What makes Turkmenistan a unique country to travel to?
Turkmenistan is a Central Asian nation roughly the size of California. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Primarily a desert country, it has a population of around six million people. Tourist facilities, especially outside of the capital city of Ashgabat, are not highly developed. Many of the goods and services taken for granted in North American and Western European countries are not yet available. Travel within the country can be difficult due to limited infrastructure and government-imposed internal travel restrictions.
Although the government's official policy is to report that there is no violent crime, there are incidents of assault, rape, and murder sometimes directed at foreigners. Prostitution, heroin use, and economic conditions are all factors contributing to the incidence of violent crimes. Petty theft is common in crowded public places such as the local bazaars. Take appropriate measures to safeguard passports and valuables in such areas. Do not leave valuables in plain view within a parked vehicle.
Foreign visitors, including U.S. citizens, present an attractive target for criminals. Travelers should exercise the same common sense, good judgment, and caution as they would in any major U.S. city. For instance, avoid carrying large sums of money in public. Avoid walking alone after dark, and women specifically should avoid being alone in isolated areas. Most taxis are not regulated by any government licensing agency and drivers are usually private citizens looking to make money. The majority of cars will not have seat belts or other safety devices, and drivers may not have had any formal driver training. For safety reasons, visitors should strongly consider hiring a private car and driver through their travel agency or hotel. There is one government-owned and regulated taxi company, operating in Ashgabat, which charges a flat fee of 8 Denominated Turkmen Manat (about $ 2.80 at the March, 2011 exchange rate) for a one-way trip within Ashgabat city limits. Its telephone number is: (993 12) 32-97-75. If using local unregulated taxis, always negotiate fares with taxi drivers in advance, and use extreme caution when using taxis after dark, especially when there are other passengers in the vehicle.
Prostitution is illegal, and prostitutes have been known to accompany men to their residences or hotel rooms in order to steal from them, sometimes with the help of an accomplice. The authorities will generally consider any woman leaving a discotheque with a foreign man late at night to be a prostitute, and on that basis, the foreigner may be detained. Recently, at least one foreigner was kept in jail for fifteen days on charges of soliciting prostitution. Travelers should be aware that U.S. law provides for criminal prosecution in U.S. federal courts of U.S. citizens who have solicited a prostitute under the age of 18 while traveling abroad.
Police can ask anyone to present identity papers at any time, but authorities are especially aggressive late at night. Even if valid papers are presented, the police may ask for a bribe. For this reason, those going from place to place late at night should consider using a trusted driver.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Turkmenistan, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For instance, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Turkmenistan, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care in Turkmenistan is limited and well below North American and Western European standards. If you travel to Turkmenistan, you should make sure that you have medical evacuation insurance. Such travel can be expensive if undertaken under emergency conditions, and absent this insurance, medical evacuation travel may be logistically impossible. If you have a medical condition, you should consult with your regular physician to determine whether travel to Turkmenistan is advisable in light of the level of available health care. Resident U.S. citizens travel to Western Europe or North America for treatment of any serious medical condition, and for many routine procedures. The U.S. Embassy maintains a list of public hospitals and English-speaking physicians in the country, however the standard of care at these hospitals cannot be considered comparable to Western standards. Basic medical supplies, including disposable needles, anesthetics, and antibiotics are often in short supply. Two private clinics have foreign medical practitioners (generally Turkish) who may be available for consultations and treatment; these clinics, however, have refused in some cases to admit patients with serious conditions, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay for treatment. Even at these hospitals, the standard of care is low compared to Western standards. If you need prescription medications, you should bring sufficient supplies with you and appropriate documentation to ensure no problems with customs officials upon arrival.
Safety and Security
Those considering travel to Turkmenistan should take the country's proximity to regions of past and current instability into account. The Government of Turkmenistan has designated many areas throughout the country as “restricted zones,” particularly the border areas next to Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, the entire region of Dashoguz (including Dashoguz city), and areas of the Caspian coast. Travel to these areas by foreigners is forbidden without special permission from the Government of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan Airlines, the national airline, will not sell a ticket to any traveler who intends to travel to a “restricted zone” without proof of permission from the government. Travelers who wish to visit a “restricted zone” must have a valid passport and visa and must apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a special permit. There is a minimum processing time of 10 working days for these permits.
Visible police and military presence in Turkmenistan is common. Both uniformed and plainclothes officials frequently ask to see passports, visas, migration cards, and SMS registrations. Ask to see identification if you are not certain that the person requesting the information is an official. Documentation checks, and residence and vehicle searches, are common. Security personnel maintain checkpoints on major roads.
Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest, such as government buildings, may result in problems with authorities. Visitors should ask whether buildings may be photographed.
Supporters of extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaida, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement remain active in Central Asia. These groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S. Government or private interests in the region, including in Turkmenistan. Terrorists do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. Because of increased security at official U.S. facilities, terrorists are seeking softer civilian targets such as residential areas, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, hotels, schools, outdoor recreation events, resorts, beaches, maritime facilities, and commercial aircraft.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions in Turkmenistan make driving difficult and sometimes dangerous. Most roads outside of major cities are narrow, riddled with potholes, unlit at night, and without proper road signs. Frequent construction projects, dilapidated roads, unlighted highways, and camel crossings all present particularly unique challenges to drivers used to U.S. or European roadways. Driving at night on these roads should be avoided. City roads are better in comparison to rural routes but may be hazardous due to potholes, uncovered manholes, poor lighting, and heavy pedestrian traffic. Pedestrians frequently cross against traffic and create dangerous conditions. Traffic accidents involving serious injury to drivers, passengers, and pedestrians are common.
If you drive in Turkmenistan, you will need to drive defensively and use an abundance of caution. Drivers pay little attention to lanes and other road markings, with weaving and sudden lane changes a common occurrence (usually without use of a turn signal). Drivers will often encounter cars going the wrong way on one-way streets or divided highways. Cars also frequently make left-turns from the right lane and vice-versa. Pedestrians regularly walk or stand in the middle of busy streets during the day and night, often without paying attention to oncoming traffic.
Roadside assistance does not exist in Turkmenistan, where vast stretches of highway are often unmarked. Police checkpoints (where cars are required to stop and register) are a common feature on major routes between cities. The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat has received reports that police stationed at checkpoints may arbitrarily fine motorists. Local law requires that traffic fines be paid within 12 hours. If a fine is not paid within that period, the amount may double every 12 hours up to 72 hours, after which time the vehicle in question may be seized. Driving while intoxicated is illegal in Turkmenistan and will result in the driver having their license revoked, a fine, and possible jail time. Driving while operating a cell phone is illegal and perpetrators will be fined.
If you plan to drive in Turkmenistan, you must have a valid international driving permit. Foreigners who plan to reside in Turkmenistan must apply for a local driver's license with the Road Police Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan. For more specific information about driving in Turkmenistan, contact the Embassy of Turkmenistan at 2207 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008, telephone (202) 588-1500.