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November 13, 2002

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No one will believe that any internal flight in Turkmenistan costs less than a beer. For $2.50 we bought a plane ticket on Turkmen airlines. We can't understand how this airline makes money - for $100 a person could buy all the tickets on a flight. The reason must be that government subsidies make fuel almost free. At the ticket office the attendant told us that all seats were sold out for the next week. We pointed to her computer console and said "Minoga dinge (much money)." The attendant looked at us without changing expression and said, "Please, sit down." We paid double the ticket price, an extra $2.50, and received our tickets. By bribing the attendant did we bump someone off a full flight? We don't think so; we've heard that travel agents buy all tickets for certain domestic flights and then resell these for much higher rates. By going directly to this Turkmenistan Airlines ticket attendant we were able to buy our tickets from the source. Of course who knows what will happen when we try to board our flight in a few days.
Hear a name like Ashgabat and we imagine spice markets, minarets, Turkish-style balconies, and cramped alleyways. Ashgabat's reality lives far removed from such a romantic vision; it's a modern city that surprises a visitor with idiosyncrasies like a block of Vegas style hotels that's too much for a city without tourists, ubiquitous propaganda of the president, and building projects all over the city (rumors circulate that nothing sits inside these new buildings).