Report from Sharon Sugarek in Ashgabat
- Today I am doing a dissertation on driving in Ashgabat. Driving here
is an unbelievable experience.
The first I want to tell you about is driving and using your lights.
An acquaintance here was stopped recently at 7 am?which is barely
before the sun comes up. The policeman who stopped him told him to
turn off his lights because they were distracting the other drivers.
I had heard that they had a law against driving with your lights on
during ?daylight hours? --and believe me-- they consider dusk to be
daylight even though you can?t see your hand in front of your face.
Don?t know what will happen if anyone here reads any of the research
done in the last twenty years that shows driving with lights on
reduces accidents, even during the day. And God forbid if they get any
modern cars that now come with running lights that are on all the time.
I don?t like driving at night here. Everyone here wears dark clothes
and walks in the street too. (Maybe there is a law against walking on
the sidewalks.) Or they are standing in the street trying to flag
down a local taxi. The streetlights are so poor and ineffective that
one cannot see a person in the street or even the other cars for that
matter. It is really dangerous to drive here at night. I almost hit a
young person on bicycle the third week I was here. (Of course it was
night and he decided not to stop for the traffic light and drove right
in front of me.)
The good thing I did when I bought my car is I bought a big one. I
have a big Jeep Grand Cherokee, which keeps people at a distance. And
I have bright yellow license plates. Now the downside is that yellow
plates are typically given to ?rich Turkish businessmen? and other
foreigners?which means the police stop you a lot hoping for a bribe.
The good part is that everyone knows you are a foreigner and you may
not know all the traffic rules and customs?so the other drivers keep a
little further away from you. It helps.
The driving customs here are totally baffling to me. There are lanes
painted on some streets but no one pays any attention to the lanes and
the drivers seem to meander all over the street. Because every car is
a taxi, you can never tell when the car in front of you is likely to
stop to discharge a passenger?or swerve over to the curb to pick up
someone who is flagging down a car. And once the passenger is
discharged?or the fare picked up, the driver just starts driving and
almost without fail, never looks to see if there is a car in his lane
or next to him and he swerves back into the street. I have learned
that no one (driver or pedestrian) really ever looks to see what is
happening around him or her. I am amazed that there are not more
accidents than there are. But of course there are accidents and people
do get killed on a regular basis here.
The traffic light customs are odd too. Here when the light turns
yellow, you must slam on your brakes and stop because the traffic from
the opposite direction has already started moving into the
intersection. And when the light is getting ready to turn green on
your side, it will turn yellow first. That is the signal to hit you
accelerator and start moving. And if you don?t the people behind you
will start honking! So if I can?t see the light or I don?t know what
to do I just wait for someone to honk at me. Did I mention that most
traffic light are on poles at the side of the street and are often
obscured by trees, decorations etc? And if they are really careful
about where they place the lights, you can?t see them at all if you
are the first car at the intersection. And even if you can spot the
light, they are often burned out.
Another hazard, which is really a challenge, is the street cleaners. I
will say this for Ashgabat?and Turkmenistan in general. They do take
great pride in keeping the streets clean and free of litter and other
debris. The street cleaners here are not the big sweeper machines you
may be thinking about. They are typically women with these funky
little brooms who sweep the gutters and pick up the litter and put it
in little buckets to be carted away. I think what astounds me most are
the ones I encounter occasionally squatting in the middle of six or
more lanes of traffic scooping up junk they have swept into a pile in
the middle of the road! Again I am amazed that more people don?t get
To add a challenge to the whole experience, often the lights are
burned out so you don?t know if your light is green, red or
yellow?fortunately again someone usually honks so I know to go. (Most
of you know that in Texas honking your horn is incredibly rude and you
only do it in dire circumstances and you take the chance of getting
shot.) Which brings me to my next challenge, which is using my horn to
signal other drivers. Here if someone is passing you they might give
a little toot on their horn just to let you know they are coming. Or
if there is a pedestrian wandering around in the street, they toot the
horn to let them know to get out of the way. Or if the person behind
you wants to pass you for whatever reason he may toot his horn. So
drivers use their horns a lot here. Drives me crazy! But I can?t
bring myself to use my horn. Think I have used it twice since I have
been here. Culture is a very strong thing. And it is very hard to do
something that is okay in another culture that is considered
incredibly rude in your own culture.
