Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Report of what it's like to live there - 07/27/14

Personal Experiences from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan 07/27/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I've served in several former Soviet countries and in Central Asia prior to Turkmenistan.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington DC. The only USG code share flight to Turkmenistan is through Frankfurt. The flight on Lufthansa (United code share) takes 5-6 hours, as the flight first lands in Baku to take on passengers and to refuel. The plane sits on the ground for 50-60 minutes in Azerbaijan before flying to Ashgabat. Passengers do not deplane in Baku. Total travel time is about 18 hours or so.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Three years (Summer 2011- Summer 2014).

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There is no private land ownership in Turkmenistan, and the government continues to relocate occupants of single family homes around Ashgabat into apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city in order to raze the structures and build its showpiece capital city of white marble buildings. Locals and expats alike therefore tend to live in multi-story (9-10 floor) apartment buildings. Expats tend to live in the so called 'elite' apartments on the south side of town. These structures are the most newly built, and are large 3-bedroom flats. Occupants reported few problems, though the underground parking structures sometimes had flooding and icing issues now and again due to a lack of drainage.

The U.S. Embassy has its own residential compound, which consisted of several USG-owned town houses. The compound will be a construction zone for the next several years, however, as it will become home to the new embassy compound. Currently, commute times from the residential compound or apartments to the embassy is about 20 minutes, mostly because Ashgabat's roads have a tightly enforced 60 kph (36-37 mph) speed limit. Once the new embassy compound is completed, all commutes for official Americans will be by foot and under 2 minutes.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

The Turkish chain 'Yimpash' is the one stop shop for all that you need ala Walmart. Arid Turkmenistan needs to import nearly all of its foodstufs from Turkey, Iran and Russia. There are several farmers markets around town that provide additional produce options. Costs are generally cheaper than in the U.S. as many of the staples are subsidized by the government. Dairy products are much more expensive, with a one liter tetrapak of milk costing US$2/liter. You can generally find a Russian equivalent to your preferred household products. The diplomatic pouch was used heavily by all to bring in preferred dry goods. There are no contact lens-related products available.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Baking supplies, American-sized clothes, kids playthings, car parts, sunscreen, contact lens solution, any favorite American branded item.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There really aren't any fast food restaurants in town. One or two local attempts (burgers and chicken) have popped up but are of somewhat dubious food safety standards. Again, the Turkmen aren't a big "let's go out and paint the town red" sort of folk, so the restaurant scene is pretty one note, with the several serving Turkish food the most heavily trafficked by expats. There is a single Chinese restaurant in town, a pork chop place, and a Mongolian/Korean grill restaurant that entered the scene in the last year. You can get French-inspired food at the French-run Oguzkent/Sofitel hotel. The Turkmen cuisine is basically meat on a stick over fire, plov (rice) and lentil soup with baklava and tea for dessert. Soup costs US$2, entrees US$7-15. Tea to end the meal is usually free.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Almost none, as the lack of standing water beyond a few fountains in Ashgabat keeps the mosquito population to a minimum. Ants in residences will likely be the biggest annoyance.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

There is a national postal service which isn't terribly efficient. Expect everything to be opened, inspected and to perhaps go missing. We used the pouch for everything, which took 2-3 weeks to the States.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Full time nanny/housekeeper support runs about US$400/month. Some, who required English language ability or after hours support paid a bit more. A part-time driver ran about US$100 (as gas/petrol is free to locals and costs only US$.83/gallon for expats). The embassy has a roster of hopefuls.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Very few around town, though the Oguzkent/Sofitel hotel has workout and pool facilities.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

