Месяц назад я побывал в одной из самых закрытых стран мира — Туркменистане. Репортажи оттуда вызвали небывалый отклик и стали самыми посещаемыми в моем блоге за последний год. Так как тема оказалась интересна не только русскоязычным читателям, но и иностранным, я перевел посты на английский язык. Ближайшую неделю буду публиковать английскую версию постов про Туркменистан. А вы распространяйте ;)
A month ago I arrived from Turkmenistan, after having spent there four days. Four unforgettable days! Turkmenistan is one of the hardest-to-reach countries in the world. Well, it's not that hard to get there physically, there are direct flights from Moscow with S7 and Turkmen airlines and tickets don't cost much either. It's just you won't get visas.
Very few visited Turkmenistan. Very few can get visas. There are almost no records about Turkmenistan on the internet. And the records that do exist are often biased. In order to get a coveted Turkmen visa travelers have to use various tricks. They receive an invitation from somebody, but then they become hospitality hostages of the inviting party and start writing laudatory articles. They emphatically praise the golden Turkmenbashi and his successor Berdimuhamedow; god knows whose gold shines brighter than that under the Turkmeni sun.
Luckily, I wasn't invited in the same way. I got my Turkmen visa by some miracle. Honestly, a journalist can never get a Turkmen visa. All demands have always been rejected. I can only thank the Turkmen “chekists” (Turkmen secret service) for their total incompetence and the Nowruz celebration, due to which they were all probably drunk enough to issue me a visa at the end of March. So my story about Turkmenistan will be honest, without all the usual golden crap about wisdom and glorification of Turkmen rulers and so on.
Arrival in the country
Right before the trip began I was given the behaviour rules. All visitors arriving in Turkmenistan with visas categorized as “Tourism” are obliged to stay in hotels. It is verified daily. Tourists are obliged to return to their hotel no later than 10pm every evening. A change of a hotel is not allowed, otherwise you'll be facing deportation and a fine since the registration of your trip in the country is linked with the hotel you are staying in. A night spent outside of your hotel is followed by deportation and a hefty fine.
Every tourist leaving the territory of Ashgabat City must be accompanied by a tourist office employee. In case of a control check, a tourist caught without such an escort will face deportation and a hefty fine.
A tourist may only visit those places in Turkmenistan that were previously agreed upon and mentioned in the travel agenda needed to obtain a visa. Any deviation from that agenda will result in deportation and a hefty fine.
All visitors arriving in Turkmenistan with visas categorized as “Tourism” are forbidden from visiting private houses, friends' appartments, their relatives and so on. In case of noncompliance – you've guessed it – deportation and a hefty fine.
It is forbidden to take photos or videos of the president's palace, ministry buildings or any state or government buildings, borders, airports, shopping malls, or street markets.
Approaching Ashgabat. What first strikes the eye is the abundance of green roofs! All roofs are green here.
Flying in a green plane, with all roofs green underneath!
You arrive in a green airport, you walk out of your green plane, you are met by people in green uniforms. All looks like you've arrived not in Ashgabat, but in Dublin for the Feast of Saint Patrick.
First of all, you have to get your visa in the airport. It costs $169. You give your invitation to a specially designated man, then you go to the checkout. In spite of three stickers saying VISA PAYMENT SYSTEM on the checkout's window the cashier refuses to accept cards and insists on cash payment. After paying with US dollars the border guard glues in your visa, and now the time comes to go to the border control.
A strange man in a black suit approached me while I was waiting in the line. He looked nice and friendly, like your old buddy. He pretended to stay in line just like you, and asked if it was my first time in Turkmenistan, how I would get to the city and some other questions. I didn't pay any attention to him at first, but then noticed that he had no luggage and a walkie-talkie attached on his belt. I gave him a long exposing look. He realized he was revealed and retreated.
The border guard was turning pages of my passport back and forth for about 5 minutes and typing the details of my trip into his computer. Then he decided to question the authenticity of my visa.
“Where did you receive your visa?” he asked me, studying the protective watermarks of the green sticker under the magnifying glass.
“5 minutes ago in the window next to yours,” I answered, yet the visa itself said it was issued at the airport.
“Interesting, interesting...,” the guard continued, looking at my visa with mistrust, as if I was trying to sell him an antique watch and he was trying to find out its real value... “Do you have the payment receipt?”
“Here is the receipt.”
Now the guard went on studying the receipt, looking at the stamps, and consulting his colleague about something.
