6 Observations on Turkmenistan culture and society

Statue of Turkmenbashi, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - header

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.

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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.

Bank in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan culture

 

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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.

Independence Park, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan culture

Spotless alley of the Independence Park, Ashgabat

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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.

A golden statue of Turkmenbashi, National Independence Park, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan culture

A golden statue of Turkmenbashi, National Independence Park, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

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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.

Shoolkids uniforms, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan culture

The school kids turned away when they spotted I was taking a picture of them. Some Turkmen people were just scared of foreigners…

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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.

With Nasiba's family, Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan culture

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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.

Nasiba in a traditional Turkmen dress - Turkmenistan culture

written by: Jon

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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!

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26 comments

  • francaangloitalian

    I have to admit that even if I’ve never been to this part of the world, I’ve recently developed an interest in visiting it. It’s so different from what I’m used to and for that reason alone quite fascinating, perhaps I’ll make it there at some point!

    • It’s worth it! That was one of the reasons why we decided to embark on this trip, because we had known so little about this region. Of course at first we had some doubts and our families were worried about our safety, but we have experienced nothing but hospitality and kindness from Central Asian people and it’s definitely one of the friendliest regions we have ever been to!

  • brilliant! the city looks sort of how I imagined it. thanks for sharing!

  • What an amazing experience!! I love the fact that you guys were able to interact with the locals. We love doing that during our travels
    anna recently posted…Vietnam by Motorbike: The Best Six Weeks of my LifeMy Profile

  • wow this must have been such an amazing experience and… I find so cool the local dresses! (I have a personal passion for local dresses :-) ). Never been there, where did you fly from?

  • Great article! I’d love to explore the country more. It’s wonderful to hear how hospitable everyone is and I adore the clothes. I’d probably leave with a few new dresses :)

  • What an amazing place to visit. Its so interesting to read a review of a city that many people will never get the chance to visit and to hear about your interaction with the locals. Being a visitor to somewhere so culturally different from our own norm is such a fascinating experience and makes you appreciate what you sometimes take for granted.

  • A friend of my recently cycled across the Stan States and I have grown increasingly curious to visit. Those clothes (and the girls!) are absolutely gorgeous.

    • They are! In all the Stans you will find fascinating fashion that’s so different from one another. You should definitely consider visiting this part of the world although you must be very brave to cycle there, there are a lot of mountains! ;)

  • I love watching your videos and I am pretty much amazed you still have time to edit, given that you’re hitchhiking! Thanks for sharing another interesting post!
    Trisha Velarmino recently posted…Girl Rising Film Showing in the PhilippinesMy Profile

  • This part of the world is a place I’ve been fascinated by for a long time. Turkmenistan is high up on where I want to visit, it sounds not at all like what I expected though! Really interested portrayal of the capital city! And cool photos, those dresses are amazing, I want one :)

  • Number two reminds me of here in southern California. I think I see just as many people cleaning the towns as people that live here.
    Lesley recently posted…2016 Bucket ListMy Profile

  • I’ve never been nor knew nothing at all about their culture so I found your post very interesting and intriguing. So strange to think of all the locals being afraid of tourists and that beautiful scenery being just wasted since there are not many people around. (ghost town) That might be a bit out of my comfort zone touring a country like Turkmenistan but maybe some day. Thanks for the insight.

    • We are happy that you found it interesting, Melody. It really is a strange place and although it wasn’t the easiest and most comfortable place to travel you shouldn’t let that put you off. The locals are really friendly once you get away from prying eyes, it’s just a shame that the police are so omnipotent.

  • I love their style in clothing and purchasing a few of those dresses would totally be something I’d do! I love dressing local while in a very cultural place such as this (helps me also blend in and feel like a local). Another great post of a culture I wasn’t familiar with at all,thank you!
    Alli recently posted…7 Reasons You Are Your Best Self While TravelingMy Profile

  • This is fascinating to me – I have to admit that I’ve never really given Turkmenistan much thought before. It looks like a beautiful country but there is something eerie and off putting about things being so spotlessly clean and free of people. I’d love to see it in person but not sure if I’d feel at home

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