Tuesday, December 31, 2013
My days in Turkmenistan and its censorship of blogger.com and terrible bandwidth are over. I'm now in the fair city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia, a place seemingly near the edge of the Earth, which you'd think would be hard to find on a spherical body but yet here we are. I have been here nearly two weeks now. First impressions: there is snow, lots of snow and many of the cars are right-hand drive which is presumably a function of the the island's proximity to Japan. A bonus observation: I have heard fireworks every night I have been here, not just last night. The locals seem to really dig blowing things up. More to come soon. Maybe.
Monday, July 15, 2013
There is a massive gas field in Turkmenistan called Galkynysh. The field, which used to be called Yoloten, is massive. One of the largest gas fields in the world ever to exist. If you have ever heard me speak about the potential of this country and where its financial future lies, it is this field I have in mind. It is the country's goal to produce gas from this field soon, and eventually reach quantities that will sustain pipelines to China, India, Europe and anywhere else they can find a market. Turkmenistan has the opportunity to become like some of the oil-rich Gulf nations. High resource wealth mixed with low local population means a very-high average standard of living can be achieved. There are two major social stumbling blocks in addition to the many technical and geopolitical ones. Only touching on the technical aspects briefly, I want to mention that this is not an easy field. Drilling will require a reasonably high level of technical sophistication. In terms of geopolitics, gas means pipelines for Turkmenistan as a land-locked nation (ignoring the Caspian). Pipelines need to be built and maintained. Ok, there's one to China now (in addition to the one through Kazakhstan and Russia). But building one to India, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, will not be easy and a trans-Caspian line to Azerbaijan and eventually Europe will also meet with resistance, mostly from Russia. I think these are actually all fixable problems. Some of it is technical, some is political, and money will carry the day to get things done.
Back to the social stumbling blocks. First, a high average standard of living does not mean a good standard of living for everyone. Some people will do very well, and there are always some who do exceedingly well for themselves in places like this, while others will do moderately well (ie: the future professional/middle class), and there will be those who do not fare so well. Perhaps progress will bypass their lives or social programs will not reach all corners of the country or perhaps plain old ethnic divisions will continue. Ashgabat has become a shining marble beacon already, but the rest of the country has yet to be so fortunate. How long and how extreme can the disparity become until it creates unrest? The next 10-20 years will be interesting to say the least.
The other social stumbling block is labor. As in, where does the labor come from? Does Turkmenistan want to go the same direction as some of the Gulf states and import significant amounts of expats? For its own sake, I think it should not and in practical terms, it may not be able to anyway. Countries like Bahrain and Qatar have less than one million citizens each, but have total populations that are more than half-expat. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil producer with less than a tenth the population of the U.S. (which itself produces more oil than most people realize). Turkmenistan, with 5-6 million residents does not seem eager to embrace significant amounts of outside labor. For sure it exists, as evidenced by significant numbers of Turkish construction projects. However, the Chinese, despite their investments into the country, have been rebuffed many times and only a limited number of visas are available for Chinese nationals to support the operations of the Chinese state company CNPC in the eastern part of Turkmenistan. And vast waves of cheap labor from India and Southeast Asia like you see in Bahrain, Qatar, and U.A.E., have yet to flood into the country. There are obvious hurdles in terms of getting visas, but additionally, local labor is still relatively cheap. The challenge lies with the quality of local labor. It would benefit the country to significantly invest in education and health services. The benefits are numerous: educated labor force, reduced population growth (which is rather high), and the ability to employ the nation's citizens in the nation's own projects. This allows more of the investment to stay in the country instead of going abroad with expats like myself.
There is so much potential here. Turkmenistan has before it so much opportunity, but fulfilling these opportunities depends on the people here, especially the political leaders.
Tuesday, July 09, 2013
We went up to the observation deck near the top. There was also a museum level, but since we were there after 5pm, the museum was closed. The area is also surrounded by a nice park. Beyond the park, the area is part of the city where they have tried, with varying levels of success, to plant mass amounts of pine trees. This tree planting occurs in every city, but is particularly large in scale in Ashgabat. They are trying to green this desert landscape and it isn't easy. Regarding the monument, it is a bit absurd, though one could argue most monuments are absurd, especially from an outside perspective. I found the elevators that go up the legs to be quite interesting. The three legs are angled and two of them have a mechanical lift that goes up and down it like a very steep trolley. The third leg has actual stairs, though the stairs were closed during our visit. The lift is something like a cross between an elevator and an escalator (and it has no air conditioning). It also costs a reasonable 1 manat (about $0.35) per person. It's not clear if the stairs would have been free.
