The Ashgabad Gazette Issue 04
Yesterday, I had my second financial adventure: I needed local funds for the weekend so I gave the driver a twenty dollar bill. He returned with the equivalent of 6,000 manat to the dollar. This is above the official rate so the currency here is under pressure.
I walked over to the Russian Market which is just across the street from the Grand Turkmen Hotel where I am staying. This is a covered market which means that you can get some shade while you shop. The market contains everything from spices to toothpaste to rugs to meat, all on display, all in the open. I noticed that all the meat purveyors where at one end, perhaps so the flies will not have so far to go from one piece of meat to the next.
Afterwards, I walked around a bit to try to get my bearings. It was hot in the sun, you felt your skin baking, your surface cracking. It reminded me of Tucson in September.
Having enough of the heat, I went back to the hotel and decided to take advantage of the pool while I could. It was a delight to get in the water and feel how cool it was. It struck me that they must chill the water to get it to be this refreshing. It was delightful.
I had just swum (don't you just love those weird irregular verbs?) to the opposite side of the pool when I heard something behind me and looked back to see plastic pool chairs flying ass over teakettle along the pool-side, stuffed cushions skimming along the pool surface and an awning ripping itself loose from its moorings.
A windstorm had descended with amazing swiftness and the blue sky had gone gray and featureless. I could feel a fine dust settling into my hair and onto my skin; I was conscious that I was breathing the very same air. I imagined my lungs silting up; time to go indoors.
From my room's window, I photographed the view that had become opaque with dust. I have attached a picture of the same view on an ordinary day (left half) spliced with the view during the dust storm (right half). Judge for yourself.
There isn't much in the way of great architecture in Ashgabad. The city itself only dates from the mid-19th century and there was an earthquake in 1948 that leveled the city and killed over 110,000 people. Since then the city has been completely rebuilt.
The reported number of deaths (to the West) was 14,000 since Stalin felt that socialist paradises didn't have disasters. Every survivor lost family members and friends, usually a lot of them. Our translator/interpreter survived the earthquake as a child because all four walls of her one story house fell outwards and the roof buckled and created a tent over them. But she lost an uncle, an aunt and a grandmother. No family survived unscathed. A huge number of families perished altogether since the quake was at 4 AM, the precise moment when the maximum number of people would be inside. This earthquake was undoubtedly one of the greatest natural disasters of the century.
In the redesign of the city the Soviet planners made the streets wide and (mostly) perpendicular. Unfortunately much of the original reconstruction was of poor quality. The government puts aside money every year to tear down part of the worst structures and replace them with sturdier stuff (hopefully). It will take very sturdy stuff indeed to withstand a quake of Richter 9.0, the strength of the 1948 earthquake and of the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Gold teeth are a very popular item here and all across Russia, particularly with women. I must confess that I find them rather attractive -- in moderation. The preference seems to be to have the eye teeth and one or two further back done in gold. Generally only some of the teeth are covered in gold but sometimes all of the upper or lower set are in gold. That seems to be a bit much to my taste.
In all this hot weather, all the men wear long pants. The kids wear shorts but it seems to be a symbol of being an adult to wear long pants. Maybe I should retire and open a shop selling bermuda shorts. I could make millions of manat in nothing flat.
It appears that there is a sudden shortage of "benzin" (gasoline) and drivers can only get a little at a time. We asked our driver and he said that only octane 93 was in scarce supply. Someone offered the conjecture that another purchaser had been found and we wondered if that was Iran or Afghanistan stockpiling for an anticipated conflict. Further inquiry a statement that octane 93 was imported from Russia so any profit from sales will not stay here.
My hotel room doesn't have a Gideon Bible or a Book of Mormon or even a Koran. I have been left scriptureless in this strange land. Now I am starting to worry: where am I?