My first ‘stan

Okay, so Turkmenistan is like nowhere on the earth I have ever been. Not that that is saying much, since there are many many places I have not ever visited. But still. Go visit and see what I mean.

The landscape is fairly unforgiving. Hot, dry, sandy. Lots of endless desert (mostly not dunes, but just scrubby brush – good for goats, sheep and cows, I guess). Sun-blasted. One could be forgiven for thinking that someone had the colour turned down too low.

Turkmen themselves supply the missing contrast. The bright colours of traditional women’s clothing here, and the grace and simple elegance with which they wear it has to be seen to be appreciated. Any country where most women wear full length, flowing dresses has to be good. The contrast with the short skirts and makeup of the Russians is stark.

You also get to peer bemusedly at the men, who, despite the 30 degree temperatures, can often be seen standing in the sun in thick wool hats.

The people are uniformly friendly and helpful (perhaps surprised to see tourists?), typified by the staff at one snazzy restaurant carrying a table outside for me (and resetting it perfectly) so that I could sit in the breeze.

And they all speak Russian (Turkmenistan was the least willing to split from the Union), although that could soon change since Russians have recently had to drop their dual citizenship.

I thought I lived far from anywhere. This place borders Iran, Afganistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Still, most people are educated enough to know where New Zealand is (the others think it is in Europe). I doubt the same could be said in my country.

Ashgabat shows the effects of a big government run by one guy. The central goverment buildings have to be seen to be believed, including the 75 metre plinth on which rotates a gold statue of the President. Incredible. But not as mind-blowing as the complex of Presidential, Ministerial and Parliamentary palaces nearby. For a poor country of four million people they certainly have a lot of palaces.

The currency is fairly worthless. A loaf of bread costs several thousand manat. A trip to a place a few hours away can cost 100 thousand. The biggest note I ever saw was a ten thousand. So everyone has huge wads of cash to carry around. I can see why they don’t crack down on black market currency traders – it is because they can not tell who they are. Even ordinary people might need a plastic shopping bag filled with money. No wonder people change into US currency. Fewer bills.

And there is a special currency just for buses. The 50 manat note is useless for anything else. So you pay you first fare with a 1,000 manat note. They give you some change (no one really cares if it is not exactly enough, since the amount is so tiny anyway). And then you have a few notes of bus currency. Just throw them in the box at the front of the bus when you get out.

So many cool things here. I went to the main market on Sunday morning (when it is at its craziest). I met a teacher who sells carpets on the weekend. His wife and sister make them during the week. State employees here are not paid much. And there is little work outside of the State.

I also got some insights into techniques for selling things. If you express an interest in an item, suddenly five more similar things will be shown to you, of course. But the person who originally showed you these things might give them to someone else, who will show up 10 minutes later in another part of the bazaar to see if your post-rejection regret has got the better of you yet.

I went to the races. Here they have music when the horses are running and poetry when they are not. The colours are amazing in the dullness of the landscape. Horses get carpets of different sizes for winning, and get to parade around wearing them.

I went to a mosque at prayer time on a Friday as well. It reminded me in some ways of a rock concert with the simultaneous prayers. Strange, I know. And I was surprised to find that the same things that happen in the Catholic church happen in the Islamic one too. People are late. They are noisy. They jingle their keys. They walk in front of you. They have smelly feet. Funny. But for some reason I expected different. Not quite sure why really.