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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
So I booked a tour package through a Central Asia travel agency, complete with a stay at a five-star hotel, an easy request since Ashgabat (population 700,000) has more of them than London and they're all mostly vacant. But it's a long process that's the only realistic way a lone Westerner can get in. Even then there's plenty of potential land minds anybody able to search Google could seemingly expose (link number three for my name begins "Mark Sabbatini is a destructive force in music journalism"). But the process was less challenging than I imagined, mostly consisting of many back-and-forth emails to deal with simple questions during a period of several weeks.

I listed my profession as a musician, since the word "journalist" in any context is a near certainty for automatic rejection even if you're a longtime former resident whose parents are buried there (true story). Freedom to walk the main streets in the capital was allowed, I was told, the rest would be a crapshoot involving an escort and probably lots of roadblocks to check identity papers. I told them my intention was to be conservative and remain within the city limits—repression or not, exploring one of the hottest deserts in the world during the summer, when temperatures can exceed 115 degrees, has no appeal for me.

I took no notes, only a few photos and generally avoid mentioning people's names here since they were unaware they were talking to a journalist. Additional information comes from email interviews and research (links provided where possible).

Also, while the hypocrisy there is deplorable, nearly everyone was exceptionally friendly, I never felt unsafe except for the few inadvertent slips about my profession and the architectural glow is impressive. Suggesting travelers avoid a trip on moral grounds is inappropriate since I didn't and viewed from a completely nonpolitical perspective it offers a much better than average bargain for travelers who enjoy Palm Springs-like desert getaways. Those willing to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth can experience a pleasant and reasonably priced luxury vacation that provides some benefits to a population in need of all the help it can get.

A Tale Of Two Pubs

Talk about the best and worst of times.

Live jazz is most easily found at two nightspots a block apart in the heart of downtown, according to my tour host and others. At the relatively simple and small City Pub, a lead singer and trio of instrumentalists were beginning to shift from their bar stools toward a small corner stage a few feet away when I dropped in on a Saturday at about 9 p.m. The owner/manager, maybe 35 or 40 and all hearty smiles, welcomed me in slightly broken English at the door when I asked if jazz was part of their repertoire.

"Yes, yes, they play many things—blues, pop, jazz," he said with a heavy accent that all but slapped me on the back, as a couple of the band members nodded in smiling agreement after conferring among themselves to figure out what I was asking. "Come on in; listen to some jazz."

At that moment I was an ideal customer, a rare outside visitor with money to spend. Then I did something beyond idiotic: In a moment of forgetfulness triggered by his enthusiasm, I did what I've instinctively done these past couple years of global travel and handed him an All About Jazz business card.

"I'm doing research about music here as part of a project about jazz musicians in remote and unusual parts of the world," I said. "Is it OK if I talk to them between sets and can you help if I need any translation?"

Ninety-nine percent of the time the response is enthusiastic at the thought of promotion for their business and culture. But the backslapping club manager looked at it, stiffened immediately and shoved it back at me. The chill was Arctic.

"We don't do anything like that," he said.

I apologized, said I'd mind my own business and grabbed a seat out of his line of sight. But he came over moments later and told me I needed to leave. Asking why did nothing except make it clear he was ready to physically throw me out if I resisted.

"I don't need a reason. I have the right to refuse to let anyone I want in" was all he'd say, varying the words only slightly a couple of times. "Goodbye."

I could hear the band on the street corner and I listened to about four or five songs in a bit of terror, since there's about three police officers along every side of every street. I could only imagine the consequences of their checking my papers or making inquiries in the club after seeing me come out of it so quickly. Thankfully, the band was doing a rock and pop set, and the officers didn't approach.

I'm also immensely thankful the manager reflexively gave my card the dead fish treatment, since I'd otherwise have been in nonstop terror about his giving it to authorities. Because outsiders must provide extensive information about their itinerary, where they're staying and who is sponsoring their visit, there'd be no trouble locating me.

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