After attending a few events in DC and discussing Central Asia over many drinks with friends, it became apparent that one country in particular fascinates Central Asia watchers and is almost unknown to the public in general: Turkmenistan.
I asked Myles Smith, one of my favorite writers over at Registan and EurasiaNet, to provide some insight on daily life in Turkmenistan. He has the unique distinction of being one of the few people who can offer this on-the-ground perspective after living in the capital, Asghabat.
I asked Myles to help us understand daily life, so I crowd-sourced questions from my family, friends and Twitter who were curious about Turkmenistan. At the end of the post you’ll find a few other articles that have great slide shows or information about life in Turkmenistan. If you want more political information – that’s a whole other blog post. We’ll get to it one day!
A massive thanks to Myles for his insight and willingness to share that insight with our audience.
1. Are people aware that they live in a really isolated place, culturally and politically? Is there any sense of the outside world?
For the most part, yes. The educated class (meaning, educated during Soviet times, or overseas) is keenly aware. Most of the rest understand that they live in an oppressive place and are frustrated by many aspects of everyday life – the forced fealty, the fake news, the need to pretend to be loyal to ‘omnipotent’ president in public life. However, I would also say most people appreciate the positive aspects of life in Turkmenistan, essentially because their neighbors include the still more dangerous and oppressive Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and more impoverished countries in the region like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
2. Are there a lot of artists or any sort of art scene? Is much of the art propaganda for the state, homemade goods, or something else?
There is a tiny art scene, though true creative art is severely limited by the state. There are a couple of art studios that have some really interesting stuff. They are patroned by a few retired artists in their 80s and European diplomats. Public art is indeed limited to propaganda. Homemade souvenirs can get repetitive, but the carpets are indeed great and very affordable. Everyone, foreign and local, finds a personal dealer the buy from, though some pretty good examples can be bought at all the major hotels for not unreasonable prices.
3. What do people do for fun?
My wife and I loved long walks at night, when the weather finally cooled, and everyone was at home due to the unofficial curfew. Our other favorite escape is the infamous Health Walk, where you could walk for miles through the foothills, see some fauna and occasionally flora (for a few weeks a year), and enjoy the quiet breeze. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. There are a number of inexpensive, silly attractions to see. Three legs, five legs, forty legs, the big ferris wheel, the cable car ride up into the foothills, etc.
4. How are people from the West perceived? Is it hostile?
Not at all. We found the Turkmen to be among the most welcoming, friendly, and hospitable people we’ve ever known. I can only think of a couple of incidents where I met hostility, but this was usually with plain-clothes secret police officers. Folks are occasionally hesitant to get too friendly with foreigners, in order to avoid attention from said authorities.
5. What is the food like?
Heavy. Traditional Turkmen food reflects what they have available in the desert/continental climate – mutton, root vegetables, only the most basic cereals and breads. The bread can be particularly unforgiving when made without milk. There are some stars – the milk and butter are excellent. Ayran and other forms of yogurt are quite good. Cheese is not. For some reason, the pork there is fantastic. Can only find it in the Russian and Armenian-run places, but it is fatty and tasty in shish kabob or pork chopped forms. Sometimes you’ll get very decent fried fish, especially at the city of Turkmenbashi. The oily taste could be from the never-replaced grease or the spills in from the derricks in the sea. The staples are the regional favorite, plov, which can range from a greasy and uninspired smattering of the basic rice, carrot, and mutton, to versions featuring cumin, caraway seed, grilled sturgeon chunks, whole slow-roasted garlic heads, or dried apricots. If your plate has the latter, you’ve done well. Chicken used to be hard to find in raw or frozen formats, and used to be tough as well, but the supply has gotten better I understand. Beef and most other livestock is generally slaughtered too late, making the meat tough and hard to grill tenderly without long spells of vinegary marinade. In Asghabat, there is much Russian and Turkish-influenced cuisine, in fact, that is about all you get for restaurants.
6. Is there any fast food available – Western chains or a food type specific to Turkmenistan that people eat when they are in a rush/don’t want to cook?
There are no Western fast food chains in Turkmenistan. There are nearly no Western chains, period. There is a Sofitel-run hotel, official retailers for John Deere and Caterpillar (you’ll see why when you visit), and some authorized retailers for major car manufacturers. That’s about it.