My colleague had a whole list of places to go, but some road closures prevented us from visiting some of them. In particular, we were turned away from the world's largest indoor Ferris wheel. It shall have to wait for another day. Instead, we went to a local park with statues of past historical figures from the country and did a driving tour of much of the city. There is a peculiar propensity to make official buildings in the shape of something related to its purpose. For example, the dentistry school has a curved top shaped a bit like a molar. The telecommunications building has the shape of something where you could hang a phone. The oil and gas building is shaped much like a cigarette lighter. The medical building has some twisting shapes similar to the serpents in the Cadeceus symbol.
If you live in Ashgabat, then you see a dramatically different place than what existed 10-15 years ago. Like many capital cities, much of the money from the country flows this direction. New construction abounds and many of the places we saw did not exist 10 years ago. This is what visitors see, or at least what they see first, when coming to Turkmenistan. A city of boundless construction and record-setting numbers of marble buildings. This image contrasts very sharply with what the rest of the country looks like and what another colleague told me a couple days ago. He said that outside of Ashgabat, people are not as happy. The money goes one way, towards the capital, and there are not rows of gleaming marble buildings in the rest of the country. Not yet, though probably not ever.
Tuesday, July 02, 2013
As has been reported in many articles, JLo performed a concert at a hotel resort area known as Avaza which is near the city of Turkmenbasy (which is about a three hour drive north-northwest of Balkanabat). Of course, with the reputation Turkmenistan, JLo was roundly criticized for the performance, which some claim she was paid upwards of $1.5 million for.
Is the apparent outrage with her performance justified? Can she (or her management team) claim to have not realized the nature of the performance, what the country is like, and that the President would be there? Going back to that first question, I'm not sure I really care about the outrage or whether people should be upset. Partly because I also work here, thus lending credibility/support to the regime and partly because this is how capitalism works. You pay someone for a service or product and they provide said items. Is it blood money or something terrible? Well, probably, sort of, indirectly yes. The advantage for me is that I am but one tiny blip in the NSA's PRISM net and I do not work in an industry where public sentiment of me, as in my individual self, matters. JLo's professional well-being relies on her being popular and inoffensive enough to avoid any public outcry.
Now going back to that second question (or really set of questions) from the previous paragraph. Should JLo and her team have known better? I think so, but I am also far more familiar with the affairs of Turkmenistan than the average person, though that does not take much. Part of it will depend on just who they interacted with to organize the event. Was it with CNPC as most articles state? If that's the case, then they should have done some basic research into what CNPC does (oil and gas), where they are from (China), who owns them (Chinese government), and what specifically CNPC was doing organizing a party in Avaza. Perhaps not known to Team JLo, but CNPC operates on the other side of the country. But Avaza is the crown jewel of Turkmenistan vacation spots, or at least that's what the billions the Turkmen government puts into the project want it to be, so perhaps it's just a good place to have a party. What is generally well-known within Turkmenistan is that the President loves to have his picture taken. After all, he's on the front page (above the fold!) of the national paper every single day. He also likes to be at major events, in this case, the grand opening of recently-completed parts of Avaza. To everyone in Turkmenistan, it is totally logical and expected the President would be at such an event. To people on the outside, especially Americans, it seems odd, arguably unexpected. After all, U.S. Presidents do not show up to the grand openings of every major construction project. However, the comparison is best made to a state or large city, something with a population similar to Turkmenistan's roughly 5 million. Would the mayor or governor appear at such an event? Sure, there is a decent chance for an appearance. And is getting JLo to perform for the President effectively a subtle bribe by CNPC? Well, it's not even subtle, though not as blatant as gifting him a yacht or whoever bought him this Bugatti. JLo's presence both strokes his ego and gives him more legitimacy, as if to say, "See, big American stars sing Happy Birthday to me so I can't be a bad guy."