BAM! Huraaa! Another stamp lands in my passport and I'm allowed to enter the country.
But it's not over yet. Now you have to pass the luggage check. All Turkmen people open their suitcases for inspection. It's probably the importation rules about different goods that are applied. The border guards open boxes, bags, verify the price tags of clothes. Again passports are checked. The metal detector in the airport is lined with carpets covered with a protective film.
Very beautiful! ;)
The third time your passport is verified is at the exit of the arrival hall. And finally freedom!!! (nope, in fact) I have counted 5 giant portraits of Berdimuhamedow in the airport alone.
“Welcome to Ashgabat ! From the white-stone (Moscow) to the white-marble (Ashgabat),” a taxi man jokes.
A foreigner in Turkmenistan never escapes the eyes of the Turkmen "chekists", the secret service. You can't just come here, you can't just settle in any hotel, you can't just travel within the country without an escort or on a route non-negotiated in advance. Somebody must be responsible for your moves. The locals can't buy US dollars. You on the other hand may not always be able to pay with local currency. When checking out of the hotel I was given the bill in US dollars.
“May I pay with manats?”
“No, foreigners must pay their bills in US dollars,” the girl at the hotel reception says.
You can't just book an airline ticket or a hotel over the internet, because there is an old soviet-era tradition which is very carefully guarded in Turkmenistan, the tradition of “getting a hold” of something. You don't just book an airline ticket, you must fight to get hold of it. You don't just come to a hotel and book a room, you must manage to get hold of it. Sweet!
The internet here is really really slow, although until not long ago it wasn't here at all. Most internet sites are banned. Facebook is banned, LiveJournal is banned, YouTube, Rutube, Yandex.News, all porn sites are banned, even Pikabu is blocked! Even in China the internet is more open than it is in Turkmenistan.
The lives of Turkmen people are controlled by the television and the local secret service. Recently the ruler of the country announced that April shall be the month of morning gymnastics. So everyone must do morning exercises. I switched on the TV in the morning and saw all channels transmitting some happy smiling muppets waving their hands to the national tunes, standing on national carpets blindly radiating happiness. “Oh thank you our great leader Berdimuhamedow, shall god grant you with many years for telling us how to do morning gymnastics!” – the face of the citizen smiles broadly and takes up all of the screen. A bit more of that ultimate happiness and, like a black hole, it will swallow the TV set, the room and the hotel, and the whole of Turkmenistan with all its morning gymnasts!!!
When coming down to breakfast I accidentally overheard two hotel employees talking to each other.
“That rat is reproaching me for not coming to the morning gymnastics! Telling me that she will report it!” a man in a suit complains to his colleague.
“You should tell her that she is always welcome to polish the floor in your place while you do morning exercises.”
Risky walk in the evening Ashgabat
I would like to tell you about my fascinating experience to draw you more precise picture of Ashgabat environment. In the evening, I finished my cheap Italian wine which I bought at the local market for 2000 roubles, for I had no alternatives. It was 20:30; consequently, I had about 1.5 allowed hours to stay outside the hotel. Outdoors, the lights gorgeously highlighted the beauty of the Park of 10th anniversary of the Independence. I took a camera, earphones and went out to look for adventures.
The first encounter with the Turkmen cops happened immediately. However, I kind of caused it myself. Actually, I came to the monument of Turkmenbashi and noticed a covey of cops chatting and spitting on the ground. I came closer and saw: they were really spitting sunflower seeds. I remarked something like “What a hell street trash came to Ashgabat, and spits here?!” In the result, cops got twitchy and started to talk to me, but they did not understand Russian, nor did I understand Turkmen. Having realized the fact we can’t find the common language, we gestured goodbye to each other. Then, I went to take a picture of the golden Turkmenbashi, and the cops have spread out. I was alone in the park, so the young village slobs have decided not to patrol the park and just nibble the seeds thinking that nobody could see them. But I did.
In general, Turkmens speak Russian really well. You could have speaking problem only with two groups of people. First of all, it is teenagers and children who don’t study Russian, as at school it is not taught. The second group you can find a language barrier with is village cops.
In fact, village cops is a distinct caste in Turkmenistan. When a former country inbreed migrates to the big city from his village, his ego is inflating like Pinocchio’s nose. He walks across the streets like he is not just a cop but an Akhal-Teke stallion at President’s show. Turkmen village cop has two problems. First, citizens look at him like at a piece of shit. Second, the cop’s uniform is of fir colour what makes him invisible at the background of numerous Turkmen firs. All this exacerbates his complexes, so the patient’s feeling of self-importance soars to the sky.
