8 Things I learned my First Week in Turkmenistan

We have arrived! After a very long plane ride — and massive jet lag — we have started settling into our new life. This is my family’s first time living overseas. We weren’t really sure what to expect when we arrived here. We had been told that Turkmenistan is an “interesting” place, and after being here for almost two weeks, I can certainly attest to that. Ashgabat, the capitol city, is an amazingly beautiful place. The locals have been very kind and polite. But there are some things that took me by surprise. To give you an idea of what Turkmenistan is like, here are 8 things I learned within my first week of living here.

Fountain in the middle of Ashgabat

Fountain in the middle of Ashgabat.

  1. The Turkmen people respect their elders. On a 30 minute bus ride, I saw at least three young people give up their seats for an elderly person.
  2. Turkmens like children. On New Year’s Eve, our first day in country, our “sponsor” took us to lunch. A man sitting at the table next to us left the restaurant, went to the shop next door, bought two candy bars, and gave them to my kids as we were leaving. Just about everywhere we have gone, I have had people come up to me and tell me how cute my kids are (at least I’m assuming that’s what they’re saying because my Russian is very poor!). Even the police are not immune to the adorableness of a child. My daughter smiled and said “Здравствуйте” (“hello”) to a police man, and he smiled back… Which is, as I’m told, quite the feat because police men here rarely smile at anyone.
  3. Police men rarely smile. There is a huge police presence in the city of Ashgabat. There seems to be a police man on every corner guarding government buildings. They stand at their posts, or march a small circuit, stopping people from taking photos.
  4. It is illegal to take photos of government buildings. And because so many things here are State run, there are a LOT of government buildings. Most of those buildings are intricate white marble structures with accents of gold, blue, or green. The city is quite honestly a photographer’s dream. Except for the fact that you aren’t allowed to take pictures of most things. Ironic.
  5. Irony seems rampant here. The U.S. Embassy is located on 1984 street. Just across the street from a Lenin statue. Neither of which you are allowed to photograph. Yep. The Orwellian future has arrived. 😉
  6. You have to have a sense of humor to live here. There are so many little quirks. Both of the dominant languages — Turkmen and Russian — are very difficult to master. If you can’t laugh at the situation when all your ex-pat friends are rushing to the local grocery store because of a rumor of fresh broccoli, or at yourself when you “moo” at a butcher because you’ve forgotten the local word for “beef”… You’re going to have rough time here.
  7. There are people to help you adjust. The ex-pat community here is so welcoming. I can’t tell you how many times people we’d only known for 5 minutes invited us over for dinner (and gave us the left-overs!), offered to drive us to the grocery store, or offered to pick up things we need and deliver them to our apartment. I came here expecting to be a bit lonely, isolated, and expected to have to struggle through my first week. Honestly, I expected to have a mental melt-down. But because of the kindness of strangers, that didn’t happen.
  8. The idea of “Pay it Forward” is genuine among the ex-pat community here. They’ve all been in my shoes. And they all know the struggle of adjustment. Hopefully one day I will be able to show another family the kindness I have been shown.

5 thoughts on “8 Things I learned my First Week in Turkmenistan

  1. I had a year in Moscow and one of the first things I noticed was point 1 – very different from here.

    Russian police don’t smile much either. Do they call them “gai” in Turkmenistan? I was advised to “watch out for these gai” – pointing at one bored-looking slightly fat dude. “What,that guy??” “Yes these gai” “That guy??” It took a while to work that one out, and I was the only one who found it funny.

  2. I should have read this before writing you an email! So glad everything is going well, sounds like you and your family will soon be very comfortable in your new overseas home and lifestyle. 🙂

  3. #5 made me laugh out loud. And I am so happy to read #7. The ex-pat community here doesn’t really exist, so it is a different experience than when I’ve lived in Brazil. Ours is the only consulate in Juarez, and Americans seem to be the predominant foreigners, but a fair number of them live in El Paso rather than here. So it is interesting to be at a post where you are allowed to live in a different country than your coworkers.

    That fountain is gorgeous. I’m glad you were allowed to take a picture of it. 🙂

    • I had a good laugh at #5 too! There is such a small number of expats here, that I think we all instinctively stick together. The locals have all been super nice, but it’s really comforting to be able to speak English (as opposed to my barely-there Russian).

      You are allowed to photograph most of the monuments in the city (usually). The rule of thumb I use is that if I see a local openly taking photos, I’m allowed to as well!

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