Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, is best described as a surreal combination of North Korea and Las Vegas. Until 2006, this former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan was run by an eccentric (to say the least) dictator, who dubbed himself “Turkmenbashi the Great.” The current ‘President for Life’ is following in his footsteps and has lavishly spent/squandered the country’s natural gas wealth on structures made entirely of white marble (fun fact: Ashgabat has the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world). As you might expect – flying Turkmenistan Air, the national airline – is a bizarre experience.
I was in Turkmenistan as part of my recent round-the-world trip for a 4-day visit to see Ashgabat for myself and to finally cross the Gates of Hell, a truly eerie natural phenomenon, off my bucket list. I flew in from Erbil, Iraq on FlyDubai and planned to travel onward to New Delhi, India. Turkmenistan Air is the only direct option on this route.
It Begins: The Zaniest, Most Ostentatious Airport I’ve Ever Seen
Architectural inspiration in Turkmenistan tends to be quite literal. For instance, the building for the Ministry of Education is a giant book and the official national wedding hall is a giant disco ball. Consequently, I wasn’t even a little surprised when I arrived at an international airport evoking a magnificent bird.
This might just be my new, favorite airport!
Check in was easy and uneventful, which left me with plenty of time to take photos of the stunning airport. I had to be somewhat surreptitious as Turkmenistan has no shortage of guards (to protect all the white marble buildings!) who don’t look kindly on photography.
The departure area was serene and relaxed. The airport seems far too large for the number of passengers and there is almost no commercial activity of any kind. I didn’t see any touts, coffee shops, souvenir stands, or even those counters where passengers get their luggage wrapped in yards of saran wrap.
I did spot an aviation museum tucked away in a corner of the airport. I would have LOVED to spend time here, but it was sadly closed. I’d like to think it was closed because of the early hour, but I suspect that, like many of the sites in the Ashgabat, this museum rarely actually opens.
Much like the rest of the county, the airport is blanketed with images of the current president. Outside the airport, I saw plenty of photos of the President usually surrounded by grateful children or adorable puppies.
After security, I walked the length of the airport just taking it all in. The entire country has a color scheme of white with pops of green and the airport is no exception.
Every so often, I’d see an officer ‘guarding’ a gate. Most of them looked like 17-year-olds in uniforms that were always one size too big. I counted and 8 out of 10 of the guards were like the one pictured below; bored out of their minds, and watching loud Russian pop music videos.
After spending far too long staring at this mesmerizing rotating globe, I decided to head to my gate.
On the way, I spotted one of Turkmenistan Air’s 777s. It’s a bit of mystery to me where Turkmenistan Air actually deploys these jets. AirFleets reports that TA flies a 777 to Moscow. The Turkmenistan Air website doesn’t even list Moscow as a destination. Go figure!
At my gate, I spotted a 737 getting ready for the short flight to New Delhi.
The On board Experience: Chaos
The boarding process was my first clue that this was not going to be a relaxing flight. The boarding process seems to be a hunger-games style rush to the sky bridge. I’d guess maybe 30% of passengers actually showed their passports to the gate agent, while the rest just rushed on board.
On board, I found myself hiking to the seat furthest in the back. All of the front rows in economy were occupied by local Turkmens, while Indian passengers (mostly migrant workers returning home) were assigned to the back seats by the bathroom. Turkmenistan Air doesn’t allow passengers to select seats in advance or even at check in, so this arrangement seemed far from a coincidence.
This single-aisle aircraft has seats arranged in two rows of three. I couldn’t find any seat data for the Turkmenistan 737 online, but seat pitch felt about average, maybe 30 or 31 inches, which is comfortable enough for me (I’m 5-feet-7-inches) on a three hour flight.
After all passengers had found their seats, the flight attendants didn’t seem too fussed about seatbelts being fastened or luggage bins being shut. A few dangled open as we taxied for takeoff.
Once we were on the taxiway, take off was smooth and quick.
As we hit cruising speed over Afghanistan, the flight staff started the food and drink service. That’s when the chaos began.
As I patiently waited in the back row, I noticed that the ambient noise level onboard was quickly rising. Passengers ahead of me were shouting and raising a commotion. It turns out that, inexplicably, Turkmenistan Air had decided to cater this flight to India with only one meal choice: beef. This wasn’t the wisest choice given that we were traveling to a country where many revere cows as sacred and eating beef is taboo. The flight attendants didn’t handle the racket well and put on a “take it or leave it” attitude as they rushed to get their service complete. I felt genuinely sorry for the hungry passengers who got stuck with nothing but a bread roll and some rice.
Fortunately, I have no qualms with beef and was actually pleasantly surprised by the not-totally-dry texture of the kebabs.
The rest of the meal was about as good as it looks, with the exception of the chocolate dessert. That was delicious! I regret leaving Turkmenistan without buying bags full of these sweets.
The rest of the flight was absurdly loud. After all the hullabaloo of the meal service, many of the other (hungry) passengers were unruly for the duration of the flight and congregated in the aisle-way and around the bathrooms. Seat belt indicators were ignored and the aircraft felt more like a overcrowded bus or subway car than an international flight. The attendants couldn’t have cared less and I’ve never missed my Bose noise-cancelling headphones more.
Fortunately, the flight caught a tail wind and arrived in smoggy New Delhi slightly ahead of schedule. While de-planeing I got one last look at the president, in all his bulkhead wall glory.
How To Book With Turkmenistan Air
Booking with Turkmenistan Air is half the fun (torture?). I’ve never seen an airline make it so difficult to give them money. Turkmenistan Air doesn’t seem to list any of their ticket inventory on the GDS systems that most airlines use, which means that their flights won’t be bookable on flight aggregators like Kayak or online travel agents like Expedia. Googling “Turkmenistan Air” will take you to this somewhat official looking site though I’m not 100% sure it is even run by the airline. In my case, the website didn’t show the ASB-DEL flight I needed to book, even though I saw it listed on Google Flights.
The solution: Momodo.com. Momodo is a travel aggregator owned by Kayak. It was the only travel search engine I found that consistently displayed Turkmenistan Air inventory and linked to booking sites where I could actually complete the purchase.
Given their complete lack of airline partners, there is absolutely no way to use points or miles to book with Turkmenistan Air. However, if you’re determined to use miles, Turkish Airways flies to the capital daily from Istanbul and should be bookable with any Star Alliance program.
If you’re planning to visit Turkmenistan, please note that the country has strict visa requirements, even by Central Asia standards. Tourists must apply for a Letter of Invitation months in advance using a local operator to handle the logistics. Transit visas are supposedly sometimes available on arrival, but I personally wouldn’t be comfortable not having one pre-arranged. Ping me in the comments below if you want more details on arranging travel to Turkmenistan or if you’re curious about what there is to do once you arrive.
Would I recommend Turkmenistan Air? Sure! The experience is bizarre, but if you’re up for an adventure and heading to the country, Turkmenistan Air is likely going to be the most direct routing and give you a great preview of what to expect on the ground.
I’d be more cautious recommending Turkmenistan Air for a connecting route (e.g. Manchester to Amritsar, vis ASB) because of the risk of being stranded in a country with strict visa rules. As much as I loved the airport, I wouldn’t want to overnight there with all that Russian pop music blaring through the night.