It was a given that I would go to Turkmenistan and something strange would happen.
The main thing I knew about Turkmenistan was that it was often compared to North Korea, which, for me, was a selling point. I wanted to see an authoritarian regime up close, to see if brainwashing and erratic behavior really fooled people. Did the country run on cathartic conversations that took place behind closed doors and a population outwardly smiling and inwardly planning a rebellion?
It turns out those questions are hard to answer on a 5-day visit that I’m supposedly spending transiting between two adjacent countries that share a border. I probably should have seen this coming, along with the fact that most people don’t seem outwardly concerned with parsing the truth from the lies 25 years into an absolute dictatorship. Their everyday concerns seemed more similar to my own — family, friends, money, career — which is not to say that things are all well and good in Turkmenistan, or that the government isn’t as bad as it seems. It is instead more likely a testament to the human ability to adapt, for life to go on, and for what was once unimaginable to eventually seem normal, whether it’s living under a president who renames the days of the week after members of his family, or staying in a hotel run by the secret police.
I did not make reservations for the Secret Police Hotel. I end up there because it is the only place that cops to having vacancies, and also because I am not an artist.
I get dropped off at a hotel with reviews that, for Ashgabat, passed for glowing.
Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan and the country’s second-biggest tourist attraction, after a burning crater that I’d spent a miserable night camping beside.
Tourists come to Ashgabat because it’s rumored to be strange, and it is. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an eccentric dictator named Saparmurat Niyazov seized control of Turkmenistan and started issuing increasingly bizarre edicts. He changed his name to “Father of the Turkmen People” and named a meteorite after himself. He banned lip synching and decreed that a spectacle of music and dancing greet him wherever he went. Like any good self-published author or authoritarian fostering a cult of personality, he forced everyone to read his book.
He also completely rebuilt Ashgabat, which had once been a typical Soviet city, and is now a combination safe space for marble and shrine to Niyazov and his successor, Gurbangaly Berdimuhamedow. Marble buildings proliferate throughout the city, which currently holds the Guinness record for “highest density of white marble-clad buildings.” These are not elegant marble buildings. They are marble buildings for the sake of being marble buildings, with design plans that look like they were lifted from Google images. In between the marble buildings, you can find gold statues of the country’s two presidents, or gold statues of Niyazov’s memoir, or gold statues of indiscernible subjects that might as well be the president.
Back to the hotel. In an unexpectedly chaotic lobby, I’m asking a receptionist for a room.
She stares at me. “Are you an artist?” she asks.
I tell her I’m not.
She shakes her head. “If you’re not an artist, you can’t stay here.”
Perplexed, I head to the next-best hotel in the Lonely Planet. This time, I’m prepared.
“Hello,” I say. “I’d like a room, and I’m an artist.”
But this hotel is full, as is the next one, and the one after that, which has a travel agency inside the lobby.
“Do you know why all of the hotels are full?” I ask the woman working there.
She looks confused. “They’re full?” She offers to go check something. She’s gone for a long time. When she comes back, she seems surprised to still find me waiting. “I don’t know,” she tells me.
I am somewhat starting to panic. What if I can’t find a hotel? I’d like to think of myself as the kind of person who could, in an emergency, hole up in a bus station for the evening, but that seems like a risky move in an authoritarian state, and also that would mean forgoing my night creams.
Two university students I stop on the street for directions seem to pick up on my distress. They also speak passable English. When I tell them my story, they insist on accompanying me to the next hotel, and also because this is Central Asia, carrying my suitcase.
“It rolls,” I protest, and while they do acquiesce to rolling it, they don’t budge on not letting me roll it.
Like all male students in Turkmenistan, the boys are dressed in plain black suits affixed with some kind of pin. The girls, in contrast, wear floor-length dresses of a vibrant green, traditional hats, and two long braids.
I ask the boys why their English is so good.
“The Russians are stealing all of our jobs,” one says, shaking his head. “For the future, we must speak English.”
