That I am even writing this post is ridiculous. Unbelievable. Crazy. I’m not the sort of person who ditches sensible, safe work to travel halfway round the world on my own. I’m not the sort of person who accepts a job without even googling where I’m going. I’m not the sort of person who goes “I don’t know anyone there and that doesn’t even matter”.
Or maybe I am. Maybe, just maybe, that’s who I really am.
Whatever, I find myself at Heathrow Airport with a letter of invitation and a pink suitcase full of 18 iPhones and a load of stomach medication (not my own, I hasten to add)
The flight takes about eight hours in total, though mine was punctuated by a short sharp dash through Istanbul airport – delays left me with just 10 minutes to transfer between flights. And when I got onto the second leg, I knew I was not in Kansas any more…
Let’s look at the basics first – I was working as part of the team putting on the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which took place in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. Turkmenistan (hereafter to be shorted to TKM as it takes an age to type, sorry) is not known as a tourist destination: it offers just a few hundred visas per year, and many of them are to people looking to recreate the Silk Route. It also has an atrocious record on human rights. As a result, some argued that it should not really be rewarded with the honour of hosting an international sporting event. I would be one of them, but I also recognise that quite often, it’s not as simple as that. After the month I spent, and the local people I met, I think it gets more complex, and we can look at that later on.
So I arrived early in the morning, which is the worst time to arrive somewhere crazy, because you most likely haven’t slept and the assault on the senses is close to overwhelming. It took me over an hour to get through immigration (four different officials looked at my application, and only a discussion about football eventually succeeded in getting me that all-important visa stamp) It then took a further hour to get through baggage control, as all luggage is re-scanned and often opened before exiting the airport. On the subject of the airport (the world’s largest bird-shaped airport, fact fans… world records are a very big thing in TKM), it is massive and marble and gold and crazy and 40 degrees centigrade.
Like the rest of Ashgabat.
Week one was spent learning the way, literally and figuratively. Stuff like how to get money changed – not the bureau de change, as you might expect, or a bank, but a perfume shop, or a scarf shop, or a shop that sells gold trinkets. All under the counter, all black market, and I thank those who put their own safety at risk to help us. Stuff like how to get around – not, as you might think, in a taxi, but in a TKM version of hitch-hiking, where you just get into a local person’s car and hope they’re going in your direction. Stuff like road closures – which happen all the time and completely at random, meaning a journey that took you 20 minutes yesterday will take you an hour today (best road closure memory: being asked by the driver to get out and untangle the police tape we’d just crashed into from the front grille) Stuff like alcohol – which is not generally banned in TKM, but was for the duration of the Games… unless you know where to look, which was often in a teapot, disguised as a cup of Earl Grey.
There’s an 11pm curfew, which in reality means most stuff is shut by 10:30pm. One memorable night out included the title of this post (and of my future autobiography, I reckon) – a surreal night where four different sporting venues played each other at a bowling alley that contained a fake Starbucks. We followed it by going to a club and having a dance lesson, stone-cold sober, which if nothing else, proves it can be done.
There’s a dress code, which is not strict but requires modesty, for men and women. Some of the dresses worn by the girls are just beautiful, all floor-length and of the most incredible fabrics. There’s also a very particular way of getting stuff done at work, which is mostly to not expect anything to happen for a very long time (for example, getting keys to the building you’re working in – we ended up working in the velodrome for a week, because no one would sign off the keys for our venue), and for the levels of bureaucracy to be off the charts.
Oh, and we haven’t talked about security. If you thought you’d seen a lot of security on anything, let me tell you: you haven’t. Almost every single one of my photos, I’ve realised, contains a security guard in the background. Every time you enter or exit a building, you will be searched (my record was six times in one day), sometimes quite aggressively. I saw local women in tears at the groping they’d just received. Every now and again there would be a total lockdown, and things like mobile phones, or food, would just suddenly not be allowed into the Olympic Park. You could also expect a thorough grilling every now and again, for example, if you, like me, decided to wait for a friend, and your standing in the same place for 10 minutes attracted attention. The most common question to be asked was always, “do you like this country?” – my interrogation (thankfully the only major one I had) also included such gems as, “are you married?”, “why do women in your country only get married when they are 40?”, and, “have you seen 50 Shades of Grey?”
We also need to look at the Esteemed President. You can’t really not look at him, because his image is everywhere. Taxis, buses, mobile phone shops, buildings, parks, on each and every of the seven state-run TV channels. Also, in our sports venues. One of the major things we had to think about was ensuring that images were kept on display at all times. It feels very strange, to someone from a country where politicians are not exactly respected, and where imagery of that nature would be ridiculed. Whilst I do not support this man, it’s a rule and as such, had to be respected.
The culture in TKM is to work Saturdays, and when the Games started, Sundays too, so we did not have a lot of free days, but at the end of the first week, those of us lucky enough to be out early took one helluva trip – to the Gates of Hell…
The basic story behind the Gates of Hell (or the Darvaza Gas Crater, to give it its proper name) can be found here. It’s a three and a half hour drive north of Ashgabat, and technically, we were not supposed to be going because the government doesn’t want visitors heading there without a minder (we were stopped three times on the journey). So again, we must thank our local friends for any risks they took to get us there. It was a very long, bumpy journey through the desert, filled with camels, but it was fascinating to see the country outside of the shiny marble edifices that line the streets of the capital.
