Thursday, November 16, 2006

Five Segments on Turkmenistan Airlines!

Posted to the Travel Buzz forum at

"Turkmenistan Airlines: Not As Bad As Advertised!"

That's not much of a slogan, but it's the best that can be said of this Central Asian carrier, on which I flew five segments last week. The only collection of online reviews is at, and the marks were generally poor.

Turkmenistan, for those of you who don't keep abreast of obscure Caspian dictatorships, is a former Soviet republic that is 90% desert. The sand caps what is reportedly the world's fourth-largest reserve of natural gas, which is about the only reason anybody would visit. (The Turkmen also weave nice carpets.)

Turkmenistan's claim to fame is the bizarre behavior of its leader, President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, who granted himself the title "Turkmenbashi the Great." For a taste of his eclectic policies, please note that he has, in a roughly ascending order of lunacy, mandated white marble facing on all new buildings in the capital, outlawed smoking (when he quit), named countless buildings after himself, placed his likeness on all currency, erected gold-plated statues of himself throughout the country, published a series of books which are now the basis of the national curriculum, banned opera and movies as "unturkmen," imposed a new alphabet, renamed the month of April after his mother and ordered the closure of all hospitals outside the capital.

To opiate the masses, the Turkmenbashi heavily subsidizes the economy, and state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines is part of that plan. Water, electricity, salt and other staples are free. Gasoline costs 5 cents a gallon. Domestic airfares cost one to ten dollars for Turkmen and, even with taxes and commissions and foreigner pricing, a one-hour internal flight costs a visitor about $20.

I flew five segments: from Beijing (PEK) to the capital city of Ashgabat (ASB) and back, a one-way flight from the historic town of Mary (MYP) to Ashgabat, and a round-trip between Ashgabat and the northern town of Dashoguz (TAZ).

All flights were on Boeings, with 757s on the international legs and 717s domestically. The pilots were allegedly Western-trained and looked Russian, but none said a word during my five flights.

The planes weren't bad. The seats were maintained, and the cabins were clean. The same cannot be said of all Turkmen travellers, and avoiding an aromatic seatmate is key to a pleasant flight.

There were other signs that this wasn't the Delta Shuttle. The bulkhead wall at the front of each cabin bore a framed photograph of the Turkmenbashi, so there's no escaping his Brylcreemed mug. The Turkmen passengers paid no heed to any rules about seatbelts or cabin movement. Boarding the plane was all pushing and shoving, and the old ladies had the best moves.

Aside from a flight map on the 757s, there was no in-flight entertainment, although the return to PEK started with two Turkmen grandmothers, wearing their colorful national dress and flashing gold teeth, cursing and almost coming to blows. The food was standard airline grub, and the flight attendants were reasonably diligent, if
unenthusiastic, about serving drinks and responding to the call button, which the Turkmen pushed without hesitation. There was no in-flight magazine, which would, in any event, have been devoted entirely to articles about You Know Who.

Luggage limits were nonexistent, but, in a country where almost everything has to be imported, I was sympathetic. Those Turkmen who can get out of Dodge return with arm-breaking quantities of Chinese and Western goods. In PEK, some Turkmen boarded the plane with three or four bags; one man sat down with a case of wine. The space on my flight was so oversubscribed that three trucks of baggage were left behind. The stranded bags were to arrive on the next flight with room, tolerable if you're a Turkmen but infuriating if you're a traveller.

The new airport in Ashgabat was modern and minimally functional. Guess who it's named after. The airports in Mary and Dashoguz were Soviet relics where passenger comfort was of no concern. For example, there were no bathrooms airside; you had to wait until you boarded. The Turkmenbashi should spend a few petrodollars on upgrades.

Turkmenistan Airlines has no web site. It has no frequent flyer program that I could discern and is not part of any alliance. It serves the major cities in Turkmenistan in the sense that it connects them to Ashgabat. The foreign destinations include London, Beijing, Moscow, Bangkok and Istanbul. Flights through Ashgabat are cheap;
flights to Ashgabat are expensive.

Turkmenistan Airlines is cut-rate transportation which isn't so bad if your expectations are low. You might want to snag a boarding pass or other trinket with the company's name. It will make a nice souvenir after the carrier is inevitably renamed Turkmenbashi Airlines.

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Blogger Peggy Archer said...

Didn't he also declare that AIDS doesn't exist and refuse to treat the victims of the disease?

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Turkmenistan is still my favorie Central Asian dictatorship. I wrote a bit about the planes in Unknown Sands (shameless commercial plug for my book about Turkmenistan. See Amazon for Unknown Sands or

4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm from Turkmenistan, but I live in US. I agree with what you wrote. But I don't think that president is guilty for these all. He might have made some mistakes, but what you saw there are basicly because of some people that can not think in proper way as normal people do. They think that exaggerating is something good.

10:21 AM  

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