This job-stealing claim seems curious, given that I’ve seen exactly zero ethnic Russians in the prosperous capital, and that all of the government ministers pictured on various walls and buildings appear to be Turkmen men. But I remember that I am helpless and homeless, so I say nothing.
The next hotel is full too. So is the next, and, at this point, I beg the boys to go back to whatever they were doing before I inadvertently suckered them into escorting an ill-prepared foreigner to various disinterested hotels, but they refuse.
“You don’t understand,” one says. “I think most people here… they won’t even know how to deal with foreigners.”
I will later come to the conclusion that he was right. The requirements for foreigners staying in Turkmen hotels are so byzantine and needlessly time-consuming that some of places I first visited might have pretended to be full, or reserved exclusively for artists, to avoid the headache. To stay at a hotel, the hotel has to give me paperwork, which I need to bring to a specific branch of a specific bank, where I need to change the total charge for my stay into local currency, which the bank needs to confirm via endless stamps on that paperwork, which I can then bring back to the hotel to begin the process of checking in.
The one place that admits to having vacancies is the MKD hotel. This is perhaps because one of the students insists on calling ahead from a dead-end hotel and asking for a room without specifying that it’s for me. If I knew my Soviet history, I would know that the MKD was a Soviet secret police force. But because I don’t, I’m only confused when I noticed that everyone who passes through the lobby is wearing a full police uniform.
I will later speculate that the hotel is operated by the MKD to raise funds, the way some police forces hold bake sales. But for now, I am merely confused when I open the door to my room and find a police officer scrubbing the toilet.
He finishes and leaves, allowing me to look around the space, which is billed as deluxe suite. It comes with a living room, bedroom, and bathroom, which is helpful, because I’m sharing my room with an entire colony of cockroaches.
Not eager to spend much time getting to know my new roommates, I head out to explore the city.
It’s illegal to take photographs in public in Ashgabat, so when I see something I want to take a picture of, I discreetly open my iPhone camera and place the phone to my ear like I’m taking a call. I attempt to hold the phone perpendicular to the ground and press the volume buttons on the side, which snaps the shutter. This is my small act of rebellion, and I perform it with as much bravado as a person slinking into a department store to use the bathroom. Most of my photos come out severely tilted, or obscured by strands of my hair.
The city feels like it was designed and built for a population that never materialized. The wide sidewalks and marble underground passageways are mostly empty. The marble highrises appear minimally inhabited. The only people reliably found on the street are police officers, who are everywhere, guarding what often seems like nothing. There’s a pair posted up at the entrance to a square not far from my hotel, and they tell me I can’t walk through.
It’s closed, they tell me, for rehearsals for an upcoming military parade.
I smile. “That’s interesting,” I say. “Can I see it?”
We chat for a few minutes, and then they concede that I can walk through if I do it “quickly,” and I’m congratulating myself on once again skirting the rules when one of the officers tells me he wants to take me on a date tonight and asks for my phone number.
I’m instantly terrified. I don’t dare give him a fake number, because, in a police state, it seems like a bad idea to romantically reject the police. I scribble my real number on a piece of paper and scurry away, resolving not to answer my phone for the duration of my stay, but it turns out there’s no need — he never calls, an outcome I’m not sure is more or less desirable: being romantically rejected by the police in a police state.
Oddities abound. I find a park being built, not by construction workers, but by students. I pass countless statues of angry looking men holding swords, which I keep mistaking for actual people and jumping. I pass a square closed for a changing of the guards, which I’m bizarrely allowed to walked through, and as I do, one of the less disciplined guards breaks from his goose-stepping to stop and stare at me.
One night, I end up in a lively restaurant filled with Turkish expats, who apparently make up a good portion of the labor force in Turkmenistan. (The two countries share similar languages and cultures, and their governments sporadically push for closer ties.) I’m the only woman in the room, with the exception of the waitresses, who are all wearing fully transparent shirts. A bookish young guy in glasses at the table next to me strikes up a conversation in English, and I ask him, delicately, about the nature of the relationship between the clientele and the women working here.
