerners.

Option 1: Transit visa

No Letter Of Invitation is required for this. It needs to be obtained at an embassy before traveling to Turkmenistan. A transit visa can be applied for when entering an official border post, but it's necessary leaving the country via another official border post. Example: Entering Azerbaijan by boat and leaving Iran by car.

Option 2: Tourist Visa

A Letter Of Invitation is required for this and a “tour” must be booked to obtain a visa and to get an LOI from the operator.

I didn’t want a tour with a tour guide who always walks me through the streets and so the tour operator only offered me the LOI service so that I will be able to walk freely in Turkmenistan. The tour operators know what they are doing and it is a standard process. Although it takes about 4 weeks once the money is transferred to the tour operators bank account, means with inquiries and sending the filled form and transferring the money, it takes in total about 5-6 weeks. It takes so long because the LOI needs to be granted and stamped by the Turkmenistan authorities.

I then received an official LOI by email which practically served as a visa and it was only necessary to show up with the LOI and the passport in the airport. Entry to the country and the associated shiny green Turkmenistan visa sticker in the passport was then only formality.

For me, only option 2 was possible because I wanted to leave Ashgabat by air and fly to Azerbaijan.


Map of Ashgabat
What to see and what to do in Ashgabat. The map shows the most important attractions for tourists




Day 1 - Arrival in the empty capital

The entry to Ashgabat via airport is usually at very inhuman times, i.e. in the middle of the night or almost in the morning.




I arrived there in the new airport was impressed by how fast the arriving passengers were processed. The extremely nice modern airport is built to transfer 800 people per 30 minutes but it's only served by about 3 airlines and prices are accordingly expensive.

The airport is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Didn’t expect this! With the LOI it was no problem to get the visa at the visa counter. Costs about 90 USD depending on nationality.


Hotels are "different"

I arrived early in the early morning and the driver was already waiting to take me to the hotel "Ak Altyn". In Turkmenistan, everything is controlled and extremely meticulously regulated. Being able to get earlier in the room than the time specified for check-in?

That’s illegal and under no circumstances possible, this would be almost like asking the pilot to leave earlier than planned.

The hotel is OK, its typical soviet standard with bulky massive construction and old furniture, but it even had a pool without any insects due to the high amount of chloride used.


The thing with the money...

Getting those Turkmen Manat is not a straight forward process. There are not many banks around, or not visible from outside in the streets.

I was lucky that the driver who brought me here provided me with some black market Manat. A normal exchange rate is 3.5 Manat for 1 Dollar. The black market rate is 15 Manat for 1 Dollar. However, its almost IMPOSSIBLE to change the Manat back to Dollar when leaving the country.


Internet is heavily restricted and controlled 

Wifi is also good, but almost everything that could be a risk of a leak or having a negative impact in Turkmenistan is blocked. So for Turkmenistan, the rule is, the less information that is available on the internet, the better. The state regulates here pretty much everything that somehow offers the easy possibility to publish information from or about Turkmenistan.

There is internet access but this is extremely slow and extremely controlled or restricted. The government doesn’t want a negative impact or influence from the internet for its citizen and vice-versa, doesn’t want that “information” is leaked to out to the world. As there is no internet messenger like WhatsApp available in Turkmenistan, I didn't see many people using a mobile phone for texting or surfing the internet.

Turkmenistan ranked is 178th out of 180, with only North Korea and Eritrea below it. This puts it in the top 10 of most censored countries.


The first walk through one of the weirdest cities I've ever been

Was tired because of the lack of sleep. But didn't have any time for sleeping this morning and wanted to use it as much as possible. All the roads in the direction of the center are easy to walk and absolutely clean.

The closer from the center the more police can be seen. In contrast to many African countries, these Soviet policemen are however all quite friendly but strict. They make quite clear what is allowed and if one should get the hell off with the camera.

But they are also well used to tourists and know what tourists would like to photograph, but are not allowed to.

