Turkmenistan Postscript

What is it that stands out most when I think back to our visit in Turkmenistan? Is it the heavenly horses, the marble buildings, the heavy handed government? These images contribute but contrasted to all of these things are the children we met and shared our culture with. I came back from this trip hopeful. Please take a look at the following video

Also, the day I got home I wrote this song in response to our visit.

Click Here to listen and read the lyrics.

My hats off to the Turkmen people, the U.S. Embassy, the Turkmen Horse Association and to their Government for inviting us, and to my compatriots, Candra Day of Vista 360, Linda Svendsen, Gail Steiger and Andy Hedges.

Day 7: Turkmenistan

This is our last day of programming. We hope for no more snafus today. Leaving the hotel around 9:30am, we arrive at the newly built Institute of Culture and are greeted by the Director and a line of lovely young women holding trays of bread, little triangles of unsweetened fried bread, fruit and candy. We then walk past an ensemble of traditional musicians seated on a stage in the lobby playing a lovely little song. We stay till the song ends then go up the elevator to the Directors office  where more treats are set out. The Director welcoms us and apologizes that he needs to leave for a meeting but that his assistant director will host our visit. The office is quite fancy with a row of TV monitors along one wall, all tuned to different programs, all state run TV feeds. The Director explains the Institute has only been open one year. 700 students attend and study everything from dance to TV production to circus performance.  A compact and handsome man, the director is a former actor and producer. Upon his taking leave his assistant takes over. Our new host has a nice playfulness about him. He also has been an actor and producer. And, when his mobile rings I hear some lovely accordion music. I ask about it and it turns out he is the player. I asks if he has a CD of his music and he says no. He hands me his phone to listen. Wow, an incredible player and the Turkmen music sounds fabulous on the instrument. I’m getting to like this traditional music.

We then adjourn to a nice small auditorium full of waiting students. The program begins with prepared Q&A. It’s obvious the questions posed by the students have been prepared. They are good questions starting by asking our impressions of their country. Being it is our last day, each of our group have lovely and thoughtful answers. I told them how much I appreciate that everywhere we have gone we were greeted with art, the lovely ritual of offering food, music and that these greetings were most appreciated. I also gave them advice that they have the opportunity as future performers to bring people together, to go beyond language and cultural backgrounds,  to make the point through art that we are all brothers and sisters. After our Q&A we put on our little concert of music and a poem. The students are entranced. We are really sounding good after a week of performing. Each time Andy sings “Diamond Joe” we join in with gusto. I’m so proud to be part of this group, a fantastic little ensemble of individuals.

After lunch at the Russian market near our hotel we travel to the old Hippodrome where we are to have a horse demonstration.  Every venue is a surprise and this was no exception. We go to a race horse stable and basically get a basic tour, no waiting girls with trays of fruit.  The chief trainer shows us the stable as these aspiring race horses,   2-4 years of age old are lead out of their stalls for exercise. The trainer goes into great detail about their care, feeding and training. Gail, in particular asks many specific questions about the horses. Our host is engaged and told us he could talk about his world all day. The session is quite informal with no pomp to our visit. At the end both Gail and Linda get to climb aboard Akhal-Teke horses and get lead around the yard.

Our final engagement is a simple couple of songs at an auditorium full of young kids waiting to see an animated Disney feature, “Spirit.”  Translated to Russian. We do a couple songs then head back to the hotel to buy our final carpets, then dinner and pack for our 2am departure for the airport. Wow, what an adventure. I have many things to sort out about this complex society we have been given the opportunity to visit. I will try to write a postscript once I’m back safe on U.S. terra firma.

musical ensemble at Institute of Culture

musical ensemble at Institute of Culture

Assistant Director at Institute of Culture trying on cowboy hat

Assistant Director at Institute of Culture trying on cowboy hat

students at Institute of Culture

students at Institute of Culture

traditional dining at the Russian Bazaar, Ashgabat

traditional dining at the Russian Bazaar, Ashgabat

2 year old stalled

2 year old stalled

going out for exercise

going out for exercise

Gail on the heavenly horse

Gail on the heavenly horse

Linda on heavenly horse

Linda on heavenly horse

Day 6: Turkmenistan

We like our new digs, the Grand Turkmen Hotel.  Candra awoke sick. Linda is still battling it but thankfully I’ve dodged the bullet.  After a leisurely breakfast we load up and drive out to a town about 15 km to School #79. When we arrive we find the school has not been notified of our coming. We are ushered into the Principle’s office where we are served tea while our other interpreter starts making calls.

