I’ve been an independent traveler for the past eight years, so I’m comfortable saying that I manage myself and my trips pretty well even in random and uncommon destinations like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But even as an experienced traveler, I do recognize the power, benefit, and ease of traveling with a group tour. For that reason, during my recent trip through all of Central Asia, I decided to travel to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with Intrepid Travel’s Tashkent to Ashgabat tour.
On this Intrepid Travel review, I’ll share with you everything you need to know about this tour as well as my experience, the highs and lows of the trip, and some extra details you should know about these two countries.
Why Travel with Intrepid Travel?
Intrepid Travel is one of the biggest and best-regarded tour companies in the world. They have tours in all 7 continents and they focus on giving the most local and authentic experience as possible.
They also focus on small group size tours averaging 10 people, instead of the large bus-load of people where the experience tends to feel impersonal and cattle-like.
For example, on my Iran tour with Intrepid Travel were just 6 while on this tour we were 10. These small numbers make it easier to interact with your guide and become friends with other travelers.
They only use local guides, which for me is essential because you get to learn so much about the local life and the complexities of being in their country through their experience.
And so far, my Intrepid Travel guides have been beyond amazing! I wrote about Nadia, my Iran guide, and you’ll soon read about Ali, my Turkmenistan guide.
Intrepid Travel also has a commendable social and environmental conscience that they apply to their trips. For example, they banned elephant rides on tours as well as other animal-related activities where their treatment and well-being is questionable.
But now, why this trip specifically with Intrepid Travel? Well, one of my top bucket list items is located in Turkmenistan. Guess what it is? The Gates of Hell!! Sadly, Turkmenistan is pretty strict with its tourism and the only (easy) way to visit it is with a tour.
I’ve known about Intrepid Travel tours in Turkmenistan for a while now, so I knew they were my best option to have a quality experience not only at the Gates of Hell but also in the rest of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
And, my other reason for traveling with Intrepid Travel is that throughout my experience traveling with them, I’ve been building a relationship with the company, to the point that I’ll even co-guide a tour with them to Madagascar next year! Would you like to join us? Check it out here.
Now, let’s talk about this Tashkent to Ashgabat trip and my experience in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Who Joins this Specific Tour?
Not surprisingly, every traveler on my group were very experienced travelers with 40+ countries visited already. But that’s almost to be expected as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not high on most people’s bucket lists.
The average age range of my group was from the late 20s to early 60s. This is the typical age range visiting this region.
But, does this mean you have to be experienced to visit these countries? Of course not! Even if you’re new to international travel, you’ll find this trip very enriching and the perfect introduction to Central Asia.
It takes you to one of the most popular Central Asian destinations (Uzbekistan), followed by one of the most isolated ones (Turkmenistan). But are equally interesting but in their unique way.
Are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan Safe?
YES! Like, seriously, extremely safe. Unfortunately, the general population sees Central Asia as a dangerous region thanks to the bits of bad news delivered by our media, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
As of now, I’ve visited every single Central Asian country, and except for Afghanistan (for the time being), every single other country was not only safe to visit as a solo traveler and on a tour, but also locals were extremely friendly. (Afghans were really friendly too, by the way!)
Central Asia is now starting to see a tourism boom. It’s still in its early stages, so now is the right time to go (before the masses go there). One of the countries with the biggest tourism boom is, in fact, Uzbekistan.
In 2019, Intrepid Travel saw the largest growth by region in Central Asia (186%) while Uzbekistan was its destination with the most growth (257%). These numbers are quite powerful as they share how impressive this region is and how tourism is shifting from the typical destinations to more off-the-beaten-path places.
Lastly, I traveled to Uzbekistan both solo and with the tour, and I felt equally safe in both scenarios. Turkmenistan, as I mentioned, can only be done with a tour, but I felt just as safe as anywhere else.
When’s the Best Time to Go to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?
While Intrepid Travel offers the Tashkent to Ashgabat tour from April to October, I would suggest probably going during spring or fall when the temperatures are comfortable. It can get pretty hot in Turkmenistan during the summer. It’s a desert, after all!
What’s the Overall Itinerary like?
This Tashkent to Ashgabat trip lasts 10 days, including the arrival and departure days. Even though we saw a lot of places on this trip, the itinerary was pretty relaxed and it was not physically demanding.
Here I give you a day by day brief of my experience there. Have in mind that this is how my trip went, so your experience could vary.