Empty streets in Ashgabat.
Bitaraplyk şaýoly is the street from the presidents house to the south of Ashgabat
The streets are huge but there are so few people its strange, as if all was closed.They struggle to surviveA cinema from year 2000 in Ashgabat. Its the most modern cinema in town.Turkmenistans President is the Turkman of all the TurkmenNot far from Ashgabat is Iran. Across the border is Mashad.Students have to read the presidents badly written book to get accepted to the university



Besides the "Ak Altyn" hotel is the "Turkmen State Circus"

It's damn hard to find restaurants in Ashgabat. There is no advertising on the walls or roofs that there is a pizza or pasta. There are also no supermarkets unless you know where to find them. Besides the Ak Altyn Hotel there are fortunately two quite good restaurants and a bigger supermarket.

Right behind the hotel was the circus. A few hundred meters further on was the main train station.
Ashgabat has a own train line but its too expensive for normal people to use
In Ashgabat TurkmenistanSoon they all will be gone. An ancient relict of working car in AshgabatTurkmenistans main circus has not many events but when, they use mainly horses



Walk along through the "Square of Inspiration".

I thought that maybe its still morning, that this is the reason not many people are around. But during my whole stay in Ashgabat, I realized this is normal. There are many wonderful parks for sitting and relaxing but there are no people! The majority of people I saw were cleaning personnel or police officers, almost no civilians compared to the size of such a huge city.
Turkmenistan has an alley which is dedicated to inspiration. It honors all the presidents.
Not many people walk in TurkmenistanThe cleanest city of the world is AshgabatNo people but lots of inspiration lies in the park of the Inspirations.



Watch horses at the "park of 10 Akhalteke horses"

Its a national treasure for Turkmenistan. Turkmen are fanatic about horses and it's their national animal. President Turkmenbashi compares his country to a horse, as its proceeding and running with the speed of a horse (his words).
Giant horses on top of the stage
The horse is the president Turkmenbashis favorite animalLots of golden buildingsBeside the park of 10 Akhalteke horses are many miles of empty avenues



Be careful around "Presidental Palace" and the "Museums" (taking photos not very welcome)

The presidential palace is a huge house in a gigantic area. But it's not allowed to get close.




Police in civil at many monuments. It's obvious as they stand there doing nothing but shout when I try to take a photo. Many are in civil and look like normal pedestrians. But when observing them for a few minutes they basically always walk the same 100 meters forth and back and wait at bus stations to look around.

During my stay in this country, I felt somehow observed all the time. And I somehow was confirmed by this later in the afternoon.
The house of Turkmenistans President. He died in July, according to rumors from Russia. If that happens Serdar Berdymukhamedov, his son, will take power.
The president lives in luxury and invests all the oilmoney into new golden statues and buildingsAround the house of Turkmenistans president, the roads are ridiculously empty!Only soldiers and guardians where watching me and had an easy job



Green roof with backlit domes. The palace "Ruhyýet Palace" 

With all the different names its sometimes difficult to find the right building, as this one also is called Grand Palace.

The leadership in Turkmenistan has always been a dictatorship and is similar to in North Korea with its isolated behavior in the world. According to the World Press Freedom Index
Its not allowed to take photos and you could land in prison
Turkmenistans Libarary has hundreds of exemplars of the presidents own written bookIts one of the main buildings of the presidentThe museum does probably not tell the truth about Turkmenistans evoution and how locals get beaten



The white EMPTY marble buildings everywhere

Gas and electricity are free in Turkmenistan, so some citizens opt to have their stoves burning 24/7 to avoid the cost of using matches. There are not many people around in the streets of Ashgabat and the buildings are almost all empty.

