I recently spent five days in the repressive, authoritarian state of Turkmenistan.

Would I return? Not likely and nor do I want to. Am I glad I went? Definitely. For a taste of life under one of the few remaining dictatorships described by the Human Rights Watch as one of the world’s most oppressive and closed countries.

The taste of the oppression starts when planning a visit.

Not only did I pay for the most expensive flight ticket I ever bought – around €800 one way –  I also had to buy a tour as it is illegal (and impossible) to be in the country without a guide. And tours do not come cheap.

After a lot of haggling, my friend and I managed to get one for around US$600 each.

On arrival at the airport in the capital Ashgabat, I paid another US$130 for the visa, migration tax and COVID test… yes, one still has to do a COVID test to enter this country even if the results are kept under wraps.

Prayer time: traditional dress is still prevalent.Prayer time: traditional dress is still prevalent.

My friend, who entered the country from the Iran land border with a motorbike, paid about $30 less. But he had to pay tax on the motorbike he was travelling with plus a fee for every kilometre the guards there decided would be covered according to the information they were given by the travel agency.

The initial plan had been to travel around the country on the bike with the guide and driver following… but the migration authorities did not give permission for that. The bike had to be parked and used only when it was time to cross the country.

In Darvaza, I heard a visitor asking his guide why were tourists not allowed to roam around on their own in this country. The guide managed to keep a straight face as he answered “for security reasons… many countries around us are fighting and we want our visitors to be safe”.

In Darvaza, a crater has been burning since 1971 when a Soviet rig accidentally punched into an underground natural gas cavern. This had caused the ground to collapse. It was thought the fire would die down in two to three days. It is still burning.

Wi-Fi and VPNs

Landing at Ashgabat airport I looked for Wi-Fi.

Of course, there was no hope of getting it. Not at the airport, nor anywhere else. And, although I got internet two or three times from the personal hotspot provided by my guide for less than five minutes each time, social media is completely inaccessible, with the several VPNs I had downloaded already blocked by the government.

The App Store is also blocked, so I could not download new ones from there and attempts to find a useable VPN downloadable from the internet in the short time I had internet service proved futile.

At the airport, I was met by three people − the guide, the driver and another man. They took me to the hotel, a huge building that I got the impression was practically empty.

The lady who opened for us did not speak or understand a word of English… not even ‘Wi-Fi’. In spite of promises, through the guide, that the internet will come later, for me, it didn’t. iPhones are only carried as a second phone to show status here. You cannot really work with them, or so I was told.

Breakfast in TurkmenistanBreakfast in Turkmenistan

My friend, with an Android phone, was more lucky. He managed to get internet for just one night. A good number of websites, including timesofmalta.com are blocked.

The lack of internet was not the only strange thing encountered at the hotel. Guests are not given a key to their room. Doors lock automatically and can be opened only from the inside or with the key carried by one woman whose job is to open rooms whenever guests ask her to.

Outside of the hotel, in the capital Ashgabat, all houses are white and so are cars. By presidential order. Grey and light brown is also allowed. The city is very clean and well-maintained and, were it not for the greenery, it would have felt somewhat clinical.

But, thankfully, the president likes trees and believes in their importance, so they are planted everywhere.


Although arranged marriages are still common, people of the opposite sex are free to mingle and can also find their own spouse.

The youngest son in the family, however, has to continue living with the parents and cannot move out of the house. If he gets married, his wife moves in with him. And, in line with tradition, she has to hold one end of her veil in her mouth in the presence of other men to prevent her talking to them, until they give her permission to.

Other men and women in the family are free to move out. The new ‘small’ city centre apartments young people prefer are about 200 square metres in size, cost about US$50,000 and, if a loan is needed, it is interest free. Houses that are more than double in size and come complete with a garden and yard but are outside the centre cost less, around US$30,000 if they are bought directly from the owner – which in this country is the bank.

Some categories of people are also entitled to a free house or apartment. These are those excelling in something internationally, especially sports, and families having seven children or more.

Horses putting on a show at a farm.Horses putting on a show at a farm.

Some others are entitled to good discounts. Electricity is free for all and bottled water costs more than petrol, which costs the equivalent of $0.60 per litre. To fill the motorbike twice, pay for three days parking and buy two bracelets, which will supposedly keep the evil eye away, cost us the equivalent of US$5. But only because we exchanged the money on the black market at the rate of 17 manat per dollar. The official rate would have given us just 3.5 manat per dollar, making it much more expensive. A policeman earns about US$600 a month.

Political situation

Since its independence from the USSR in 1991, Turkmenistan, a country of seven million people, has been through some changes. The biggest of the ones I was told about is, in my opinion, that related to the language. From a second language many did not even speak, Turkmen became the main national language. And, by 1995, the country swapped the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one.

Since independence, this country, which boasts that it is one of very few neutral countries in the world, has had three presidents. The first was for life and elections started after his death. However, the elections have been seen by the civilised world as neither free nor fair. The last two presidents were father and son.

Besides Ashgabat and Darvaza, we also visited the old UNESCO cities of Merve and Nisa, as well as a horse farm.

Horses, and also dogs, are very important and loved in Turkmen culture and monuments in their honour can be seen in Ashgabat.

A gold horse monument features the second president.

The first president had also had his own gold monument erected in the centre of Ashgabat and rotating to face the sun throughout the day.

When his follower took over, this was moved to the outskirts of the city.

I wonder what the new president’s monument will be.

Follow more of Rosanne’s travels on Instagram account @roszam.

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