Turkmenistan Encompassed


Turkmenistan Encompassed

Style: PioneerGroundbreaking tours to unique destinations
Duration: 15 days
Type: GroupSmall group tours with a maximum of 12 travellers

Dossier

On the edge of the Silk Road and with a rich history stretching back millennia, Turkmenistan is a landof which few have knowledge. Dominated by forbidding desert and once the abode of fierce tribesmen renowned for their slave trading, the country today is characterised by sharp contrasts, from the futuristic building projects of the capital to remote communities living among the sands. This two week trip is a comprehensive journey through one of the most mysterious places in Asia. Starting in Ashgabat we combine both ancient and modern, visiting monuments built by the previous ruler Turkmenbashi as well as the Parthian fortress of Nisa, before leaving the city behind and embarking on our journey to the mountains. We visit a local community in Nohur, reputed to be descended from the armies of Alexander, and then travel through the remarkable canyon landscapes of Yangikala to the pilgrimage site of Gozli Ata. From here we head to the Caspian Sea before flying to Dashoguz and visiting the UNESCO listed site of Konye-Urgench, evidence of former glories of this fascinating region. Perhaps the most exciting part of our trip is a three day excursion into the Karakum desert, camping at a flaming gas crater and stopping in isolated settlements to meet people who rarely see tourists. After a brief stop in Turkmenabat we then drive to the Kugitang Mountains, with dinosaur footprints, caves and rare species to discover. Turkmenistan is one of the most exciting countries in Central Asia and this pioneering trip takes you to all corners of the country, doing more than just scratching the surface but allowing you a detailed insight into its culture and history. We think this is one of our most exciting trips – join us and we’re sure you will agree.


Tour Rating

Fitness ●●●●○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●● | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●○ | Wildlife ●○○○○

Tour Pace

Busy 

Tour Highlights

  • Witness the splendid monuments of Ashgabat that bear testimony to the nation building ambitions of Niyazov
  • Drink in the colours of the striking rock formations of the Yangikala Canyon
  • Watch the fires light up the night sky while camping at the Darvaza Gas Craters
  • Reflect on former glories at the ancient sites of Konye Urgench and Merv

Tour Essentials
Accommodation: Mix of hotels, basic lodges and camping
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary.
Group Size: Maximum of 12
Start Point: Ashgabat
End Point: Ashgabat
Transport: 4WD, minibus, domestic flights
Countries: Turkmenistan

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.

Day 1 – Ashgabat

Arrive in Ashgabat and transfer to the hotel. Depending on your time of arrival, you may have the opportunity to explore the city. Overnight at Ak Altyn Hotel or similar.

Ashgabat

Ashgabat was a fairly insignificant town before the arrival of the Russians, who chose it as an administrative centre and began to develop it in the late 19th century. In 1948 it was hit by a powerful earthquake which all but destroyed the city, causing it to be completely rebuilt. Although reconstruction occurred during the Soviet era, it is Ashgabat’s development since independence in 1991 which has given the city its very unusual character. A pet project of the then dictator Niyazov, Ashgabat was the focus of his ‘nation building’ efforts and as such is home to a bewildering array of monuments, most of them faced with white marble tiles that give the city an almost glittering effect. There are few cities in the world that are so linked to one man, and Ashgabat is a striking and unusual place, at odds with other Central Asian cities but fascinating in its own right.

Day 2 – Ashgabat

After a briefing with your tour guide spend the day exploring Ashgabat. Visit a local Bazaar (depending on day and schedule), Independence Park and Neutrality Arch before heading to the National Museum and then the ruins of the ancient Parthian fortress at Nisa. Ashgabat is a city of grandiose monuments, giving an insight into the nation building efforts that took place after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a good place to start getting to grips with Turkmenistan. Overnight at Ak Altyn Hotel or similar. (B)

Nisa

Located on a natural high platform in the foothills of the Kopetdag mountains, the fortress of Nisa was constructed by early Parthian rulers who took over control of the area from the Seleucids in the middle of the 3rd century BC. Under Parthian rule the fortified territory was protected by 43 defense towers, and was called Mitridatkert (literally: fortress of King Mitridat). Hellenistic influence is clearly visible in the architecture, sculptures and other interior decorations found at the site. A circular temple-hall where remains of a stone altar were found indicate the location for Zoroastrian rituals. The most magnificent artefacts found to date at what is believed to have been the treasury, are a large collection of ivory rhytons, which can be seen at the National Museum in Ashgabat. Nisa has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007. 

