Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Report of what it's like to live there - 01/07/24
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?
I have spent similar amounts of time in Russia and other Central Asian countries.
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?
DC; it takes about a full 24 hours to get to Ashgabat. Dulles-->Frankfurt-->Istanbul-->Ashgabat is the typical route. You are entitled to take a rest mid-journey if you want and a lot of people choose to stop in Istanbul, especially if they're traveling with kids. There aren't many direct flights to/from Ashgabat, so your options are limited especially with Fly America.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I lived on the new embassy compound (NEC) which is at the south end of the city. The staff apartments there are mostly two to three bedroom, decent size, with additional storage units available. The building is new and they were still ironing out some of the kinks while I was there, but maintenance is responsive and effective. The compound also includes a gym, tennis court, and outdoor pool during the warm season. They are in the process of bringing a restaurant into the compound, but it wasn't up and running yet. Eventually, the new chancery building will also be on the compound but probably not until 2028 at the earliest. A lot of people live nearby in local apartment buildings, which tend to be bigger but funkier. At least one person has a single family home in a different section of town.
Commute time is typically 15-20 minutes and there are shuttles that run a circuit every half hour from the NEC to the public diplomacy section to the chancery or the reverse.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Very available. Supermarkets are about as big and well-stocked as what you'd find in the US with lots of recognizable western brands. Some niche products and produce are hard to find locally (things I couldn't find: dryer sheets, celery), and it's helpful to know a little Russian and Turkmen/Turkish when shopping so you know what you're buying. Anything imported from afar is going to cost about on par what you pay in the US but local goods can be found very cheaply, especially if you're willing to shop the bazaars instead of the big supermarkets. Even alcohol isn't difficult to find, though your beer/wine selections are going to be limited and you might not be able to find some specialty liquors. Alcohol also costs about what it would back home.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
People who bake have a hard time with ingredients as vanilla and other extracts, brown sugar, and some spices are difficult to get, but anything that isn't liquid can easily be shipped through the pouch. You might want to ship some beer/wine/liquor, if that's your thing. Most people I spoke to felt that they had way over-packed their consumables shipments and they shouldn't have bothered.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Turkmen and Turkish food dominate the market, so brace yourself for that. Beef is remarkably good and there are some very popular steak and burger joints. Other than that, there isn't a ton of variety. Chinese, sushi, and pizza are also typical to see on restaurant menus, though quality varies WIDELY.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
You're likely to get ants at some point when the seasons change, but the ant issue in my unit was resolved very quickly and without follow-up.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. There was a good chunk of time between incoming pouch shipments while I was there, so make sure to stay well-stocked on any medications or other goods you absolutely can't do without.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and affordable. Most people have housekeepers who clean, maybe do some grocery shopping and/or cooking. People with kids usually have a full time nanny, some have a live-in. A couple people prefer to have a driver on hire as well.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a small gym on the embassy compound, but plenty of other nice, affordable options around town. There are also facilities for swimming, tennis, and horseback riding. There's a public park where some people like to walk/jog, but if you're not sufficiently covered up you're likely to get yourself yelled at.
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?
Nope and nope. Cash economy only. There is also a double exchange rate to contend with - the official rate is 3.5 manat to the dollar, but the "secondary" rate is about 19.5 manat to the dollar. Current standard practice is to cash checks with the embassy cashier, then walk around the corner to one of a handful of approved locations to exchange it into manat.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I don't think there are any.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with pretty basic vocabulary, especially if you have a housekeeper do your shopping. You'll be fine most of the time if you speak Russian, but Turkmen is increasingly necessary. You'll encounter people who only speak Turkmen even in places you wouldn't expect it, e.g., restaurants and bazaars. Tutors are available and affordable, including through the embassy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Sidewalks are actually very nicely maintained, but curb ramps are inconsistent and walking any distance will usually involve stairs because most major roads only have underground pedestrian crossings. Ramps are common, but often too steep to be practical.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Very! It can be hard to hail a taxi from where the embassy compound is because there isn't much traffic in that direction, but you can flag a car down easily almost anywhere else in the city. You can stick to the official taxis with green signs on top and green government license plates, but informal taxis really aren't any less safe. A typical ride will cost 15-30 manat depending on how far you're going. There is a bus system as well, but it's hard to find information on routes and scheduling.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
All cars in Ashgabat are white or something close to it (silver, beige). If your car isn't white, you won't get bothered if you have diplomatic plates, but you're also going to have a harder time selling it if you want to. It doesn't really matter what type of car - roads in Ashgabat are very nice, and you're probably going to want to hire a driver anyway if you're planning to drive outside of the capital. Burglary/carjackings/any kind of violence in general just... don't happen in Turkmenistan. Traffic isn't very dense, but drivers can be nutty. Fender benders are common.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Only through the embassy. Local internet is slow, unreliable, heavily censored, and monitored. The wifi on the embassy compound is solid, if a little slow at times. Wifi in the local apartments works most of the time, but definitely not all the time. I believe that embassy personnel are now required to provide their own routers, which must be purchased in the US.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The embassy provides local phones. I was only TDY so kept my home phone; I could send and receive text messages just fine with my US plan.