Italian wine gave lightness effect to my gait and thoughts, and I decided to take photos of the administrative buildings, which is strictly non-recommended. However, there is no official prohibition, so I decided to find out by experience what I can take picture of and what is not allowed. I realized it at a car driving: when our car was driving past any committee or ministry, the driver in horror asked me not to raise the camera. It seemed like I had a grenade launcher instead of a camera. But now, there was neither the hysterical driver nor other people around. I took some pics of a bus stop and moved on. Then I took another couple of shots, but suddenly like out of nowhere, a cop turned up and waved his hands. We were standing at the opposite sides of a boulevard, so even if I wanted to hear him, I could hardly. The cop kept waving his hands. It seemed that in case when the offender is separated by the noisy road, he had to give me hand signs in sailor-like style. Equipped with signal flags, he could look exactly like a sailor. Actually, I didn’t understand anything from what he wanted to tell me. For a case of police check, I decided to hide shots taken with the help of regular settings of the camera. Finally, I waved a farewell to my new friend and moved on.
However, in 5 minutes, tortured by conscience, I decided to cross the road and find out what the cop finally wanted from me. In fact, no conscience tortured me; I just imagined how a couple of hours later, Turkmen riot would break into my room, put me on the floor and accuse in espionage. Therefore, it was better to solve the problems in the territory of the enemy. I crossed the street and went to this secret place...
You definitely should have seen how he was running towards me! You could remember the video of a supermarket doors opening at the Black Friday, where the rabble pushing, and elbowing each other, and screaming like an avalanche rushes to the sales floor. Exactly like in this video, 5 policemen were running towards me. I was the last discounted Samsung TV set, for the only champion of five. At one moment, I thought I ought to kneel and put my hands above the head. Yes, I was scared! You don’t see every day mad running Turkmen cops. Finally, they run up to me, surrounded by, and... gave a hand shake! I was a little flipped out, but menacing tone of the ranking cop immediately dispelled the fog of hope for friendship.
Speaking very bad Russian, they began to explain that it is prohibited to take photos there.
“I didn’t take photos at all!” Actually, I didn’t take even a single a photo of anything could be secret, a bus stop can’t be a secret object, can it?
“I saw you, you photographed it!” parried cop.
“I didn’t. Look here. I’ve just focused my camera to be able to read a sign, for my eyes betray me,” I felt awkward for giving them this guff. Fortunately, showing of my shots with flowers in the park and golden Turkmenbashi got cops calmed.
Finally, they briefed me that it is strongly not allowed to take pictures there, and we parted.
It was 9 o’clock in the evening. At the government district, I was the only person in civvies. Italian wine had no longer lightness effect to my gait and thoughts. I wanted to sleep, so I was going to come back to my hotel, BUT SUDDENLY, at the horizon flashing lights of police cars appeared. Here it is, my real journalist luck! It might be cortege riding with the president! I ought to take a shot of it! I went towards this light.
But nobody was driving. Having come closer, I saw a baggy road crossed by a plenty of police cars. There is an ambulance car, a crashed “Lexus”... And a troop covered by a sheet beneath which flowed a crimson blood leak. I presumed it was pedestrian who unluckily crossed the road in the wrong place (By the way, I mentioned the underpass nearby; however, no one uses it preferring to run across. It is one more evidence to the danger of underpasses.) Based on the number of policemen, people in army fatigue, military guards, and other strange people, either hit or the driver seemed to be not an ordinary man. Wide boulevard is blocked in both directions. Imagine someone shot down at Leninsky Avenue. All the lanes in both directions will be totally blocked.
I was surprised to discover there was no bystanders. That is, despite the fact that there was a plenty of residential buildings, nobody was standing around filming that at a cellphone. Having come closer, I have got why. Bystanders in Turkmenistan are not allowed film anything, nor are they permitted to gather. When a policeman noticed me, he hissed at me and gestured not to stay any longer and get out.
On the other side of the road, there was a hill where I could observe this incident clearly. I used to examine any event or fact from the edges; then, I evaluate whether it would be interesting to write blog about it or not. It’s my professional deformation. This event seemed to be particularly interesting for both absolutely atypical for Russia absence of onlookers and the overlap of the baggy boulevard due to the hit pedestrian. I climbed on the hill, and right after I took a camera in my hands a cold heavy hand put on my shoulder.
