Transit through Turkmenistan: Crossing from Iran to Kazakhstan

Turkmenistan receives less foreign visitors than most other countries on the planet, even less than North Korea...

It is currently not possible to visit the country as a tourist without an organised tour. The only exception to the rule is a transit visa, which is usally issued for five days, but up to seven are said to be possible. 

Consequently, useful information about Turkmenistan is rather scarce (although check out the following: Bodensee Overlander (in German), Roving Snails and of course Caravanistan), even more so for those travelling without an own vehicle. We decided to sum up our experience of crossing Turkmenistan with a transit visa from Iran to Kazakhstan in order to help fellow travelers.

1. Visa

We got our visa from the Turkmen embassy in Berlin. We needed to hand in: two visa application forms available on the embassy's website, our passports, pictures and a letter to the ambassador (containing entry and exit border crossings, dates of entry and exit). Additionally you need to show a receipt over the payment of visa fees. We did not have it with us, but transfered the fee after we got home and sent the receipt via email.

You need to already have the visas of the two neigbouring countries. We had an Iran visa and printed a statement of the Kazakh embassy which stated that German citizens do not require a visa for entering Kazakhstan, which we took from its website.

We payed the express visa fee of 55€ each and received our visas after a week. The regular procedure which would cost 35€ each was said to take up to 20 days.

2. Entering the country

We entered Turkmenistan from the border crossing of Pol (Iran) or Etrek (Turkmenistan). To our best knowledge, there is no public transport to the border customs in Pol. We hitchhiked there from Gorgan, which was really easy. We spend the night at the border and where only mildly bothered by the police who is stationed close by. They asked for our documents, phoned someone, allowed us to stay. Later they came back with an senior officer and a camera: while being filmed, our documents were checked and we were asked who we are and what we are doing there. It took some convincing that we do not wish to go to a hotel. They came back another time to note down our names and passport numbers and left us alone for the night.

The procedure at the border was pretty straightforward. At the Iranian side ten different people looked at our passports and only the male part of us was talked to, but nothing new in Iran at this point. There is no transport between the Iranian and the Turkmen migration office. We started to walk the 3 km distance, but were picked up by a customs officer after a few hundred meters.

At the Turkmen side photographs and fingerprints were taken. Our bags were searched, whereby the young border police staff was rather interested in our tirpod, toiletries and contraceptives than in e.g. our GPS device. We needed to give our exact route (but not in written form), were told not do deviate from it and not to get into contact with local population. We paid 10$ entrance fee per person plus an additional bank fee of 2$.

There was a bus from the migration office to a close by parking lot, which costs 3 Manat each or 1$ for both, which is not the same thing. From the parking lot you can take a taxi to Etrek for 1$ each. We tried to hitchhike to Etrek, but it didn't work out, since all cars are taxis and the trucks refused to take us, so we ended up taking named taxi.

3. Inside Turkmenistan

The Turkmens seemed rather suspicious of travelers. Coming from Iran it is strange not to be approached with a lot of warmth and hospitatlity. An English teacher we met told us that there is a lot of state propaganda about tourists being spies and international agents, which would explain the mix between curiosity and perceived antipathy that irritated us at first. That being said, when we did get into closer contact, Turkmen people were curious, respectful and friendly to us in the great majority of cases.


There are two major money changing options: 1) the official therefore legal one, that is, banks and 2) the illegal black market. Exchange rates vary greatly between the two. The Turkmen Manat is coupled to the dollar in the official exchange system at 1$ = 3.50. On the black market we got between 18 and 19 Manat for 1$. It is not hard to see that it is highly profitable to exchange on the black market. It is, however, also illegal and punished with high fines and the confiscation of the exchanged amounts (or even imprisonment) if you get caught. So everyone has to decide for him- or herself here. We exchanged at the black market which is easily available everywhere. We asked a taxi driver on the parking lot right close to the border, who called someone. A guy in a BMW came, changed our money and left immediately. Another time we changed at the bazar of Turkmenbashi. As soon as you get there and do not look Turkmen, you will be approached by people willing to change and give rates when asked. We deemed the exchange on open grounds a bit too risky and changed in a shop close by where we felt safer from roaming police. As we got an unfavourable rate once when we let someone handle the exchange for us (he insisted because of supposedly ubiquitous police), we would recommend to exchange by yourself in order to get the correct black market rate.

