6 Observations on Turkmenistan culture and society
Having only spend 5 days in this strange and impenetrable land, it is fair to say that trying to delve too deeply into Turkmenistan culture and society was a pretty impossible task. Here, we lay out our subjective observations of one of the world’s most stringent dictatorships and the people who live under its yolk.
Ashgabat is a strange city and not very representative of the country itself. It is a theme park of faux marble facades, gold plated statues and ludicrously gargantuan architecture. The contrast with rural life, and life in other smaller cities is stark.
Ashgabat feels almost European with its bars, cafes, cinemas and theatres, modern cars and adequate street lighting but something still feels amiss. The startling lack of people makes it feel like an expensive ghost town, built to demonstrate the possibilities of wealth and the projection of power rather than for the needs of the people. Parks are empty and streets, although beautifully paved, are under-used. It is like if ants have been given the freedom of New York.
Working for the state in Ashgabat seems to be about the only jobs going. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that for every 5 people we saw, 2 were policeman and 2 were street cleaners or gardeners. Armies of people were sweeping dust along the road side, picking leaves out of fountains or dressed in uniforms extracting bribes from the few cars that did have the temerity to drive around the city. When walking through the park we saw handfuls of people hidden among the trees, catching some zzzz’s, all dressed in identical gardening uniforms. I would imagine that this is one way that the authorities keep themselves in power, offering full employment, regardless as to whether the work is necessary or not, in exchange for acceptance.
Which brings us to our next point, politics. In the few conversations we managed to hold about the political situation the answers we received were very much the same. Apathy, and the belief that politics and real life were two separate entities in Turkmenistan. People didn’t complain that the wealth was being squandered or that their freedom of expression curtailed. They were prepared to accept these things unquestionably. The government provided jobs, free electricity, gas and water and the crime rate (well petit crime rate) was extremely low and it was an exchange they were willing to make.
This omniscience of the authorities makes Turkmenistan quite an intimidating place for tourists, especially in the capital. The government places prohibitive measures on how much locals can interact with the outside world: for example couchsurfing is banned as are a number of western websites, and policeman make it their job to stop anybody walking around with western looking people. We found ourselves dodging policemen with the locals who we did meet with and staying silent when we knew that speaking English would attract unwanted attention.
Despite these restrictive conditions we did encounter many selfless, interested and hospitable people on our travels. In Konye-Urgench we were invited to stay in a mosque, balked at for offering money and families competed for the right to cook us food. They wanted to hear stories of our lives in Europe, what the conditions were and all about our own families back home. We still couchsurfed in the capital and were treated with respect and kindness by those we did communicate with in English and our very basic Russian. People flouted the rules in order to make us feel at ease and we were extremely grateful for it.
Our favourite thing about Turkmenistan was the strikingly beautiful clothes that almost all women wear. Jeans and t-shirts are just not common here, instead women wear long flowing dresses, characterised by embroidery patterns on the front which can differ in terms of colours, ornaments and price. Furthermore, in Turkmenistan married women wear head scarves that are usually help upright by a cardboard circle, colloquially called a ‘bucket’. Sometimes these structures can be very high and they visually make women taller. In the old days, instead of ‘buckets’, women wrapped up their hair buns in one scarf and later wrapped the whole hear in another scarf to achieve the same effect. It was fascinating to compare with our own preconceived ideas of how people look and we must say we saw the benefits of everybody looking so beautiful.
written by: Jon
Have you been to Turkmenistan? What are your impressions on Turkmen culture and society? What else would you add? We would love to hear your opinion!