As it turns out the school administration has made a mistake. We were to be on the other side of Ashgabat to another School #79. The teachers attempt to be gracious but they are clearly worried about us being there without authorization.  Our interpreter today, Guncha Komekova, argues to forgo the other school 79 since it will make us late for the other three engagements if we are to drive back through the city, then another 30KM to the other side of town. Mia, at the Embassy,  is insistent that we fulfill our obligation at the other school 79.  Meanwhile a lovely teacher, with limited English, sings us songs she learned in English classes, little songs we’d never heard but useful for students learning our language. We even got a couple of very young English teachers to sing a simple Turkmen song for us. We sing a song for them which they love but we could tell they were getting nervous that we were overstaying our governmental welcome. At one point the lovely teacher hosting us expresses how much she would love to have us visit her home but that it would not be allowed.  I’m growing to love these good people but really have less and less tolerances for the intolerance of their government.

We load up and make for the next school. As it turns out the reason it is was so important we go to the model school in the rural area to the west of town is that it is the hometown of the President, Yzgant.  In fact when we arrive at the  fancy marble school we are ushered in front of a statue  where the Principle gives us a well rehearsed speech,  the story of the grandfather of the President who founded this school at the turn of the 20th Century in a mud hut with four chairs. The Principle then takes us to the school’s museum, a lovely large room with display cases containing both historical and archeological finds from the area. The Principle is a brute of a man but also with a twinkle in his eye. I like him but know by his actions that he is a powerful authority figure for the students. After our tour we are lead to a modern computer lab where a dozen or two students sit rigid as we make our presentation. Gail expresses our gratitude to the President, the Horse association and the Government for allowing us to present our culture. After a touring the museum our mind is on preserving traditions so it becomes a theme for our program. One of the displays showed 5 famous people from the area. They had chosen a 19th century Mullah, a scientist, an educator, a singer and a folk artist. In my presentation I commend them for grasping a wide view of the important traditions they have inherited including artists and singers. As we were to leave the Principle thanked us for coming and told us we made the 57th foreign guests to visit the school.

Our next school, back in the city, is dedicated to the teaching of English and German. We learn we are their first foreign guests ever to visit this school. We are quite late to this school but are welcomed with trays of bread, candies, and fruit.  Then we are ushered into the old style gym with hoops at both ends and asked to sit at tables with more goodies laid out. The students then put on a show for us, all in English giving us a history of the Turkmen people, their poetry, their music, and a grand finale.  At the end they all stand with US and Turkmen flags and sing a rousing version of Michael Jackson’s “We are the World.”  I’m not sure there was a dry eye in our bunch.  It was wonderful and alive. The students are curious and the teachers beam with pride at the work the kids have done to make this presentation. They are so sincere, so lovely. Just to think about it brings a shiver of emotion back to me. Again, we fall in love with these good, curious, healthy young people. We make our presentation and the kids take it in. We give them the best we have and they love it. We all leave this school feeling fulfilled and hopeful.

Though we miss our lunch break we travel on to the Palace of Orphans that lies near the mountains to the south of town, on the royal road leading to the Presidents residence. Some sheik had funded this lovely facility for orphans so it is quite fancy. When we get to the auditorium the students are  sitting in place, which we now find the norm. On stage a student group, in full costume, are video taping a short ‘thank you’ tape to the man who made a donation of three quarter million dollars when he turned over one of the winning checks from the horse race a couple of days previous, a donation to the Orphans. We are reminded once again how wealthy this place is.

Our last school is the American Council. It is informal with about a 18 advanced English students, mostly teens and young twenty somethings. They are wide eyed and obviously loving learning English. We show videos, sing songs and answer questions. To top it off, Gail shows a few students how to rope, down in the Center’s courtyard.