Day 3 – Geok Tepe – Nohur (150 kms- approx 3.5 hrs)

After breakfast visit the private Ahalteke horse stables. We then head off to Nohur,  stopping first at the Turkmenbashi Mosque in Kipchak and then continue to Geok Tepe, site of a famous battle between Russian and Turkmen forces during the conquest of Central Asia. We descend to the underground lake of Kowata,and after lunch we proceed to the village of Nohur, our base for the night. Overnight camping. (BD)

Geok Tepe

Geok Tepe town hosts the modern Saparmurat Haji mosque, a history museum and the ruins of the fortress, where in 1881 a battle between the forces of the Russian Tsar and Turkmens of the Teke tribe took place. After the fall of Geok Tepe, Turkmenistan was subjugated to the Russian Tsarist Empire. In memory of the victims of that battle a mosque topped with a blue dome (Geok Gumbez) was constructed in 1995, rising to a height of 42m, and flanked by four minarets each 63m tall. 

Nohur

Nohur is home to a small community that lives in the high valleys of the Kopetdag Mountains. Nohur local culture has been preserved due to its isolation from the rest of Turkmenistan, and its distinctive features can be seen in the style of its architecture. Nohur is also a centre of keteni (Turkmen silk dress material) weaving, and this art is practiced by virtually every household even today. Next to its cultural interest, a visit to Nohur also offers opportunities to enjoy magnificent mountain landscapes, canyons, and highlands. The inhabitants of Nohur believe they are descended from the armies of Alexander the Great.

Day 4 – Balkanabat (250 kms- approx 7 hrs)

Leave Nohur behind and drive through walnut and pomegranate groves to Magtymguly. Our route takes us alongside the Iranian border so we can expect to encounter several checkpoints along the way. We stop at the ‘Moon Mountains’, a series of rather striking barren hills, before continuing on to Balkanabat. Arrive early evening and check in to your hotel. Overnight at Nebitchi Hotel or similar. (BL) 

Day 5 – Yangikala – Gozli Ata (200 kms- approx 7 hrs)

After a visit to the local bazaar to stock up on supplies, we drive to the Balkan Mountains and the canyon of Yangikala, home to some of the best scenery in Turkmenistan, via Mollagara salt lake. We continue to the pilgrimage site of Gozli Ata, where we take a picnic lunch. In the afternoon we visit the Yanagisawa canyon before returning to Yangikala. Overnight camping. (BLD)

Yangikala

Impressive limestone formations rise up from the desert sands at Yangikala, with views of the Karabogaz Gulf in the distance. These limestone cliffs are the remains of massive coral reefs from the pre-historic Parathetys Sea. Different soil layers are clearly visible: at the lower part, the hills are coloured orange-red, whereas towards the top they become bright white. This surreal landscape is impressive at any time of day but sunset and sunrise offer particularly spectacular views. The area is reachable only by 4WD vehicles, crossing a highland region where camels, sheep and horses graze, watched over by friendly shepherds with their Alabai shepherd dogs. 

Gozli Ata

The mausoleum of Gozli Ata is one of the holiest sites for pilgrims in Turkmenistan. The mausoleum, located on a low platform against the backdrop of stunning pink and red limestone rock formations, is now part of a larger Salor tribal graveyard. Gozli Ata (literally: All-seeing Father) was a famous 12th century Sufi teacher who was said to have the capacity to see inside the souls of people but who was nevertheless killed by the Mongolian armies.