When I arrived, I believe there were fewer than 5 ATMs in the country. There aren't many more than that today. Turkmenistan is a cash-based society, so bring in new, crisp bills in a variety of denominations. Credit card use is generally limited to Visa and AmEx at the Oguzkent/Sofitel hotel. MasterCard is supposed to be accepted soon in Turkmenistan. The exchange rate between the Turmen manat and major foreign currencies has been fixed for years, so you get the same rate everywhere and there is no black market. The rate to the USD is $1=2.84 manat.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Not many. Folks often worshipped at home. The Vatican's local mission held Catholic services, I believe, in English.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Almost no one speaks English in Turkmenistan. Though interactions with locals wasn't common, many found their happiness at post tied to their ability to speak and/or at least read a menu in Russian. Those who couldn't too often self-isolated themselves at home and soured quickly on the experience.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I saw few people with physical disabilities. Most local staff explained that there is a social stigma attached to those with disabilities, so many Turkmen families decide to have their loved ones who face such challenges stay at home. Ashgabat is rapidly being turned into a modern capital through a massive investment in infrastructure and constructing dozens of buildings. The heart of the city is immaculately clean, with wide sidewalks and accessible entrances.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There are official yellow cabs that will charge you US$3 to come to an address and then US$2 to take you to a destination in Ashgabat. Most everyone, including embassy staff, utilizes gypsy cabs around town. Just stick out your hand, flag down someone driving by and it is US$2 to your destination. Buses in Ashgabat are new, cost US$.10 (ten cents) and run regular routes. Intercity buses are available though likely older. Trains are slow but an option.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Anything is fine for Ashgabat, as the roads are new and immaculate. The government keeps reducing the age a car must be in order for it to be imported into Turkmenistan. Imported cars, I believe, now cannot be older than 5 years old. Bring parts, including oil, as an oil and filter change will run you more than US$50. There is an American who owns his own body and service shop that the embassy uses for its fleet. No real theft or car jacking concerns.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Access to the internet is tightly controlled by the government. It is thus neither widespread or fast. Locals can connect to it through their mobile phones, though several of the more popular social sites are routinely blocked. The embassy provided an at home service for a fee. It was not always available and never fast.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

The embassy issued phones to officers and spouses. The local Turkmen company has a monopoly on services (though a Russian company is trying to regin a foothold). If you are going to live there, you need to get a cellphone. Costs are reasonable.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No. The USDA certificate, if even asked for, suffices. Veterinary care isn't great or widespread, but the Embassy knows a couple of vets who can come to your home for exams and to do procedures on your kitchen table, if need be.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Really none beyond the international school and a few for American spouses at the U.S. Embassy. Even if other opportunities were available, a decent salary on the local economy is only US$300/month.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Opportunities are generally limited to the international school and working through the international women's group.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business at the embassy and generally well dressed in public. There was a period where there were reports the government had banned the wearing of shorts by men. Turkmen women tended to wear their long sleeved, full length dresses everywhere.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Turkmenistan shares a 1,000-mile (porous) border with Afghanistan and Iran. It is, however, a police state, with unarmed police officers standing on nearly every street corner and traffic police everywhere tracking vehicles. Cameras are everywhere around Ashgabat. The government tracks the activities of foreigners closely.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

No significant health concerns, although medical care was poor. Turkmenistan can afford to buy the latest equipment for its hospitals, but is not investing in its people, so few have opportunities to go to university in the country. As the Soviet-trained specialists in all fields leave the scene, the dearth of human capital will increasingly become acute. Corruption is a problem in all sectors, as is the country's unwillingness to address HIV- and TB-related issues. Dentists don't always wear gloves, for example. There is a Turkish health clinic with slightly better care than that found in local facilities, but for anything serious, the FSHP will send you to London for care.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Turkmenistan is a desert, so with little precipitation, particularly in the summer months, sand particles tend to stay in the air for long periods of time.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Temperatures are above 90 F for most of the year. There are four distinct seasons, however, with some snow and freezing temperatures in the winter. Spring is particularly pleasant, with the area around Ashgabat green for several weeks. Summer, which runs from April to September, routinely sees temperatures in the 110 F range.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The Ashgabat International School (AIS) is really the only game in town unless you work for a specific French construction firm (Bouygues) which has its own school or speak Russian and can gain entrance into the Pushkin school, which has ties to the Russian government through an inter governmental agreement with the Turkmen. AIS, which is located immediately adjacent to the U.S. residential compound, has roughly 200 students (pre-K through 12th grade) from 20 nations. A QSI school offering an IB education, it is run and staffed by Americans and Brits. Turkmen make up roughly one-third of the student body, with American and Malaysian students the largest expat cohort. Our experience was that the school did well by its students, with excellent primary-level instruction, smaller classroom sizes and in several instances more personalized attention which allowed students the flexibility to move up into older classes as determined by their abilities. Many Americans and at least one European family chose to send their high school aged children to boarding schools in Europe to better prepare them educationally for entrance into U.S. colleges and universities. The school is expanding its extra curricular and AP offerings to meet the demands of its student body. The 2014 graduating class totaled 3 students. AIS will soon break ground on a new campus, a project that should take a couple of years. Once completed, the school will be able to double its size, though it is doubtful in the short term that there will be enough expat students to fill the chairs.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

AIS did its best to accommodate students with both physical and mental special-needs. It would be best to check with the school if accommodations could be worked out, as it doesn't employ a full-time doctor or dedicated special needs staff.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

