An Englishman in Turkmenistan
If Turkmenistan was to feature as a classified, it might be worded something like this:
‘Do you like all-year-round warm temperatures of 30 degrees or higher?
Do you have a penchant for all things white?
Do you subscribe to the saying that cleanliness is next to godliness?
…then Turkmenistan is for you!'
And like many brochures and creatively worded advertisements, it would not technically be wrong.
So you might be asking, what is this place Turkmenistan you speak of and what's with the clean white references? Well, it just so happened to be my place of work for two weeks in September and boy was it an experience! Let me tell you more…
I count myself lucky to have a job that I love which allows me to indulge in my passion of martial arts and also travel the world visiting new places and meeting incredible people. In my work with the UFC, I have stayed in some beautiful hotels in some of the world's greatest cities including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, The Crown Melbourne in Australia- the list goes on. All wonderfully cosmopolitan cities, rich in culture and never suggesting a requirement for a hepatitis vaccination. But before I reached the lofty heights of the world's most prestigious combat sports organisation, I would join a troop of MMA-loving enthusiasts and travel to far less welcoming and much more heavily armed destinations like Beirut, Lebanon, and Grozny in Chechnya. And you know what, I missed it. There's nothing quite like departing for a trip, never knowing what lies in wait at the other end. Will I make it across the border with this folder of stamped paperwork and 3 copies of my passport? Will my very specific dietary requirements be catered for? Will my delicate Hertfordshire-born immune system stand up to exotic bacteria? Last, but not least, will I live to write to tell the tale on my personal web site???
The things you are guaranteed on any trip are memories and stories. From passing armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns in the Beirut rush hour to facing flash lights and Kalashnikovs (I can't be sure they were Kalashnikovs, but it sounded cool, plus they were also weapons of destruction) in the small hours somewhere in Dagestan. What stories would the Asian Indoor Martial Arts Games give birth to? Well, read on!
Like any worthwhile destination, there needs to be multiple stop overs. Tick: London to Frankfurt to Baku to Ashgabat. And then the immigration queue needs to be gnarly and intimidating. Nope. My first taste of Turkmenistan was marble, more marble, lots of lights and volunteers in multi-coloured uniforms with what at first appeared to be propeller hats, but then wasn't. It was late and I was clearly jet-lagged.
The drive to our Olympic Park residence was more of the same really. Lots and lots of white buildings and even more lights that changed the colour of the buildings, like a super-charged Griswold's Family Christmas in 30-degree heat. Just to remind us of the far away world we had just entered, we did experience multiple security checks, scanners, questioned about why we would possess a laptop and were warned to never forget or lose our credentials, which we were to wear around our necks. We were bar coded accordingly and the much desired laminated pendant would determine which doors and gates we could cross. It would also bear a sought-after code that would allow us to access the internet and even social media, something the Turkmen people were not typically given access to.
My first impressions were that a whole lot of money had been spent on building the airport, roads and Olympic park where the games would shortly commence. Turkmenistan is a wealthy (although was wealthier until they lost some energy contracts) country with huge natural gas reserves which indirectly explains the lights. The Turkmen people don't receive electricity bills, so they fiercely indulge in thousands of lights. Basically, all those moments we spend chasing family members around the house turning lights off and switching off the stand by lights on our television- completely futile when you consider how ‘turned on' Turkmenistan operates 24 hours a day.
On my first day, I was given a quick run-down of local etiquette including the correct hand shaking method (far easier than the masons), no hugging of the local ladies and no public displays of affection. I was cool with the latter as my producer, Rob, and I had only just met. Also on the first date agenda was Turkmen tummy; an unfortunate, but amusingly named term to describe frequent loose bowel movements and cramping. Another important gem of knowledge was that the US dollars I had travelled with were to be changed at the place which sells the cleaning products on the first floor of the mall. Apparently, they give the best rate, but you have to be discreet, perhaps in the same way you might be if you were trying to procure a little bit of blue off the top shelf!
My role in Turkmenistan was as an announcer for the Muay Thai and Kickboxing competitions within the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG). Pretty straight forward right? Well, it was until I saw the names of the athletes. Thai, Turkem, Tajiki, Chinese and Uzbekistani names had me tripping over myself worse than the first time I drank a bottle of Thunderbird at 15. After a few days, I started to get a feel for the symbols and patterns. I began rolling my ‘r's, coughing into my ‘kh's and tuning into my inner Russian! Some of these pronunciations were actually helped by the onset of a rubbish cold which was just lovely in the 30-degree heat. Even better for my new colleagues who kept slipping past me on my freshly discarded snot-filled tissues.