Only some of them are occupied. It's like a huge ghost town.
Hundreds of empty apartments are empty because they are too expensive
They all have to wear red dressesExpensive houses. I wonder how they maintain to keep them shiny white.Everything is white in AshgabatThey are more isolated than North Korea. And have a stranger capital.There are only a few buildings occupied. The rest is for prestige.There are not many people walking in Ashgabat



The sunny statue "10 years of Independence park"

This golden thing is the president Turkmenbashi and always rotates towards the sun. The president of Turkmenistan was a dentist before he became president. Also, he is a racing car driver, a rapper and wrote several books about tea.

In July 2019, the rumor was spread that Turkmenbashi had died of kidney failure. Since people in Turkmenistan have no free internet and didn't know that it was just a rumor, the whole world knew that it was just bad joke, but the Turkmen remained in the belief that their dentist of all dentists is gone.
The statue is clean as new - Always!
It always turns towards the sun. Its the statue of TurkmenbashiAshgabat has so many people but no one lives in the beautiful white marble buildingsTurkmenistan is rich. At least the president. He builds nice parks for the people who are not there.






Turkmenistan's famous national "puppet theater"

I thought it is some kind of shopping mall as it looks like one. Only after passing by and being informed by the cleaning person that this is the puppet theater and there is no restaurant with cappuccino inside. The building costs 15 million USD!
Its not shown on google maps but its there. In a corner of the streets in Ashgabat.
When I entered it was more like toy store.Artists and architects are well paid in TurkmenistanWhy dont we have bus stops with TV and A/C?



See the big horse head at "Olympic Stadium".

The national animal in Turkmenistan is the horse. They like horse but hate dogs. I didn't see one dog and some people confirmed me:

In Turkmenistan dogs are not allowed, they are banned. The president prohibited the existense of dogs because he things they have an odd smell.

The stadium looks like it was built for Olympia but that's not the case. They just built it for fun and it hasn't even been built for a bid of Olympic Games, neither has any international tournament ever been hosted there. It's mainly used for football matches.
Turkmenistans national stadium is formed as a giant horse head
Its ready for tournaments but Turkmenistan doesnt like to have mass tourismMaybe in 20 years this country will be ready to host athletes.



Try to read in the big book at the "Ruhnama Monument"

The book is written by the former president and every student has to read it, to be even allowed to attend the university. It's part of the questionnaire for the university entrance interview. This giant book stands next to the huge independence park.
Everybody has to read it in Turkmenistan to be accepted in school
Ruhnama is the national book written by Turkmenbashi, the former presidentPeople dont like the book but he insists everybody has to like itTurkmenistans houses are famous for its emptyness but beautiful white facade



The warriors around the "Independence Monument"

Huge statues of the around the independence monument. 25 comically looking statues of Turkmen heroes standing around the Turkmenbashi statue and the monument.
Turkmen warriors who fought for Turkmenbash
The metal warriors of Turkmenistan protect the BashiThe president stature is the birds nest and it just did a big business on itThe huge heroe statue are good for phtos



Guardians and their "Independence Monument"

The monument sits in the middle of an empty park with no people in sight.

But what exactly is so excessively celebrated with the monument remains unclear. It was some independence thing from the Soviet Union, however many think that in reality, Turkmenistan was not at all that eager to gain independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.
They built it to celebrate freedom from the Soviet Union
This statue carries the weapons of ancient TurkmenistanGiant statue in AshgabatMany statues are splattered around independence towerHeroes standing in huge dimension in front of the memorialMe in front of the Independence squareTurkmenistans public swimming pools They are holding the wood of TurkmenistanWith helmet and sword and shield he protects the independence squareDozens of Turkmenistan Flags around the Square



The library "Place of Knowledge"

Huge building two roads further down south of the Independence Park. It was closed when I was there but it should be a library and a concert hall when it's open.
Its the palace of knowledge
Its not a mall, but a libraryEmpty roads but huge expressive architectureLeads towards the city center



Take a quick look at the "Constitution Monument"

Monument to the Turkmenistan Constitution is a monument located in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Its height of 185 meters makes it the second-tallest building in
Inside the complex is a museum, a conference room, a library, a gift shop and a cafeteria.
Belongs to the most important monuments in history of country TurkmenistanTravelling to every countryTraveling to Turkmenistan is not easy. Visa is difficult to get.How to get the Turkmenistan Visa in 2019. Not as difficult anymore!In Turkmenistan travelers are welcome, but its difficult to get in.



