Travelling in Turkmenistan with no travel agency and no private vehicle! How to move around by shared taxis, hitchhiking, and trains.
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- Baku –> Türkmenbaşı
- Türkmenbaşı → Darvaza (day 1)
- Darvaza → Ashgabat (day 2)
- Ashgabat → Turkmenabat (day 3, into day 4)
- Turkmenabat (day 4)
- Turkmenabat → Bukhara, Uzbekistan (day 5)
Baku → Türkmenbaşı
We crossed the Caspian sea taking the Azerbaijani cargo boat from the Baku Sea Port in Alat. It cost $60 each and took more than 24hours over all
For further details and useful information about it, read our article about the Caspian sea ferry, from Baku to Türkmenbaşı. We got our visas processed and our passports stamped at about 4 am, so we had a full day 1 ahead! Sleepless, but full 😄
For more details about the Turkmenistan visa, check out our article:
Turkmenistan Visa and Useful Tips to Survive in the Country
Türkmenbaşı → Darvaza (day 1)
While waiting for the first bus at the port of Türkmenbaşı, we started talking with a guy from Ashgabat who decided to help us. He called a friend to take us to exchange money at the bazar (1$= 18 manat, unofficial rate; again, have a look at our article about Turkmenistan Visa and Useful Tips to Survive in the Country for more info about it and tips about the country) and then to catch a shared taxi to go to Ashgabat. Indeed, our original plan was to go straight to Ashgabat but, on our way there, we found out that the three people on our shared taxi were taxi drivers who were going to Dashoguz, which is past Darvaza.
We started thinking that doing 10-hour driving in one shot was better than splitting it between two days, so we asked the driver to take us to Darvaza, the Gate to Hell. They agreed and accepted to do for double the price (150 manat to Ashgabat + 150 to Darvaza, per person, which is a very good price apparently).
The journey went super smoothly as they were very nice people: the driver felt like he was a F1 driver, the co-pilot fed us all they way, and the guy next to us was smiley and chatty and gifted Guido with his traditional hat! They were not convinced about us staying in Darvaza for the night and didn’t really believe us when we told them that there would have been yurtas there. Indeed, they looked very surprised when they saw organized yurta camps around the crater. We took some pictures together and then they left.
There, we rented a tent for $15 per two people, it’s $10 if you are alone. It’s really worth spending a night there as the crater is stunning at night! During the afternoon, we spent some time looking for a lift to Ashgabat for the following day. A Chinese guy was keen to take us with him but his driver denied this possibly because of the risk to be fined by his travel agency. However, they agreed on taking us to the main road (which is 7 km far away), so that we could have hitchhiked. We were lucky, actually. If we hadn’t met them, we would have had to pay $50 each for a taxi or walk in the desert for 7 km…
Darvaza → Ashgabat (day 2)
At 8 in the morning we were ready to go with our Chinese friend! The 4×4 left us on the main road and there we were, in the middle of nowhere! Firstly, we walked a few metres till the police checkpoint to ask him for a taxi, he said he had no idea and then continued his business (that is, stopping cars to get some cash…). Thus, we got back to the junction with Darvaza and waited..
A private minibus from Darvaza stopped by but asked us for money, while bargaining, we saw a blue lorry coming through the main road..we stopped it and two friendly smiles gestured us to jump in! Well, it was a long way to Ashgabat (280km) but we were not in a hurry!
We found out they were Uzbek going towards Türkmenbaşı; they were carrying fruit and vegetables and then they gave us a melon and some tomatoes!. The journey passed slowing taking pics of every single camel along the road, sleeping (it was quite spacious and comfy), listening to international music and recording videos of it, enjoying the bumpy road and the bribing at every checkpoint, of course!
The lorry drivers left us at the junction between Ashgabat and Türkmenbaşı – we saw it on maps.me as there are no street signs. They stopped a taxi for us and we agreed to pay 50 manat to Kuwwat Hotel. Unfortunately, the taxi driver wanted to cheat on us keeping 60 manat as we gave him 100. We had to be very rude all the way to the hotel and Guido used the usual “nice” Italian words to have our final 10 manat back.
