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Turkmenistan: Fear and Loathing in Ashgabat

Little did I know that my four-day visit would end with $3,000 of the organizers' money burning a hole in my pocket.

Opening ceremony of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

When the opportunity arose to travel to Turkmenistan and cover the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, I didn't need much convincing. It's not often you get to visit one of the most closed countries in the world, one run by regime that watchdog groups describe as one of the most repressive in the world. 
 
Little did I know that my four-day visit would end with $3,000 of the organizers' money burning a hole in my pocket. But more on that murky development later.
 
Of course, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have concerns about traveling to Ashgabat. The Reporters Without Borders' 2006 World Press Freedom Index lists Turkmenistan as having the third-worst press freedom conditions in the world, behind North Korea and Burma. I also read that Turkmen citizens had endured a raft of confiscatory measures to help raise the (conservatively) estimated $5 billion needed to pay for this relatively obscure 10-day multi-sports tournament. 
 
By hosting the games, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov confronted a dilemma: the games required media coverage, yet Turkmenistan, particularly Berdymukhamedov's personality cult, is notoriously closed to foreigners. 
 
Ultimately, some journalists were unable to cover the games, due to last-minute hurdles erected by Turkmen authorities. As a result, they didn't get a chance to experience Ashgabat's new $2.3 billion airport: a falcon-shaped wonder designed to handle 17 million passengers per year, despite visitor numbers totalling just 105,000 in 2015.
 
A correspondent from The Guardian had initially been accepted to cover the Games, but just 11 days before the opening ceremonies in mid-September, Turkmen authorities changed their mind, denying accreditation on the grounds of "the overwhelming response."
 
My own accreditation was only finalized – at vast expense to the organizers – just four days before the 5th AIMAG got underway with the longest, glitziest opening ceremony of its kind. 
 
This four-hour extravaganza was why I was there: I was supposed to write a piece about a spectacle that was available to live-stream online anywhere in the world.
 
I'm a freelance writer whose main client – the website of a global TV sports channel – occasionally runs sponsored content tying in with major events. While AIMAG hardly registered on Western radars, my client was approached by one of the Ashgabat 2017 contractors – a London-based consultancy and communications firm – to provide a reporter to attend the Games and write branded content on behalf of the organizers.
 
Being a conduit for the hosts meant I was less likely to dig around in the same way as the Guardian, I suppose. Not that I had much of an opportunity to do much digging: early on, we were advised by an official during a press conference to reserve our reporting to the events going on inside the "Olympic Park" (named so despite Turkmenistan never having hosted an Olympics, nor having even won a single Olympic medal).
 
All journalists were also assigned "media liaison officers." I had two such minders who interchangeably shadowed my every move: one worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other Turkmenistan State TV.
 
All mass media in Turkmenistan is controlled by the state. On coming to power in 2006, Berdymukhammedov appeared to embark on a period of reform, and even announced plans to allow private newspapers in the country. This never materialized. Currently only one independent media source in Turkmenistan – Radio Azatlyk – offers regular Turkmen-language news reporting, despite its reporters being repeatedly intimidated and harassed by the government.
 
Websites operated by human rights organizations and news agencies are routinely blocked in Turkmenistan. Most people don't have access to the World Wide Web, but instead are limited to a censored version of the Internet in the form of Turkmenet. 
 
That being said, during my stay I did witness locals – including my minders – bypassing this by using a virtual private network, or VPN, on their mobile devices.
 
Web access was no problem for the hundreds of media members covering the Games: a fast Wifi connection was available throughout the Olympic complex. All social media, except YouTube, appeared to work.
 
For the most part, the facilities for journalists were excellent – in many cases excessively so. Some arenas boasted row upon rows of media seats with tables and power points – with only one or two journalists present.
 
Getting around the vast Olympic venue was rather complex and required a lot of walking in temperatures in the high 30s. That's not much of a problem if you're fit and healthy; less so for the disabled Ghanaian reporter I spoke to at breakfast one day. Incidentally, he was the only disabled person I saw in my entire four days in Ashgabat.
 
A regular but complicated series of buses ran around the secure perimeter to various entry points into the sports zone – yet sometimes the suggested bus trip would not only take double the time, it would result in double the walking at the other end. Logistical improvements would have to be made if Ashgabat ever wants a have a realistic shot hosting a future Asian Games.
 
Access would have been infinitely easier had members of the media been allowed to use Central Asia's first monorail. But the eight-station, 5-kilometre loop was reserved for athletes only. On the one time my minder got me through the doors, it broke down.
 
