A night out in Turkmenistan: The North Korea of central Asia

Ben Irwin at the Door to Hell gas crater in Turkmenistan.
Ben Irwin at the Door to Hell gas crater in Turkmenistan. Photo credit: Ben Irwin

OPINION: It's 3am and it suddenly dawns on me that I'm on the dance floor of a brothel in Turkmenistan.

To be clear, this wasn't where I had envisaged ending up on a night out in Ashgabat - the capital of the former Soviet Bloc state.

Me and two Kiwi mates were lured here on the promise of a "disco" in the basement of the city's most luxurious hotel, the Grand Turkmen.

Broken English and our complete lack of Russian didn't help our fortunes - but hey, we had got a lot more out of Ashgabat than we expected.

The basement "disco" in a brothel.
The basement "disco" in a brothel. Photo credit: Ben Irwin

You see, Ashgabat is the centre of power for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow - the long-time President of Turkmenistan, known for both his abysmal human rights record and iron-fist rule.

Ashgabat is a reflection of Berdimuhamedow in many ways - initially appearing polished and poised, but paranoid and pretend on closer inspection.

For those reasons and more, the city of 1 million is often compared to North Korea's capital of Pyongyang.

We'd found ourselves in this closed-off country, north of Iran, for a few days while driving 15,000 kilometres from England to Mongolia as part of the Mongol Rally.

After entering the country on our strict five-day transit visas, the first thing we notice about Ashgabat is the astonishing level of grandeur and order.

The highways are impeccable, whistle-toting police line the streets and the city's skyline almost wholly consists of large, white marble-cladded buildings.

On a side note, Ashgabat has the honour of holding a proper Guinness World Record for the city with the highest concentration of white marble buildings.

One of the many marble buildings.
One of the many marble buildings. Photo credit: Ben Irwin

But the thing is, this is all a sham - the city is a big, expensive fake, built purely to please an image-conscious leader.

Most of the grand marble buildings we saw sat empty - no people, not even furniture.

They were built purely to pump-up the country's image for the upcoming Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, described as a 'hello world' moment for the country.

According to a recent AFP report, the Olympic village alone was built at a cost of US$7 billion - that's about 17 percent of Turkmenistan's entire GDP, according to World Bank data.

That's like New Zealand spending US$30 billion-plus (or over NZ$40 billion) on a village purely for a mildly respectable continental martial arts tournament. 

It's crazy money - but not totally surprising, considering President Berdimuhamedow's track record of skewed priorities and fostering a cult of personality.

As it turns out though, Ashgabat has an underbelly of beer-loving, karaoke-singing youth who want their secretive state to change tack and plot a new course.

We made friends with a group of this burgeoning class of Turkmen thanks to the most typical of Soviet diplomatic tools - vodka.

The bottle of vodka - Russian-made, we were assured - was offered by a member of a mountain bike club.

We ran into around a dozen members on a Sunday afternoon bender near our hotel at one of the few bars in the city.

A man named Kamil said talking to us was one of the few opportunities in life he'd get to interact with non-Turkmen.

We told stories of our rally, which had up until then included travelling through Europe and parts of the Middle East.

The idea of crossing a border in a car blew their minds. Even simply leaving their home country was a foreign concept.

Kamil said wages in Turkmenistan were so low locals couldn't afford to travel, even to neighbouring countries.

Another man, sidling up to my rally team-mate Scotty, asked a barrage of questions about New Zealand.

He was envious of the freedom we enjoy - and often take for granted.

"We are a closed country, we do not get visitors," he said. "Tonight we celebrate."

And celebrate we did.

The basement "disco" in the brothel.
The basement "disco" in the brothel. Photo credit: Ben Irwin

First we were shown the town's only karaoke bar, hidden a slightly nerve-wracking 20 minute taxi ride out of the city centre.

Later in the night, after sub-par renditions of Bon Jovi 'Livin' On A Prayer' and Eagle Eye Cherry's 'Save Tonight', we were talked into checking out a "disco" in a hotel basement.

And, well, I already gave it away in the intro, but yes - this was actually a brothel.

It wasn't obvious at first - there was a busy bar, a packed dancefloor and a rather inviting Jägermeister machine.

What gave it away, though, were the pimps. And the prostitutes. Heaps of them too.

I'm still not quite sure why the locals brought us here.

Maybe they wanted to impress us - kind of like their President.

Ben Irwin is a TV reporter for Newshub. He travelled to Turkmenistan as part of the Mongol Rally, raising funds for Canterbury West Coast Air Rescue.