Have a coffee in the ferry wheel at the "Alem Center"

It's supposed to be an entertainment center, but it's far from everything in almost the middle of nowhere. The ferry wheel works again. Its the largest Ferris wheel on the world. It looks fantastic from outside, but behind the facade are empty food stores.




However, there is an entertainment center with old gaming machines and there are good massage chairs for one manat only per 5 minutes. Together with some coffee ice cream biscuits for about 1 dollar in total.
Out of the planet Architecure. The Alem Center is an example of complex construction.
Its the largest indoor ferries wheelIts in middle east. And its difficult to get there as a foreigner.The Ashgabat Ferries Wheel has not many passengers because there are not many people.Me standing beside the Alem centerTurkmenistan belongs to the most remarkable countries on the planet!



Relax in the Bus stations with A/C and TV

The roads in Ashgabat are quite long and the sun is in top form during the summer months. But the bus system is simple and people like to help if you know about the destination. Waiting for the bus is also fun, the bus stops in Ashgabat are equipped with A/C and TV.
Turkmenistan by Bus. With Aircondition and no hassle!
Turkmenistan has the most modern Bus station on the planetLocal bus ride in Ashgabat is easy. Always north to south and vice versa.Emptyness everywhere. Its like a facade.



Impressive architecture at the "Wedding Palace" and "Yldyz Hotel"

Like a disco ball. But its meant to be what is said to be, the wedding palace, where people go shopping for weddings. A strange building and photogenic from everywhere.

The Egg building is the Yldzy hotel and is a 6-star hotel. Also here, I didn't see ANYBODY walking around or getting in or out of the hotel. If there are really guests there, I don't know.

Getting back with the bus again was quite easy, especially with google maps its possible to estimate which bus station will be served. So now back at the hotel take a shower and get ready for dinner. Restaurants are quite hard to find in the middle of Ashgabat. They are all so well camouflaged and not visible from the outside, as are shops. But around the corner from the hotel, there were several restaurants and they are perfectly suited for tourists.
Not many people can afford buying products in the wedding palace of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan as the marriage country of the world. Maybe.Too expensive for normal people. But the president can afford it - at least.Turkmenistans Yldyz Hotel is the strangest and emptiest luxury hotel in the worldTurkmenistan has lot of land to cover it with white marble apartment blocks.This country will evolve and be the most modern and white country with Ashgabat as capital.



Taking photo can get problematic in Turkmenistan!

On the way back from the Alem Center I got off the bus to walk the streets and see the white marble buildings.

While getting off I took a picture of the empty streets because they look so great with the many high empty marble towers. There were only a few people on the long streets, except for two passers-by, there wasn't a soul at all ANYWHERE.




Then I waited in the bus stop and saw that two policemen walk quickly in my direction, constantly in walkie-talkie contact. A few meters before me at the bus stop they took a look at me and walked again in the other direction - constantly again speaking to the walkie-talkie. A few minutes later the two passers-by who walked around earlier, they suddenly also arrived at the bus stop and both with a walkie-talkie. So this is Turkmenistan and they were those policemen in civilian clothes. They sat down just next to me and asked:

Don't you want to sit down here and wait, its more comfortable to wait when sitting?

At first, I friendly refused as it is easier to see the bus standing up. Thereupon I was again asked to sit down and he almost showed me how I should sit down, what I did then.

Look, when you sit its much better, the bus will stop, no worries.

Now! It was clear that they are here because of me and have probably seen me taking those pictures before of the white buildings.

