Just another -STAN country? Not exactly

Fat chance that you’ve never heard of this country. Even if you did – well, good for you – you still might struggle with localising it on your wall map. This is not surprising as Turkmenistan is claimed to be one of the most closed off countries in the world. At the same time, Turkmenistan is rightfully called ‘the pearl of Central Asia’, let’s go and discover why. 

By M. J. Torres

Due to its political situation, the Turkmen state is isolated from the rest of the world. Hence, little is known about this odd yet beautiful country. Therefore, allow me to present a number of facts and dispel some myths about the Turkmen nation. Here is hoping it will help broaden your geographical knowledge and make the dark Central Asian horse a bit more visible.

Where on earth?

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A satellite image of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north and east, Iran to the southwest, Afghanistan to the southeast and the Caspian Sea to the west.

The country belongs to the Central Asian region, together with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Despite of being a relatively big country, Turkmenistan is not densely populated, with the Karakum desert enveloping most of its territory.

Turkmen  Turkish

Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For this reason, a fair share of its population is raised bilingual, Turkmen and Russian being the two mother tongues.

It is true that Turkmen individuals are capable of learning Turkish at a faster pace than say Australians, since both Turkish and Turkmen belong to the Turkic language group. Yet, they remain two entirely different languages which means that Turkmen and Turkish people are less likely to understand one another in a conversation that exceeds the beginner level.

Let’s talk politics

According to our beloved but not-so-reliable Wikipedia, Turkmenistan is a presidential republic with most of the governing power belonging to a centralized government. This is partially true as the head of the country does consider himself a president. Nevertheless, things are lot more complicated. Let me explain.

Turkmenistan gained its independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by Saparmyrat Nyyazov becoming the Turkmenbashy (which in Turkmen stands for the Head of the Turkmen) and assuming his presidential power until his death in 2006. Before the independence, Nyyazov held a six-year position as the First Secretary of Turkmen Communist Party which makes up a 21-year of his rule.

This was the moment when the vice-president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, stepped into the spotlight. His vice prefix dropped as from 21 December 2006, making Berdymuhammedov the second leader of the Turkmen until this day. He might not renounce the apparently comfortable Turkmen throne until the day he dies. Even then, the Berdymuhammedovs might stay in control, if Gurbanguly’s son were to become the next leader of the Democratic Party.

Keeping this in mind, one could assume that democracy and presidential are not entirely correct ways of describing Turkmenistan’s political landscape. There are definitely more accurate nouns and adjectives for defining the state’s government.

Ashgabat: the city of love and marble, lots of marble.  

Let’s deviate from all the serious stuff and discover the cooler and fun aspects of this wonderful country. You might not have heard of this but Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, is considered to be the Las Vegas of Central Asia. As night approaches, the city of love (Ashk literally means love while abad stands for city) is lit up by a variety of lights, which reflect off the white marble buildings.


Ashgabat city by night. Photo by M. J. Torres

This colorful exposure is so bright that it invades residential homes. As such, it becomes a challenge to doze off, unless you are a sound sleeper who also happens to own a window blind. Yet, Ashgabat by night is an Instagram-worthy phenomenon, definitely deserving one million likes.(Un)fortunately, everything has its price and so ridiculously high price tags of these marble properties form no exception.



Afghan or Iranian carpets?

Turkmen carpets are one of the most, if not the most beautiful carpets in the world. Not only are they famous for their aesthetics but also for the quality of every single thread.

Sometimes traditional Turkmen rugs are mistaken for Afghan or Iranian rugs, probably due to the fact that Turkmenistan massively exports those to its neighbors. Nevertheless, a carpet enthusiast will have no difficulties distinguishing between traditional handmade rugs originating from Central Asia and the ones produced elsewhere.

A Turkmen haly (or carpet) is characterized by a typical pattern design that varies from tribe to tribe (Teke, Yomut, Arsary, Chowdur and Saryk) and can be made from both natural and synthetic materials. For Turkmens, a haly is not just a piece of floor-covering material. The handmade masterpiece equals wealth for a Turkmen family, whilst for the country it is a national treasure.


A mini Turkmen rug for sale at a flea market in Belgium. Photo by M. J. Torres

Carpet weaving is so important for both Turkmenistan’s culture and economy that the country has its own National Carpet Museum with the richest carpet collection. In 2003, a handmade Turkmen rug entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s biggest carpet, with the total area of 301m². The State Emblem of Turkmenistan carries five carpet gols (or patterns) representing the five tribes mentioned above. Since 1992, Turkmens annually celebrate the National Carpet Day which falls on the last Sunday in May.


The Turkmen treasure of the Corleone family. Film still from the Godfather Part Ⅱ

“Golden” Horses

“Golden” horses are another treasure of the Turkmen nation. The Turkmen horse breed, known as Akhal-Teke, is famous for its graceful moves, speed and stunning looks. For their speed and greyhound-like physique, Akhal-Teke stallions usually take part at horse races (unless they have been handed out left and right as a state gift).

The stallions are characterized by a long neck and back, long legs and a shiny yellow brown coat (hence the nickname golden). Apart from carrying all the characteristics mentioned, Turkmen horses are also very intelligent. In other words, Akhal-Teke horses are the kings and queens among their species, just like the latest iPhone among mobile phones and the newest Tesla among vehicles.


Discover the exotic Akhal-Teke. Photo by The International Federation for Equestrian Sports

Just like te five carpet patterns, an Akhal-Teke horse is illustrated on Turkmenistan’s State Emblem, which again underlines the nationwide importance of this elegant and dignified creature. As Turkmens consider horses sacred, one could imagine that eating a horse meat in Turkmenistan is not a common practice, if at all. Eating like a horse is, nevertheless, very much welcomed.

Start of a cultural series?

Although this article forms a short introduction to the world’s most isolated country, I am glad I had the opportunity to somehow minimize the “ever-expanding news blackhole” for you. I hope to bring you a second part, either focusing further on the rich Turkmen culture and traditions or something else entirely.


For the fans of audiovisual materials, below are few links that display a relatively fair representation of the country. The first one features Belgian TV presenter, Tom Waes, and his extraordinary and, at times, frustrating journey through a number of cities in Turkmenistan. In the second video, American YouTuber, Drew Binsky, explores the “world’s strangest city”, which happens to be Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat.
1. www.dailymotion.com/video/x5hnwdk
2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmIa2SGpm6s

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