Fast food is a tough go in Turkmenistan in general. If you want to eat out after 10pm or before 8am, you’re basically out of luck, due to the unofficial-yet-official national permanent curfew. Oh how many a night I wandered around starving after work, foiled repeatedly to find an open market, only to retire home, exhausted and empty-handed, to eat toast made under the broiler in the oven. Some corner shops will sell sweet rolls or, in better cases, somsa, the ubiquitous hot meat turnover in a flaky, greasy dough. The meat is often low quality, but the cheese option can be good. Meat sheared from a stick a-la the Greek gyro is a less-inspired cousin, and the turnover is so slow at these stands that they are best avoided for sanitary reasons.
On the bright side, Turkmenistan’s restaurants (particularly in Asghabat) understand the reeds of their tiny clientele, and almost any of them will deliver anywhere in town. It will take a while, but they’ll get it done. I’ve also been known to call ahead to a restaurant, choosing my table and ordering my entire meal in advance, so I could squeeze it in to a 30 minute window of free time. Folks are great about this stuff – they appreciate their customers, and they know them.
7. How often and when do people go out for meals?
Friends and I would go out almost every Friday for a post-work feast of grilled meats and raw imported Iranian vegetables, washed down with watery and acidic Russian beer (later, vodka). These evenings are often spoiled by lousy vocalists singing over too-loud Soviet Central Asian pop standards at around 8pm, but, what can you do? Often there would be another day on the weekend when we would visit a local friend’s house or another for an all-day visit, with a feast, tea, and chatter. Locals don’t go out to eat that often, though the expat community can be counted on an abacus and can be found at the usual few haunts (1-2 hotel restaurants, Coffee House, British Pub, the 2-3 Turkish places, Perviy Park) several nights a week for low-key, early end nights.
8. Do people drink a lot there? Is there any sort of ‘going out’ culture?
This is one reason the place is a popular family post – its safe, and you’re not missing out on anything by heading home at 930. There are a few places that tried to get mellow musicians, but these were rare exceptions. British Pub and City Pub would have cover bands on the weekends, and there are a couple of clubs at places Westerners frequent (2-3 at hotels, one above the British Pub), but the few foreigners who hang out here are generally more miserable for it, and the few locals who do are either looking for a fix or a way out. The atmosphere is not exactly stimulating. As middle class people get richer, there is pressure for this to change, but the government seems more insistent than ever on cracking down on behavior that it might not be able to control. They closed the most popular club a few years ago, and are at the point of locking all university students in their dorms at night. Which is best for them – they have to be up early for marching and flag-waving practice anyway.
9. If someone was traveling to Turkmenistan, would it be easy to get a visa to go and what would be some advice you gave them?
If you’ve never gone to the country before, it will be easy to get a visa and go. Unfortunately, you will have a guide for most of your time there, and it will be criminally expensive. I went on a visa invitation from a local company on one occasion, and I have no complaints about the execution, but they soaked me on the prices for visas, processing, obligatory airport pickups, local flights, etc. I understand some European travel agencies organize regional bus tours with a generally older crowd, which would link in trips to Kiva or Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Both are worth visiting. Turkmenistan doesn’t have much for sites, unless you are an aficionado of the absurd.
10. What is Internet access like? What sites did you notice were blocked, and did it make it difficult to stay in touch with people?
Internet access is abysmally slow and for the ostensibly faster DSL service, it is the most expensive on Earth. GMail would take 5 minutes to load in plain-old HTML. Phone calls are absurdly expensive. Skype is usually too slow to make for decent phone calls. YouTube and Facebook are blocked, as well as opposition sites and some other socially controversial sites. There are about a dozen government-run internet cafes in Asghabat, and a couple in each of the big towns. Most people who have internet at home have either near worthless dial-up, or have access through their cell phone service. This is also slow, but at least it is getting cheaper. Luckily, if you are ever sent to work in Asghabat for a longer stay, you are most likely a diplomat, and have a 2-way satellite for internet access. It was nice having slow work days, where no one could get in touch with you, but it was very isolating from family and friends.
11. What languages are spoken there? Was Russian enough to get around?
Russian is still enough to get around in Asghabat and the other big towns. Russian is still the language of international business, development, and diplomacy. Younger generations are less likely to speak Russian well, and their English is not great either. This is a problem for the country’s future – the language limitations of their youth are extremely isolating.
12. What was the most difficult thing about living there?
Depravity. No cheddar or parmesan. No ales or whiskeys. Wine was fleeting. Tortilla chips. Netflix. Good bread. Almost no live music. That, and the fact that I did not know any Turkmen who spoke English and was under 35 that wasn’t trying to find a way out of the country forever. That made it hard to hope for the place.