Day 6 – Caspian Sea (200 kms- approx 5.5 hrs)

Today we drive to the Caspian Sea via the volcanic rock formations of Kemal Ata,to the port of Turkmenbashi. We end our day in the seaside resort of Awaza, a sharp contrast to our experiences of the last few days. Overnight at Hotel Seyrana or similar. (B)

Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth by area, variously classed as the world's largest lake or a full-fledged sea. Like the Black Sea, it is a remnant of the ancient Parathetys Sea. It became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago due to a tectonic uplift and a fall in sea levels. Over 130 rivers provide water to the Caspian, with the Volga and Ural Rivers being the largest. It has a salinity of approximately 1.2 %, about one third of most seawater. The only outflow of water is through condensation. The water level is currently measured at 28m below sea level. Several salt marshes can be found along the coastline giving rise to salt lakes such as Mollagara. It is home to numerous kinds of sturgeon, trout, white fish and the Caspian seal, while millions of birds winter at protected areas along its shores, among them flamingos and pelicans.

Day 7 – Turkmenbashi – Dashoguz

We head first to nearby Turkmenbashi where we visit the port and the fish market. After an early lunch we fly to Dashoguz in the north of the country. We spend our time here visiting the bazaar to stock up on supplies for our desert crossing. Overnight at Hotel Dashoguz or similar. (B)

Day 8 – Konye - Urgench – Darwaza (400 kms- approx 6-7 hrs)

Drive to the site of Konye-Urgench, an ancient capital of the land of Khorezm with beautiful mausoleums. After visiting its key sites we travel on the highway through the Karakum Desert to Darwaza, a burning gas crater where flames literally leap from the ground. We set up camp here and watch the sun go down, the crater lighting up the night sky with its fires. Overnight camping. (BD)

Konye-Urgench

Konye-Urgench was the capital of the ancient land of Khorezm in the 10th century, but has not had the easiest time since then. Falling first to the Seljuks and then to their successors the Khorezmshahs, it enjoyed a brief period as the centre of Islamic Central Asia, replete with numerous beautiful mosques and medressas. This was not to last long however. In 1221 it was attacked by the armies of Genghis Khan, who besieged the city for six months before destroying it, leaving little but ashes and bodies. ‘Konye-Urgench became the abode of the jackal and the haunt of the owl and the kite’ wrote one local historian. Having rebuilt itself it was then sacked by Timur (Tamerlane), adding to its woes. Fortunately, a few architectural monuments survived this tragedy, notably the impressive mausoleums of past sultans as well as arched gates and fortresses which stand as testament to the former glories of this remote corner of Asia. 

Darwaza

While drilling in 1971 geologists discovered an underground cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of about 50-100m. To avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided to burn the gas. Geologists had hoped the fire would go out in a few days but it has been burning ever since. Locals have named the cavern "The Door to Hell", and the sight of the crater at night has a somewhat eerie feel. It now has a diameter of approximately 60m, and a depth of 20m. Hundreds of fires burn inside the crater, some of them with flames up to 10-15m high. 

Day 9 – Damla – Ak Molla (200 kms- approx 6 hrs)

We head deeper into the Karakum Desert, across rough tracks and sand dunes, until we reach the small settlement of Damla. We stop here for lunch and explore the village, with superb opportunities to meet and interact with people who rarely see western visitors. Later we continue our desert drive through to Ak Molla, where we camp for the night. Overnight camping. (BLD) 

Damla

Damla is located in a low basin, surrounded by hills with huge medicinal flowers, from which the inhabitants make a syrup. It is virtually cut off from the outside world: no electricity or telephone lines, gas or water pipes reach this region, and people will be overwhelmingly pleased to see visitors. A visit to this settlement gives you a good glimpse into desert life. The people live in yurts and you can observe their traditional practices, such as the baking of Turkmen flat bread in a clay oven fired by saxaul desert wood, and the milking of the numerous camels. You can also watch the village women making Turkmen felt mats or knitting traditional colourful socks and amulets.

