Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Report of what it's like to live there
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?
Mexico, Argentina, Ethiopia, Switzerland, Malta, and Germany.
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?
About 20-24 hours to the U.S.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. 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?
All housing is comprised of apartments in two primary neighborhoods. Every apartment had its own quirk, but overall were nice, spacious and modern. The building heat/AC is centrally controlled by the building and Turkmen do not like to be cold so heat is often switched on earlier than most Americans would want in the fall and left on through the spring.
One day, the Embassy compound will be finished and 60% of residences will be on compound. The compound apartments will be smaller, but nice and modern. They will also have the convenience of controlling their own temperature, will be next to the school, and will have a gym and pool.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Tricky question. Some foods at the Russian Market were dirt cheap. We could buy all of our weekly fruits, vegetables, frozen chicken breast and mediocre cheeses for less than $20 USD total. The main supermarket was expensive though. You could get anything, but you will pay for it. Cream cheese $15, 2 liter of Coke is $6. You will learn quickly how to shop like a local and at places that would accept USD.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Focus on liquids! Olive oil, wine, craft beers, liquors, peanut butter, shampoo, mouth wash, etc...Sugar was also sometimes hard to find, so I ended buying a 10 pound bag from Amazon. It's amazing what you can buy online these days!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
We had a rotation of about 6 restaurants that we frequented pretty regularly. Our favorite was the Cafe Asia (chinese), but there was also a good Turkish place, the Italian restuarant in Nusay Hotel, and Melbourne burger. The main issue was finding restaurants that would accept USD.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. It took about 3 weeks to arrive.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We had someone come once a week and paid $25 day. Nannies and full time housekeepers were easy to find if that is what you need.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Various options, but none opened early in the morning, so some struggled to find a good time to go.
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?
No, this is a cash-based society.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Unsure, but I heard it was limited. Some families would gather on Sundays and create their own worship circle.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Very few people speak English. Turkmen is becoming more and more necessary, but Russian is still prevelant too.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Wheelchairs would have a tough time. The city tries to be accesible (so I have seen worse) but their sidewalk ramps aren't consistent. They do at least have sidewalks, so there is that.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We rode the local busses to/from work until our car arrived. It was cheap, clean, safe- but often over crowded. Most people found it necessary to have a vehicle.
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?
A white one. All vehicles owned by locals are supposed to be white. We had a red car (black cars can not get through customs, but other colors were still being allowed for diplomats). Having a red car was fine, but we stuck out like crazy and the road police would often try to divert us off the protocol streets. Local staff will want to buy your car upon departure- so having a white car would also be helpful to them- otherwise they must have it professionally painted.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We could normally stream Netflix, but it would get spotty and somedays it just didn't work. You had to get used to the idea that sometimes things worked and sometimes it didn't. You definitely needed a VPN as most websites are blocked, and even most of the normal VPNs were blocked- so we all had to get creative in how to get around that. Once you got set up though- it was good 80% of the time.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We received phones through Embassy. Local calls were cheap- but do not use if you leave the country. Roaming fees were crazy. A few people had unexpected $7,000 bills.
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?
I believe vets were mediocre, but there was one that everyone used. No specific quarentine requirements.
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?
Everyone either worked at the Embassy (limited options) or at the school. Some spouses did not have teaching backgrounds, but were highly sought after for preschool teachers.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Normal dress attire is fine.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I never felt safer. Seriously. I mean, sure I was 30 miles from Iran, but they would never allow anything to happen to us either. My husband once dropped his wallet on the street with more than $600 in it. A local found the wallet and brought it to the Embassy to return it, with everything inside.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is basically non existant. You are med-evaced for everything.
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?
Amazing air quality. The city and the air always was prestine. Sometimes you would get dust storms, but rarely.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Some people struggled with feeling that they were always being listened to and watched, so they couldn't relax. It got to a few folks more than the rest.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summers were hot and dry 100+ was a normal summer day. Falls and Winter were foggy and cool. It would snow once a year or so, but it wasn't normally super cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
No personal experience, but most liked the elementary.
2. 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 preschool attached to the International school was used.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Not many. There were some dance and art classes that a few of the kids went to.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small, but close-knit.
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?
This is a find your own fun kind of place. Lots of house parties, some going to to restaurants.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Single guys were popular among the local ladies. Single women had a harder time. Families and couples had to make their own fun, but were relatively happy.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
No. Locals would be harrassed if they too friendly with the foreigners. If a local was super interested in hanging out with you, one must assume they are gathering intelligence.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Homosexuality is ilegal here and is only spoken about in whispers.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Lots of tensions between the Ethnic Turkmen and Ethnic Russians.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
This was such a weird quirky place, but we really enjoyed our time there. We often would walk parts of the "health walk" which is a 35km path of stairs going up and down the mountain ridge. We never completed the whole thing in a single day, but several did. The streets are pristine, so its also a great place for bike riding.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
We enjoyed our adventures out of the city including driving to Uzbekistan, eating a whole goat in a yurt in the middle of the desert, visiting the gates of Hell, going to the brewery.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You have to buy some artwork and at least a few Turkmen rugs.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
We saved SOOOOO much money. We thought it was an easy 25% hardship.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How to create my own server rather than trying to use VPNs. We had a tech savvy EFM friend who eventually helped us, but the first few months was tough before we were able to get our internet "unblocked".
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. If you have an open mind, are OK with weird, quirky behavior and willing to make your own fun- this is your place! It isn't the chaos of most hardship tours, it's just weird.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Black cars. Black is a big no no.
4. But don't forget your:
Flexibility. The road police have one focus- keeping the leader safe. If the leader is on the move- you will not be. We have been stuck in random road traffic shut downs pretty often (1-2 times per week). So your typical 15 minute commute turns into 45 minutes. It happens to all of us, just be prepared for it. Always go to the bathroom before you get in the car and bring some good tunes. The shut down never lasts more than 30 minutes or so... but it does get frustrating when you get stuck in one.