Turkmenistan is one of the strangest and most closed-off countries out there. Consequently, only a very lucky few get to see the hidden wonders of this forgotten country. Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia bordering Iran to the south and Uzbekistan to the north. It is the hermit nation of Central Asia only sparingly welcoming tourists.

The Visa Regime

Turkmenistan is possibly the only country in the whole world that doesn't permit visa-free access to any country in the world. Not one! Consequently, everyone must apply for a visa and they are very difficult to get. To get a tourist visa you will need to book with a tour agency, you will only be permitted to say in certain hotels and your freedom of movement around the country will be somewhat restricted. But it is possible yet expensive but it's totally worth it!

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One loophole to the super strict and restrictive visa regime is to transit the country. These transit visas are given out much more freely. They are granted for five days and you have more or less complete freedom of movement. The only catch is that you really need to be transiting to or from Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan to Iran. And it is also very difficult for those with British, American, or Canadian passports to get visas for Iran (for everyone else there is no problem).

To put into context how restrictive Turkmenistan is, according to Index Mundi, Turkmenistan receives only around 8,000 tourists - the third least in the world. Only more than Kiribati and Tuvalu - two tiny and incredibly remote Pacific Island countries.

Related: 10 Unusual Tourist Attractions Around The US

The Gates Of Hell

One of the most unique things in the world is to be found in the deserts of Turkmenistan. The Gates of Hell! The history of this firey pit dates back to 1971 when the Soviets were exploring for oil and gas. A Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched through to an enormous pocket of gas. It collapsed to form a 230 crater and ignited. It has been burning ever since. Its glow lights up the night sky for miles around.

The Gates Of Hell: Fast Facts

Years It Has Been Burning: 50 Years

Crater Width: 230 Feet

Official Name: Darvaza Gas Crater

Ancient City Of Merve

Remember the Mongols and the stories of their wild expansion and of the destruction of whole cities? Well, one of the largest and most prosperous cities they destroyed was the city of Merv. It was once the capital city of the Islamic Caliphate and had a peak population of 500,000. It was one of the golden cities of learning. It was utterly destroyed by the Mongols.

Merv: The Facts

Peak Population: 500,000

Date Destroyed By Mongols: 1221

Nationality: Formerly An Iranian City

Additional Attraction: Mausoleum of the Seljuq sultan Ahmad Sanjar

But today the ruins are some of the most impressive on this earth. It is, naturally, a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. Today you can walk all around the ancient earthen walls that are slowly eroding back into the desert. The ruins and history here are truly unique and special.

The Capital Of Ashgabat

This is also one of the strangest cities on the planet. All the buildings are white with green roofs. There is so much marble in this remarkable city and it is spotlessly clean (by order of the President). Additionally, all the women wear colorful traditional Turkmen dresses all the time. Oddly, all the cars must be white. The President one day said that all the cars in the city should be white, and overnight those with colored cars could no longer drive them in the capital. No compensation was given.

Related: 25 Strange Places Around The World That Are Straight Out Of The X-Files

Ashgabat: The Facts

Status: Capital And Largest City Of Turkmenistan

Population: One Million

Best Time To Visit: April And May

Defining Attribute: Unique Among Cities!

Any visitor will be in awe of the architectural beauty of this incredible city, They will also be mesmerized by how few people actually live there and how so many of the people - who actually there - seem to be cleaning or policing it. There is quite simply no other city like Ashgabat anywhere in this world.

Some things to keep in mind while there. Be very careful about taking photos in Ashgabat and don't be scared if the police follow you! And expect all your favorite websites to be blocked. Be very careful about talking about politics.

Underground Lake Kov Ata

A short drive out of the capital Ashgabat is the underground Lake Kov Ata. This is a great place to go for a day trip. To access it you need to enter a cave and then walk down many stairs.

Its mineral waters are advertised locally as helping with skin diseases, rheumatism, and other ailments. They also recommend bathing for no longer than 20 minutes.

  • Max Recommended Bathing Time: 20 Minutes
  • Temperature Of The Lake: A Constant 34-37 Degrees Celsius (93 - 99 Fahrenheit)

If you do go to Turkmenistan, then go in the spring or summer. The winter will be cold. If you go in early April, you will see all the vast treeless mountains and hills glowing green with spring growth. Not only that, but they will be blooming with poppies. The hills will be dazzled red with the bloom of these magnificent followers.

In short, Turkmenistan is a tough nut to crack (and for many a scary one too). But for those audacious travelers who do manage to go, it is the experience of a lifetime.

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