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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
But purchasing can get absurd at places like a new modern multi-story shopping complex about a mile from downtown, where the range and quality of store inventories equal those of any major European city, but at prices only privileged classes and expats can afford. A container of ice cream costing $3 in the U.S., for example, sells for as much as twice that here—no doubt due in part to the difficulty of keeping such things frozen as they're transported and stored in the scorched country. At times I was counting out thousands by the hundred (if you can follow that), since most places don't accept credit cards (there are ATMs, but they can be hard to find away from the city center—bring U.S. dollars if possible and plan on doing a few exchanges with the limitless official and black-market traders).

The only time I tried using my credit card, to pay my hotel bill, triggered a final episode of madness. Most of the bill was paid by my agency in advance, but there was a balance of about $200 for various extra expenses. They take Visa cards and I was dismissive of the warnings about a surcharge, since such fees of up to 5 percent aren't unusual. The final bill presented to me was $852.

"I don't know why," the receptionist said. "That's just the way the system is."

I dug into my reserves of cash to settle the bill.

I left without any significant souvenirs, although there was an assumption among my guide, hotel staff, taxi drivers and others I'd be interested in buying Persian rugs, apparently the main acquisition of choice for wealthy visitors. Wrong, but they are an impressive cultural icon—the Turkmen Carpet Museum has a 300- square-meter carpet that supposedly is the world's largest handmade rug—that should live up to the expectations of bargain hunters seeking them.

Berdimuhammedow is carrying on with his predecessor's practice of building lavish things, including a large lake resort in Ashgabat and $1 billion for another resort in the historic Caspian Sea town of Turkmenbashi (the name is not part of its long history). The latter will include 60 hotels, a sports stadium, a shopping center and "glimmering spacespace-like skyscrapers," according to the BBC. It will also apparently be the country's first free-economic zone in an effort to lure foreign investors.

Talks with Russia and central Asian countries were prominent in the official Turkmen news during the first months of the Berdimuhammedow era, mostly focusing on things like gas and other commerce agreements. As for other recent contacts with the outside world, there was an interesting article in the Reno Gazette- Journal about a joint wildfire exercise between local and Turkmen firefighters (in my opinion, they absolutely blew an opportunity at useful insight — the only nugget in the entire article is the Turkmens talking about how U.S. firefighters use more water pressure. They were, however, accompanied by official translators, which may have been a factor).

But such steps forward are making essentially no impact in Turkmenistan's global image. Harper's Ken Silverstein caused an uproar in journalism circles by posing as a businessman wanting to hire a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that would make Congress more amenable toward the country. The article was hilarious in the way two firms were willing to wage propaganda wars to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but also captivating was the underlying assumption of how absurd it is to portraying such a nation as reasonable and respecting of human rights.

What's to be discerned from this as far as Turkmenistan's future music scene and that, if any, of jazz? Very little, perhaps less than any country I've visited. Even musicians in the most depraved nations tend to speak of the future with hope, believing the modern world is seeping in to quickly to all corners for its influences not to be felt—and heard. But I got none of that from the few conversations I had about music; more like a shrug of indifference. If there's any sense of lacking when it comes to music, it isn't evident. That may be because what's available satisfies the tastes they've developed, or that music is a small thing to worry about if one is compiling a list of essentials they are forced to live without.

Orwell's primary character in "1984" wrote "if there is hope, it lies in the proles." But he learned the hopelessness of such a theory upon discovering they'd lived with current reality so long as to be numb to the old one (he also noted music was composed by a machine called a versificator, which actually exists in the U.S., so beware). Change may come only long-term, but if there's hope in Turkmenistan it's because the restraints are local, not global, and that the proles are already engaged in something close to jazz jams on a regular basis, even if they're doing so in state-sanctioned ignorance.

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