He picks up on my meaning and laughs. “No, no,” he protests. “Turkish men, we can’t talk to women here. It’s forbidden to… go on a date. Unless you’re married.”
At 10:45, he turns to me again. I’ve finished my dinner, but have stayed at my table, reading a book in a room full of drunk people, because this seems preferable to reading my book in a hotel room full of cockroaches.
“Are you driving home?” he asks me.
I shake my head.
“You should go now then,” he says. “The curfew starts at 11.”
“What?!?!” I say.
Yes, he explains, people aren’t allowed out on the streets after 11.
“How can you live here?” I ask.
He shrugs. “It’s not so bad. The work is pretty good.”
Sightseeing in Ashgabat is less about seeing things that are beautiful or educational or historically important, and more about visiting things that are weird. I walk through a deserted park to visit a monument that looks like a giant toilet plunger. I go inside an empty, gold-plated mall shaped like a pyramid. At a nearby supermarket, I ride the country’s sole set of escalators. I walk around the ritzy central district, with chrome traffic lights and streetlamp that look like they’re made of marble. I encounter one set of automatic doors, at the Sofitel, and they’re so unimaginably slow and clunky I wonder if they’re the original model. In a taxi one day, I pass the biggest construction project I’ve ever seen. It looks like an airport, train station, Olympic stadium, and superhighway–all in one. It’s almost like Ashgabat lost a bid to host the Olympics, and then decided to build all the infrastructure anyway. I walk by women in traditional Turkmen dress, hand-washing a bus stop.
At first, I’m try to strike up conversations with everyone I meet, looking for hints of dissidence. I chat up taxi drivers, the woman who works at my hotel’s front desk, people in convenience stores and restaurants. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, people seem most interested in talking about the things people anywhere would — their lives and jobs and families. They ask the same questions about my marital status and womb output. I begin to worry that I’d fetishized their oppression, that I’d seen intrigue and interest in what is, I’m coming to realize, a depressing reality. The city is full of marble, but most of the residents seem far from rich. Their grasp on the outside world seems tenuous.
For the first time in my life, I feel isolated. It’s kind of like loneliness, but more, and different. I go days without a real conversation. When a taxi driver learns that I don’t have children, he tries to explain the mechanics of human reproduction. When I ask the front-desk woman for a restaurant recommendation, she looks at me like I’ve asked her to explain string theory, and then shakes her head and tells me she doesn’t know any. There’s only one place in the entire country where I can access the Internet, and the connection is slow, and most sites are blocked.
I spend days inside my own head, snapping out of it only when two men try to kidnap me in a car one evening. The fallout forces me to push past the cultural and communication barrier, and I start opening up to everyone.
I end up having to call an ex-boyfriend to help translate, and at the end of the night, the front-desk woman, with whom I’ve probably had more conversations with anyone else in the past few days, turns to me.
“Ilya is very worried about you,” she says.
“I know,” I sigh, and then I find myself blurting out, “Before, he was my boyfriend, and I think he still loves me.”
“Do you have children?” she asks in what I don’t recognize as an attempt to change the topic. Instead, I mistake it for a conservative woman with two grown children’s bid for girl talk.
“No,” I say, “and I think Ilya wants to marry me, and have children, but I really love to travel…” I trail off because I’m out of vocabulary, but I’m desperate to keep going. It’s been days, I realized, since I had a real conversation, since my thoughts and fears and feelings were on anything but an endless loop in my head. I want to tell her every secret I’ve ever had, every feeling, every doubt.
She looks mortified. “I think, you are a teacher, so you love children!” she replies. Then she politely but firmly turns back to something at her desk.
I trudge back up the stairs to my room. In the hallway, I see an MKV officer, sweeping the floor.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
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