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Interacting with locals

Turkmenistan has long been a relatively isolated land, and Turkmens are endlessly curious about life in foreign countries. Expect to be asked detailed questions about salary levels, the price of gas, and agricultural husbandry techniques back home. The curiosity, friendliness and natural hospitality of Turkmens towards foreigners may be tempered, though, by concern that public interaction with foreign visitors might result in unwanted attention from the local law-enforcement agencies. So the Turkmen studiously avoiding your smile may not simply be rude. But in most cases, particularly outside Ashgabat, natural friendliness wins out.

An invitation to a Turkmen house is an opportunity not to be missed. Traditional Turkmen homes are sparsely furnished, as families eat, and sleep, on the floor, which is usually covered by rich, red Turkmen carpets. These may also be used as wall-hangings. Garish murals of alpine scenes or Caribbean beaches are also common wall decorations. Food is usually laid out on a large plastic mat in the centre of the guest room, to which you will be ushered. In some parts of the country, especially Lebap and Dashoguz regions, a low table, or desterkhan, will be used. In either case, you will need to squat or sit around the food. Lounging on one of the cushions usually provided is considered perfectly acceptable, and unless you are particularly good at yoga will probably be necessary at some stage during the meal to ward off leg cramp.

Turkmen traditions of hospitality dictate that you will be served far more food than it would be physically possible to consume. You are not expected to try, although your host will continually be urging you to eat more. But simply picking at your food is not really considered polite. The array of salads, fruit, bread, sausage, cold chicken, sweets and biscuits which will probably already be spread out on the mat when you arrive represents only the tip of the food iceberg. Expect a large bowl of chorba to follow, plus at least two main dishes, frequently including manty, shashlik and plov.

A word about toasts. Some Turkmen men do not drink alcohol, but many do. One of the legacies of spending much of the 20th century as part of the Soviet Union is the persistence of a tradition of toasts taken with small glasses of vodka or, less frequently, brandy. There is a considerable risk of coming under pressure to drink far more than you wish, with hosts frequently urging that the subject of the current toast is so important that drinking 'down in one' is required. It is usually possible, after a fair amount of negotiation, to refuse to drink. But if you do decide to agree to take vodka toasts, the best advice is probably to down your first toast, at which your drinking habits will be most closely watched, but thereafter to take only small sips. Follow each toast with a large gulp of mineral water or fruit juice and, unless you particularly like hangovers, avoid the beers which will often also be offered. Beer is not considered an acceptable drink with which to take a toast, so it you take a beer you will end up drinking this plus the vodka toasts. You can try to moderate the amount of vodka poured into your glass by whoever around the table has been deputised to dispense the drink. The Russian phrase 'chut chut' ('just a little') is useful in this context.

Toasting etiquette is less formal in Turkmenistan than in some parts of the former Soviet Union, but a designated toastmaster will sometimes be appointed, to let everyone know when their turn has arrived. Toasts need not be elaborate: simply thanking the host and family for their hospitality is all that is really required, though if you can weave in an appropriate simile, metaphor or proverb, so much the better, and a toast made in, or using words of, Russian or Turkmen will be particularly appreciated. Turkmen women rarely drink, and female visitors will generally come under far less pressure to get involved in rounds of toasting than will males.

In some Turkmen households, particularly in rural areas, the women of the household will keep to the kitchen and out of sight of visiting foreign guests, especially where these include males. In other households everyone, male and female, will eat together. The best advice is to respect the wishes of the household, which will usually be pretty clear, as regards who you get to meet.