That said, I love a good challenge and I was blessed to be working with a great team in two disciplines of combat sports that I loved. There was, however, a continuing theme that irked me on a regular basis; barriers. I have never seen so many barriers and gates in my life! I think Warren Buffet made another couple of mill out of the steel sector given the metal fabrications supplied to Turkmenistan. They were everywhere; blocking, funnelling, confusing and frustrating AIMAG attendees every damn minute. Despite this massive expanse of land whereby you have to cross 12 lanes of carriageways to get from one side of the road to another, you are dropped into an ever-changing maze of galvanised steel and tall white gates, narrowing you into much more modest lanes of human traffic. It got so bad I once wore my Garmin Forerunner to measure the additional steps I was taking due to what seemed like a human experiment of orientation. The result- 1,000 extra steps every day, before we even got to the Olympic Park. Add that to the daily walk of 16,000 steps to just get to and from work. (I've just realised how much of a geek I sound, but that was how angry I got). One day the gate nearest my hotel block was open (still meant I was travelling in the opposite direction but it would have saved about 600 steps, as a rough estimate-hee hee) to allow a dust cart through, so I made a bee line for it only to be met by a local security guy imitating Dr Dre in Xzibit's X video. Not one to be intimidated by fake rappers I dropped the shoulder, went the other way, sold him but was quickly faced with his mate…the middle-eastern-looking muscle to the fake rapper. Typically, if I had been in the WD (Watford) postcode for those unawares I would have continued my quest for freedom through the gates, but I was in full view of numerous cameras, in a country which I had recently learned had an appalling record for human rights and had just sentenced a local to life imprisonment for stealing a packet of cigarettes. So I abandoned the more direct route and continued further in the wrong direction from anywhere in order to abide by the rules and stay out of jail.
I didn't get much free time over the couple of weeks I was there, so I can't report back on the nature of Turkmenistan. Although, a couple of colleagues had managed to venture out beyond the gates to actual Turkmenistan and checked out The Gates of Hell! They came back with fascinating photos of huge craters in the earth that were alight after geologists decided to set fire to the natural gas that was emitting from them back in 1971. They even managed to get back to the compound before the 11pm curfew. Yes, that's right there is a curfew in place.
What's even more bizarre than a curfew is what takes place when the President decides to leave his residence. I'm not sure if he is a sociophobe, but it would seem he doesn't like to be seen as we were all ordered to basically lock down in our rooms, close the curtains and do not look out! I actually heard of people being stuck in subways (lots of them due to the huge roads which have absolutely no traffic on them) for a couple of hours because the President was out and about. Madness!
While we’re on the bizarre, let's talk about significant fines to any car owners if their cars are considered dirty. Any entrepreneurial types reading this might consider importing second-hand vehicles from Turkmenistan as they are kept pristine! On the same theme, I noted local women scrubbing the white lines on the road each night. Down on their hands and knees in the middle of the road swashing the hatched lines etc! Maybe less weird, how about serving beer out of teapots and teacups? I'm still not clear whether this was to hide the fact that alcohol was being consumed or whether this particular establishment was trying to be cool. A bit like how my wife now drinks from old marmalade jars and through metal straws.
Another strange bit of info was to learn that the President gives a significant gift to any families that have 8 children or more! That's right, 8 kids. Apparently, Turkmen folk tend to marry at between 16 and 18 (not arranged), move in with the husband's family and get to work on creating a mini tribe. The woman who told me this also spoke of her neighbour who has 10 children and was given a new apartment by the President as a reward. You can imagine her response when I told her I was on my third marriage and had no children! FYI, that was a lie to get a reaction from her. Definitely worth it too!
Finding vegan food was a bit of a challenge for me. I'm pretty sure they don't even have a word for it in the Turkmen language, but I was lucky to have Russian friends who could explain the requirements (most Turkmen speak Russian too). Plain pasta, plain rice and some salad were pretty much my staples for lunch, but that was better than the gluten-free oats I was having in boiled water served in what seemed like infant cups and toy miniature spoons. Dinner was similar to lunch, but I might find a tomato based sauce for the pasta or some fries. I actually found a place where they did a pretty good vegan burger (by accident), so you might say I almost had a gastronomic experience! The biggest challenge for food was that the place was so vast that it was nearly 30 minutes to walk to the supermarket and mall where restaurants would be. The onsite café had a buffet and very limited options for The Bloody Vegan. Tough at times and I lost 3 kilos by the time I came home.
But this trip was made good by all the people I met. The local people were really lovely. The volunteers that we worked closely with were so happy and willing to help. They were all trying to picking up the English language and get something out of the crazy experience of the Olympic Games. More than that though was the team I worked with. There’s somethingabout a bond created when you’re really in a bizarre environment. At one point I actually thought that we might all be trapped in this Truman Show, type world. One of oppression, routine, limited freedom and cleanliness. I say cleanliness, however, I was only given one, triple XL polo shirt for my stay, so my relative cleanliness wasn’t up to my usual standards. But the roads…well you could eat (and cook) your tofu off them! I should also mention I mentioned UFC fighter Valentina Shevchenko’s mum whilst on a trip to a restaurant to celebrate the end of the Muay Thai competition. What a lovely lady!
From singing Daddy Cool loudly in the back of a cab somewhere in Ashgabat, to gate crashing the posh hotel to use their gym and spa facilities, Team Muay Thai had great Ashgabants (see what we did there, merged Ashgabat with bants). We laughed, we nearly cried and we sometimes feared for our freedom, but we’re all home safely now to tell the tale. It was a trip I probably wont repeat in a hurry, but I have satisfied my need for a trip to a shady, foreign land. Rob aptly described Turkmenistan as Dubai meets North Korea. Brilliant assessment.
Oh and before I go, some of you might be interested in the fight results? Well, I was most impressed with Turkmenistan. I’d never even heard of the country before going there and they had a very high standard in both Muay Thai and Kickboxing. Of course the Thai fighters cleaned up in the Muay Thai with the Iranians doing best in the Kickboxing. The fighters from Kazakhstan were ferocious and did well and the fighting spirit of the Afghan representatives shone through too. There were also a few stand-out fighters from Iraq. I’m confident we’ll see more high level fighters transition to MMA from the region.