We drive back to the hotel exhausted. I lay down for the hour before dinner and immediately fall asleep. At dinner I can barely stay awake and by the end of dinner after one beer, actually nod off at the table for a moment. When I look up I realize everyone is looking at me. It’s time to go to bed. I sleep like a log.

host teacher being gracious

host teacher being gracious

the President's grandfather and founder of the school

the President’s grandfather and founder of the school

community heroes

community heroes

students greet us at the door

students greet us at the door

students perform for us at English/German school

students perform for us at English/German school

Day 5: Turkmenistan

We check into the Grand Turkmen Hotel.  Even though its not as fancy as our first hotel we are all glad to be in the middle of the City in a Hotel that seems more like a hotel rather than a convention dorm.

Today we visit four completely different settings to perform for students. Our first visit is to one of the big marble edifices in the City.  This school is dedicated to horse training.  Two girls in folk dresses greet us with trays of candy.  We then are ushered into a hall with about 100 students already seated. We had come early to set up the projector but were told they were not ready for us. We waited around and now the wait has put us in a rush to get things going. I plug in the computer and nothing comes up. We try their equipment, then our equipment and nothing. It was so easy the first day, just plug it in and go but that was not to be today. We finally decide to go without the introductory slide show.

This school seems to be based on discipline. The students are almost blank as they listen.  A small student ensemble shares some of Turkmen folk music but it seems passionless.  When we ask for questions the only person allowed to pose questions is the principle.  Rather than asking a question he asks if we would please thank the President for allowing us to tour in Ashgabat. After our solicited statement of  gratitude he asks what our impressions are of their heavenly horses. He obviously is not interested in what we have to share but what he might impress us with. We are glad when this session ends and because of the delays it makes us late for our second school.

Things could have not been more different at the music school we attend next. The teachers, the kids, the Principle, all alive in anticipation for our program. We don’t even try to set up the projector and screen but introduce ourselves and make an informal program of songs, poems, and talk directly to the music students.  It is fun to speak with passion then see that passion translate into a new language. The students absolutely love the program and we do too.  The school is decrepit compared to the fancy horse training school but we all feel right at home with these good people. At one point a student comes down and plays a bit of guitar song. He is very shy. Then a teacher pulls out a long bamboo flute and performs a shepherd’s call which is incredibly beautiful. After numerous smart phone photos with the students we adjourn to the Principles office where we are served tea and cookies. Though our interpreter, Zohre Meredova, he tells us that this was the best program they had ever had at the school. He was genuinely grateful, as were we.  What a treat.

We then go to our new hotel, the Grand Turkmen Hotel, to check in and have lunch. I fear we over ate in the very nice restaurant here so when it was time to climb back into the vans many of us were a bit sleepy. Our third school was to be younger music students but when we arrived at the school we were told there was a change and we would go to a sports school instead.

We show up there to an auditorium full of mostly fit looking teenage boys. This is a boarding school and is a nice facility. The place does not have the same totalitarian feeling as the first school but then again, does not have the same heart as the music school,  somewhere in between.  This time the technology works flawlessly though, it being our first time doing the introductory remarks, the slide show takes a long time to go through, particularly with lengthy interpretation. The program goes well but the students seem sleepy. I know how they feel.

The last performance is for an English conversation class at the Embassy’s Media Library housed at the hotel where Gail and I did a media presentation on the first day.  For this workshop we have  no interpreter so we go through the introductory slide show pretty quickly. We sing, we answer many good questions and have a great time with these aspiring English speakers. It is a nice culmination of the day. We then go back to the Hotel Ashgabat where Candra needs to do some final accounting with the Horse Association.  We get back to our new hotel ready for a light dinner and beers before hitting the hay around 10pm.

DSC05429 DSC05431 DSC05432

our gang

our gang

Day 4 – Sunday – Turkmenistan

5:30 AM: I hid in my room past the very loud announcements over the hotel PA. I tried to record one of the announcements that was particularly funny, “dear esteem-ed guestez. It is time to awake. Please to come downstairs to get on bus and take a sit.” We are definitely staying in a 5-star dormitory. I suppose it’s a good sign to awake with some humor. I hung out in the room doing a bit of wash and organizing till Candra knocked at my door around 10 am. She told me our driver had come with a fellow named John from the Embassy to take us on a tour to the big bazaar on the outskirts of the city. A famous and ancient bazaar which was located in middle of the city was raised a few years back and the new one  built to take its place. The new bazaar looks sort of like a mall with stalls.