Quite interestingly is the reaction from people here who are reading about this. Understandably, many people, especially the younger women, were excited that JLo, as an internationally known entertainer, came to their country. This is a big deal to them as it somehow validates the importance of the country along with the validation it provides to the President. What locals here seem more surprised by is the characterization of their country as an oppressive dictatorship with in-name-only democracy and a poor human rights record. They find this so surprising because it is simply not true for much if the nation. Well, the in-name-only democracy part is true for everyone. After all, after the previous President died, the current one became interim President through the magic of having the person who was supposed to be the interim President arrested along with many others. Then, he changed the constitution to allow himself to run in the next election since the previous constitution forbade interim President's from becoming elected. And Bob's your uncle. Anyway, people here were surprised because conditions here are improving. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian countries in particular badly struggled. So far from everything, very poor, and often reliant on Russia for contact with the West. The country struggled for several years, but has slowly been gathering wealth from its natural resources. Of course the wealth is not evenly distributed, but most people are seeing basic needs (ie: housing, food, gas) provided so they are happy enough and certainly see the improvement in very real and important terms. Even if the political leadership siphons the vast majority of the money away and corruption is rampant, conditions today are still much improved from what they were 10-15 years ago.
As for JLo and her supposed moral dilemma. She can donate her concert fee to charity, take the write-off, reap the positive press benefits and move on. Or she can wait it out and Americans will find something else to care about for 15 minutes.
Monday, July 01, 2013
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Continuing where we left off, there was some amusing fall-out after the President's misadventure with the horse. Unsurprisingly, there were some local attempts to halt dissemination of the President's rendition of something that was not Gangnam Style. It's not clear how many days this went on for, perhaps only one or two because the videos spread quickly, but there were attempts to stop dissemination of videos at the airport. We had a few employees who were flying out the next day and they affirmed that they were also searched at the airport, made to login to their computers, and then their recently accessed pictures and videos were reviewed. Of course, much like in the EurasiaNet article, the airport personnel did not do a very thorough job of checking. One colleague told me he simply logged in under the generic username available on all company laptops. Logging in like this only shows default files and no pictures or video other than whatever Windows7 comes preloaded with. Not the most tech savvy group of individuals.
Ever since I heard about the attempt to halt dissemination, I have made it a point to try and show the video to as many people as possible. First, it is a hilarious fall. How often do you get to watch the leader of a nation face plant into the ground? If this happened in the U.S., it would be making every single news and semi-news program. Second, the race is obviously staged. You can clearly see the second place rider gaining on him easily towards the end. He was no doubt holding back until nearly the end. Frankly, everything about the Presidency here is staged. It makes for great theater to outsiders and deep reluctance to discuss it with locals. Third, Streisand Effect, enough said. Fourth, the attempt to stop distribution was so ham-handed, it pretty much typifies all that is wrong here. Fifth, there is apparently a rumor going around that it was not actually the President riding the horse. Evidently, this is some sort of attempt to make it seem like he did not fall off the horse, though it would imply that he's pathologically obsessed with his image. Well, it doesn't imply that at all. It makes it very, very clear.
Anyway, please watch the video. Find it on YouTube, go to the links above, something. It is hilarious.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
The censorship here is a peculiar thing. They block entire domains at a time, but not necessarily the mobile app versions of those same services. For instance, while Blogger on the web is normally blocked, the Blogger app works. Same goes for Twitter where the app works (but will not load pictures), but the website is blocked. There are some apps that are blocked, though only ones that can be used for chatting or have a heavy chatting component are blocked. It is a continuously evolving process. Program you use to chat with friends is blocked? Everyone migrates to something else until the censors catch on and block it as well. And repeat.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Oh, and in case you are wondering, I am posting this from the Istanbul international lounge. Very nice. Very, very nice. Frankfurt should take some lessons from this place. And SFO should hang its head in deep, deep shame since its lounge is a horrid joke.
