Turkmenistan Index Description

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country with 5 million people living on a territory the size of California, has grown more and more remote from the rest of the world since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The oppressive regime rarely permits journalists to enter, but photographer Pavel Prokopchik had an opportunity to travel there recently and used his journey to document everyday life.

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  • Ashkhabad’s gleaming new white buildings are occupied mostly by foreigners. Most Turkmenians live in cramped and crumbling five-story apartments dating to the Soviet era.
  • Women, their faces covered against sun and dust, clean the plaza in front of the National Library in Ashkhabad. An authoritarian government, led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has built a monumental city clad in white marble.
  • Flag Day marks the Feb. 19 birthday of Saparmurad Niyazov, and students and others are required to show up for events.
  • Bakharden Lake, enclosed in a cave and fed by warm springs, attracts swimmers from Ashkhabad, a 40-minute drive away. No one seems to mind the bats there. Although Turkmenistan borders the Caspian Sea on the west, most of the country is desert.
  • A tractor pulls a portable stage in place, preparing for a wedding. The container unfolds into a stage, and soon musicians will be blasting their melodies, which are always loud. Men and women will dance together and toast one another with vodka.
  • A woman unrolls a carpet in preparation for lunch. A cellar for food storage lies under the floor. During the day, meals are eaten on the floor. At night, the bedding piled on the chest goes on the same floor.
  • This is a floor-sitting society. Here, a local imam has just finished lunch with a former policeman, and they linger over tea. People are respectful of religious leaders and they pray, but most have a relaxed attitude about religious customs.
  • Meat pie, a favorite, is prepared by folding lamb into dough. A small opening is left at the top. Traditionally, the dough was buried in sand and covered with hot coals. The cook pours water into the opening to keep the dish moist.
  • A family in Kaka, near the Iranian border, lives in a typical apartment with three rooms in an aging building that dates to the Soviet era. Although most people have little money, the country is rich in natural gas and electricity, gas and petrol are quite cheap.
  • A bride covers her face with brightly colored fabric before her wedding in Turkmenistan; the veil will be removed by her new husband. Female relatives join in the preparations.
  • Weddings are accompanied by an unusual tradition; women wrestle each other for a simple but desirable prize, such as a scarf. The spectacle draws an amused and intent crowd.
  • A mother dresses her son for the wedding, which will be a large and festive occasion.
  • Turkmenistan is known for its Alabai, a big, strong dog that is often entered in fights. Dog owners take their animals seriously and read up on them in books and pamphlets devoted to the Alabai — these printed in Russian. It’s illegal to export the dogs, but special connections often find a way to send them out of the country.
  • Alabai owners say the fights prepare their dogs, bred for sheep herding, to ward off predators such as coyotes. The pups of champions demand high prices. Winners are determined when a dog gives up or the owners pull the animals apart.
  • A shepherd who tends sheep near the border with Iran finds shelter and food in a small hut. Despite his rugged life, he always has a meal to share and vodka to offer. Although 90 percent of the country is Muslim, vodka is served and drunk nearly everywhere, a legacy of the Soviet past.
  • This man and his daughter live in the town of Kaka, near the border with Iran, but have a plot of land outside the town where they grow grain and vegetables. A great deal of toil is required to wrest a living out of this rough landscape.
  • A man — a solitary figure against a vast and empty landscape — walks in the hills near Kaka, close to the Iranian border. Turkmenistan also borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.
  • A driver has equipped his car with eye-catching seat covers. The society remains firmly patriarchal.
  • Men in Ladas, simple boxy cars ubiquitous in the Soviet era, gather to watch Alabai fights near Ashkhabad. The dog fights are usually held on Sundays from October to April, when they stop with the approach of hot weather. The fights are popular, with fans betting money, televisions, cows and even cars on the outcomes.