I was overjoyed not having to go to the horse races today, and with it, the long waits. Gail ended up being the only one in the group to join the races. Andy had not slept well but was game for the bazaar, as was Candra. Poor Linda had gotten a very bad case of food poisoning and needed to rest and recover at the hotel. We went off with our driver, and our primary interpreter Zohre, and John who is the Department of Defense Military Attaché attached (am I being redundant?) to the Embassy. John is unlike any military guy I’ve met. I immediately took a liking to him. He is brash, smart and not afraid to express his views on any subject. Over the day we not only got a good tour of grass roots commerce but a fascinating perspective on the geo-political realities of the region. A few things that stuck: He said the Turkmen people are not violent people and he was glad that they spend their vast wealth building white marble buildings rather than buying massive amounts of armaments. Because of their history and whose borders they share they need a very strong centralized government and that they were trying to build, slowly, a Turkmen society out of several warring tribes, which is what Turkmenistan consisted of prior to the Soviet occupation. So the country we know now as Turkmenistan is a new concept, a new country finding its identity. He admired the country for being staunchly neutral in their politics. I am coming to realize how complex this ancient place is and how I can only grasp bits of the realities of the place.  Perhaps I was overly critical about yesterday’s activities. I can’t pretend to understand the realities of the country in our short time here.

The bazaar was quite good. We looked at carpets, purchased some nice tapestries and hand loomed slippers. We then dropped Zohre off and she gave us a tour of a real Turkmen home and garden.  The home’s interior was lovely with its rugs piled in the rooms, the furniture all along the walls to keep space to see the rugs and a life on the floor.  She showed us a photo of her youngest daughter of 9 children posing with a new husband. They were dressed in traditional Turkmen wedding clothes. She said, “oh yes, they now live in Salt Lake City.” Small world

We then went to a lovely Turkish restaurant and I finally ate my first meal of the day. I was now feeling better and glad for a meal.  John continued his tutelage before taking us back to the hotel for a little rest before the picnic planned for 5:30pm at the Embassy Compound.

The barbecue was a little slice of America set on a walled community of houses and buildings overlooking OZ. It’s fun being with Americans. Most of the staff are quite young and a nice bunch of folks. They served a potluck of burgers and all that go with it and we even had beers to wash it all down.  After dinner we played some cowboy songs for the folks.  I’m loving singing and playing with Andy and Linda. Linda has grown as a singer since I last played with her and Andy has really become a fine guitar player. He also sings the traditional songs with so much power and presence.  An unexpected pleasure has been backing up Gail on the mandolin.  I’d always loved Gail’s poetry recitations but had not keyed into his songs that much. Backing him up I started hearing the nuance of rhythms and the subtlety of his lyrics. What a pleasure.  We missed Linda at the barbecue who was still at the hotel recuperating.

The big news of the day came from Gail who had traveled to the racecourse.  He reported that after much waiting, pomp and circumstance, the President joined the first race and had won it by a length. There was speculation about how much the other riders had reigned-in to make this happen. After the finish Gail looked up to see the President’s horse getting up after a fall. The President was lying still on the ground as a cry rose up from the stands and people came rushing to the President’s aid. It appeared he was out cold. They put him on stretcher and then to an ambulance. Girls were openly weeping in the stands and then there was complete silence. This lasted for about a half hour, everyone wondering what would come next. At last the President walked out and waved to the crowd to great cheers. We don’t know if, or how badly he was hurt but after this, but the races went on. We were told later that this accident would not be reported on in the national press here. We even understand that people’s smart phones were checked to erase any documentation of the Presidents accident with his horse.  All of us are in the dark about the incident.  We found later that a foreign camera caught the fall pictured here. 

At dusk we set up horseshoes, while a woman from the embassy coerced folks into learning to line dance as Gail took young folks out on the verdant lawn to teach them how to rope a sawhorse. It was a lovely scene and could have been placed anywhere in America. I had a nice talk with Brian, the PR man, and his wife Sunny who, as it turned out knew my nephew and niece Tim and Liz back in New Jersey where Sunny grew up.

We got back to the hotel around 9 PM. Candra got in line to haggle over some money not received from the Horse Association. She’s a champ. The rest of us went up and visited our dear mate Linda and were all relieved that she was on the road to recovery. Tomorrow we wake, pack and then off to conduct 4 cowboy workshops at various schools.