Day 1: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Arrival day, so no activities are planned except for the typical group meet-up at the hotel in the evening. This is where our guide discussed the trip and where we got to meet everyone.
Days 2-3: Khiva, Uzbekistan
We flew pretty early in the morning from Tashkent to Khiva and spent the entire morning roaming around the ancient city with our guide. Khiva is over 1,500 years old and it is full of madrassas (ancient Islamic schools) mosques, and beautifully decorated minarets.
Khiva may be small, but there’s a lot of history in this well preserved fortified city. Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The guide we had, which for the life of me I can’t spell his name since it was so hard to even say, knew every single detail about Khiva and its history.
When it comes to ancient cities visited on this tour, this was by far my favorite. The Kalta-minor Minaret is such a simple yet impressive sight, and to think it is unfinished and that it was supposed to be three times taller!
Both days we explored the city with our guide and had the afternoon free for us to explore more on our own or relax.
Day 4: Konye-Urgench and Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan
It was time to say goodbye to Uzbekistan and start our trip to Turkmenistan. After crossing the border we met Ali, our new guide for Turkmenistan. Ali was great! Not only did he know a lot about every single place we visited but he was very sociable and fun.
We immediately visited the mosque and mausoleum ruins in Konye-Urgench in the morning, and then had our 4-hour drive to the middle of the desert to see the Darvaza Gas Crater, commonly known as the Gate of Hell.
THIS was the highlight of my trip! This was the main reason I came to Turkmenistan. To see up close this gas crater which has been burning non-stop since 1971 after it collapsed as it was being mined.
The government thought lighting it up on fire would burn the gas after a couple of weeks, but it’s now been burning for almost 50 years and there’s no sign of it dying any time soon.
We camped the night here, drinking shots of vodka with Ali and other locals.
Days 5-6: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
We drove to Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, and spent two days seeing all of its major sights, like the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, their national museum, the countless impressive memorials, their weird monuments (there’s one to a book, in the shape of a book!), the mosque, and around.
Ashgabat is weird, to say the least. It’s very thought-provoking but for questionable reasons. The city is overbuilt and much bigger than what it should be. You notice this quickly with the lack of people outside, the empty boulevards, and the amount of empty residential and commercial buildings.
And, did you know that Ashgabat has the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world? Yes, it is a requirement that all new buildings there have to be cladded with white marble.
Here we also got to visit the ruins of the ancient royal residence and mausoleum of Nisa, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1st decade BC.
Days 7-8: Merv and Mary, Turkmenistan
On the way to Merv, we visited the crumbling remains of Anau, a medieval mosque that got destroyed by an earthquake in 1948, yet still attracts devoted followers.
Also along the way we got to roam through the ruins of Abiverd. This fascinating archaeological site might not look like much right now, but it was an important trading town from 652 AD until the 12th century.
We spent some time walking through the bazaar ruins, but the coolest part for me was seeing hundreds of ancient shards of pottery scattered on the ground.
Since this is an active archaeological site under study, some of us helped pick a few pieces of pottery here and there to ease the archaeologists’ task of finding and cataloging them. That was fun for me since I love archaeology!
Merv, on the other hand, is Turkmenistan’s most recognized site. This World Heritage site is home to numerous walled structures from various periods, including the Greater Kizkala with its impressive columns smoothed by wind and time, and the hills that once were the ancient fortress walls of Erk Kala. These are just two of the many ancient sights in Merv.
One interesting thing here is that seeing tourists is still a rare thing for locals, so they will often ask to have their picture taken with you.
My favorite experience in Mary was hanging out at a pub with the group and Ali and meeting a local there who invited us for dinner at his home the next day.
He and his wife prepared a feast for all of us and showed us some of their home videos from their wedding and baby shower (they are so proud of them). We even got to try on their traditional clothes! Remember I told you they were friendly?!
Days 9-10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
The ninth day is spent mostly driving back to Ashgabat with a free afternoon in the city. And the tenth day is free for you to depart at your preferred time.
How’s the Visa Process for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?
Both countries require most nationalities to get a visa. Thankfully, Uzbekistan now offers e-visas which are easy to apply, and they reply with an answer in just a couple days.
For Americans, the visa costs $50 + $1.50 processing fee and you get it as a pdf that you’ll print and show at the airport or border once you arrive. Pretty easy and painless. You can check the official e-visa website and apply here.
