Ah, Turkmenistan. Quite rightly dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is far more closed, controlled and totalitarian than even Uzbekistan. It is in fact one place lower than that country on the Democracy Index. Very few readers will ever see Turkmenistan. I didn’t see too much but it was a fascinating mix of the utterly alien and the familiar.
Getting in: This is very difficult. Because I was on a group tour, this made it slightly easier but it was still outlandish. As with Uzbekistan, you have to be sponsored by a local guide/agency and it’s a two step process. The difference is that Turkmenistan routinely refuses entry — for instance the previous truck driver from the overland company I was with was refused entry just because. Most of the times, the company was issued with a 6 day transit visa. We spent 6 days in Turkmenistan meaning there wasn’t a day to spare. And don’t think about overstaying. The previous group overstayed because the Iran embassy (where they were getting visas to go on to Iran) closed for a few days because someone had a heart attack. The Turkmeni border guards fined the large group a formidable $450 each. Of course you must have a guide in Turkmenistan. The difference is, they must accompany you quite extensively (at least in theory). Your visa application includes your full itinerary and your visa lists the itinerary meaning you are only approved for those places. You must register with local police on arrival — they write the full list of places into your passport. All standard red-tape, eh?
Money: As usual in Central Asia, cash is king. There are almost no ATMs where you can use a foreign credit card even in the capital Ashgabat. There seems to be a black market exchange (we got our money from “folks” on the street), but probably not as developed as in Uzbekistan. The cost of goods is very high compared to its neighbours (excluding food, it seems). At the border, almost everyone coming in from Uzbekistan had a carpet rolled up under his/her arm. The guards told us whenever people go, they buy a carpet to sell back at home. And it made sense, the cost being 2-3 times higher in Ashgabat.
Food: We were either camping in the desert or in Ashgabat so didn’t get a chance to explore Turkmen cuisine much. Ashgabat is quite cosmopolitan (for such a strange city) and contains a large number of expats from western countries working for oil companies. As a result, the city has plenty of western food, along with Russified food as well as the usual kebabs.
Language: Like Uzbek, Turkmen writing has been changed to Latin script. This had special turmoil because Turkmen had so many changes. At first, it used Arabic. In 1928 the Soviets changed it to (bizarrely) Latin. In 1940 they changed their mind: Cyrillic it was. Finally in 1991 there was an immediate change to Latin. Before the trip I read a very sad essay about how the suddenness and dramatic nature of the change (everything at once I believe) rendered the older generation functionally illiterate in one swoop — something from which some have yet to recover. As in Uzbekistan, children don’t seem to speak Russian — which is very odd since a lot of people go to work in Russian-speaking countries and this is something many others aspire to.
Interactions with locals: There weren’t too many opportunities during the short stay especially since locals are (rightly) wary of talking to foreigners. Lonely Planet still speaks of a great deal of hotel rooms and other places being bugged. However, one person I managed to speak to was quite candid on finding out that I spoke Russian. He explained how due to the bad economic situation, most people have either gone overseas or are aspiring to go. “You know how much bureaucracy there is here,” he said — a comment that shocked my by its riskiness if someone found out about it. “Do you think Australia will take me with my level of English?” he added.
Safety: Although Turkmenistan is more of a police state than Uzbekistan, it did not feel safer. The strict 11pm curfew throughout the capital (no walking on the street or you’ll be arrested). Didn’t help. There were no specific problems, other than two men smashed off their faces harassing a couple in our group, however I detected more of a tension in Ashgabat than Tashkent. Maybe it was me.
Other travellers: Turkmenistan gets less than 2000 tourists a year I believe. We did meet some Russians near the Darvasa gas crater (see next post) but that was about it. The hotel had some booked out day tours so people do come to Ashgabat from overseas on occasion. A foreigner really is a novelty, especially in the city of Dashoguz which is near the Uzbek border and not near anything remotely touristy.