The black sands of the Karakum Desert were once the domain of roving bands of Turkmen slave raiders that terrorised the Caspian basin. Thankfully, the slave raids are consigned to the history books, but the swashbuckling romance lives on. Watching the sun set over the endless dunes while lizards scurry for cover, camels munching on barbed Sahara shrub: that’s adventure.

And there’s much more than just slavery in those history books. These days, Central Asia can feel like a bit of a backwater, but 800 years ago Turkmenistan dominated the Silk Road at the centre of the trading world.

Few visitors make it into the country, which makes exploring the ruins of ancient empires an extraordinary experience. Near the Caspian coastline, the ancient Tethys Sea carved mesmerising shapes and colours into the Karakum. Right in the heart of it, the Darwaza crater smoulders like a volcanic door to hell.

Highlights

Before the Mongol conquests that would exterminate an incredible 35 million people and destroy many of the ancient centres of the Silk Road, Konye-Urgench and Merv were two of the largest and most important Persian cities.

But the Mongol destruction was merciless, leaving just remains of the former cities. Today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, you can visit the monuments which were either too beautiful or too strong for the Mongols to destroy.

For an entirely different view of the desert, head east to the Yangikala Canyon. Rainbow-coloured rock formations shaped like dinosaur claws make for an unforgettable spectacle when the moon rises and shades lengthen. Right at the heart of the desert lies the Darwaza crater, known as the Door to Hell, spitting out fireballs like an angry dragon.

Guided visits

Turkmenistan is an authoritarian regime with strict controls on foreigners. Any tourist needs to be accompanied by an official state guide. Locals are quite relaxed about the all-seeing state eye, though, and are curious and welcoming to foreign visitors.

At a glance

  • Konye-Urgench was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221. Despite the devastation, the city revived. Ibn Battuta, the ‘Moroccan Marco Polo,’ visited soon after and described it as “the largest and most beautiful city of the Turks.” Not for long, as in 1388, the ever-benevolent Emperor Timur massacred the population again and had barley planted over the city to finish it off.
  • During the 12th century, Merv was briefly the largest city in the world. The oasis town employed several hundred divers and thousands of engineers to keep its complicated system of desert canals operational.

  • The Darwaza crater was born as a 70s drilling experiment. After the drill, the geologists noticed a strange gas, and, in true Soviet style, decided to throw a match in. It has been burning ever since.

How to get to the Karakum Desert

A visit to Turkmenistan combines well with a trip to Uzbekistan. Konye-Urgench, Darwaza, Ashgabat and Merv can all be visited in a simple overland loop between Uzbekistan’s two cultural cities Khiva and Bukhara.

Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s air hub. It is connected to the region’s major cities and has daily flights to Mary (Merv), Dashoguz (Konye-Urgench), Turkmenabat (at the border with Bukhara) and Turkmenbashi (Yangikala Canyon), all taking around one hour each.

When overlanding, Darwaza is four hours by car from Ashgabat and five hours from Konye-Urgench. Yangikala Canyon is a four-hour drive from Turkmenbashi. Merv is six hours from Ashgabat and eight hours from Bukhara (including time spent at the border crossing).

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