Turkmenistan remains a mystery to many.
Here are 10 odd facts about Turkmenistan I would likely not have known about had I not recently spent two weeks in this fascinating part of the world.
1. It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Ashgabat
And it is strictly enforced! Driving a dirty car in the capital city of Ashgabat is guaranteed to have you stopped by the police until you rectify the problem – with an added inconvenience of a fine. Locals know this and make sure to wash their cars before entering Ashgabat, no matter how late it is or how tired they are.
So strong is the authorities’ preference for clean shiny vehicles that it is even rumoured that customs officials in Turkmenistan no longer allow imports of dark-coloured cars – because they show the dust more. Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov apparently has a particular dislike of dark-coloured cars and has his entire convoy – and those of his top officials – comprised solely of white limousines. They are considered “lucky”.
As seen at the Anau site near Ashgabat. Isn’t he the coolest kid in Turkmenistan? Definitely future president material.
2. Smoking is prohibited in all public places
Smoking in public in Turkmenistan has been banned since 2000. Anecdotally, the former president, an avid smoker, was instructed by his doctors to quit, and introduced a nationwide ban to have company. Today, you will sometimes see people smoking in Turkmenistan, but they will always do so away from prying eyes: in their homes, in a dimly lit corner of an outside restaurant area or on the side of a country road while resting from driving.
In fact, sale of tobacco products was outlawed in Turkmenistan in 2016, effectively banning smoking. As typically happens, black market for cigarettes swiftly sprang up. Shops selling illegal tobacco products faced large fines, but did not entirely end the lucrative trade – it is rumoured that the price for a pack of cigarettes on the black market can reach $10. For the limited part of population travelling abroad, importing heaps of cigarettes is not really an option, either: only two packs are allowed per person, and bringing items for others is strictly prohibited.
Funnily enough, many people in Turkmenistan quit smoking because tobacco brands on the black market became limited as a result of the ban, which meant that consistenty buying the same brand was not guaranteed. Let alone higher prices and the risk of being caught, seeking out your favourite brand simply became too much of a hassle – if not outright impossible.
For obvious reasons, I do not have any photos of smokers in Turkmenistan. Here is a photo of a group of beautiful local ladies in the Merv Historic Complex instead!
3. Alcohol consumption was prohibited during the 2017 Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games
Alcohol is normally widely available for sale in Turkmenistan. The country has vineyards and produces a wide range of alcoholic drinks, including beer, dessert wine, herbal liqueur, vodka and cognac. Alcohol is reliably served everywhere except the very traditional restaurants.
However, during the 2017 Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games held in Ashgabat, you would be excused for thinking Turkmenistan was a dry country. Shortly before the Games, alcohol disappeared from counters and shelves almost overnight, on high orders from the authorities. This might have been done to create a better image of the country ahead of many foreign visitors arriving.
I happened to be in Turkmenistan in the middle of this “dry spell” and briefly panicked at the thought of having to feed my beer addiction with colourful soft drinks from my childhood (which are still going strong in Turkmenistan). Worry not, however: there was not one time I wasn’t able to order beer when I wanted one. It sometimes came disguised in teapots and Coke bottles, and cost a bit more than usual – but it tasted just right.
Posing with a bottle of “Berk” in full display! We were sufficiently far from Ashgabat at this stage but were still served beer in a Coke bottle later that day.
4. Turkmenistan has a large resort on the Caspian Sea – virtually unknown abroad
Have you heard about Awaza? You may not associate the Caspian Sea with a beach holiday, but Turkmenistan’s authorities beg to differ. The country’s late president once had a vision of turning a quiet village near the port of Turkmenbashi into a full-blown holiday town equipped with all the latest amenities of a world-class resort.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and just under 20 large hotels decorate Awaza’s Caspian coast. The official cost to build the existing facilities has been reported at $1.5 billion, but it is rumoured that much more has been actually spent – and more is on the way. It seems that there is nothing stopping the authorities from marking their territory on the Caspian.
I have written about my surreal experience visiting Awaza here – this quickly became one of my most read posts in 2017, so do take a look!
5. Much of Turkmenistan’s population leaves gas always on
Because it is free! Since 1993, water, electricity and gas have been free to all residents of Turkmenistan, and many families never bother turning their stoves off. Amazingly, their excuse of saving on the cost of matches is quite telling of the odd economic imbalances in Turkmenistan – a country, on the one hand, enjoying phenomenal gas reserves, while, on the other, having a large proportion of its population live below the poverty line.
However, the mercilessly low gas market prices of the recent years meant that utility subsidies have become increasingly costly for the authorities. In 2014, Berdymukhamedov announced the introduction of utility payments, including plans to install gas meters in every household. Payments for electricity and water were introduced in 2015, though they remained relatively low. Luckily for Turkmenistan’s residents, gas remains free to this day, and it is unclear when payments will start – if ever.
As a side note, under President Niyazov even petrol used to be free for anyone with a car in Turkmenistan. The current president introduced a quota system, which quickly led to the large-scale bending of the rules (as people registered bogus cars). As a result, petrol is no longer free, although it remains relatively cheap (1 manat, or about 30 US cents a litre at the official exchange rate).
We were privileged to be guests of the elderly couple looking after Shir-Kabir Mosque in Dekhistan. Note the gas stove in the corner of the room – it was on the entire time we were there.
6. Internet access is tightly controlled in Turkmenistan, and most social media sites are blocked
Turkmenistan is among the countries notorious for poor availability of internet. As a tourist, I wasn’t really exposed to the access issues experienced by locals: about half of large government-owned tourist hotels where I stayed had free or symbolically priced Wi-Fi. The situation is different for locals, very few of whom regularly access the internet. Internet penetration as a proportion of the total population in Turkmenistan has been quoted at 14.5%, a far cry from the 90%+ levels of the developed Western countries.
