Turkmenistan: the country and its people

Map of T'stan
Take a good look at this map of Central Asia (south of Russia, west of China, and east of Turkey) and see where Turkmenistan is located. Turkmenistan is one of several countries that were Soviet Republics before the USSR broke up in 1991. I lived and worked in a small village, Ruhabat, down the road from the capital, Ashgabat.

Ashgabat with mountains
Photo by Jane Bardon

Facing south towards the mountains that separate Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It snowed twice while I was in country, and the hottest summer temperature was 50+ degrees Centigrade (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit). In the foreground are the older buildings of Ashgabat. For a view of the newer ones, keep on scrolling down.

Springing from the desert
Photo by Leo Deon
The Ministry of Gas and Oil.

Photo by Jane Bardon

Another government building. White marble and gold were paired almost all the time with flowing fountains, showing off the wealth and prosperity of the Turkmen government...

Uch Ayak Rotating likeness
Photos by Leo Deon
...and the glory of its president, Saparmyrat Nyazov, self-proclaimed "Father of All Turkmen", or "Turkmenbashy". I'm sure you have all heard about this monument that commemorates the country's neutrality. Atop is a golden statue of the president that rotates throughout the day to continuously face the sun.

Soldiers marching one by one
Photo by Jane Bardon

He controlled his country with the visible presence of the national army and the silent network of secret police and informants who allowed gross human rights violations, silencing of opposition parties, and the presence of corruption on every level of government.

The book of Ruhnama
Photo by Jane Bardon
This is a large model of the book the president wrote, the Ruhnama ("book of the soul"), that every child in school has to study and memorize. President Nyazov wrote it in a historically narrative style, recounting a romanticized history of the Turkmen people, implying that the president had spiritual authority to lead his people into the "golden age". This 15 foot tall model opens up every evening with lights and music (on the level of Disney Spectacular) and imparts one passage of the book to those who gather to listen.

Gypjak Metjit

Here is the largest mosque in Central Asia (as of 2004), built during the time I was in country, by the president, for the president's use during major Muslim holidays. Islam is the state religion, though not many people are devout followers. Under the Soviet Union, religion was not allowed; now, only the oldest generation pray regularly or attend Friday services. At this particular mosque, the president did not have passages from the Koran inscribed on the minarets or the interior walls, but passages from the Ruhnama. There were some mosques in Turkmenistan where this blasphemy did not exist.

Altyn Asyr
Photo by Jane Bardon
Pictures of the president were plastered everywhere, on every public surface, in stores, classrooms, government buildings, and private homes. This is a retail mall on a major street in Ashgabat. "Altyn Asyr" means "golden century".

Russian Bazar

This is the Russian Bazaar, located in the heart of the capital, in walking distance to the seat of government, as well as the Peace Corps office. Here is one of the only places where you can find anything you need, including local and foreign imports of fresh produce, meats, grains, dairy, and spices, textiles, furniture, sports equipment, CDs and DVDs, books and office supplies, Turkmen souvenirs and black market money changers. The government rate was $1=5,000manat; the black market rate, while I was there, was approximately $1=25,000manat. One Snickers candy bar cost 8,000m; one kilo of potatoes cost 4,000m. You couldn't find real peanut butter in country (a favorite care package item), and bananas were costly treats (8,000m/each).

Western Influence
Photo by Leo Deon
Here is a sampling of the bootlegged Russian-dubbed DVDs available. Every Turkmen family owns a TV and most have satellite television. My host father was a fan of American action movies (Jean Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jackie Chan were all cultural icons); I also saw Disney cartoons with my host brother and sister, and BBC newscasts and romantic comedies dubbed in Russian and Turkmen while my family was out.

Ashgabat Commerse
Photo by Leo Deon

Most imports came from Turkey, our neighbor to the west and economic paragon. During the Soviet Union's reign of power, Russians made up approximately 40% of the population, staying mostly in large cities. Now the Russian population is considerably less due to the Turkmen governmental and societal bias towards the formerly suppressed Turkmen people. The Russian language is still spoken by the intellectual elite, and most educated Turkmen are bi-lingual; now, however, schools only teach Turkmen, and ethnic Russians are penalized greatly if they are not fluent in the national language.

