Turning Up In Türkmenistan

My visa from the Türkmeniustan consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. I had to deny being a journalist to qualify for this. As I was shooting photos for the International Rescue Committee toward the end of my Afghan journey, a friend from Mazar suggested we make a letter stating that I was an aid worker to be allowed to cross the border from northwestern Afghanistan to southeastern Türkmenistan. ©2022 Derek Henry Flood

New York-Some twenty years ago I wound up in one of our world’s most hermetically-sealed nation-states, Saparmurat Niyazov’s Türkmenistan. It was a place I never intended to visit nor was it part of a global bucket list to visit every country registered at the United Nations or some other quixotic reason people visit the place. I went to central Asia in the wake of the 9/11 attacks here to cover the war in northern Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Taliban regime.

Though I entered Afghanistan via Tajikistan as nearly all journalists had, my Tajik visa had since expired as I chased the shifting war dynamics across Afghanistan’s magnificent, battered geography. Thinking ahead to have a backup plan for such a situation, I had gotten an Uzbekistan tourist visa before leaving New York shortly after 9/11. But when I got to the Uzbek border at Hairaton, it turned out the only people being allowed in were journalists whose trips had originated in Tashkent. Having begun in Dushanbe this was a total nonstarter for grumpy Uzbek border guards despite me having a totally valid visa.

So when returning to Tajikistan was not an option and my Uzbekistan plan was foiled, the only other option was Türkmenistan. [Crossing into either Iran or Pakistan wasn’t feasible for obvious reasons at the time] Entering the barren dictatorship was perhaps the strangest travel experience I’d ever encountered. It was a geopolitical void whose mad leader was entirely unbothered with the concepts of individual freedoms or an open society.

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I didn’t dare shoot a single image the entire time I was there. Such a paranoid place it was that I needn’t draw attention to myself. All I have to prove I was this expired visa above about about a dozen manat notes, the country’s forlorn currency.

I was able to write up and recount some of these observations from this odd journey in the terror wars earliest days for this week’s Noiser Podcasts episode narrated by Paul McGann. Also featuring Hugh Pope, Adrienne Edgar, and Luca Anceschi.