Big Brother is Watching
Before we arrived, our guide said “Your hotel room will be bugged, there will be cameras in the airport and on the streets in the city, and the internet is monitored—a guy in the next room will read what you send out, and list the sites you viewed.”
When it says no photos, they mean it. Security guys in plain clothes will be watching you.
- Arts and Culture
Internet access and mobile phones
Internet access is limited in Turkmenistan - though not as limited as we were led to expect. There is an internet cafe on the top floor of the Yimpas Shopping Centre in Ashgabat, which we used. I also saw one in the departure lounge at Ashgabat airport, but didn't try that. It's necessary to deposit your passport at the desk, and some sites (Facebook, Twitter) are blocked. We were able to check e-mail and websites such as BBC News. Electronic communications may be read by security services. I have no idea whether our emails were intercepted, but they certainly weren't sensitive, anyway.
According to our guide, locals manage to get round the restrictions.
Contrary to information I received before going, my mobile phone worked perfectly well in Turkmenistan. I didn't try the data connection because the roaming charges were too high, but it was available.
It is not permitted to take photographs of certain buildings. These include the Presidential Palace and government buildings, as well as airports.
This can be irritating in a city where every second building seems to be a Ministry, and everything is white marble and gleaming domes that ask to be photographed, but there are plenty of other things to take pictures of.
If you do take a picture of something you shouldn't, a policemen will let you know - and you may be made to delete the picture. I got away with it when I took a photo of the Lenin Memorial (which had an administrative building behind it of which I was unaware) and didn't have to delete my picture but I did see a Chinese contract worker forced to delete a photo of his colleagues that he took on airport tarmac.
It's not a problem to take photos from a distance, though. I belive the Arch of Neutrality used to be a good vantage point, but that has now been moved.
1. ALWAYS carry your documents viz. Passport, Valid Visa, Hotel Registration in original. Police may ask you these documents.
2. While you enter in Ashgabat, the immigration authorities issue you an entry ticket (green colored). It is very much necessary that you retain it & submit it back while going out of country. If you happen to misplace it then you are in a mess.
3. If you purchase carpets you must ask for the receipt from the seller. This receipt should state that the seller is authorised to sell the carpets to tourists. You need to produce it to the customs while leaving the country.
Official and Unofficial Exchange Rates
If you go to a bank- you will get 5,000 manat for every dollar. And it's always that much because it is a fixed rate.
The unofficial- or black market- rate is about 25,000 manat to the dollar- a huge difference. The only place you can be guaranteed to get this rate will be at the bazaar. Your hotel may offer to change for you- but they will probably give you the official rate.
No Politics !
The President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi The Great. You will notice his photos and statues in many places, hotels, streets, bank notes, etc.
Don't try to ask about it and don't point with your finger to his photo or his statue. Walls have ears !
Never use official exchange rate !
There are two rates to exchange USD to Manats: The official rate is around 5,000 Manats for 1 USD while the unofficial rate is 5 times more, around 25,000 for 1 USD.
Make sure to exchange your money in the Black Market. Do not worry about it since it is legal and protected by the government. You can exchange that in shopping malls or if you know someone.
Don't exchange money neither at the airport, nor at the hotel, otherwise, you will be charged the official rate.
- Business Travel
Don't take photos of Government buildings
Carrying a camera and taking photos is usually allowed. However, when you visit the Center of Ashgabat, security guards would ask you to stop using the camera in front of the Government buildings especially The Presidential Palace. When visiting that area, all what you have to do is go up to the Neutrality Arc and take as much photos as you want.
Sour Camel's Milk
One thing that Turkmen love is sour camel's milk. I was at a shashlikh stand and a glass is produced for my enjoyment. It was white and a little frothy, and smelled a bit like buttermilk, which I don't care for.
Then the taste hit. Obviously high in lactic acid and other things that hit me in my nose, I gagged and tried like the trooper I am to drink it, but couldn't. I swear, I have vomited up stuff that tasted better than that.
The official exchange rate is one thing, the unofficial is quite another. Depending how lucky you feel today and how well you know a local, do it on the black market and you will get much, much more.
A local I got to know drove me out to a house in a neighborhood. While I sat in the passenger seat, he walked up to a door with a handful of my cash, some negotiating was done, and he walked out with a great wad of the local stuff. I sat there, looking in the mirror, waiting for the local fuzz to bust us and send me home in disgrace. Thank God, that didn't happen, but there were a few nervous moment while I broke the law in a totalitarian police state.
Photos around the main government buildings are best taken with great care as the police will bother you. There are no signs saying what you can and cannot take. It seems to be perfectly okay to take photos of the main 'attractions', but this is probably only because they are used to tourists and others doing so. I got nabbed taking a shot of the old presidential palace.
Just be careful, particularly if you use a film camera. Don't surrender your passport easily and keep trying to walk away (smiling of course). A local Turkmen suggested I just tell police who stop me that I am on my way to the US embassy (I am not a US citizen either) and the police will get a bit spooked. It seemed to work when I tried it.
Police after dark
Avoid walking in Ashgabat too late at night as you will be a magnet for uniformed and plain clothes police. Walk around, never through, the grounds near the Arch of Neutrality as the police presence here is huge. The taxi drivers are all madmen but if you walk you will get stopped frequently.
The official exchange rate when I was there was 5000 Manat to 1USD. The black market rate is 20,000 to 1 USD. A beer in the hotel cost 50,000 Manats. You decide, $2.00 or $10.00 for a beer.
Black market money is easy to find, just ask people. Many taxi drivers carry cash in their trunks and there are money changers in the local outdoor markets.
- Business Travel
The immigration/customs people...
The immigration/customs people will make you crazy.
I had a company meet me at the airport to help me to get a business visa. The process took 2 hours from 11:PM to 1:00 AM.
Be sure to declare any electronics or cameras on your entry forms. They could be confiscated if they are not on the form when you leave the country. If you pruchase a rug, get the export form or it will cost $500 to get it out of the country.
When I went through customs leaving the country, I was told by the inspector to put $10 in my passport. He took the money and just waved me through customs without an inspection. The man before me had all his bags opened and was sent to another room to explain an over the counter food supliment he was carrying.
A taxi to the hotel cost less than $5.00. Don't pay $20!
- Business Travel
Don't walk after 11 PM
Avoid walking in the city after 11 PM, otherwise the police will stop you and start asking questions. Anyway, there is nothing to do at that time outside restaurantsm night clubs or hotels.
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