THAT CRATER THOUGH. Imagine the hottest thing you’ve ever experienced, then triple it. I can best describe it as like opening an oven door after you’ve been cooking something for three hours, but then making it even warmer. We walked around as much as we could tolerate – no other tourists around either, of course, and most certainly no barrier to stop you plummeting to a fiery end – and then we were taken to a yurt nearby, where our colleagues cooked us a traditional TKM barbeque. There was tea and there was vodka (see earlier comment) and then we went back to the crater again once darkness had fallen.
(Then came the drive back, which was a lot less entertaining than the drive there, I can tell you)
We also visited the Kopetdag mountains, which partly form the border with Iran, and went on one of the world’s older cable cars. If you like health and safety, this might not be the night out for you. (side note: a return trip to the cable car on the last day of my trip brought much colder conditions, so the waiters up there offered us blankets… except actually they were table cloths, slightly damp out of the washing machine. They also offered us a plastic bag full of what turned out to be cheese, which we accepted as a kind gift, and then we were charged 40 manat – about £9 or $11 for it) You can see the whole city spread out in front of you, and the sunset is beautiful.
The food, by the way, was good! Provided you like meat and rice. A lot of meat and rice. It is cheap and plentiful and I enjoyed it a lot. Well, it WAS food!
To the Games, now, and what a time we had. Basically, throw out any notion you might have of how an international sporting event might be organised. It’s our old pal security again, because we were watched. A lot. It feels like now I am back, that it didn’t really happen as much as I remember it having happened, but it really did. For example, we had around 30 British/American pop songs signed off by officials to play at our events, but no lyrics allowed. I can only listen to Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ in the instrumental version now. TKM pop songs were meant to be allowed lyrics, but a four-day-long argument put paid to that in the tennis centre, as our minder feared what those lyrics might do to people.
Another example: we were lucky to get tickets to the opening ceremony, but security put paid to any hopes we might have had of actually getting in. We were a few minutes late leaving our building in the athletes’ village, just across from the stadium, but due to the possibility of the Esteemed President using the main road, we were held in the underpass that led us there for what felt like an hour. We then had to take another hour diversion to get in, by which point it was about a minute before the show was due to start – and the stadium gates were locked. We literally could not get in, nor could anyone get out. We ran around for another hour before giving up. I cannot explain to you my frustration and sadness that night (some did eventually make it in, I gave up as I had an early start and was too upset to stay)
And yet. I was part of a great tennis centre team, local and international. We had a lot of fun, amidst the crazy. Here’s centre court in action:
Yes, that is a lot of people in the same outfit. No, I can’t really explain it (I can, but again, it feels crazy to write it now. You can probably work it out if you’ve seen footage of similar nations on TV recently)
We managed 11 days of competition, with the men’s singles eventually won by India’s Sumit Nagal, and the women’s by Indonesia’s Beatrice Gumulya. I hope to see their names again.
We laughed at things that right now do not seem remotely funny, but in the context of 16-hour days, seemed hilarious. We ate some atrocious packed lunches and more yoghurt than I ever thought possible. We had a wonderful team of volunteers alongside us. Our local announcer fell asleep so much we wondered if it mightn’t be narcolepsy. The mascot turned up, hit a ball into the crowd and got banned from the arena. I got seconded to the wrestling for two days, which was even crazier.
So what did I learn? I learned a lot about the nature of control. I don’t think I was ever totally naive about how what we might politely call an autocracy functions; but I don’t think I fully realised that it’s not simply about fear and a shit-ton of rules. It’s about fear and a shit-ton of rules THAT CHANGE DAILY, IF NOT HOURLY. You don’t know where you stand, ever, and none of the rules make logical sense, so if you start to question them, you start to go mad. The most common answer to the question, “why?”, is “Because Ashgabat”, because that is the only way you can even begin to rationalise any of the random stuff that goes on.
I learned that the relationship between sport and politics is even muddier than I had previously believed. Hey, come on, no sports fan can truly say that the two are separate, or that very poor decisions haven’t been made in recent years (and probably not so recent years as well) I cannot condone a lot of what I saw going on. I cannot condone spending billions of dollars on a shiny event whilst no one sees what’s going on behind the facade, and I don’t buy the argument that things might improve as a result of hosting the Games; however, I do know that for many of the local people we met, this was the first time they had ever seen a foreigner, and that we were not what they were expecting (ie. we were not monsters) More than one group told us that our visit was like a holiday for them, and that they would be sad when we left. I don’t want that to sound like I think I was doing good – of course I wasn’t. I just want to illustrate that it’s not black and white.
I also learned a lot about myself, about what I am capable of, and what I hold to be important in life. If this post is coming off negative, then it really shouldn’t be, so I want to express some of the positives of a life-changing experience. Firstly, the people, both local and international. I was extremely lucky to work with and meet some incredible people. I’m in love with almost all of them. A special shout-out must go to our volunteers – a bunch of bright, hardworking, sparky students who I want the world for. I can but hope that they reach some of their goals.
I can’t adequately express what it’s like there. It’s beautiful, it’s baking hot, it’s bizarre. People are so so nice, and yet the system is so so not. I’ll never get over it. And I learned about some BANGING TKM pop music. Obviously. Old habits die hard.