Everyone was interested in dollars, as we have read prior to our trip. We think it would have surely be possible to exchange Euros, too, but probably somewhat harder. We recommend to bring dollars and not to forget some small bills.


There is only one place to stay in Etrek as far as we know, an old hotel that seems as if it hasn't changed much from Soviet times. The hotel is close to the bus station, everyone should be able to help you if you ask. It had no running water at the moment and a toilet outside. It was really cheap though, as it charged us 12 Manat per Person which is around 0.70$ (black market rate). However, we prefered to sleep on the ground in our own sleeping mats and bags.

The next night we spend in an overnight train from Serdar to Turkmenbashi. It was cheap, clean and comfortable. We highly reccomend that option.

In Turkmenbashi everything is a bit more complicated. There is a cheap hotel next to the train station, but it is not allowed to accomodate foreigners. The lady at the reception said that there are only two hotels that have a special permission. We do not remember the names, but the prices: one was 46$ per night and the other 74$ per night. This just was not an option for us at all. We went outside that hotel, where we were approached by a guy that showed us another guy, who would rent his house to tourists. We went into his car and 15 minutes later we had an overall nice room for 100 Manat (about 5.50$ black market rate). The guy went out in the evening and again in the next morning to meet people at the arriving trains, so it should be not soo difficult to find someone at the train station or next to the hotel close to the train station who is renting private rooms. Please be aware that this, too, is illegal. Being caught, we would have tried to play dumb tourist, but we don't know if this would have gotten us out of trouble. Our host moreover asked us not to walk around after dark due to frequent police patrols in the city. As foreigners we woud definitely be checked and asked to provide a hotel receipt.

The last night in Turkmenistan we spend in the little border town of Garabogaz (also called Bekdesh) that is close to the Kazakh border. There is only one hotel in Garabogaz, which makes it easier for foreigners, since they cannot be sent away. We again paid 13 Manat (0.72$ per person, but the room was even worse than in Etrek. We slept on the floor on our own sleeping mats and bags, since the beds barely deserved their name. However, the hotel had running water. The room was equipped with tons of mosquitos, making our night a pleasure. Migration police pays regular visits to the hotel in order to check who's there.

There is a long beach side behind the hotel, which is quite nice for swimming. We would not recommend camping there since border police was patrolling the shore. We don't know though how much of a problem that would have been, though we don not think that they would have been fine with it.


There are plenty of private and shared taxis that are fairly cheap. For example, we got offered a ride from the Iranian border to Serdar for 10$, probably each, we are not sure anymore. However, we used public transport such as busses and trains whenever possible. We did not hitchhike as we usually do, since our first attempts looked the opposite of promising and people would get a bit pissed when we explained that we want to go for free.

In general, Turkmens seem to take a taxi whenever possible and most of the time it took us several attempts to find busses since people either did not know about them or told us there are none.

We took the following connections:
- Etrek to Serdar: something like an offroad bus for 17.50 Manat each (1$ black market rate). Bad bus, very bad road, but only about five-six hours, which in the end was okay. It left at 7 in the morning in order to arrive before it gets too hot. You will pass control posts two times, which means getting out of the bus and showing your passport to a lot of police people. As soon as they see a foreign passport everything takes a bit longer and a mysterious phone call will be made.

- Serdar to Turkmenbashi: overnight train for 32 Manat each (1.80$ black market rate). We took the Kupe-option, which is a four bed compartment. It was really comfortable and we got a good night sleep. We left at approximately 1 a.m. and arrived at 9 a.m..

