Can you take a vacation in an authoritarian country and have a good time? Travel writer Alex Robertson Textor heads to the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan to find out what it’s like.
Who travels to Turkmenistan? Not many people, apparently—although because visitor statistics are not published by the United Nations’ World Travel Organization (UNWTO), it’s difficult to actually identify foreign visitor numbers. The best estimates suggest fewer than 10,000 tourists visit annually. There is additional anecdotal evidence that many visa applications are rejected.
And make no bones about it: Turkmenistan is a totalitarian dictatorship. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks it fifth from the bottom of its democracy index and Human Rights Watch refers to it as an “extremely repressive” country, where “all fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedoms of association, expression, and religion” are limited.
I’m in Turkmenistan with my sister and mother as part of a three-country Silk Road tour, crossing into the country from Uzbekistan. Years ago our mother told us that her dream trip was a Silk Road adventure; we waited for a big birthday to treat her. On a very hot August morning, after completing formalities in a swirl of chaos and hassle on the Uzbek side of the border, we approach the Turkmen border post, a gleaming building that still smells new. We fill out forms, wait for a half hour, and get our passports stamped. The experience is almost painless.
For us. Here, dissidents face physical intimidation and imprisonment. Journalists are locked up or chased out of the country. There is, as you would expect, no free press. National newspapers, all featuring the president on their front pages, are flimsy things, just a few pages in length. Social media apps and sites are blocked. During my visit, I don’t spot a single international newspaper for sale.
Turkmenistan requires visitors to have guides, but the truth is, they really serve as minders; only in the cities are tourists permitted to roam unaccompanied.
Its president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, rules the country with an absurd cult of personality. His image—portraits as well as multimedia depictions of him exercising, riding horses, racing cars and even DJ-ing—is omnipresent.
A taxi picks us up outside the customs station and drives us to a dusty section of the road. The driver yells toward a score of parked cars and a tall, sleepy man emerges: Murad, our guide for the next five days. Turkmenistan requires visitors to have guides, but the truth is, they really serve as minders; only in the cities are tourists permitted to roam unaccompanied. Smooth, affable and full of laughter, he charms my mother, lapses into frequent conversations in Russian with my sister, and is prone to the odd burst of propaganda—“Berdimuhamedow is an excellent race car driver!”
In the city of Bairamaly, where we stop to buy some sunglasses, I snap photos at the market, which occupies an unadorned barn of a building. Later, glancing at these images, I spot several locals in the background. One woman is hiding behind her hands; another looks shocked out of her mind; it seems tourists are not a frequent sighting. As we motor toward Merv, we spy people working in the cotton fields, their bicycles parked by the side of the road.
Merv is an ancient city of huge archaeological significance, dating back to the third millennium BC. We’re the only tourists in the entire complex, which takes hours to do justice. That night, we stay at a large, lavish hotel in Mary, where again we appear to be the only guests, bar two natural gas technicians.
The next morning, I travel solo with the guide to Gonur Depe, an early Bronze Age settlement. There’s a new driver, an Armenian fellow who takes control of his 4WD vehicle as if it were a bucking bronco. We stop by a tiny village and the guide purchases meat-filled pastries for breakfast; gamey, rich and delicious. As the vehicle rocks wildly across sand tracks, he, unbidden, launches into attacks on the hypocrisy of western states (“The Netherlands is the only western country I respect, because they go all the way”), media coverage of Russia’s annexation of Crimea (“every journalist tells a different story—doesn’t that prove that everyone is lying?”), which leads to an assault on the very nature of journalistic truth.
When we arrive at Gonur Depe, the temperature is already 40 degrees Celsius. Again, we are the only visitors. Gonur Depe’s central citadel is almost two square kilometers in size, quite a sight—and in a country with more tourists, it would rightly be mobbed.
The next day, we move on to the capital, Ashgabat. Brand new security measures are in place ahead of the upcoming Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games; a roadblock here, a checkpoint there. Inside the metropolitan region there are tons of road and museum closures. Our guide asks security guards for details; he’s almost always met with stony silence. Several times, we encounter traffic jams, cars stopped for 30 minutes at a time, without explanation.
Inflation is wildly out of control, unemployment is sky-high, and there are food shortages. And the government, worried about losing people, have quietly reimposed exit visas, a cruel Soviet tradition.
Ashgabat is a city of white marble, enormous statues, parks, and flashing lights. Several of its buildings are borderline insane, like the Palace of Happiness, where couples get married. It is crowned with a cube encasing a glittery globe, over 30 meters in diameter. Throughout, Ashgabat is spic-and-span clean, not a leaf out of place. During the day, the pristine streets and parks are full of workers, sweeping and scrubbing. Every monument and museum has a certain totalitarian sameness; everywhere there are tributes to the current president or his predecessor.
Some statues look truly ludicrous, like the one devoted to the Ruhnama, a mystical and apparently historically inaccurate book written by the former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Entire floors of museums are devoted to bizarre photoshopped images of Berdimuhamedow—surrounded by puppies in one, riding a horse in another—and sometimes pictured with objects dear to him. My favorite, at the National Museum of History and Ethnography, is the trophy commemorating no specified feat, just a mass of white and gold plastic with no stated purpose or point.
But it’s also in Ashgabat that we experience some sort of normality; the market vendors who make conversation while selling us apricot kernels and tea, while in a side-street Russian café serving delicious coffee, a customer tries to bargain, somewhat clumsily, with the cashier for his khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). Later, at a restaurant in a leafy courtyard, we feast on grilled meats and drink beer in the sweltering evening heat, dance music pulsing through the air.
But given the context, it soon comes to feel like a simulation of normalcy. One evening, we wander along Independence Square, lined with marble ministries and the presidential palace, and home to marble statues, timed fountains, and flashing lights that change color. Security guards wave us away from an enormous LED screen showing a group of men madly applauding the president. It’s impossible to tell if anyone is genuinely enthusiastic; my assumption as an outsider is that the only true enthusiasts in any totalitarian society are those people benefiting directly from it.
On the morning of our departure, we pull up to the luminous Ashgabat airport. It is an impressive building, opened in 2016, and looks like a stylized bird from outside. Inside, the ceiling glows with light; from some angles, the ceiling panels look like teardrops. It’s beautiful if overwhelming in its over-the-top glitz. Our guide tells me I can’t take any photos of it but there’s a glimpse of it in this video, which documents Turkmen citizens being prevented from leaving the country. Why are they leaving? Inflation is wildly out of control, unemployment is sky-high, and there are food shortages. And the government, worried about losing people, have quietly reimposed exit visas, a cruel Soviet tradition.
Turkmenistan evokes complicated emotions. The trip has felt absolutely worthwhile and I don’t regret a minute of it. The archaeological sites are, without hyperbole, amazing. The landscapes are striking and the cities, weird authoritarian modernism aside, are not without their charms. Of course, it’s impossible to lose a sense that this modernism is distastefully rooted in strongman corruption. But as the plane takes off, the main emotion I feel is relief. Tourists’ encounters with authoritarianism in a place like Turkmenistan may be superficial, a far cry from the experience of life there, but they’re also exhausting.
For anyone considering a similar trip, adventure travel company Wild Frontiers specializes in tours to some of the world’s most intriguing destinations, including Turkmenistan.
A California-born travel writer and editor who splits his time between between London and Lisbon, Alex Robertson Textor has written for numerous publications and is also the publisher-editor of new travel magazine Fields & Stations.