Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Report of what it's like to live there - 02/27/16
Personal Experiences from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
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?
From the West Coast - it takes 3 flights and approximately 20 hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Expats either live in homes in the city center or in apartment buildings about 15 minutes away. If you have a choice - go with the homes/apartments in the city! The other apartment buildings do not have reliable water, electricity or A/C. The commute time from the city is only about 5-10 minutes but the apartments out further is still only 15 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Fresh fruits and vegetables are very limited and quality is spotty. Chicken, ground beef and lamb are the only meat options. Pork can be found at certain butchers (but you better find a reputable one). This is a consumables post and you should use most of it on liquids (PB, syrup, tomato sauce) and alcohol. You will not find packaged prepared food out here either. Basic cleaning supplies and paper products are available
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
LOTS more liquids, prepackaged foods, healthy snacks and alcohol.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There really aren't fast food options in this country. Food quality at restaurants is incredibly spotty and food borne illness is EXTREMELY common. Hep A & E and typhoid are pretty common too. You can find some street food for about US$1 (risky) and then some restaurants that could be US$50/person (much safer).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ant problems are the most common. There have been a few scorpions and even lizards in the apartments but that is pretty rare.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very cheap, but finding help that speaks English is incredibly difficult, but if you speak Russian or Turkmen you are fine
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, there are a handful of gyms and they usually are empty. The price is about US$40-80/month.
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?
Cash only country and at the moment USD cannot be used to purchase anything.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a Catholic mass on Sundays in English
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You must speak Russian or Turkmen for all activities of daily living. There are very few people here who speak English (or are willing to admit they speak English).
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, sidewalks are uneven and have cracks. There are no ramps off the curbs onto the streets and the "ramps" they do have that lead to the underground crosswalks are INCREDIBLY steep and in no way safe to use. Handicap ramps are not at all buildings and elevators are very tiny.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains only run between large cities and are very rustic. Buses are frequent and cheap (4 cents/ride) but not always the most reliable and they can be super crowded. There are regular yellow cabs that can be pricey and then there are gypsy cabs which are super cheap. They drive erratically, may pick up additional fares and make you tag along and don't always have seat belts.
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?
There are country restrictions to bring your car into country that change frequently so check before you make plans to bring yours. Reliable spare parts are hard to come by and reputable mechanics are even harder to come by. No issues with theft or carjackings.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
There is internet available but I would not call it high-speed and it is rather cheap
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Just make sure that it is unlocked so you can use a local SIM card.
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?
No, despite a local employment agreement you wouldn't be able to work on the local economy. Most EFM work at the Embassy or the international school.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
The only place I have seen people volunteer is at the international school.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business/business casual at work. In public, the locals wear traditional garb (long dresses for women and jackets and dress shoes for men), but Western dress is acceptable and seen more and more.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
This is literally going to be the safest place you will ever live in your life. There is police or military presence on every other corner and crime is not tolerated. Crime against expats is 99.9% unheard of. Guns (except shotguns for hunting) are not allowed in country.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The water is not potable here and food borne illness is rampant. Good infection control practices are not present here. Medical care is very limited and NOT encouraged to use. Expats are evacuated for any advanced care.
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?
Fair to moderate. Lots of traffic and construction in the city center and many small villages still burn all their garbage.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Despite Ashgabat being a modern(ish) city, it is still in the desert. There is TONS of sand in the air during the spring and summer. If you have food allergies - just know the translation in Russian and Turkmen and hope that the restaurant cares.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very dry, little precipitation and no humidity. Snow in the winter (only about 4 weeks long) and summers easily reach 120F.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is only 1 small international school. Our experience with them has been good (our child was only in pre-K though). I also worked for them and the employment experience was also good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Some of the teachers have special-needs training but there are supplemental instructors or classes for support. The country has NO special-needs support.
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 international school offers a half day pre-K and afternoon daycare. Hiring a local nanny is incredibly affordable (very difficult to find a nanny that speaks English though).
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Only the ones provided by the school.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
EXTREMELY small American community but the morale is pretty high
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?
Extremely limited. There are some shopping centers with children's arcades, ice skating rinks, small bowling alleys, billiards hall etc. There are many parks in the city but the playgrounds are pretty small and not always the safest. There are a bunch of restaurants and bars but they are all virtually the same and with a local curfew of 10-11pm, they aren't wildly exciting.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It is the same for everyone - extremely limited entertainment and local tourism.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No, homosexuality is very frowned upon.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a general lack of knowledge about any race or religion outside of this country which leads to fear and lack of integration or acceptance.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Getting to experience the most reclusive country in the world (less than 1000 visas are issued yearly) and learning about its culture. Also, making incredible friends living under similar situations.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There is nothing outwardly fun or interesting to do here. There is a gondola that travels up the Kopet Dag mountains that provides great views of Ashgabat (pollution limits the view), the largest indoor ferriswheel in the world is here (but rarely is working) and 3 UNESCO sights (but they are poorly preserved). The biggest gem is the Fire Crater which is about 3 hours outside of Ashgabat and shouldn't be missed if you are located here.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Carpets and traditional clothing.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Saving money, a decent location to travel to Europe, Asia, Africa - although travel in/out of the country is difficult, it's extremely safe.
10. Can you save money?
Yes - and then you spend it on traveling.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Bringing more comfort food and alcohol. Also it does get cold and rains quite a bit in the winter (only about 4-6 weeks).
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Well we don't have any choice in our posts, but if we did - no. However, living here is quite the unique and memorable experience
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Comfort level of modern (or basic) luxuries and any expectation of normalcy
4. But don't forget your:
Well stocked medicine cabinet for various aliments and ways to keep yourself entertained.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are very few books or movies about Turkmenistan and many of them are probably outdated. Turkmenistan - Far Flung Places Guide was a good read though or Chronicles of Turkmenistan online (although it is not a verified news source).
6. Do you have any other comments?
Your experience in this city depends on what you want to make of it. Some people are miserable here while others thrive and don't want to leave. You will DEFINITELY have to leave your comfort zone behind and embrace the culture. I promise that there is no other experience in any other city abroad quite like this one. If you can roll with the punches and enjoy adventure and the unknown - this place is for you.