While planning our itinerary through Central Asia last May, we dismissed Turkmenistan mainly due to Audrey's impressions of the place. She envisioned a dark, totalitarian state where people mysteriously die in jail. The outlandish whimsical declarations of its leader, Turkmenbashi, would be humorous if they didn’t encase the six million people living there in a difficult reality. Having worked with Turkmenistan and some of its neighbors in the job she’d recently departed, Audrey was certain this wasn’t her vivid imagination running wild.
Dan kept Turkmenistan in sight and brought it up often enough to keep it on the radar of travel possibilities.
Considering that Turkmenbashi had just died in December 2006 and that we might not have this unique opportunity again in the near future, we decided to give it a go. We left it to fate and the Turkmen government’s willingness to grant us adequate visas.
As fate would have it, the Turkmen authorities said yes. So did we.
Turkmenistan: Not Sure What to Expect
We weren’t terribly familiar with Turkmenistan before we visited except for the combination of news and urban lore that circulated. We had heard about banned beards, an ice palace in the desert, days of the week and months of the year renamed after the president’s family members, and so on. Prior to our entry, friends sent us mainstream articles like this and this as background reading before we hopped on the ferry from Azerbaijan.
Turkmenistan was one of the world's last closed countries – difficult to get into and mired in a police-state bureaucracy built by a cult-of-personality dictator who had ruled for 15 years. Limited information circulated on what life is like for ordinary people.
It's easy to beat up on Turkmenistan, which we've done to some degree in our two previous pieces (here and here). Now we take a step back and acknowledge so much that pleasantly surprised us about the place.
1. Darkness, in Place and People
Expectations: A dark, heavily controlled police state where people are afraid to talk and engage with foreigners for fear of drawing the ire of authorities.
Delivery: Genuine curiosity and smiles from people the moment we stepped off the boat. Locals were interested in engaging with us and were curious to find out where we were from. This pleasant curiosity and engagement continued throughout our entire journey, making the Turkmen people the highlight of our visit. Tourism is still a novelty in Turkmenistan. As a result, most of its people are not yet jaded and haven’t learned to be aggressively opportunistic. It's so refreshing to engage with people who truly don't expect something in return.
2. Using Your Camera, Dodging the Police
Expectations: Not being able to use our cameras freely and possibly getting our camera and laptop equipment confiscated for suspicion of being journalists. We even backed-up all of all our photos in three different locations before leaving Azerbaijan in anticipation of this possibility.
Delivery: Except for the area near the president's house in Ashgabat and at highway checkpoints, we felt free to use our cameras just about everywhere. Turkmen people enjoyed the attention of the camera and often thanked us for having had their photo taken. They were proud to show off their country and encouraged us to take photos. As for our bags and equipment, it was all superficially inspected upon entry and exit, even though we had claimed a slew of devices on our customs forms.
3. Engulfed in Images of Turkmenbashi
Expectations: Images and statues of Turkmenbashi (self-named and self-proclaimed “Leader of all Turkmens”) at every turn.
Delivery: In this case, the reality surpassed our imaginations. Turkmenbashi's smiling face is still literally everywhere. To add confusion, images of his successor, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (at left, we believe), compete for visual space, making it difficult for Turkmen novices to tell the two apart. They do look very much alike to the untrained eye. Rumors even circulated regarding the current president being Turkmenbashi's illegitimate son.
4. Police Consume our Visual Space
Expectations: Uniformed and plain-clothed police everywhere, ready to hassle unabiding locals and tourists at a moment’s notice.
Delivery: Police do man the streets in Ashgabat and the other cities, but we were never harassed or requested to show our documents. Foreigners were not allowed to walk the streets after 11 PM (taxi travel was acceptable, however). While there were checkpoints along Turkmenistan’s highways, we were only stopped once and our guide deftly handled questions regarding whether or not we had taken photos of the security gate.
5. Access to the Outside World
Expectations: No access to the outside world. No internet, television, or printed materials.