“HEY! Stop filming! It’s prohibited,” an owner of the hand was a puny man worn rubber slippers, sweatpants, and t-shirt.
“Why is it prohibited? Who are you?”
“Who am I??? I am a policeman! Can you imagine who is there now? There is the Head of Turkmenistan police! Could you show me your documents?” he was severe and unjust.
“Could you first show me your documents to prove you are the real policeman?” my own innate habit to check the documents first got into cop-in-slippers’s head. But really, what did he expect? I am not a fool to show my passport to each man in slippers.
“Ok, just a minute” the cop-in-slippers buried in his cellphone trying to get through to somebody... I was waiting for a minute; then, I gave up and left.
Having far distanced from the scene, I took this one single shot to leave at least something for blog. Yes, there is nothing visible. Yes, it was taken from the other side of the road. And yes, it’s really far. But it’s better that than nothing. I immediately hided the photo, just in case.
I crossed the road and thought to take a couple of shots at my cellphone and go to sleep. I was passing by the police and everyone looked at me suspiciously. So, I supposed pulling cellphone undetected was impossible and refused this idea. Policemen quantity was multiplying, many unmarked car appeared – apparently, KGB approached here. Now, it became totally clear that the hit guy was a big shot, as the chief of police himself arrived. Besides that, all surrounding houses were prosperous inhabited by local officials, ministers and other nomenclature representatives.
Right after I passed by the crime scene, some man in the red shirt (you can see him at the photo) and the second one in army fatigue waved their hands like: “Come here!”
These people were not like village cops I had met before; on the contrary, they were really serious. I wished neither to get snarky nor bicker with them. The man in red asked me to show my cellphone. He thought that I took pictures with it. The man in army fatigue grabbed my passport. Someone else filmed me. I felt naked under looming avalanche of troubles.
I turned on my phone and showed them my photos. It was absolutely nothing there. However, I expected that someday, someone will ask my phone to check, so I uploaded all my shots to either a laptop or a cloud and totally erased it from the cellphone to the single piece of photo.
Now it was the turn of my camera to be checked up. The man in army fatigue immediately made the point:
“Well, now we are going to a police station; then, we are going to pick up your SD cards and examine everything you had photographed!”
That's... that's quite a twist! I expected everything but the strongest of existing options.
First, I really didn’t want to lose time. Second, if they figured out how to view hidden photos, they would see some disgraceful stuff I photographed to make realistic reportages about Turkmenistan. They could see even me there yet from unflattering angles.
“Police station? Look, all the shots I had taken, there is nothing forbidden,” they seemed to be confused with buttons at my camera, so I stopped worrying that they find my hidden treasure.
“Why did you take so many shots? Do you always photograph so much?”
At the camera, there were 56 photos, so first, I didn’t find out why they consider it as “many”. Afterwards, I realized that the army fatigued man got through the photos ten times already.
“Sorry but you’ve already checked it all,” I remarked very politely; in contrast, I thought to myself: “Where on earth did they dig up these guys in army fatigue?”
Then I was handed over to local security officers. The security officer was smarter and asked me:
“How many memory cards are there in your camera?”
“Two,” I replied.
“Get one of them out, we’ll examine it in turn!” it seemed they had been instructed that the cards can be switched.
The security officer looked through the photos and asked me questions about every single one of them. He asked 56 questions about 56 photos. Why had you photographed this phone booth? Why had you photographed this path twice? Why had you taken a photo of this tile? All this questioning lasted for about 30 minutes. From time to time, some people came over, examined my passport and asked the same questions over and over.
When the interrogation and the cell phone footage examination has been finished, they gave my passport and camera back to me. I got back to my hotel only at 22:00. In total, I spent 30 minutes walking and 60 minutes talking to local police guys.
To be continued...
Written by Ilya Varlamov
Photos by Ilya Varlamov
Translated by Ilya Ignatkin and Nathalie M.
Edited by Serdar Kurbanov and Sean Kalafut
I will publish fresh chapters of my Turkmenistan reportage every night at 0:00 AM Moscow Time (10 PM WET; 5 PM EST).
You'll learn all about:
Cult of personality in Turkmenistan and The secret museum of gifts to the president of Turkmenistan;
Prohibitions in Turkmenistan and Turkmen communism;
Architecture in Ashgabat, New Ashgabat district and The biggest Ferris wheel;
The city of the living, The city of the dead and The dark side of the moon (Hidden Turkmenistan);
Awaza – the pride of Turkmenistan and The city of Turkmenbashi.