Turkmenistan, on the other hand, has no e-visa and their process is still pretty backward and antiquated. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world and very few foreigners are granted a Turkmenistani visa.
It’s a tedious visa process, but thankfully, traveling there with Intrepid makes this process much easier and potentially more probable to get approved.
For their visa, you first need a Letter of Invitation (LOI). This you can get via Intrepid Travel after you fill a form and they send it to their local guides to sort out.
This seemingly simple process takes “forever,” so I recommend filling it up at least two months in advance. All my travel companions and I got our LOI roughly a week or mere days before our trip (and we all requested the LOI months ahead).
Then, with the LOI, you’ll get to the border (as part of Intrepid’s tour) and then go through what I consider is the most inefficient visa process in the entire world. Not exaggerating.
First, you hand in your passport with another filled form and your LOI. Then you wait… and wait… and wait. Then you pay for your visa with another officer (it was $86 with my American passport. Australians, Canadians, and Kiwis in my group were charged the same. British are charged around $115). Then you sign 15 papers… not kidding!
Then you hand those back to the first officer and wait… and wait… and wait. Finally, when you get your visa, your bags are inspected for any contraband. If you’re a smoker, you’re limited to two cigarette boxes. Meds are also limited to prescribed and essentials. No sleeping pills!
Then you go through some extra passport checks and after that, you’re finally in!
Have in mind that all this I mentioned is not in the control of Intrepid Travel. This is just how each country works. Thankfully, Intrepid does help ease the process.
How Strict is Turkmenistan with its Tourism?
Pretty strict. But don’t worry, it’s not North Korea strict!
Due to its dictatorship and isolationism mentality, Turkmenistan still heavily restricts tourism there. As I mentioned previously, you’re required to have a tour guide with you to travel the country on a tourist visa.
The only exception to this rule is if you’re traveling with a transit visa for 5 days or less –including your entry and exit days– or if you’re only staying in Ashgabat. In those cases, you can travel solo.
For this tour, it is necessary to have a guide not only because it is required by the government, but also because the most interesting things are located outside of Ashgabat and just 5 days is not enough to see them.
You can still roam around on your own during your free time, eat wherever you want, go shopping, etc. But sometimes, not often, when the police see a random tourist walking around by himself, they could question him and ask to call the tour guide to make sure he’s not traveling solo.
This didn’t happen to any of us and we roamed around the city a bit by ourselves, but be aware that it’s a possibility. There’s nothing to be scared of, though. It’s just how things work there.
It’s a bureaucratic country with a lot of red tape, but as long as you play by the rules, you’ll be more than fine. And, Intrepid guides there are professional (at least Ali was), so they’ll guide you well on the dos and don’ts.
The Highs and Lows of the Trip
Overall the trip was great and I highly recommend it. The experience was beyond what I expected and I’m really happy I got to experience it with the level of quality Intrepid is known for.
The night camping at the Gates of Hell was incredible and the top highlight of the trip for me. Not only was the experience of being there unique and surreal, but having Ali as our guide made it even more fun (not just there, but everywhere in Turkmenistan).
Another highlight but for a completely different reason was seeing Ashgabat. The city might look boring upon first impression, but everything there is so bizarre to a level it feels unreal and fake. Basicall, that’s the simplest way I can describe it. A fake city.
So overall, the trip was a high. Should I have to pick a low I’d say that I’d probably spend less time in Ashgabat and maybe dedicate some time to another interesting stop on the way back from Mary. The 9th day of the trip feels a bit wasted, so maybe it could include something else.
Also, while I did it by myself, it would have been nice to have as part of the trip some sightseeing in Tashkent. But, while there I realized that this Tashkent to Ashgabat tour is just a leg of a much bigger tour that goes from China to Turkmenistan, so they covered Tashkent before I joined the tour. I’ll share more about this soon.
Extra Things You Shouldn’t Miss
One thing I liked about this trip is that while it guided us through every major spot, it gave us enough free time to explore on our own. So, here are a few things I highly recommend you to not miss:
Watch the sunset in Khiva (twice)
Enjoy that beautiful sunset from the Kuhha Ark (basically the sunset spot) one day and from the Terrassa Café the next day. Both are similar but both have a beautiful view! Also, have dinner at Terrassa Café from its rooftop while watching the sunset!
Stay up until late at the Gates of Hell
Want cool photos there? Stay up until late (11 pm-ish) when most people have left to sleep. This is the best time to have the crater for yourself.