- Turkmenbashi to Garabogaz: bus. We have been told multiple times that this bus does not exist, which did not prove true. It is a normal European standard bus that leaves at the basar everyday at 2 p.m.. Once at the bazar, everyone can explain you where it leaves. The bus was 18 Manat (1$ black market rate) per person and took approximately 3 hours to Garabogaz. The driver was going 140 km/h no matter how the road condition was, making this bus ride short but anxiety levels high. 

- Garabogaz to border crossing Kazakhstan: private jeep taxi. We paid 120 Manat (6.70$ black market rate) for the 40 km to the border. The road is in really bad condition, making it necesseray to take a 4x4 vehicle. There are plenty of them driving around town. We just stopped a few until we got a reasonable price (the first few demanding 200 Manat). It should also be possible to share a taxi with locals to lower the costs.

4. Exiting Turkmenistan

Well, exiting Turkmenistan was not as easy as we thought and turned out to be quite an adventure by itself.

When we arrived in Garabogaz we heard rumors about the border being closed due to some epidemy on the Kazakh side. Bothered by the heat, constant police presence and control, the illegality of a lot of our actions and the overall atmosphere or state paranoia, we were not exactly eager to extend our stay, especially not with an expired visa. We went to the local police office who said that everything works fine, but told us to check with the migration office close by. We went there and were told that the border is indeed closed, but they would make an exception for us, no problem. We should just come to the border tomorrow.

We took a taxi to the border the next morning only to - of course - be told that the border is closed. While migration is still operating it is the border police who closed the border. So we could not get to the migration office, which was merely 100 meters away from the point where we got stuck.

We were told by border police to go to Ashgabat and fly out from the international airport.  We attempted to persue the border police to let us through multiple times, stressing that our visa was ending the same day and we could not go any further than the next police check point, since our stay in the country would soon be illegal. We further stressed that this is the only border crossing we could take since the only place we can go to without a visa was Kazakhstan. And moreover that we could not afford the flight anyway. The situation looked pretty bad.

Border police was friendly, made phone calls over and over, but could not do anything, since there were orders to keep the border closed. After hours of waiting and hoping we were turned down a 'last time'.

An officer of the migration  (who we saw the day before and who was really sorry for us) organized a ride for us (since no cars were around) that was supposed to get us to Turkmenbashi, where they supposedly could have extended our visa.

We got into the truck and drove for approximately 20 minutes when we were overtook by another Jeep. A migration officer got out of it and told us to get in. He had orders to bring us back to the border. There might be some chance we could pass this time, but we should not yet get too excited. We arrived back at the border, where the officer left the car and asked us to wait shortly as he was going to talk to his superior. We waited another four hours (!!!) in the heat, slowly becoming overheated and increasingly desperate. 45 minutes before the border was closing the same officer that as we assumed let us in the sun to die ran towards us and said that we could pass. Apparently they sent a request to Ashgabat and received a special permission to open the border exclusively for us. (Eternal gratitude to you guys, really!)

But to make it a bit more exciting still: we had only 45 minutes left to pass the thorough Turkmen baggage control, migration, run to the Kazahkh border crossing that was 3 km away and get through their migration procedure. We nearly lost it when the Turkmen customs guy started to look through the pictures on our camera, but the excitement kept our spirits up. After an exhausting run to the Kazakh border, we were met by really friendly officers. We got our stamps within two minutes and could not believe that this has been it. After almost eight hours of emotional roller coaster on the Turkmen side, everything was almost too easy.  

Slightly paralysed we chilled on the border for another hour chatting with the officers, who organzied us a private taxi to the next settlement, Shangösen, which is 180 km away from the border.

What's the morals here? Be careful and if possible doublecheck if your border crossing is operating. (Although it didn't help us so much either. Be sure to check border police (not police) and migration separately as they apparently do not at all coordinate their actions and even information.) And maybe: Mentally prepare yourself that things in Turkmenistan can be somewhat unpredictable. 

Safe travels!