Let’s face it everyone, Turkmenistan has a reputation that precedes it. The country has often been associated with the trope of the eccentric “hermit kingdom.” Characteristics such as extreme cults of personality surrounding their leaders, isolationism, strict control of all information within the country by the government, downright bizarre laws and a high functioning propaganda machine all converge in Turkmenistan. It also sits high on lists that aren’t favorable for a country’s reputation concerning human rights. But the purpose of this article isn’t to knock Turkmenistan, not in the slightest. Take this as my own little “heads up,” from me to you, about what is acceptable, and not so acceptable behavior in Turkmenistan for visiting peoples.
1. Be Modest in Taking Pictures
Taking pictures of government buildings is not allowed, and considering the fact that there is barely anyone other than government workers and policemen in the downtown area of Ashgabat where all of the government buildings are, it is easy to get caught doing this. I was informed that if any of us were caught doing this, even one of us, all of our cameras would be taken. With that aside, I did end up snapping a few sneaky photographs of government buildings. There are other places too where picture taking is technically not allowed, such as bazaars and certain monuments, but prohibiting picture taking in these places is less enforced and your own proper judgment should be used in these situations. Example: You are in a bazaar taking pictures of the scene and one of the bazaar workers looks uncomfortable with you taking pictures. Stop taking pictures.
However, there are certain places where you are basically begged to snap a few. You know, things the government wants to show off and portray the entirety of Turkmenistan to be like. Let the pictures roll there all you want, though sometimes there is a picture-taking fee. Also, occasionally some locals get excited to meet westerners. They will occasionally ask to get a picture with you. It is up to you whether you want to let them or not. But I would advise that you get in the picture with them and not be stingy about it.
2. Have Common Sense in Asking Questions
While this one may seem obvious enough, it is nonetheless important. As some fairly obvious examples of questions that should not be asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Guide, what is your opinion on Berdimuhamedow as a president? Why is there barely any internet here? Did you know that your country statistically enjoys less human rights than the rest of the world? You are aware that Turkmenbashi built a cult of personality and artificially fashioned himself as one step below a god, right?” These are inadvisable not necessarily because you are inviting any sort of extreme danger or trouble, but you could just be inviting unwanted attention and putting whoever you are asking in an awkward situation.
Turkmenistan is eccentric, and it will reveal that to you itself. Heck, maybe even some of the people will reveal that to you in their own words. I had a heart to heart conversation with someone, whom I agreed not to identify in any way, about his country’s interesting place in the world and his opinions on how things are done there. I didn’t invite it in any way, but it arose naturally. And even without these conversations, it is quite easy, even from a superficial standpoint to see Turkmenistan’s way of doing things.
3. Don’t Step on the Toes of Locals
People in Turkmenistan were some of the kindest and most polite that I have ever had the good fortune of meeting, and they don’t have a 100 percent negative view of the west and Americans. Don’t soil that reputation. Be polite, and respect their customs, and especially don’t try to initiate the conversations mentioned in number two, because if in some way it got back to the authorities and there were any sort of ramifications that someone had to suffer, it would be them and not you. Try not in any way to allude to the fact that things in Turkmenistan are done a little bit differently, because chances are the locals have a decent enough idea of this. You are not their savior, and don’t enter the country with that complex.
The locals are as warm and inviting as any one I have ever met. I recall one instance where our group had just finished an excursion to the underground lake, and did a little mountain climbing as well, and we were sitting in a nice little outside area enjoying some delicious шашлик (shashlik), when all of the sudden people and cars started closing in around our nice little outdoor area from all directions. It was a wedding and they were there to party. Soon the music started blasting and the dancing got going. Was there any question as to whether I would join in or not? I had my doubts as to whether they would accept me, but those doubts were soon shattered. I joined in and danced like crazy with them, and they even kept trying to get me to keep dancing with them when I needed to take a break. They are a warm and loving people. Come at them correctly, like you would anyone else, and certainly don’t condescend, and they will be good to you.
4. Accept that Certain Places are Off Limits
This pertains to many, if not the majority of government buildings and buildings in general in downtown Ashgabat, and many other places in country. Think of downtown Ashgabat, for the most part, as a priceless work of art. You can see it and admire it, though you can’t touch it, and it, in most ways, lacks any real sort of utilitarian purpose. Having said that, many of the monuments and buildings are quite beautiful and immaculate, though if you gravitate toward minimalism in any way, they aren’t your style. They don’t pull any punches when comes to going all out with monuments and architecture.
Fancying myself a natural wanderer, I always wondered what was inside so many of the buildings that we weren’t allowed to enter, and what was behind the doors we weren’t allowed to pass through, but the fact remained that I had to put those impulses in the back of my mind for my time there.
For example, we went to one of the many museums there, with white marble all over, dark brown wood and gold everywhere inside and the eight-pointed star on all surfaces. The entire museum was one room, with both floors visible from an open, central area. I think leaving so much open space was intended to really let the person inside know how large the building is, and it did its job. The museum was like the streets and like our hotel, in that we were the only ones there, so we enjoyed the place all to ourselves.
After paying the fee and taking pictures with the giant portrait of Berdimuhamedow and having our fill of the place we made our way to the exit. Near the entrance/exit, there was another room, smaller and more intimate. I went to enter the room, and from what I could see, there was another portrait of Berdimuhamedow and panels surrounding it with pictures of him doing this and doing that, but before I could fully enter into the room and see what it was all about, one of the museum employees, a middle aged women, halted me and shooed me out as fast as she could. Whatever was in there I obviously wasn’t allowed or supposed to see. What was in there – and why I couldn’t go in – was anyone’s guess.
All in all, though I loved my time in Turkmenistan, and part of the fact that you can’t see what goes on behind certain doors really added to the fun of it. It forces your imagination to run wild, cooking up conspiracies about what goes on behind those closed doors. If you can adapt to the country and take it all in stride, it will be a good bit of fun for you. Respect the country for what it is, don’t step on any toes and you will have a completely unique experience.