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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
He and his friends headed home afterward, partially because it was late, but also partially because he wanted to see if my interest in his music was sufficient that I'd return the following evening to hear him play, at which point we could talk more (that was also the night of the blues gig and, by the time it was over, so was the chance to see him again). It was a pretty obvious means of building up of trust, understandable when dealing with an inquisitive stranger. One of the girls in the group urged me to be careful about engaging in conversations with just anyone, since they might make police suspicious.

"We're used to seeing people (from other countries) in groups, not somebody on their own," she said.

Getting In Tune With The Future?

With a new leader, many are hoping Turkmenistan is changing its tune.

Some aspects of Turkmenbashi's totalitarianism and personality cult are being carried forward by Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, rumored to be the former leader's illegitimate son. He was elected president in February of 2007 with 90 percent of the vote in an election international observers said didn't meet standards of legitimacy. But some of the stranger decrees seem relaxed—taxi drivers have radios in their cars, to cite a random example—and efforts are increasing to improve relationships with countries in order to increase business and tourism.

"As the country has breathed an almost audible sigh of relief as the new leader has begun taking steps to reverse some of Niyazov's more retrograde policies, especially in education, the marginalization of Russian culture and language, access to the Internet and participation in the Virtual Silk Road Internet project, some observers have begun to think that he was breaking from Niyazov's despotic methods of rule, as well," notes the Turkmenistan Project. "Yet at the same time that the government has allowed some openings, it has sent a chilling message to local journalists to stop reporting news independently. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports that seven RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan have had their land-line and mobile telephone lines blocked recently and say they are being followed by security agents.

The better face Turkmenistan is trying to present was evident during my trip but, as with people, makeup's ability to hide blemishes is limited and not completely authentic.

My arrival at Turkmenbashi International Airport, where a multi-language sign reading "We should glorify our motherland" greets passengers walking from the tarmac, was time-consuming but more pleasant than several other countries I've been to with strict travel restrictions. I was able to get a visa arranged by my travel agency upon arrival (about $100 or so), something apparently not possible until recently. The man at the immigration booth was pleasant and efficient within the limits of the paperwork required, giving me a warm "welcome to my country" as I departed.

A professional-looking middle-age guide from the travel agency who spoke fluent English (the company's name and those of its employees are being withheld, even if police can probably track them easily) pointed out the major landmarks among the bright lights as we made the 20-minute drive to my hotel. Although it was about midnight, he stopped at a black market currency exchange spot—a trailer home in a quiet neighborhood. My habit is to get $200-$300 initially to minimize the need for additional exchanges and their fees, plus I've frequently had my credit and debit cards frozen by my banks the first time I use them in unusual countries despite warning them in advance where I'll be. He warned me I didn't want nearly that much.

"You won't be able to carry it," he said, suggesting I do $100 at most, with $50 a better figure.

I went with the higher total, giving it to a woman who answered the door. Her toddler son (I presume), naked from the waist down, ran my money into another room and came back to the door with a stack of bills about four inches high wrapped in both arms.

Turns out it's easy to be a millionaire here, with an exchange rate of 5,200 manat to the dollar, but the largest denomination bill is the thousand. I packed every millimeter of every pouch, wallet and other places I tend to distribute money (a defense against robberies, which I also exercise with vital travel documents and other essentials), and still had to stuff a big wad unglamorously into the outer compartment of my travel pack.

The bills go far when buying basics at the Russian Market such as grain, melons (a crop of great pride, at the behest of Turkmenbashi who declared a national holiday for them), and street foods like meat or potatoes wrapped in fried dough. Such bargains, along with relatively cheap rates at those five-star hotels and for guided tours are why there's strong tourism potential for this place as a sort of an Asian Palm Springs.

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