Arrests happen quickly here

Probably they wanted to take care that I don't take any more photos and just get out here with the bus.

A few minutes later another of these walkie-talkie cops joined and sat down right next to my left. None of them made anything or asked anything, the situation was tense and I didn't know if I would get away alone or if they would follow me the whole day from now.

The bus rolled up, I got on and hoped that they wouldn't get in and join on the same bus. They got up - but thankfully didn't get in, but gave some radio messages through the walkies. The bus started, what a relief. I definitely didn't want to experience something like that in Burkina Faso again.

The police didn't like when I made photos here. I guess all these empty buildings are only built for prestige.
White buildings everywhere in Turkmenistan!
Only white. It does matter if black or white in TurkmenistanNo black buildings are allowed. But who wants in Turkmenistan black houses?Marble in white is expensive but the president can afford it.




Day 2 - Another day in sunny Ashgabat

In the morning I asked for an early checkout so that I don't need to come back at noon only for checkout. But the hotel staff was not amused, were immediately suspecting me somehow, base on their strange reaction, they were wondering what I plan to do and asked me all kind of questions about my "strange" idea. I think this was because I'm supposed to be picked up by the tour operator driver and not leave Ashgabat alone.

Have one more day in Turkmenistan before I go to Azerbaijan tomorrow after midnight.

I took the city bus once through Ashgabat to have a kind of city tour. But I stayed away from yesterday's quarter to avoid running into the same policeman again.

In the middle of Ashgabat, there is the shopping mall. There I saw for the first time large crowds of Turkmen people, the larger crowd being maybe a few dozen people.
Covered in clothes from top to bottom
Berkarar Mall is the most western house in whole TurkmenistanTurkmenistan has TV but very limited and restrictedPower of horses in Turkmenistan even reflected on buildings.



Having lunch and see what kind of products they have in "Berkarar Mall"

Back to the hotel and then into the pool. Since I was not allowed to stay in the room any longer under any circumstances, I still had the whole day until after midnight, I made myself comfortable at the Hotel Pool. Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most public pools in a single place.




The Berkarar Mall is the biggest Mall in Ashgabat. I was surprised to see so many imported products from all over the world. Also, there is a lot of Soviet products, but the biggest products the Soviet system introduced are theaters, television, radio, and cinemas.
White horses but no horse meat to eat in the Shopping Mall
No security necessary for the mall in TurkmenistanThe money is flowing in form of oil and invested in buildingsOnly very few have money to survive. Ususally they are connected to the government.




Day 3 - Departure to Azerbaijan through an amazing airport

My plan was to continue to Azerbaijan and then to Iran.

After midnight the driver from the tour operator brought me to the airport. Already mentioned in the beginning how spectacular the new airport is. From outside it has the form of a giant bird. The airport is huge and bright… but very empty. It is built to cope with thousands of passengers per hour but in reality, there are only about 100 passengers in the whole airport.

The long aisle to the gate is totally empty. Dozens of gates but all of them… empty.

Only police officers standing there every 40 meters. They were standing around without any slight indicator of threat, and they clearly were bored.

Huge Airport, but totally empty

I ended up in the gate and because it was so totally empty there I was wondering if this is the right gate, but it was. Up until departure we summed up to 6 passengers for the Lufthansa flight to Azerbaijan. The crew then arrived in a group of 8 crew members. 5 Flight attendants, 2 pilots and 1 something else. Emptiness also in the plane, have never been in such an empty plane. Ashgabat to Baku such a pleasant flight.


1 comment:

  1. Turkmenistan is a very beautiful place. There are a lot of buildings and true works of art to be seen there but just like you, I too noticed how empty it was. I was there last year. I had thought maybe it was just the time of year but more and more travelers are talking about this. In a way, it made it easier to absorb everything. I have some stunning pictures and plan to go back next year. You got some nice shots yourself.

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