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?
Veterinarians are hard to find, though most pet supplies can be purchased locally. There is no quarantine requirement, though you may run into issues during transit (especially through Istanbul) if your pet is traveling in cabin.
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?
There are a few EFM/EPAP positions available at post for spouses. Other than that, there's really not much available locally.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
The public diplomacy section regularly recruits people for various events and initiatives, but I'm not sure what else there is.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work is mostly business casual unless you're meeting with local government officials, in which case it's fully business (suits for men, suit or dress/blazer for women). It's typical to get invited to formal events, so having some fancy outfits is very helpful but especially for women, I'd highly recommend getting clothing made locally.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Nope. Turkmenistan is a very safe country to visit and to travel, even as a single woman. There are some counterintelligence concerns, but mostly, nobody will bother you if you follow the local laws.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
It's very dry and dusty at times, so people who are sensitive to that may struggle at times. Local medical care is NOT GOOD. The med unit can handle minor injuries/illnesses, but anything more serious will require evacuation.
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?
Air quality is mostly very good, though the dust bothers some. I was having some allergy issues when I arrived but an over the counter nasal spray handled it just fine. It also does get very dry, especially in winter, so bring a humidifier if that causes you issues.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies are going to be tough here - I don't think there is a good level of understanding about allergens and cross contamination, so anyone with serious allergies will need to be very, very cautious.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Some people struggle with the fishbowl environment; between local government surveillance and the smallness of the community living on the compound, it can be a challenge.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It gets very hot in summer and is very dry year round. Winters have historically been mild, but last year's was intense.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is an international school right next door to the embassy compound that people seem to like. Those with younger children who speak some amount of Russian have good things to say about local preschool/kindergartens.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
None that I'm aware of.
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?
Yes, but only in local languages. Most people find it easier and affordable to hire nannies.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are some expat-organized groups for tennis and volleyball, possibly others depending on the season.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small. Especially when you limit it to those who also speak English. Morale is pretty good - Ashgabat is an easy place to live as long as you can find ways to entertain yourself.
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 not a post where it's easy to make friends with locals as locals who associate too much with foreigners will get harassed by the government. Other people in the expat community do social events with some regularity, usually dinners at someone's residence.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's fine for single people who are okay staying single, or for single men who date women. Couples and families do well here, especially with young kids, given the availability of local help.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
No. I wouldn't call it prejudice, but some black expats report being uncomfortable with the amount of attention they receive from locals who have never seen black people in real life before.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. Homosexual activity is criminalized and most locals have zero personal experience with the LGBTQ+ community.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Local women get the short end of the stick, but foreign women are mostly considered a different species and treated respectfully or with a sort of benign paternalism. Turkmenistan is majority Muslim, but other religious groups will have no issues as long as they avoid proselytizing.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
This is a place not many people have the opportunity to visit - see as much of it as possible! My personal highlights included spending a night in a yurt by the Darvaz gas crater and visiting local carpet artisans.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
People find all kinds of interesting things to do. If you ride, this is a great place for it, or to learn if you don't. Hiking, fishing, and camping are also typical. There are some really beautiful landscapes to see.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Depends on what you like! Carpets are the big thing, as is local silver jewelry. For women, I highly recommend getting clothing made (either traditional, western, or some blend thereof) - custom clothing is the norm for local women, and it's very affordable. A lot of people buy paintings, ceramics, and scarves.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's very safe, very clean, and easy to navigate. Local people are very kind and welcoming. All in all, it's a pretty comfortable place to live.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How much Turkmen has taken over - you will not find people speaking Russian nearly as much as other countries in Central Asia, and if you only speak English and Russian, you will find there are many people you can't communicate with.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Shorts, need for nightlife, strong political opinions.
4. But don't forget your:
Humidifier, ability to make your own fun and roll with the country's eccentricities.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Honestly, most of what you read about Turkmenistan from the outside is either propaganda or sensationalist.