Delivery: The result here is a mixed bag. Internet cafes are appearing, albeit slowly. Access is still very expensive for ordinary people and a passport number is required for access and is entered into a logbook by attendants. However, several foreign organizations like Counterpart and the American Center offer free internet access to local citizens. Since they are cheap and easily procured, satellite dishes are absolutely everywhere. Small ones get international channels, including the BBC in English, while larger dishes pick up Russian channels. Printed materials are limited and can prove farcical. It's worth noting that printed materials (particularly in English) in neighboring countries often resemble laugh-worthy rags full of outdated news and propaganda-laden titles and quotes.
6. No Access to the Outside World = Oblivious, Provincial People
Expectations: Provincial Turkmen people due to their limited access to information.
Delivery: This is partially true, but we were also surprised to meet several people who had studied in the U.S. During our last night in Ashgabat we met a young teenager who had learned English from Peace Corps volunteers and looked poised to take on the world. If she is representative of just a small percentage of the next generation, then there is indeed hope that things will change for the better.
Expectations: A relatively homogeneous people in terms of ethnicity, language, culture and lifestyle.
Delivery: Turkmenistan is diverse, which proved a pleasant surprise for us. Turkmens, Russians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Tatars and other nationalities form its ethnic canvas. We were constantly fascinated by the diversity of physical features – especially the eyes, which ranged from the darkest black to the clearest aqua. Fascinating and beautiful.
8. Goofy Laws and Lore
Expectations: No beards, no gold teeth, no opera.
Delivery: Beards and gold teeth are everywhere, but smoking in public is not allowed (apparently because Turkmenbashi did not want to be tempted while he himself was trying to quit). The ice palace is a skating rink, not a palace made of ice. The Walk of Health is indeed real and as surreal as it sounds. More on similar folklore here.
What's Next for Turkmenistan?
While Turkmenistan far exceeded our expectations in a positive way, this is not to say that life there is ideal for all of its citizens. Although controls seem to be easing with the new president, dissent and disagreement were hardly encouraged. [Fair point to those who might counter with “Where are dissent and disagreement truly encouraged these days?”]
Locals we spoke to also expressed frustration that there are not enough jobs, meaning that the standard of living has dropped for many since Soviet times.
The changes Turkmenbashi made to the education system – replacing substance with study of the Rukhnama and shortening the period of state-sponsored basic education – disqualified many Turkmen students from attending foreign universities and has placed a large part of a generation at a disadvantage.
Topics considered “negative” like AIDS and drugs are just now being discussed, though the problems have been there unattended for years.
Some of Turkmenbashi's grand agricultural and architectural plans continue to drain rivers and redirect water sources at an accelerated rate, meaning unexpected environmental challenges lurk just around the corner.
During our brief visit, signs did seem to indicate that President Berdymukhamedov was slowly making changes for the better. Within the first six months of his presidency, he had re-extended the compulsory education system (from nine to eleven years), reinstated term limits for presidents, chucked the idea of a university based on the Rukhnama and allowed free movement of people within the country.
Turkmen citizens still needed an exit visa to leave the country, meaning that movement outside Turkmenistan was not yet free. People we spoke to indicated that even this was becoming easier, aided in part by subsidized flights abroad on Turkmenistan Airlines.
While the number of police on the streets had supposedly dropped, they continue to maintain a visible presence. For foreigners unaccustomed to such supervision, it feels like Big Brother is still watching.
We met a British traveler who first visited Turkmenistan in 2000. According to him, people were reserved and afraid to talk with foreigners then. His stories also featured mysterious CIA and Taliban rendezvous at the Sheraton Hotel (another story altogether). What he experienced then is akin to what we expected to find during our recent journey. In contrast, upon his return in 2007, he recognized a significant change in people’s behavior and the country’s overall mood.
Perhaps you can understand why our findings give us hope for this country and its people. Only time will tell.