Tuesday, June 21, 2011

one week in - initial thoughts

Unsurprisingly, my first week in Turkmenistan has quickly passed. I spent about a day-and-a-half in the capital city of Ashgabat before continuing on to Balkanabat.

As a city, Ashgabat is more modern looking than I would have expected. (Check out the night photo on the Wikipedia page.) It's mostly flat with mountains to the south and it holds about 14% of the country's five million person population. It's quite clear that money flows into this city, almost all of which must come from the oil and gas industry. There are many 10 to 12-story apartment building made white granite exteriors that are clearly only a few years old. They seem to line major streets which can have 3-4 lanes going each direction. Additionally, there are a couple obviously expat-focused hotels as well as many government looking structures that demonstrate healthy levels of construction financing. There is also a great deal of construction going on in the city with several more apartment buildings and stadiums, and shopping areas being constructed. At the same time, there are older, clearly Soviet-era apartments, closer to 8 to 10-stories tall that have a look of disrepair to them. And always some form of shanty area exists in any big city.

However, I spent little time in Ashgabat and have settled into the base/camp in Balkanabat. The surrounding terrain here is desolate. On Friday, while driving out to a client camp area an hour to the south, it felt like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. Flat, bare desert in all directions with occasional fields of pumpjacks amidst the alkali lakes. Outside the limited confines of the city, there's very little here. The city, apparently 60K strong, is here for the oil and gas and not much else. In fact, the city used to be named Nebit Dag which means Oil Mountain in Turkmen.

At work, it's a base and a camp together. From my room, I have a one minute walk to the office, maybe 1.5 minutes if I saunter. The facilities, while perhaps lacking the 7-star rating that the President of Turkmenistan has bestowed upon the newest hotel in Ashgabat, are pleasant enough. After all, an office is an office is an office. My actual accommodation room is a room is a room is a room. And a bathroom. It's not that I have low standards, but what is there to say about a room with a bed, dresser, TV cabinet (with TV), desk, and small fridge with an attached private bathroom. It's like a hotel except I actually unpacked and put my stuff in the dresser. The food in the canteen is good, but I have shied away from the fresh vegetables after my first meal there. Friday was not a good day and the drive out and back to the client office did not help. I can only hope the client did not think I was flushed out of adolescent excitement to meet them. I believe the remaining stomach viruses I had from my time in Africa engaged in fierce combat with the local microbial kings and I am not sure who won. Additionally, some further rumblings yesterday have made me cautious about the cooked beans now.

Work seems good. I will be classically reticent with business specifics but the team here seems very capable and the big challenges are mostly driven by logistics and getting clients to modernize their practices.

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