Inside the Bazaar

Inside the Bazaar

carpet sellers showing their wares at the main Ashgabat Bazaar

carpet sellers showing their wares at the main Ashgabat Bazaar

Ashgabat, traditionally has had the largest camel market in central Asia

Ashgabat, traditionally has had the largest camel market in central Asia

A handcrafted cradle. I'm thinking about things like this as my daughter Anneliese will soon need things like this.

A handcrafted cradle. I’m thinking about things like this as my daughter Anneliese will soon need things like this.

Zohre, our interpreter, and her roses

Zohre, our interpreter, and her roses

Zohre's living room

Zohre’s living room

Day 3: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s exports consist of handmade carpets and vast amounts of natural gas. As one might guess, its not the carpet sales that built all these fancy new marble clad buildings and brought 1000 people from around the world to come revel in the national horse.  Turkmenistan is the 4th largest gas producer in the world.

We were roused by a hotel-wide intercom instructing us to get up to catch a bus at 6AM to the Ashgabat Hippodrome where we were to see the horse beauty contest. On the bus we met a horse geneticist from Kentucky who told us he had been invited to the conference and when he asked what they would like him to present at the conference they told him that they just wanted him to come to the weekend event, all expenses paid.  This story should have given us some inkling about what this conference is all about and what, for that matter, the power base seems to be all about, it’s a culture of posturing.  These are beautiful horses but the marketing methods seem antiquated in world where people are sensitive about making up their own minds.

When we arrived at the Hippodrome there were hundreds of young people, students, standing on the sidelines. The boys wore matching suits and girls had on their red school costumes, all carrying Turkmen flags. We were told they had been bused there as early as 4 AM to greet the President when he finally drove by around 7:30. Then, they stood in place till the program was over at around 11:30 to wave their flags at the President drove away. We watched as the minions laid out carpets so the President did not step on pavement when he was to arrive. Then we were herded to the stands after much debate about where to put us.  Finally the program began with the giving of Turkmen horses to the President from provinces of the Country , then the gift of a horse from the Police and Military. With this horse he was requested to ride so the President changed into traditional dress, mounted the horse and rode around the track followed by a few hundred horsemen, all in matching traditional garb. This all took an hour or so.

Then there were a few horse trick demonstrations with men and women galloping at full speed doing various forms of acrobatics on horseback. After this they began judging the horse beauty contest which went on interminably. It was cold and windy and most people were not dressed for the situation. After the finalist horses were paraded around, the judges went into deliberation for almost an hour while we sat in the cold.  A few people tried to leave the stands to get warm in the sun but were turned back. Two of our translators were locked in a room when they tried to leave to get warm.  Finally the winning horse was chosen and its owner was given the keys to a new car. Old ladies covered the car in flower petals as the winning guy preened around praising Allah for his good fortune.

When we finally got back on the bus but rather than going back to the hotel we were taken to a large banquet hall they called a restaurant where we were fed the same menu that seems to be fed for every meal.  However, this meal was tainted and I got sick later that day.

By the end of this they told us the exhibition would be closed and that what we needed to do was go to the closing ceremonies where we would receive a diploma for attending.  While we were there trying to stay awake during the speeches which were all the same self-congratulatory drivel,  the Embassy staff cleared up our booth. So, we brought all the gear, all our instruments just to perform at the Horse Exhibition for  part of one day, mostly for dignitaries of the country. All the rest of this show was dedicated to the posturing of the Horse Association and the Government. I have to say, I was disgusted and, to boot, I’d come down with an unsettled stomach which may have had something to do with my dark mood by the end of the day.

Candra, like me, has a strong and visceral reaction to authoritarianism. She vowed to bow out of the Sunday activities which now loomed before us with the same 6 AM start and long wait for the President.  That evening Candra stood in line for 3 hours trying to get the travel reimbursement for us. After midnight she knocked at all our doors and told us we needed to come to the lobby to present our passports and sign a document so she get the money owed. After this ordeal I slept soundly.

NOTE: I wrote this post having been chilled to the bone and in the middle of battling food poisoning. Please know how much I appreciate the hospitality of the Turkmen people, the President of the Country and the Horse Association. I also appreciate the right I have in my own country to be grumpy and critical when I don’t feel so good. I don’t pretend to understand this country.