The Ashgabat International School offers half-day instruction for pre-K students for about US$5,500 per academic year. I didn't hear of any expat seeking placement for their preschooler in a Turkmen daycare, though I would suspect it would be a difficult, bureaucratic process for an experience below western standards.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Very few of the organized nature. The international school had sports during school hours but really nothing of note outside the school day. You can find really knowledgable individuals to serve as personal instructors and trainers. With admission to government sports facilities essentially free, you can learn a new sport on the cheap. Several folks took up horseback riding, for example. My kids, after paying an admission fee of less than 30 American cents into a new rink, learned to ice skate under the tutelage of an English speaking expert for US$10/hour. They also took personalized martial arts lessons for US$7/hour from a second degree black belt.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is quite small, as there are few western embassies (UK, France, Romania, Germany, Italy, Japan, S. Korea, Turkey, Malaysia) in Ashgabat and most are staffed only by two-three individuals. Teachers at AIS and a couple of expat business reps round out the community. All face the same constant frustrations of working in Turkmenistan, so morale varies.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

The American residential compound was probably the closet thing to the center of social life for the expat community. BBQs and events at the pool would spring up frequently. Going out to dinner, tasting the latest batch of home brew and camping out at the fire crater were other popular choices.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Ashgabat is a make your own fun sort of place, so families and couples with ready-made social activities and partners tended to enjoy their time more. Single men seemed to do well, as several married locals. Turkmen culture in many ways revolves around the house and family, so there is little night life or restaurant scene to speak of. There is also a widely followed unofficial curfew of 23:00 which sees the few watering holes close before that hour to allow patrons to get home. Turkmenistan is a Muslim country where very few people speak English. Russian language fluency is also quickly disappearing among its youth. Most socializing was done within the same broad circle of expats that included colleagues, counterparts from western embassies, AIS teachers, and expat business reps. There is no Hash House Harriers, but there is an international women's group.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Homosexuality is effectively against the law in Turkmenistan.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Turkmenistan is a traditional, homogenous society dominated by men. The country is near the bottom of all major indices pertaining to rights and freedoms.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Learning more about the Silk Road, buying handmade carpets, regional travel.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Visit the many Guinness Book of World Record sites, including the world's largest carpet and indoor Ferris wheel, in Ashgabat. Take a short drive to the huge Kipchak mosque and to Nisa, capital to an ancient empire. Drink tea and haggle over the price of a carpet. Take a 6-7 hour (round trip) drive to the fire crater. Take a cheap domestic flight to the Caspian Sea 'resort' of Awaza.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Carpets, dolls of figures in traditional Turkmen dress as well as of camels. Soviet-era trinkets. Hats.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed societies on the planet. With visas generally difficult to come by for tourists, you have the unique opportunity to see this young, incredibly resource-rich country make halting steps toward its own unique vision of development and prosperity, Life is generally comfortable, with the heavily subsidized staples very cheap, meaning most pocket a bundle from their salary during their tenure. International air travel to Istanbul, Dubai, Bangkok and London is affordable and direct.

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10. Can you save money?

Absolutely. Beyond the beautiful Turkmen carpets and regional travel, there isn't much to spend your money on.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

How comfortable it would be to live there and how frustrating it would be to work there.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

I've thought about this for some time, and cannot really say one way or the other. Turkmenistan is a fascinating place with the hydrocarbon wealth and small population to allow the country to really propel itself quickly forward from its tribal cum Soviet backwater history. Living in Ashgabat is comfortable, though the imminent destruction of the American residential compound for the new Embassy removes the main focal point of Post's social life for the next several years. So too will AIS' construction disrupt life. Professionally, banging one's head against a bureaucratic wall artificially created to slow interaction and impede partnerships grows tiresome fast. Progress is measured in the most minute of ways, so if you are seeking grandiose accomplishments, Ashgabat will disappoint. The issues are meaty, however, and the country will always have the potential to do more. So, In the short term, I'd say "no" given the disruptions to living conditions. In the medium term, perhaps, as this hermetic country is increasingly (unwillingly) exposed to world views that differ from its own. I wouldn't go there without full diplomatic rights and priveleges as they spared us much of the additional bureaucracy and unwanted government scrutiny imposed upon resident expats.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Belief that all Central Asian countries are the same; preconceptions that concepts such as efficiency and profit are universally held; carpets.

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4. But don't forget your:

Good cheer, favorite travel books, for-home activities.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

There isn't a great deal out there about Turkmenistan. Depending on your field of activity, I'd read some of the State Department's many annual reports about issues pertaining to business and civil society.

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