Watch the Sunrise by the Gates of Hell
Again, not a lot of people are there at that time, and it’s such a unique and surreal place to watch the sunrise!
Visit the Subway Stations in Tashkent
Before meeting with the group for the first time, roam around the city to visit its mosques, mausoleums, and other important sights. And of course, don’t miss visiting a few of the metro stations.
These are the classic example of Soviet Metro design. These are deep metro stations with a second role as a nuclear bomb shelter. Many of them are beautifully decorated to a level not found in many western countries.
Don’t miss visiting Kosmonavtlar (Cosmonauts) station. This stop is famous for its dreamlike portraits of cosmonauts. Also visit Alisher Navoi station with its mosque-like architecture, and a few more. All unique, all beautiful.
Revisit the Juma Mosque in Khiva Just Before Sunset
This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful mosque in Khiva, and if you go a bit before sunset, you’ll see how photogenic it is when the warm light hits its interior space just at the right angle. Plus, there are fewer tourists.
Go out Partying in Ashgabat or Merv
Turkmenistan is weird, so partying there will be a weird yet fun experience. And who knows, you might end up meeting locals who invite you to their home for dinner!
Have Extra Time Before the Tour? Do this…
As I mentioned, Tashkent is not really visited on the Tashkent to Ashgabat tour, but if you have the full start day there, it is enough to see the most important sights in the city.
If you have two to three days to spare before the tour, I highly recommend also going to Samarkand, just 5 hours south of Tashkent by bus. This ancient city has some of the most impressive madrassas in Central Asia – especially the ones at Registan.
Samarkand is visited on the previous leg of the longer Central Asia trip by Intrepid Travel.
Other Intrepid Travel Alternatives to this Trip
As mentioned, this is just a leg of a much longer (41 days) trip from Beijing to Ashgabat (the Silk Road). It is composed of Beijing to Kashgar (15 days), Bishkek to Tashkent (17 days), and Tashkent to Ashgabat (10 days). Or a combination of the above.
Some travelers in my group were doing the entire trip from Beijing to Ashgabat.
That portion of Bishkek to Tashkent includes the beautiful cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, which I highly recommend visiting if you can join these two last legs – Bishkek to Ashgabat (26 days).
Also, intrepid currently has 13 trips that visit Turkmenistan and/or Uzbekistan.
Some Extra tips to Consider
- Do not withdraw money from an ATM in Turkmenistan. It’ll charge the official rate (currently at 3.5 manats per dollar) versus the black market rate which we got at 17 manats per dollar. The black market rate makes Turkmenistan affordable while the real rate makes it incredibly expensive! For example, a typical meal would cost me 60 to 80 manats, which is $4 to $5 on the black market rate, or $17 to $23 on the real rate. Even though your guide is not supposed to talk about the black market rate, they will help you get it via the driver. Otherwise, you can go to the Russian market in Ashgabat and ask around to exchange money at the black market rate. With the black market rate, most of us managed to cover all of our expenses with roughly $50.
- Carry US dollars with you to pay at the border in Turkmenistan and to exchange at the black market rate. Carry at least $250 with you in crisp, new bills. I didn’t use more than $140, but it’s good to have extra just in case.
- ATMs in Uzbekistan are a hit and miss. My Charles Schwab Bank (which works everywhere in the world) didn’t work on some local banks there. By the way, I highly recommend having their ATM as it does not charge for international withdrawals. I share more about it and other tips on my resources page.
- Get a VPN for Turkmenistan. Internet there is quite shitty and slow, and highly controlled and monitored. Social media apps like Instagram and Facebook are blocked as well as many other sites like Youtube and such. I used ExpressVPN and it worked pretty well for me. I know not every VPN worked there based on other travelers’ feedback, but mine did fine considering how bad the internet was there.
- Travel Insurance is a must to travel with Intrepid Travel! I highly recommend getting WorldNomads as their policies are designed for adventure travelers like us.
In the End, Do I Recommend this Tour?
Hell yeah! Even with the visa hassle to visit Turkmenistan and all the potential red tape there could be in the country, the experience is so worth it; especially because you’re learning about a new place, a different lifestyle and way of being. You’re also experiencing things that are unique to each country, and the only way to truly enjoy them is by going there.
This was quite a comprehensive Intrepid Travel review, more specific to this trip in Uzbekistan and Turkmenitan, but everything I wrote above about the company applies to pretty much every trip they offer.
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