Turkmenistan: the Darvaza Gas Crater – Part 5

Dealing with People and the Police.

Part 1 – Intro
Part 2 – Brief history
Part 3 – Visas & airport
Part 4 – Sightseeing in Ashgabat
Part 5 – People & police
Part 6 – Getting to the desert
Part 7 – Hiking to the gas crater
Part 8 – Escaping the desert
Part 9 – Crossing the border to Uzbekistan

As you wonder in disbelief at this real-life dystopia, you’ll be no doubt intrigued to meet the people who spend their entire lives here. Don’t expect anyone – even hotel workers – to speak English, so best brush up on your Russian to communicate. Believe me, it’s well worth making the effort if you really want to understand life here beyond the crazy monuments.

lenin statue ashgabat

This lady was unimpressed by my Lenin impression.

The people you meet are nice if a little bit uninformed. In friendly conversation you’ll often be asked how you find Turkmenistan, to which my go to response was “interesting…” and their most frequent reply was “yes, beautiful weather”. It was hard to tell if people really did believe that our main reason for visiting was the beautiful weather, or if this was polite small talk to carefully avoid talking about anything dangerous. It certainly was polite small talk, but it honestly didn’t feel fearful in any way. Rather it felt like the people had been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, living in some respects a completely sheltered existence from free will, that their outlook on the world was somewhat lacking in perspective.

People weren’t afraid to talk to us. On the contrary they were very curious, and anyone who did speak English made a beeline for us. One young girl on the bus eagerly struck up a conversation with my handsome German companion – slightly too eager in my opinion! – and explained how she was a Jehova’s witness, I imagine quite a rarity in this otherwise irreligious country.

russian bazaar ashgabt

The Russian Bazaar. So, this is where the locals have been hiding all this time.

The locals also seemed convinced that there were lots of tourists in Turkmenistan. We must have somehow missed this throng of tourists, as beyond ourselves we didn’t see another Western face during our entire exploration of Ashgabat. Outside of Ashgabat, they would also often ask us where our bus was – I imagine a reference to organised tour groups – to which I responded “we lost it” in order to avoid explaining the intricacies of the visa system.

We also realised that the locals didn’t have a very good grasp of geography beyond their specific street of Ashgabat. Trying to ask for directions never got us very far, even when trying to explain with a map. On one memorable occasion I was trying to ask directions from a shop keeper to the Park of Independence. She didn’t have any idea and called over a nearby policeman into her shop to look at our map. Unfortunately, he didn’t know either, so we thanked them and just headed in the direction we thought was best.

Turkmenistan Police: Omnipresent but Benign?

You can easily find stories on the internet of police corruption, bribery and general harassment in Turkmenistan. However, this wasn’t my experience and despite numerous interactions (one particularly memorable, see section on the crater) we were never once asked for a bribe.

Yes, that’s right – numerous interactions with the police. Now, many of you may think that willingly chatting to police in a totalitarian state is a very bad idea. But I’m a middle class Brit from real life Hobbiton, and it’s been long ingrained into me to trust the police. So, when I felt lost – a frequent occurrence – I approached the police to ask for directions. Most of the time they gave us a friendly but clueless response, seemingly not much more educated than the average populace on the tourist sites of Ashgabat.

Another telling moment of interaction with figures of authority was around the Independence Monument. While I was taking photos of my friend posing epically in front of it, little did I realise that four soldiers were on their standard patrol right behind me. They loudly snapped to attention, twirling their rifles, causing me to jump out of my skin. All of them were grinning ear to ear at my reaction, which I’m sure they found hilarious as did my friend.

epic independence monument ahsgabat 2

This is the photo I took just before being surprised by a line of armed soldiers!

And this is the thing about Turkmenistan that is very hard for a Westerner to understand: despite it all, there is no perceptible atmosphere of fear in this country. Of course, if you are a high official in the government, you’re at risk of falling out of favour with disastrous consequences. But if you’re not involved in the politics, you can actually have a decent and pleasant standard of living. There is minimal freedom and yet paradoxically life here seems… care free? Perhaps it was just a superficial impression – could well be the case – and some cultures find happiness however dire the circumstances, but it certainly left me scratching my head over my own preconceived notions of the pursuit of happiness.

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