Monday, April 22, 2013
I have been in Turkey. After my course in Dubai ended (see last post for marginally more info about why I was in Dubai), I headed to Turkey. I spent a mix of time in Istanbul and time outside of Istanbul in the central Anatolia part of the country. This is a nice place. For sure I saw and did “touristy” things since, well, I am a tourist. These have been my days off (with the usual about of work via e-mail that goes with all my days off) and I can do as I please. Istanbul, at least the big sights like the Hagia Sophia, are certainly very tourist heavy. However, it was nice to see many locals (at least Turkish people) visiting many of the same historic sites. It is good to see that people here are also interested in their nation’s heritage. This does not even count the endless local school groups touring the sites. My goodness, short little people following the buddy system everywhere. And retired Germans. They were also everywhere.
Turkey is a nice place. I expect I will come back here one day. Perhaps not soon as there are so many other places to visit, but these unspent Lira should be used one day. Much like the U.S., there is simply too much to see here in a week. Lots of diversity, geographic regions, and history. The food’s pretty good as well, though I will simply never be a fan of lamb. It tastes too much like lamb.
Monday, April 15, 2013
I was not in Dubai long. All told, it was less than 80 hours on the ground there. And I did not see all that much of the place either. However, it essentially conformed to what I expected. Perhaps I only saw what I wished to see and my assessment will simply reflect all my preconceived notions, most of which were negative. My preconceived notions about Dubai were that it is basically Las Vegas without the gambling and strip clubs (but it does have hookers [or whatever term you wish to use]). Sand? Check. Hot? Check. Lots of shopping? Check. Lots of restaurants? Check. People from all over the world working there? Check. Interesting architecture? Check. Wide roads but oddly bad traffic? Check. No soul? Check. That’s basically what I saw. Perhaps there is a vibrant local culture where all the locals are contributing to fantastic advancements in the arts and sciences. However, I could not help but notice the city was powered by expatriate labor. (Perhaps this is an ironic comment from someone who has worked as an expat for the last four years, but at least everywhere I go our workforce is overwhelmingly local in content.) As I noted earlier, I did not see much, but what I saw was this. Locals were working government jobs. Things like immigration officers and police. But nearly everyone else was an expat. Every taxi cab I was in was driven by a foreigner (though that would arguably be true in much of the world), the hotel staff was an interesting mix of more non-locals, and the restaurant we had the course dinner at was staffed by additional foreigners.
A side note for now. I was in Dubai for a training course for work. Hence my presence there in the first place and why there was a “course dinner” when we all went out as a group and had dinner together. Ironically enough, in true Las Vegas fashion, we went to a buffet. And it was not even a very good buffet. I would say it was distinctly worse than any decent Vegas buffet I have ever been too. To further add to the Vegas comparison, the buffet was at a big hotel and resort. A few guys in the course who had been there before basically compared it to Disneyland. You can even swim with dolphins at the resort part. I can only assume they are chronically depressed dolphins.
Back to all the foreigners at the hotel. We stayed in a nice business hotel and also had the training course in one of their seminar rooms. The coordinate that our instructor interacted with was either from the U.K., Australia, or South Africa. I realize that it is terrible I could not distinguish her accent, but I only her heard speak a few times and not very clearly at that. Regardless, she was clearly a “professional” of sorts. Meanwhile, other hotel employees like the housekeeping staff and the people who stocked the little room outside our main conference room with food and water (waiters I suppose) were all either African or Southeast Asian. No kidding. There was a bar in the lobby area where we had some drinks after the last day of the course. Staffed by more expats. I cannot recall a single instance of seeing a local doing what could be called blue-collar or service work.
Dubai is a strange and magical city in this regards. It is also totally unsustainable.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Monday, March 04, 2013
Thursday, January 03, 2013
I am sitting in the Ashgabat airport about to start my journey home. This is a very good thing because I'm exhausted though that may be partially related to sitting in an airport at 2AM local time. Nonetheless, this rotation has felt a lot longer than 8 weeks. Sure I spent a few days in London on the front end, but it has been a hectic end of year push trying to get bids out the door and revenue booked.
One of the little joys of flying home is the food. The food at home is of course great but I actually mean the airline food. I have a strange affinity for airline food and they serve these locally made wraps on the Ashgabat-Baku leg of the trip that are quite tasty. It's not the standard Lufthansa fare which I believe I have now tasted the full range of, or at least the options available to us mere mortals in economy class. Plus the lounge in Frankfurt in terminal C when going home is very good. Definitely superior to the uninspired sausages in the terminal B lounge.
Anyway, boarding soon. And tired of typing on my phone.