Dining facilities were perfectly acceptable with one central media canteen overlooking blue artificial lakes and the 45,000-capacity Olympic Stadium. The food was often tepid and not very tasty – but it was free and available around the clock. A bar in the main media centre was the only official place in Ashgabat serving beer during the Games.
 
My eleventh-floor suite in one of the 20 high-rises in the Village had two beds, multiple furnishings, a desk and storage, and a decent bathroom. I'd read reports about Turkmenistan being heavy on bugging, but I never once felt I was being surveilled. Indeed, throughout my stay my room wasn't even cleaned nor were my bins emptied.
 
Before going to Turkmenistan my biggest concerns centred on not being able to do my job, or being able to make the most of my surroundings. I was there to cover the Games and fulfill my commitments, but I also wanted to experience a different culture and locale.
 
Early on, I befriend a Dutchman and a Czech – two of the few Western media representatives in my block in the Village. While the Guardian was refused entry, these two curious travellers had hit the jackpot. 
 
Bart, a consultant at home in the Netherlands, is not even journalist by trade. Yet he was granted accreditation easily – even though his commission was for VICE, a relatively edgy publication. Meanwhile, Pavel had put in a request for a visa to go kite-surfing in a resort on the Caspian Sea, but was instead offered access to the Games.
 
Both my colleagues admitted to using the AIMAG as a ticket into Turkmenistan: they were not too concerned covering the indoor sporting events (which saw the hosts top the table with a staggering 245 medals – including a 25-percent sweep of all gold medals). 
 
On one occasion we managed to give our governmental supervisors the slip and visit some sights. While there were questions asked afterwards, we simply played dumb to avoid any significant fall-out. In fact, my chief minder subsequently organized trips for us to see various monuments, museums, markets and archaeological sites.  He even took us to the circus one evening – where I was interviewed by Turkmenistan State TV for a second time in as many days.
 
There were many moments, however, when the constant proximity of my minders became suffocating. I enquired on numerous occasions whether I was under arrest and it was very difficult to get straight answers from the most persistent of the two. Sometimes a refusal to answer seems the default position in Turkmenistan; this was certainly the case with Games and governmental officials.
 
Despite reports of it being forbidden to take photographs of certain monuments or governmental buildings in Ashgabat, I never experienced any issues. Not once was I asked to delete any image I had taken – although Pavel later told me that customs officers made him run though all his photos and videos at the airport. His luggage also arrived in the Czech Republic one day later.
 
Make of that what you will. But Pavel probably brought it upon himself: two days after I left, both he and Bart managed to hitch-hike a 550-kilometre round trip into the Karakum desert to view the infamous Darvaza gas crater – enflamed since bungling Soviet engineers struck a match to it half a century ago.
 
My short time in Turkmenistan didn't feature such drama; besides voicing my constant exasperation, my biggest misdemeanour was probably to have gone for an early morning unaccompanied jog in town.
 
But what of those dollars in my pocket? This was the most curious aspect of the trip. Days in, we were all informed that journalists who could provide an invoice for their air tickets would be reimbursed the equivalent amount in dollars – cash.
 
Seeing that my airfare had been covered by the contractor who invited me to the Games, I did not act on this incentive – unlike Bart, who had funded his trip off his own back.
 
On my final afternoon, however, I was approached by my concerned contact from the communications company who had paid for my fare and told that I needed to claim the money back on the company's behalf. Apparently, there was a conflict of interest and the contractor was unable to seek reimbursement directly from the organizers.
 
So, after jumping through hoops for a frustratingly lengthy period – which meant missing the final sessions of the sports I was meant to be reporting on – I was called into a make-shift office. Here, while one Russian journalist wept on a nearby sofa (presumably after having her own application turned down) a team of officials counted me out $3,225 as if it were Monopoly money.
 
I then couriered this wad of cash over to the main media centre where I left it with someone I had never met previously who promised to pass it on to my contact, who had by then clocked off for the night. 
 
It was all rather shady. Above all, I was shocked at the apparent price of my tickets. It's no wonder Ashgabat 2017 cost so much.
 

Editor's Note:  Felix Lowe is a freelance journalist, author and blogger who specialises in sports and travel. His first book, Climbs and Punishment: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal, was published in June 2014 and was shortlisted for the Cross British Sports Book Awards. He is best known for his Last Gasp column in Cyclist magazine and his Eurosport blog, Blazin' Saddles. More info at www.felixlowe.com

Turkmenistan: Fear and Loathing in Ashgabat

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