- Kuwwat Hotel is nice and central. We had an ensuite private room and paid $15 each per one night. We recommend it for your stay in Ashgabat as we think it’s one of the cheapest hotel. There is no wi-fi, though.
Ashgabat → Turkmenabat (day 3, into day 4)
We spent day 3 visiting the white city! Have a look at our article about Ashgabat for more details and awesome pics about it. At 7 pm we moved to the train station as our night train to Turkmenabat was leaving at 8 pm (there is also one at 3 pm and one at 6pm).
- We had booked it at the train station the day before choosing the 4-people cabin and paying 53 manat per person (the 6-people cabin costs 33 manat each). We had a perfect journey as we shared the cabin with a young girl and his father and we actually slept all night.
Turkmenabat (day 4)
We got to Turkmenabat very punctual at 9:30 am (we were told trains are usually late) and waited for our couchsurfer in front of the white national museum opposite the train station. Doing couchsurfing in Turkmenistan is an experience that we truly recommend as Turkmen people are very welcoming! It may be illegal, but many people do it. We deeply thank our couchsurfer for guesting us, it was lovely!!
In Turkmenabat, we visited the bazar No. 5 and the main shopping centre with our friend, and we walked a bit along the main road on ourselves. The city is not particularly beautiful but it’s worth a stay to see how everyday life is and to talk to the locals.
- We were told that the huge bazaar was destroyed a few years ago in order to build the biggest hospital of the region. That’s why many little bazaars are now at the edges of the city. But what are the edges? Well, the city is growing fast as the central government is giving pieces of desert to the people so as to urbanize the area. If you are not a landlord, you can ask for a piece of desert land. Once it’s given to you, you can build your house: you have to buy the project from the government, so that all the houses look the same from the outside (desert-colored walls and green roofs), and then you can do the inside as you like. The government provides you with free water (not bad for being in the desert…) but doesn’t give you neither gas, electricity, or a road to get there. The whole process may take you ten years, mainly because it costs money and the average salary is around $50 per month.
- People are keen to talk and to complain about the system, but they do it at their conditions (inside a locked car or house), at their time (don’t push them), and in their own, subtle way (they may tell you that Turkmen newspapers are more useful to do something else than to give you news).
Turkmenabat → Bukhara, Uzbekistan (day 5)
Our couchsurfer took as to Farap border (about 30 mins from the city) at about 8:30 am. When we got there, it looked like a refugee camp. Considering that the border opens at 7am, people must have been there way before and queued for hours. We started setting our mind on “be patient and wait”, when a policeman told us to pass all the people and cross the gate. We felt ashamed and embarrassed when the local people created a corridor to let us pass through. Our passports were checked to enter the military area and we were told to wait in line for the minibus (1 manat) to the actual border (Maris, our friend from the Caspian sea ferry, told us that as a tourist you can actually walk to the border; we didn’t know and we didn’t ask, so we waited for our turn).
At the border, same story: a corridor was made for us and we had to pass all the people. The soldier there was actually very rude and kicked luggage and people who didn’t move immediately. Ashamed, we walked through the corridor and had our passports stamped. Afterwards, another minibus (1 manat) took us to the exit of Turkmen military area where our passports were checked again.
From there, another minibus took us to the Uzbek border (2.5 manat or the equivalent of Uzbek som – which you won’t have unless you exchange it with some local people). Once at the Uzbek border, we felt relieved! We easily crossed it even though our luggage was checked for drones very carefully. We then exchanged money and after the nth passport control, we entered Uzbekistan!
We bargained a taxi to Bukhara and got it for $15. There was a Turkmen student on the taxi with us, he spoke freely complaining about his country.. we breathe and felt back in the normal world as quick as to realise that the Uzbek driver wasn’t keen to talk about his government and his country.
We had just entered another dictatorship, but this time it was open to tourism and coloured enough to cover up the lack of freedom.