Photo by Leo Deon
Here an old Turkmen "dayza" (a term referring to an older women, translatable to "aunt") sells Turkmen carpets, one of the main sources of pride in Turkmen culture. Red is the traditional color, and different patterns represent different regions and tribes throughout the country (five main ones). When Turkmen tribes were nomadic, the carpet was one of their only pieces of furniture; even now, they do everything on these beautiful carpets (sleep, eat, cook, sit and drink tea, watch TV, etc.)

In the Cotton
Photo by Leo Deon

Cotton is also a huge source of pride (and destruction) of the country. As a major cash crop, high quality cotton fetches a high market price (Tommy Hilfiger and Linens 'n Things use Turkmen cotton for their products). Unfortunately, children and teachers, doctors, nurses - everybody, are recruited every autumn to leave their classrooms and clinics to pick the cotton for months on end. Some village schools would literally shut down from September to November in order to reach the government quotas set for their region. Also, it takes an incredible amount of water to irrigate the cotton fields; inefficient water use throughout Central Asia accounts for the strained relationships between individual countries, as well as the dramatic shrinkage of the Aral Sea and other environmental disasters.

Making bread
Bread in Turkmen culture (and most other Central Asian cultures) is sacred. People eat bread at every meal, with butter and honey at breakfast, tea and pickled salads at lunch, and rice and lamb at dinner.

Morning ritual

Every morning (and throughout the day), women and young girls bend over backwards to keep their houses and sidewalks swept clean. It is no matter that the country is a desert where sand and dirt are unavoidable.

Men at work
Photo by Jane Bardon
Males (young and old), on the other hand, never have to do house work; they watch TV, talk politics and sports, drink tea (and vodka, during parties)... Not all males are like this, of course. Indeed, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction (heroin smuggled from Afghanistan), depression, and domestic abuse are very common amongst Turkmen male populations. Females have stepped up in this vacuum, leading their families and pursuing professional jobs at the same time. The girls in my classes were almost always smarter and more motivated than their male classmates.

Talking dayzas
Photo by Jane Bardon

After all the housework was done, older women (dayzas) would find time as well to sit and gossip.

Turkmen Bride
Photo by Jane Bardon
This is the traditional dress of a Turkmen bride (red hood and white veil). No matter how hot the weather, the woman had to dress in layers upon layers of clothing and balance under the weight of gold, jewels, and camel rope (to fend against the evil eye).

Western Bride
Photo by Jane Bardon

After the traditional "Hoday Yoly" at the husband's family's house (where a Mullah would perform the religious ceremony), the bride usually changed into a more western style dress, and the wedding party would move into a banquet hall for more food and...

There will be dancing!
Photo by Jane Bardon
DANCING!! Turkmen people LOVE to dance - from the smallest children to the oldest adults. Turkmen dance is an amazingly subtle exercise that usually involves a circle with everybody slowly rotating in one direction. Males and females only interacted by meeting each other in the center of the circle, turning around each other, but never touching, moving their arms and hands up and down in rhythm with the music. The music usually had a moderate-fast tempo, very heavy on the drums and synthesizer (usually recorded, but sometimes performed by a live singer, reed instrument, and dutar player).

day at the races

The Turkmen horse (Ahal Teke) is highly prized as national treasures - they are relatives of the legendary Arabian horses that can run at great speeds across vast desert spaces without tiring.

Modern day horses
Photo by Leo Deon
Now modern Turkmen drive Russian buses and sedans (usually the Lata) from the 1970s. Here they are parked out in front of Talkuchka, the biggest outdoor market in the country.

Photo by Jane Bardon

The flag is a symbol of pride for Turkmenistan as an independent and neutral country. The green represents the color of Islam, as does the crescent moon. The five stars and five patterns on the red strip represent the five velayats, or states, in the country. The patterns are rug patterns that are unique for each region, relating to the major tribes of people who have settled there a century ago.

Photo by Jane Bardon

Fun with space
School teachers
Abadan in the cotton Thailand water and sun

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