My Weirdest Airline Experience Yet: White Marble in Turkmenistan

by Adam

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 Airlines, the national airline — is a bizarre experience.

My Around-The-World Journey 

The gleaming white marble city of Ashgbat
Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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 Airlines is the only direct option on this route.

The eerie ‘Gates of Hell’ gas crater. The primary reason I ventured to Turkmenistan. Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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.

Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

Asghbat’s airport Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

 

Turkmenistan Air

A view of the new international airport terminal outside Ashgabat. (AP Photo)

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.

Departure Area, Asghbat Airport Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

Well this isn’t JFK
Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

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.

Turkmenistan Air

Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

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.

The current President-for-Life is omni present at the airport

The current President-for-Life is omnipresent at the airport
Image by Sanjay Sharma| Point Me To The Plane.

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 gate had its own unique abstract art – always in green
Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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.

Turkmenistan Air

Officer guarding Ashgbat Airport Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

After spending far too long staring at this mesmerizing rotating globe, I decided to head to my gate.

It would be easy to miss your flight staring at this rotating orb for hours. Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

At The Gate: Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 777 & 737

On the way, I spotted one of Turkmenistan Airlines 777s. It’s a bit of mystery to me where Turkmenistan Airlines actually deploys these jets. AirFleets reports that TA flies a 777 to Moscow. The Turkmenistan Airlines website doesn’t even list Moscow as a destination. Go figure!

Turkmenistan Air, 777, Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Turkmenistan Air, 777, Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

At my gate, I spotted a 737 getting ready for the short flight to New Delhi.

Turkmenistan Air, 737, Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Turkmenistan Air, 737, Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

The Onboard 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 Airlines doesn’t allow passengers to select seats in advance or even at check in, so this arrangement seemed far from a coincidence.

Turkmenistan Air, 737, Interior Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Turkmenistan Air, 737, Interior Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Once we were on the taxiway, take off was smooth and quick.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

One last view of Ashgabat. Notice how the city adheres to the mandatory white and green color scheme! Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Turkmenistan Air

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

As we hit cruising speed over Afghanistan, the flight staff started the food and drink service. That’s when the chaos began.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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 Airlines 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.

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

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.

Photo by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me to The Plane

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-planing I got one last look at the president, in all his bulkhead wall glory.

Turkmenistan Air

Image by Sanjay Sharma | Point Me To The Plane

How To Book With Turkmenistan Airlines

Booking with Turkmenistan Airlines is half the fun (torture?). I’ve never seen an airline make it so difficult to give them money. Turkmenistan Airlines 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 Airlines” 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 Airlines. 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.

The Upshot

Would I recommend Turkmenistan Airlines? Sure! The experience is bizarre, but if you’re up for an adventure and heading to the country, Turkmenistan Airlines 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 Airlines 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.

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13 comments
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13 comments

DaninMCI January 15, 2019 - 10:52 am

Great trip report. Fascinating for sure.

Reply
Anna January 15, 2019 - 11:18 am

This is fascinating!!

Reply
Joey January 15, 2019 - 11:43 am

I was just in Ashgabat back in November and flew Lufthansa to get there (FRA-GYD-ASB & used UA miles), spent a few days exploring the country, and then flew Turkmenistan Air on their 777 to PEK. I didn’t think it was weird at all (then again I’ve been to DPRK twice so my perspective may be different from yours.)
From what I recall in my research, you can also use skyteam miles to fly China Southern to ASB.
As to how I bought my flight ticket on Turkmenistan Airlines, I used that website you mentioned that looked official. They had set rates for economy and business class and surprisingly enough I was able to use my Visa card. My tour guide was with me the entire time and at check-in, I asked him to kindly get me a window seat and somehow someway he managed to do that. I even got my own row too!
Great photos! I’m curious how you exchanged money USD to the local manats! lol

Reply
Sanjay January 16, 2019 - 7:47 pm

Ah – great tip on using the local guide for help with seat selection.

I took advantage of the black market to convert my cash given the discrepancy between the official rate and what just about anybody else could offer.

Reply
Christian January 15, 2019 - 6:32 pm

Wonderful review! I really like the humor you carry into it. What did passengers do with their cigarette butts?

Reply
Sanjay January 16, 2019 - 7:48 pm

Thank you! Fortunately I didn’t encounter anyone smoking on board. I’ve heard that’s not always true on some Chinese carriers.

Reply
Jyoti January 15, 2019 - 11:04 pm

Great write up!

Reply
Mick January 16, 2019 - 7:10 pm

Really good write up. Keen to see the other legs. How you booked it all too.

Reply
Sanjay January 16, 2019 - 7:52 pm

Thank you!

I actually have a few posts on PMTP about my experience booking my RTW. The short answer is I used the ANA mileage program to book the following (minus transit stops & ground transfers): EWR-FCO-VFO-TNR-EBL-DEL-DPS-SYD-JFK. You can read more about my RTW booking experience here: https://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/author/sanjay/

I then booked shorter or cheaper flights with points or cash, including an inbound FlyDubai leg from EBL to ASB via DXB and the outbound leg on Turkmenistan Air that I detail in this post.

Reply
RC February 12, 2019 - 6:30 pm

SO what is there to do In Ashgabat?

Reply
Sanjay February 13, 2019 - 5:15 am

The number one activity is to go on a driving tour to visit all the white marble buildings. I only photographed a small portion of them – but there is much more. Also very much worth seeing them in the evening when they are all lit up, Las Vegas style. If you happen to be visiting during one of the many obscure international sporting events – I think it would be a blast to visit and have that experience. The President himself often opens those events at a full blown opening ceremony.

Beyond exploring the city, you should definitely visit the gates of hell and, if time allows, arrange a day trip up to Merv by plane.

Reply
some body November 29, 2019 - 8:22 pm

Who wrote this report? Sanjay or Mr Dong?

Reply
Chris Dong November 29, 2019 - 8:25 pm

Thanks for catching that error, this is actually Sanjay’s first-hand experience!

Reply

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