So driving here is a challenge. The police here are a trip as well.
They stop people all the time for who knows what. Most of the things I
see people doing here would be traffic violations in the States but
police do not seem to stop those people. So I have very little idea of
what is a violation here. The police stand on the street with a black
and white striped baton and they wave it at cars to signal them to
stop. And cars usually stop. (Don?t think that would work too well
in the US!!) These police have no cars, no radios or any other
technology to catch someone if they do not stop?however I think they
write down your license number and send someone to your home to get
you! There are a couple of police cars but I don?t know what they are
used for. Not traffic. And recently the government turned over the
traffic control to the Army?not the police. But I must admit that in
the few times I have been stopped they have always been polite to me.
(I hear this is not always the case.) The idea of probably cause is
certainly unknown here and they seem to think they can stop you and
search your vehicle whenever they want?which they can here. (Love the
old Soviet system and the KGB legacy?which is still very much alive
and well here. Nothing like terrorizing the populace in the name of
But back to the driving experience in Turkmenistan. Another quaint
custom here when driving is to swerve around potholes and other road
hazards whenever you see them, counting on everyone around you to
notice you are swerving and move out of the way. I find it a bit
challenging since I may at the same time be trying to dodge my own
potholes as well as any number of people standing in the street trying
to flag down taxis and keep an eye on the traffic light and the
traffic cop to be sure the light isn?t turning yellow (quick slam on
the brakes!) or the cops isn?t waving me to stop and present documents
for some reason (no where did I put my Diplomatic card?and will this
guy be able to understand it when I give it to him and let me go?).
And I have discovered that all of these behaviors are perfectly
acceptable even if there is ice or snow on the road. Now picture
this. We already swerve around potholes and other road hazards so
think about what it is like with a thin layer of ice on the road!
What a swerve you get! Watch out oncoming traffic and pedestrians!
(The pedestrians still wander into the street and apparently do not
understand that car brakes don?t work very well on ice!)
I discovered another great custom when I first arrived as well. If the
pothole is not too big, everyone just swerves around it (usually into
oncoming traffic.) However if it is a really big pothole, they put a
tree branch or other large object into the hole to warn other drivers.
So if you are driving down the road and you see a big stick or tree
branch sticking up in the road, you definitely must swerve to avoid.
If not you may actually lose your car into the hole?or at least break
In the last weeks I have had the opportunity to learn more about what
happens when the traffic lights are out. First the policeman sitting
or standing on the corner cannot (or will not) direct traffic?that is
now a job for the Army traffic cops. (Note: there is a policeman on
just about every corner of every intersection in Ashgabat?I don?t know
what they do!) Often when the lights fail, the lights emit no signal
at all ?which is the same as when the bulb is burned out?so you have
to figure out that little problem. And in some cases the lights flash
yellow?in both directions--- if they are not working. Apparently here
flashing yellow means ?go? not ?proceed with caution? and I have seen
people approach these intersections at normal speed honking their
horns and expecting everyone to stop and let them through! I just love
it. Amazingly enough as long as there are not two of those?one from
each direction--we seem to manage to get across the intersection
eventually. But it is a scary experience. The concept of stopping and
taking turns is totally alien.
One day when I was out in our official vehicle with one of our
drivers, I asked him how people got driving licenses in Turkmenistan.
The answer was?you can take a test?or you can just go buy one! That
explains a lot!
Very few women drive in Turkmenistan But I do see a few and several
women on our staff drive to work. They have told me that the police
stop them all the time, wanting to know where they got the car, why
they are driving themselves, and what is the matter with their
husbands! And the women on my staff have told me that male drivers in
Turkmenistan go out of their way to be rude to Turkmen women drivers.
(Another point for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Believe me these crappy
Ladas (Russian cars) cannot hold up to a big American SUV!). \
I guess it all seems to work because there are not that many cars on
the road. If the traffic were as heavy as it is in other major cities,
chaos would reign. My first goal is to not hit or kill anyone while I
am here. My second goal is to avoid getting in a wreck if at all
Anyway, all of this is to say?when I get back to Texas, please don?t
let me drive a car for a few days until I get used to the traffic and
customs again. By the time I get out of here I will be driving like
the locals just to survive. Driving like that in Texas will get me
killed! Of course driving like I do in Texas will get me killed here!
Another aspect of cross culture I don?t think I had fully considered!