Several foreign TV channels at once started airing 30-second video clips advertising Turkmenistan and ending with the phrase "Welcome to Turkmenistan!". It remains unknown what reasons (except for financial) made the international channel Euronews take on the role of promoting a country with such a controversial reputation. There can hardly be any criticism against the Russian NTV and the Kazakh Caspionet as the ads in the countries where they are based are often even more absurd; however, Euronews which builds up its editorial policies in line with "European" values should not have advertised a state whose human rights record is still questioned by the European Union. However, the present text will touch not upon the human rights situation but rather the obstacles that any visitor to Turkmenistan will have to face.
Part I: entry
As usual, the authorities have acted so clumsily that good intentions can turn against the governing ideas. Welcoming visitors to Turkmenistan, they (the authorities) failed to regulate the migration policy and to create basic rules for a visit to Turkmenistan, particularly for entry into the country. We contacted several tourist agencies that arrange tours to Turkmenistan and all of them told us the same. This first question we were asked was how necessary it is to travel to Turkmenistan as the preparation alone of all required documents is connected with considerable financial risks. As the tourist agencies note, in order to apply for a visa to Turkmenistan one has to obtain a guarantee from the tourist agency and pay in advance for the hotel in Turkmenistan, visa fees and purchase a ticket for fixed dates. The total preliminary costs amount to $2000. Furthermore, the agency warns that in case of visa refusal, the advanced payment for the hotel as well as the money lost by returning the ticket and visa fees will not be reimbursed. When asked about the chances to get a visa refusal, all agencies told us more or less the same thing – about 90%. It should be stressed that all those agencies we asked have stable ties with respective structures in Turkmenistan and are even indicated as partners on one of the official web sites. Nevertheless, the agency warns in advance that staying and moving inside the country is possible only in accordance with the dates and routes approved by the Turkmen side and no variations are permitted.
Visiting Turkmenistan's embassies is quite depressing. When preparing this coverage, citizens of different countries and various occupations were questioned who in one way or another are connected to Turkmenistan or wanted to enter Turkmenistan for private or business purposes. Virtually the only impression from visiting Turkmen embassies in different countries is of discourtesy and incompetence. In addition, the embassy in Moscow is distinguished by the impenetrable smell of canvas-topped boots worn by the security guards, a high level of discourtesy on the part of its staff members who have the habit of nibbling sunflower seeds whilst working. Many point out the manner of the Consular and his subordinates who take the documents for visa application, addressing certain people without respect, leaving for indefinite periods of time, thus minimizing the working time and throwing documents which only have minor mistakes in them right back at the applicants. Courtesy filled with the fear of doing something wrong is a specific feature of the Embassy in London. Its employees are so afraid of letting the "wrong" person inside the country that they refuse almost everyone unless special instructions are received from Turkmenistan. It is also common not to answer the phone during the hours specifically set aside for these purposes. The Embassy in Vienna is characterized, as many have noticed, by people in plain clothes who are unambiguously officers of special services keeping an eye on things. And the atmosphere in the Embassy in Paris is highly secretive as it is almost impossible to get a clear answer to simple questions: its officers remain silent as partisans.
The Ashgabat airport, which used to be one of the most respectable airports on the territory of the former USSR reminds one of a barn. Upon arrival in Ashgabat travellers have to go up and down various staircases rather than taking a short route to the airport entrance. Then they have to overcome the next obstacle – a disorderly queue to get through passport control. The passengers who are exhausted from flying then have to queue up in front of counters manned by 2-4 border guards who check the passports in a slow and lazy manner verifying the passport data with the information in the computer. Some checkpoints are not staffed, thus extending the waiting time in a packed and sweaty line. It is typical for border guards to leave their counters without explanation. Bags and suitcases are thrown off the transporter belt onto the floor and the travellers have to dig the luggage out of the pile of other bags. However, humiliation reaches its peak at the customs checkpoints. Even when passing through the "green" channel passengers have to show all pieces of luggage and justify the presence of this or that item. All this takes place in front of 3-4 customs officers, policemen and a person in military uniform as well as the entire queue. Clothes, underwear, and valuables – all that is considered to be private belongings are throw around in front of dozens of people. Furthermore, the customs officers require declaration forms for those items which can be exported and imported without submitting a customs declaration in all other countries: cell phones, laptops, cameras and GPS devices which almost all travellers and tourists carry among their private belongings. However, Turkmen customs officers pretend that they have never heard about that and instead complicate their job, thus taking up the passengers` time.
This is followed by another passport control and then the travellers end up in a room filled not with a crowd of relatives waiting for them but with a flock of private taxi drivers who are part of the airport gang, which maintains the high taxi prices. There is no other taxi service available. It should be noted that one can hardly find a currency exchange in the airport building (as well as in the rest of the country) or a working public phone, and even if with luck you find it there are no tokens for it. Dirty smelly toilets, lacking basic hygiene make the impression complete. In the summer the broken air conditioning system and the unbearable heat further aggravate this impression.
When leaving Turkmenistan by air, travellers face the same difficulties – numerous passport checks, inspections of personal belongings in front of other passengers, long lines at the passport checkpoints and dirty broken toilets. Another specific feature to be pointed out is the bar, which has an extremely poor choice of goods. One can buy an alcoholic drink, water or coffee, but there is nothing to eat, even when flights are delayed. There is no smoking corner at the airport. In other airports people can smoke at the edge of some bars or in a special room while in Ashgabat airport people smoke only in the restrooms where the sinks serve as ashtrays. When in the "disinfected" zone of the airport, there is no chance to make a call for any money. Due to the thick concrete walls cell phone coverage is practically blocked. In addition, many mobile operators are not covered by the local operators, so it is impossible to warn people about delayed flights or simply call relatives, friends and business partners. It is pointless to even mention Internet access.
There is only one board indicating the time of arrival and departure; all other monitors have been dismantled.
Similar to the situation in the embassies, rudeness and incompetence are distinguished features. "Stay there", "come here", "leave here" are typical phrases used by the border guard officers, customs officers and other services the affiliation and purpose of which remain unclear. One never hears a polite word expressed in any language, a smile or a friendly gesture. Furthermore, the absence of a command of any foreign language – English or Russian – is inadmissible for those working at an international airport; yet, it is normal for Ashgabat airport. The author witnessed an airport officer channelling a line of foreigners to the passport control pushing the passengers and their luggage about in a rude manner. He did not react to the shouts in different languages and kept repeating one phrase in Turkmen (as was discovered later, he was simply swearing) until he was crushed by a local man.
And Lord forbid you from coming on the day of arrival or departure of Turkmenistan's President! A day in advance, the airport is turned into a high security area and the building is filled with the special services officers who check all documents and it is only possible to enter the airport by showing a ticket. No means of transportation can approach the airport entrance door, so passengers have to carry their luggage hundreds of meters whilst being watched by representatives of the special services. In a similar way, upon arrival travellers have to go to a remote parking place to look for transport.
So those who watched the video clip about Turkmenistan and decided to go there should be aware that despite being invited you will be met as enemies, spies or smugglers, or, in the best case, as suspects in these crimes or uninvited guests. One should be prepared for all the trials listed above or which will be described below.