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Pictured (LR): Sarah Mackenzie – Back Track; Jason Denisenko – MTA Travel; Anna Bayley – Travel by Anna; Lisa Pagotto – Crooked Compass Founder & CEO; Lisa Levido – Travel Associates Runaway Bay; Paul Eagan – Eagan and Turner Travel Associates; Anne Coombes – MTA Travel; Terri Dillion – TravelManagers

WHEN THE opportunity to visit Turkmenistan with Crooked Compass arose, it was an immediate YES from me, writes ANNA BAYLEY, Travel by Anna.         

I was already familiar with (and a fan of) the Crooked Compass travel style and exploring an emerging destination is always a great opportunity.

The Stans had been on my wish list for a long time, but Turkmenistan was not one that I knew anything about.

I trusted the adventurous spirit of Crooked Compass and their ground operators and jumped on a plane to join seven other travel agents in this intriguing country.

What I discovered can only be described as the love child of North Korea and Las Vegas – an intriguing mixture that is hard to explain!

It’s definitely a country for well-travelled people. Those seeking a destination full of delightful quirks, extraordinary archaeological sites, a rich history, welcoming locals, beautiful textiles and a diverse culture influenced by the many countries that used the Silk Road in its heyday.

Turkmenistan has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world, so this is their major industry and has created great wealth for the country.

It’s clear that the government has poured a lot of it into their capital city, Ashgabat, and this was our entry point to Turkmenistan.

Ashgabat is known as the world’s “white marble” city. It’s shiny, sparkly and full of magnificent white marble buildings, futuristic architecture and over-the-top gold statues.

It’s not unusual to be the only car on one of their huge, spotless highways, but when you do see another car, it will be white or silver because no other colours are permitted.

Driving down these highways you see an impressive line-up of massive, futuristic architecture – it’s almost surreal. The National Press building is shaped like an enormous open book (white marble, of course).

The government loves to hold world records but they strive for strange ones. Ashgabat has the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel (again, white marble). The city is undoubtedly weird, but I loved it as it is unlike any that I have been to and triggered a new combination of feelings. Mainly confusion and intrigue.

An eight-hour drive from Ashgabat through the Karakum Desert will take you to a truly surreal sight: The Darvaza Gas Crater, a molten gas pit that has been spewing fire for decades and is known as “The Gates of Hell”.

We camped here overnight in very comfortable yurts and it was an incredible sight to see the crater light up the surrounding desert as the sun went down.

The crater is Turkmenistan’s most famous attraction and was created through human error. Soviet geologists hit a pocket of natural gas in 1971 causing a mine to collapse.

The crater was leaking methane into the atmosphere, so they decided to light it thinking it would burn out in a matter of weeks. It’s still burning strong and lighting up the surrounding desert, some 52 years later.

The Turkmen government wants to extinguish it but has no idea how to do it successfully.

We visited the Silk Road metropolis of Merv. This was once the world’s biggest city but was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s son and the Mongols in 1221 with an estimated 700,000 deaths.

The history is incredible and being able to walk through this ancient city was extraordinary. The warm, welcoming locals, the vibrant markets, the tasty food and the beautiful textiles were a highlight.

Meeting local people is always a highlight but, on this trip, I particularly loved the females. They all wore long dresses, usually colourful and floral, and they oozed femininity and pride.

Married women wore a colourful headscarf and single ladies didn’t. What a brilliant system to spot your potential partner!

The locals were very welcoming and willing to have exchanges at the markets or on the streets. We even got invited to a wedding!

You can really see the combined influence that all the countries using the Silk Road had on Turkmenistan.

It’s a country with a rich history and culture, and quirky modern additions thanks to Soviet mistakes and recent dictator’s desires.

I highly recommend that you include Turkmenistan when you explore Central Asia as it’s quite different from its neighbouring countries in the region.