Internet access in Turkmenistan is heavily censored and many social media websites and apps are blocked, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and WhatsApp. Locals with internet access rarely access blocked sites, preferring instead to use permitted alternative sites for fear of repercussions, which can be severe. Miraculously, the Russian social network site Odnoklassniki (“Classmates”) is allowed and used eagerly by Turkmenistan’s population.
Weirdly enough, even phone network in Turkmenistan is not exactly reliable. I was using my UK SIM for texting and occasional work calls (data roaming didn’t work), when phone connection was shut down barely a day after the end of the 2017 Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games. It was like the authorities no longer felt the need to maintain the pretence of openness after foreign athletes had gone home. Quite absurdly, I was able to get an Iranian mobile signal on my phone almost 50km from the border – but not the Turkmen one.
Iran lies just behind the Kopetdag mountain range pictured here. The Iranian mobile network? Right there on my phone.
7. Some citizens of Turkmenistan are not allowed to travel abroad
The notorious Soviet overhang in form of an exit visa – permission for citizens to travel abroad – was abolished in Turkmenistan in 2004. However, there was little time to celebrate: the unpopular policy was soon replaced with a blacklist containing multiple names of citizens barred from travelling abroad. Some travellers only found out about being on this list minutes before boarding their flights – and even important reasons like urgent medical treatment abroad were not an excuse.
In 2006, a further measure was introduced: Turkmen citizens were now required to obtain a document from their local police department permitting foreign travel. Effectively the formalisation of the blacklist, this measure resurrected the much hated exit visa. Realistically, anyone could suddenly find themselves banned from leaving Turkmenistan, whether temporarily or for good. Groups specifically targeted included persons with criminal history and those with knowledge of state secrets – effectively any state official – as well as, according to some accounts, such professionals as doctors and journalists.
With this in mind, it becomes a little easier to understand why some locals persist in heading to the Awaza resort in the summer. Low income aside, there is simply no other seaside for them to go to.
These ladies are wearing long red dresses, the student uniform in Turkmenistan. It is rumoured that few Turkmen students are allowed to study abroad.
8. Turkmenistan’s current president is a former dentist
I was left positively entertained by my visit to the Museum of President’s Gifts in Ashgabat. The museum contains presents received by Berdymukhamedov during his time as Turkmenistan’s president, and is an absolute kitsch fest! You will find anything here: from relatively tasteful works of art (usually given by developed countries’ governments) to exhibits clearly meant as tongue-in-cheek (a book on democracy from the US government and a “justice” statue from Russia), and on to shamelessly tacky items – the best part of the museum. Look out for the gold-plated bicycle and an actual racing car.
The museum does not hesitate to present Turkmenistan’s leader as the jack of all trades. On the displayed portraits of himself, he appears as a horse rider (minus that embarrassing fall during a race in 2013 that the Turkmen media made a magnificent effort to hush down), a keen racing driver (he owns several racing cars) – and a surgeon, posing proudly by the operating table in a doctor’s robe.
Except that doesn’t make any sense. Berdymukhamedov is actually a career dentist: he used to be Turkmenbashi’s private dentist before becoming the Minister of Health in 1997 and, after the former leader’s death in 2006, arranging himself swiftly on the throne. I would certainly be suspicious if I saw a dentist performing a full-blown surgical operation, but nothing seems impossible for the venerated Arkadag.
9. Ashgabat holds the world record for its white marble buildings (there are almost 600!)
Before Turkmenistan declared independence from the Soviet Union, Ashgabat was admittedly seen as a deeply provincial city. It didn’t help that most of the city was destroyed in a horrific earthquake of 1948. In a matter of minutes, Ashgabat was reduced to a pile of rubble: most buildings had been flattened or heavily damaged. Only one (one!) pre-disaster structure still stands to this day, the clock tower not far from the Soviet-era circus building. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the tower was the tallest structure left standing for miles and became a symbol of Ashgabat in the former USSR.
Perhaps it was this experience of unprecedented damage that led the authorities to start rebuilding Ashgabat from scratch soon after the independence. The material of choice, white marble, was imported from Italy in droves to create the “white marble city” we know today. In 2013, Ashgabat made it into the Guinness Book of Records as a city with the highest density of white marble-clad buildings. There were 543 such buildings in Ashgabat at the time: if the marble was laid out flat, there would be one square metre of marble for every 4.87 m² of land.
And what about the residential blocks hastily built after 1948? Some have been demolished, while some received new white marble facades. The residential blocks sufficiently far – but still visible – from high-profile public areas (for example, the new Olympic complex or the Ashgabat airport) have simply been painted white. And those not visible at all? They are still standing quietly in their backstreets, visibly untouched for decades. After all, the president and friends likely never go there.
10. Couples in Turkmenistan pose in front of the president’s portrait on their wedding day
Weddings in Turkmenistan are typically registered in a designated building called “Toy Mekany” (“Wedding Palace”), which, like every other official building, logically features a large portrait of the president. It isn’t a legal requirement, but more of an unwritten rule: these days all Turkmen newlyweds have at least one wedding photo taken with the grinning president as their background. Berdymukhamedov has even been nicknamed “photobomber-in-chief” by the media.
And if that wasn’t enough, the list of unusual requirements for newlyweds on their wedding day goes on. According to Radio Free Europe, the detailed list of instructions drafted up by the president has couples visiting a total of four memorials on the day of their registration. Each couple is also required to plant a tree and look after it as it grows. And, to add insult to injury, Berdymukhammedov has also publicly expressed that “it wouldn’t be bad if couples continued to visit the [Toy Mekany] garden for important celebrations and family anniversaries, and during such visits planted even more trees.” So much for personal life choices.