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Life in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Updated on December 20, 2012

Life in Turkmenistan

I work in a travel agency. I do not travel that much as I would like to and often ask my clients and tourists about places they visit. This hub is written based on the impressions of other people about Turkmenistan and how it looks like from the point of view of a foreigner. It isn`t a hub about the tourist attractions in Turkmenistan.

I believe you can find information about attractions elsewhere. One of the best writers I follow, UnnamedHarald, just wrote an interesting hub about one of the biggest attractions of Turkmenistan -the Gates of Hell. You can read it here :

I should actually thank UnnamedHarald for writing this hub. He gave me the idea.

public domain
public domain

This country is full of contrasts.

Turkmenistan is one of the closest countries among all ex-USSR countries. Citizens of ALL countries need visa to come to Turkmenistan. It makes a simple travel to the country a very complicated event.

There are three ways to open visa – to get an invitation from a relative which lives there, to buy a trip in a travel agency or to make a transit visa for 5 days.

You should apply for a visa well in advance – 2-3 months prior to the planned trip. It is absolutely impossible to apply for a visa if you made a booking in hotel yourself. Only authorized travel agencies may submit your documents to a visa section of the embassy.Airport in Ashgabat is modern but there is no any information for passengers. People stay in crowds fearing not to border their plane. Another reason for a crowd – several control points. People, their passports and baggage are checked 5 times before they board the plane.

The buildings in the new city center are ultra modern, but empty. The city center has many fountains, the new streets are just wonderful yet there are no people walking around. Wide streets become absolutely empty in the evening.

There are no big shops or big malls. People go to a market to buy food. Shops can sell you expired food.

Local road police is strict and can fine you for beeping without reason. At the same time drivers violate traffic rules almost everywhere.

There are no benches under the trees and if you wish to have a rest on the lawn it can cause a serious trouble with police.

There are many restrictions which a foreigner must know. Smoking is prohibited everywhere, unless you are in your own apartment. You can not smoke outside too.

You cannot make any photos outside. If you make photos of buildings and streets policeman will approach you and order to hide the camera. If you insist on making photos police can take your camera away. Police and men in military uniform are almost everywhere near every monument and place of interest. They say the rate is 2 policeman to 1 civilian. The most interesting that they do not explain why you cannot make a photo. It is prohibited and that is it!

Monuments and portraits of Turkmenbashi are everywhere
Monuments and portraits of Turkmenbashi are everywhere
Streets become empty in the evening
Streets become empty in the evening

There is only one cellular operator is in Turkmenistan- «Altyn Asyr» («The Golden age»). There was another one Russian telecommunication company operating there till the 2010 but the government cancelled their license and half of the population lost their phone numbers just in one night.

Local railways operate only inside of the country. No trains go from Turkmenistan abroad.

Train tickets are extremely cheap. A trip from Ashgabat toTurkmen Abad which is around 700 kilometerswould cost you just around 4 USD.

The trains are new, comfortable and have air conditioning. By the way Turkmenistan is the only country of all ex-USSR countries which totally renewed their trains and bought absolutely new ones from China.

The trains are new but the traditions on the railway are still old. Your shoes may be stolen at night, service is far from desired and personnel may be rude to passengers.

Banks in Turkmenistan exchange USD only. No other foreign currency is accepted.

Russian language almost disappeared from the official documents. At the same time people in the cities often speak Russian. This is peculiar much more to the capital – Ashgabat than in other towns and cities.

All school children wear a uniform. Girls must have their hair weaved in braids. If their hair is short girls weave artificial hair in braids. Their uniform is of green color. Girls wear dresses with national ornament, boys, even small, wear suits with ties. Not only pupils wear national uniform. Teachers and students wear it as well. The only difference that after school color of the dress is changed from green to blue or red. Both sexes wear a skullcap.

All citizens of the country obtain absolutely free electricity, gas, and salt from the government. (One of my clients said that she pays 6 USD annually for electricity which is close to free).

Every driver can obtain monthly 160 liters of gasoline for free (this information was correct in 2010. Nowitcouldchange). It is usually more than enough to cover monthly necessity. If you need more you can buy it. The price is around 1.5 USD /5 liters of gasoline.

When a child is 16 parents in a wealthy families buy a car for a birthday present. But it is difficult to obtain a driver's license. Bribes, corruption and clan relations are so strong in this society that such a simple thing as to pass exams for a driving license means paying for a school + bribe in the amount of 1000usd for a man and 3000usd for a woman. In spring 2012 women were not allowed to pass exams to get a license at all. I thought is is an influence of a Muslim religion but was wrong. Most likely it was some legislative act of the local authorities. Nowadays woman have to go to United Arab Emirates to get their driving license.

Retirements are pretty good for the country but it is not good compared to other counties. Every family has 1-2 persons which usually go to work in Turkey or in Russia because often people can not find job in Turkmenistan.

People in villages live much worth than those who live in Ashgabat. Pretty often people in a rural area can`t afford milk, butter or meat. The main food of the poorest people is bread and tea.

In the suburbs of Ashgabat a “Path of health” was made. This path has a length of 27 km and it looks much more like a road with rails, lamps and bushes planted along it. I feel uneasy to call it the “path” it is much more a road or a “boulevard of health”. Not everyone is able to cover the distance but the idea of good health is supported by all presidents of Turkmenistan.

Entry fee to the museum is different for local people and for foreigners. If you have a camera – most likely you are a foreigner and pay 10 USD, without camera you may pretend to be a local person and pay only 1 USD (if you can speak Russian of course to cheat the cashier girl :).

It is difficult to cover all facts about Turkmenistan. The isolation of the country from the rest of the world is not good both for the economy and for the well-being of the population. The country has big natural recourses, but all of them are not enough for a development of the country with such generous free services to the population.

All photos are taken from public sources:

The "Path of Health"
The "Path of Health"
A road cafe
A road cafe
Ashgabat  city streets
Ashgabat city streets

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