Cheleken, Turkmenistan, Russia
Summer 1996
A two weeks culture shock
in Turkmenistan

Part 1

Turkmenistan emblemI am a bookkeeper that works for Larmag Services BV., a subsidiary company of the Larmag Group of companies. I also do work for Larmag Energy NV, who has signed a joint-venture with the Turkmen government in order to exploit an oil well concession in the Caspian Sea in the republic off Turkmenistan. This republic is situated on east side of the Caspian Sea. I am send over there to install the database of the accounting package on the server there, and train the local staff in using the accounting package. I have been explained that the trip itself will take about two days and I will stay overnight at one of the best hotels in Ashgabat. Ashgabat is the capital of the republic of Turkmenistan.

A cab brought me quite early in the morning to Schiphol airport where I got on the plain, a 747 of the German Lufthansa, which would first bring me to Frankfurt, Germany. Here some more passengers would board. From Frankfurt we take off for Baku, located in Azerbaijan, where some of the passengers get of the plain and again new passengers for Ashgabat are boarding. From Baku on it is only a short flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At least that is what it feels like anyway, considering the total number of hours that it took to get to Baku in the first place.

When the airplane finally takes off again it is around noon, as far as I can still remember, and it is a clear blue sky. I therefore have a great view across the land that lies beneath me. Not that there is a lot to see. Turkmenistan consists largely out of sandy planes, covered with bits of grass and an occasionally lost and lonely tree. If anything out there reaches higher than your hips, then you were looking at something that was either man made or as I just mentioned, the occasional lost and lonely tree. Only as we reached the outskirts of Ashgabat, you can actually see green patches of land. These are allotments on which people are growing their food.

After the plane has landed and all of us got out, we all line up for a customs check. In front of me is standing an American. We get to talk and I learn that he is someone of the diplomatic service who works here in the American Embassy. As we get to talk he explains to me his concern about the deep frozen turkey he is carrying with him for Christmas. Hoping that the bird is still frozen solid!

Having past the customs, I am awaited by one of the local company employees, who is holding a company logo high above his head for people to see. As it turns out, there are three people on that same plain that he is waiting for. The four of us then get into his car that will bring us to our hotel for the night.

As we drive through Ashgabat to our hotel, I notice the peculiar driving habits people have developed here. We are driving on what appears to be a two-lane road (in my view), whilst everyone is using it as a three-lane road. To the far right near the pavement is one lane, right smack in the middle is the second lane and to the far left is the third lane. People are over taking us left and right, and traffic just looks like a bloody chaos! But no one seems to crash into another car, although some of the cars parked alongside the road do have the markings of close encounters.

Especially the centre off Ashgabat is a showcase of the Turkmen government. While we rush by a public park I notice a hand full of elderly women bent forward, who are cleaning up a lawn. I then learn that the Turkmenies have no social benefits like we do. So, even the elderly have to work for an income.

It is about ten in the evening when we finely reach the hotel. The driver walks with me to de front desk and explains a few things to the person from the hotel. I am then given a room. This hotel is shaped like a big shoebox with a plaza at the centre. The rooms are all grouped around the central plaza, five stories high and fitted with both stairs and elevators. This is the best hotel in town remember!

When I ask whether it would be possible to have something to eat, it is somewhat late already you see, I am told that the kitchen is still open, but the menu is limited. I am guided into a large and beautifully decorated dining room where I sit down. I am the only person present at the moment. A waitress, who by the look on her face appears to have had a bad day, then informs me that unfortunately only lasagna is available. When dinner is served I am confronted with a major disappointment. It is just about the smallest piece of lasagna that I have ever seen, and after tasting it I am also totally disgusted with it.

The right side is cold the middle is slightly warm and the left again is also cold. It seems like someone has taken this piece of lasagna from the fridge and threw it into a microwave, and did not even try to properly heat it. It most certainly does not taste like anything coming from a classy restaurant. I am glad that the piece is so small. In this case I will make the enormous exception by stating that the grub coming from a McDonalds snack shack tastes a hell of a lot better than the crap that has just been served here. Fortunately for them I can´t remember the name of the wretched hotel anymore.

After having fed the "animal" I go up to my room for a bath and a good night rest. Arrived at my room I go to the bathroom and search for the bath plug, so I can fill up the tub. This little item is nowhere to be found. Later on I learn that none of the others have a plug in their bathroom either. What a stupid thing to do. So I manufacture one by taking a handful of toilet paper, ad some water and turn it into silly-putty, wrap it into a plastic bag and cram it into the plug opening. There, now I can fill up the tub and have a bath.

Having finished my bath and drying myself of, I happen to take a look through the small bathroom window, across the street to the front of what appears to be, the hotel next door. In front of this hotel are two dromedary camels parked, like horses in front of a western saloon. I can´t help staring at this scene for a while. Then I turn in, it has been a long day and tomorrow will be even longer.

and welcome!


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Supplies ship Volgoneft.

Supplies ship Volgoneft.

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Supplies ship Volgoneft.

Supplies ship Volgoneft.

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Ashgabat airport (from Google Earth).

Ashgabat airport.