Early morning bus pick-up

Early morning bus pick-up

youth waiting to greet the President

youth waiting to greet the President

dancers greet us and the president

dancers greet us and the president

minions

minions

President being presented with his new horse

President being presented with his new horse

President shows off his new horse

President shows off his new horse

Winner of horse beauty contest with winning car

Winner of horse beauty contest with winning car

Day 2: Turkmenistan

We’ve yet to see and Akhal-Teke Horse in the flesh but things really get going for us today. We climb aboard our busses for the Exhibition Hall where we find a greeting party of students in traditional dress, dancers, and musicians with Turkmen carpets set out to greet us or maybe they are there to greet someone else, I’m not sure.  Also, a ring is set up with horses and horseman prancing around and around.  These are lovely long legged horses and oh how they do shine. Our Cowboy Booth is all set up and the President of the country, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow,  is slated to review the exhibits this morning. His portrait is everywhere including in the center of each booth at the Exhibition Hall.

Everyone we have met has been so kind and helpful. The folks at the embassy, the Horse Association, and the exhibitors here at the hotel all seem to be an interesting lot of people. For instance we met a famous Turkish actor,  Jamal Honal,  who is fanatical about the ancient art of mounted archery and endurance riding. He keeps 30 Arabian horses outside Istanbul and rides old U. S. made McClellan saddles exclusively. He says the U.S. Government gave the Turkish Army 3000 of these saddles after World War I and they are still the absolute best for long rides and shooting arrows off your horse. We then met a lovely Dutch woman Harmke Westervelt who trains endurance horses on the desert sands for the Sheik of Dubai’s brother. She’s about to join a Gaucho race in Uruguay where they will ride 1000 KM.

When we got to our booth we found out  the President would not be coming today but that many dignitaries would be passing through. There was one particularly important party so when they came by we played and Brian, the PR officer for the US Embassy, greeted the party in Russian. When I first met Brian I said to myself, this guy is a Mormon. Sure, he was clean cut but why did I peg him as a Mormon? I just knew. Brian’s a good guy and gave us a savvy view of the country. He told us, for instance, that whenever the President attended anything it added a couple hours onto everyone’s schedule. I did not quite get it till the next day when we joined the Presidents schedule at the Horse Beauty Contest. Brian, his wife Sunny and their two daughters live at the US Embassy compound which we will visit for a barbecue on Sunday.

Gail and Candra left the booth for a couple hours to attend conference sessions. They came back bleary eyed saying that that the whole conference seemed like a lot of posturing, people saying how important the Turkmen horse was, how grateful they were for the horse and the President for supporting the horse breeding efforts and how the breed should be more recognized in the world of horse breeds, not much detail beyond that. Maybe more happens informally. We’ve met a couple folks from Britain and the U.S. who raise and love this breed of horse and they are ecstatic to be here.

Most of the exhibits are commercial, horse products, so our booth with music, chairs, and friendly people was very well attended.  I played music most of the day and sang or accompanied everyone, Gail, Linda and Andy.  We all had a blast singing our songs for the folks passing by.   At the end of the day we were tired but very pleased to have shared our music and cowboy culture at the exhibition. We look forward to the next afternoon when we continue.

That evening we had dinner with a fellow wearing a cowboy hat. It turned out he was from Malaysia. His name is Dato’ Dr. Nek ABD Rahman Saleh. He owns a herd of 3000 mares for the harvesting of their milk for use in a cure for cancer and leukemia. He is an engaging person who has started riding programs for kids of Malaysia and obviously is a big shot in the country. He loved our music and talked about bringing us to Malaysia.  That would be fun.

Greeting the delegation to the Horse Conference and Exposition

Greeting the delegation to the Horse Conference and Exposition

Our first view of the "Heavenly Horses" as they call their Akhal-Teke Horse Akhal-Teke Horse breed

Our first view of the “Heavenly Horses” as they call their Akhal-Teke Horse breed

Setting up the cowboy booth at the Horse Exposition.

Setting up the cowboy booth at the Horse Exposition.

Andy Hedges, Turkmen warrior.

Andy Hedges, Turkmen warrior.

Hal Cannon, Turkmen hair transplant

Hal Cannon, Turkmen hair transplant