Day 10 – Gonur Depe – Mary (250 kms- approx 7.5 hrs)

Set off for a full day of off road driving. We stop at the archaeological site of Gonur Depe, dating back to the Bronze Age. Around 55 hectares in size, the site comprises the remains of a fortified citadel with walls and towers clearly visible. From here we continue to Mary for the night, where a hotel room and shower await. Overnight at Hotel Mary or similar. (BL) 

Day 11 – Merv - Turkmenabad (250 kms- approx 3.5 hrs)

Visit the ancient site of Merv, the most important in Turkmenistan and dating back 2500 years, with an array of old mosques and citadels. After exploring Merv we head to Turkmenabad for the night passing through the Repetek Nature Reserve, although we are not permitted to stop. Overnight at Jeyhun Hotel or similar. (B) 

Merv

The site of Merv is spread over one hundred square kms and holds the remains of a number of ancient cities from across the centuries. At various times it has been home to Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Christians and Moslems and has been controlled by a number of dynasties including the Timurids. Merv’s attractions are wide and varied – mausoleums of former rulers and Sufi scholars, old Seleucid citadels, traditional ‘ice houses’ and the remains of ancient walls. Merv was comprehensively sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century but rose to prominence again under the Timurids two hundred years later. With so many influences, it is a microcosm of Central Asian history and a delight to explore.

Day 12 – Astana Baba – Koyten (450 kms- approx 7 hrs)

Drive out of Turkmenabad, passing ruins of old Silk Road settlements and stopping at Astana Baba with its interesting mausoleums dating back to the 11th century. From here we follow the Amu Darya River, crossing it to continue to the Kugitang Mountains. We reach the village of Koyten, in a lush green valley, by early evening. Overnight at a basic lodge. (BD)

Day 13 – Koyten (100 kms- approx 1.5 hrs)

We spend today exploring the surrounding area, discovering dinosaur footprints, hiking to the Umbar Dere waterfall and walking to the Kyrk Kyz pilgrim cave. This area is part of the Kugitang Nature Reserve, and several rare species are found here including the Bukhara Urial, a mountain sheep. Overnight at a basic lodge. (BLD) 

Kugitang Nature Reserve

Kugitang Nature Reserve is located on the south-western slopes of the Koytendag Mountains and lies at elevations of 900 to 3139m above sea level, reaching its peak at Ayrybaba. There are a substantial number of water bodies: karst lakes, freshwater springs and hydrogen sulphate wells. Koytendag is famous for its unique caves and other geological features, as well as its Archa forest and species of rare plants and animals, including the blind Cave Loach which inhabits underground lakes in the caves. Notable examples of the flora include Juniperus trees (Archa), Tulips, and Almond, Jujube and Pistachio forests. Kugitang is also famous for representing the main periods in the development of the planet, with rocks of the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cainozoic eras rich with ancient fossils of Molluscs, Brachiopods, and Dinosaurs - including a dinosaur footprint trail. 

Day 14 – Turkmenabad - Ashgabat (450 kms- approx 7 hrs)

Drive back to Turkmenabad, this time following the northern banks of the Amu Darya. Here the landscape is different, more arid with little agriculture and few settlements, in contrast to the southern banks. Arrive in Turkmenabad in the afternoon and from here fly back to Ashgabat for your final night in Turkmenistan. Overnight at Ak Altyn Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 15 – Ashgabat

Transfer to the airport for your flight home. (B) 

****Please note that as of 1st January 2018, a tourist tax of 2 US Dollars per person per night for accommodation will be introduced. This must be paid on checkout and in US Dollars cash.*****

Inclusions:

Arrival and departure transfers
Transportation throughout
Domestic flights
All accommodation
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary

Exclusions:
International flights
Any airport taxes
Travel Insurance
Visas
Drinks


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