Living On The Edge In My Final Country — Turkmenistan Part 2

To cut to the chase, Turkmenistan is a large country and we won’t quite make it to the Gates of Hades in this post.

But we will get close, and along the way, we’ll survive a car crash, visit the not-so-Grand Canyon of Central Asia, touch the Caspian Sea and check out a prohibited beach resort ghost town that is even off limits to the few tourists who succeed in making it into Turkmenistan. So hop on board (well maybe you shouldn’t) or live vicariously through my experience of life on the edge in one of the world’s most closed countries.

Crashing by the Yangykala Canyon

Last time we left off, we had finally made it into Turkmenistan, my last country that I had to visit to complete the UN 193 list. I had a hell of a time getting into the country, as I had been making attempts since 2018 to take a trip there. I finally had a stroke of luck earlier this year when Turkmenistan reopened from the pandemic and I got on one of the first tours to finally travel this elusive country. 🙌

I was already a couple of days late to meet the tour group, so upon landing I took the day to myself with a tour guide to explore the capital city of Ashgabat. I found Ashgabat to be a beautiful (if not somewhat bizarre) city, and after a day of exploration I was ready to board my flight to Turkmenbashi to meet the rest of the tour group.

In the evening, my tour guide dropped me off at the airport to fly to Turkmenbashi with Turkmenistan Airlines, the national carrier. The flight was about an hour and 30 minutes to the coast of the Caspian Sea. I was picked up from the airport and taken back to the hotel where I got to meet the rest of the group and the tour guides. After a brief meet and greet, we all went to sleep early so that we would be ready for our big adventure the next day.

Our plan for the next day was to visit the Yangykala Canyon. Later in the day, I would also go to the Awaza District, a nearly-empty tourist zone with lots of hotels at the seaside. Even though I had planned to go there after visiting the canyon, I ended up getting back from Yangykala a lot later than I had expected. It’s a long way to this canyon by car over dirt roads, and it would be an understatement to say that we didn’t have the smoothest ride there. 😒

We had a long drive ahead.

We were unfortunately involved in a car accident just five miles away from our destination. Because the dirt roads were so dusty, the car behind us crashed right into us. It was actually the first car accident that I was involved in and I really felt the force of the impact, but it wasn’t too bad because we weren’t going so fast at the time. 😮‍💨 Luckily our car was able to drive away from the accident, and although the other car could not, we were still all able to meet back together over at the Yangykala Canyon.

We were a little shaken up, but ready to explore this natural wonder of Turkmenistan.

The Yangykala Canyon is a big nice natural canyon system in the northwest of Turkmenistan. It’s in the Balkan Province, which is the largest province in Turkmenistan, located in the city of Balkanabat. While some people refer to the Yangkala Canyon as “the Grand Canyon of Central Asia,” I didn’t think it quite lived up to the nickname, but it was still quite nice to see and explore the colorful canyons and interesting rock formations.

This was all beneath the sea just a few million years ago.

We went around the crater and the rim of the canyon for a bit and took some pictures there before eating our packed lunch. We had gotten a lot of strawberries that morning from the local market in Turkmenbashi, where we had spent about an hour before heading to the canyon.

I like to live my life on the edge. 😉

We made a stop along the way to the Yangykala Canyon at the entrance of Turkmenbashi. There we were able to see a big entry sign welcoming us to the city, as well as the port and the pipelines. We also made a stop to see some desert houses and people traveling by camel before we finally made it to the canyon.

After our visit to the Yangykala Canyon, we drove all the way back to Turkmenbashi. The group stayed at the hotel to rest while I went off on my own with a private driver to visit the Awaza District.

One last look at the rarely-seen Yangykala Canyon

The Last Foreigner in Awaza

The large tourist resort of Awaza has lots of futuristic buildings, like Dubai, and it has a prime location right on the Caspian Sea. However, it’s basically a huge ghost town with no one there to populate it, which meant at least that I could walk around freely. Despite the fact that it was desolate, I saw that they had built a new congress hall there, as well as a futuristic lighthouse where I took some amazing pictures at sunset.

It was a truly spectacular sunset.

I also found an amusement park there with a lot of rides that were (of course) all closed down, since no one was really around to ride them or put them to work.

The seemingly abandoned amusement park

I stumbled upon a kind of dinosaur park there too, with lots of statues of orca whales and great white sharks and so on. It was cool to walk around and take pictures there with no other tourists around to get in my way.

Was he looking at me? 😂

I also got to go to the beach at the Awaza Resort. It was my first time actually touching the Caspian Sea, so that was something new and exciting for me. I had been near the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, and I also stood on an oil platform in the Caspian Sea, but I had never actually touched the water, so I finally got to do that there.

Ready to touch the sea!

The beach didn’t look too bad, so I took a dip in the water and walked around a bit. Then we drove around to some other locations to see all of the hotels, take a walk along the beaches, and shoot some photos as the sun went down and the day turned into dusk.

Watching the sky change color

We weren’t allowed to go inside of the hotels, so there wasn’t really very much else to do there. We did see a yacht club and a lot of channels that you could explore by boat, if there had been anyone with a boat around in this empty town. Maybe people go out there on the weekends or holidays, but as far as I could see, it was a very large and fascinating ghost town resort. 👻

Not another soul in sight

Apparently, the very next day, the government of Turkmenistan made a directive that no foreigners could visit the Awaza Resort anymore. It’s a nice area but because no one is there, but they may have wanted to avoid people like me calling it a ghost town. Because I had just been there the day before, I was probably the last foreigner to legally visit the Awaza Resort this year, unless they reopen it. I think the town actually has quite some potential for tourism if Turkmenistan opens up to more tourists to visit.

Night falls on the ghost town

Heading to Hell

The next day, I would visit the Darvaza gas crater, also known as “The Door to Hell” or “Gates of Hell.” To go there, we first had to travel from Tukmanbashi to Ashgabat and then drive into the desert up north. We woke up at five in the morning to fly there together as a group. We were running on very little sleep, which became a trend that would grow to haunt us over the next few days. 🥱

Heading through the dusty desert toward the “Door to Hell”

After our early morning trip to Ashgabat, we hung out for a bit in the hotel lobby, went to the Russian market to get provisions for the journey ahead, and then drove about four hours up north to the desert to see the gas crater, which was a fascinating sight to see.

Check in next time to join us as we see the Gates of Hell up close, visit the silk road, and explore more of Turkmenistan.