Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year that marks the first day of spring. It is a secular holiday celebrated in many parts of the world, including Turkmenistan, as the beginning of the New Year. Nowruz usually occurs in March 21.
Celebrating Nowruz in Turkmenistan
Nowruz in Turkmenistan is celebrated with 2-day holiday. Schools and businesses are shut down. The streets would be completely empty of cars and people, turning the white and gold capital city, Ashgabat, into a ghost town.
But in a large meadow outside Ashgabat, activities are underway. Each year, Turkmenistan celebrates Nowruz by organizing a Nowruz Bayram (Spring Festival) that not only celebrates the coming of Spring, but also the diversity and culture of the various tribes who live in Turkmenistan.
In 2018 and my tour group was lucky enough to be the only foreigners to attend the Nowruz Festival in Turkmenistan. This year was also the very first time that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the President of Turkmenistan himself, would attend the festival. Apparently this was a big deal. Our tour guide stressed how much of a privilege it is to be within the vicinity of the president, but as you will see… we ended up feeling nothing but privileged.
Visiting Nowruz Festival in Turkmenistan
On the way to the Spring Festival, our guide again and again reminded us of the rules. Because of the attending President, the rules were particularly strict: “Don’t take any pictures of the President”, “Don’t stray from the group”, “Please follow the directions of the goverment officials,” etc.
We were also handed an official-looking lanyard that served as an entrance pass. Everybody in the group got one, but me. Mine was missing! After some confusion, phone calls, and lots of back-and-forth, they were still un-able to find my pass. I was getting nervous. They wouldn’t leave me behind, would they? The guide pulled me aside and said, “Don’t worry, just stay close to the group.”
After the bus dropped us off, we started walking along a wide, empty boulevard towards a ginormous yurt. We came across a security check where our passes were inspected. I shadowed my tour guide. True to her words, my foreign-ness acted like an entrance pass and they waved me through without a word.
The whole length of the wide boulevard we were walking along was lined with hundreds of students dressed in Turkmenistan school uniform. Blood-red long-sleeved gown for the girls, and black suit for the boys – all of them carrying little Turkmenistan flags.
I just arrived in Ashgabat earlier that day at 2 am in the morning. I was jet-lagged, excited, and exhausted at the same time. But still I remember how surreal that walk was. In my head, festival means food stalls, lights, rides, noise, and general merriness.
As I was watching these red and green spectacle, the big yurt, the secret service men in black suits, and how much these kids do NOT look like they’re having fun, I remember thinking… “What is going on?” I was beginning to realize that this wasn’t going to be any festival I’d been to.
Will the president please come?
When we got close to the big yurt, a secret-service looking dude ushered our group aside to a field behind a row of booths. There were many people on this field already, standing in a loose grid in traditional garbs. I learned that we were under strict order not to leave the area until after the president arrived.
So we waited. And waited. Nobody seemed to know when the president was going to get there. We sat down on the grass and tried our best to ignore the beating sun on our back. It was getting uncomfortably warm.
We tried to slip in between the booths for shade. Each time, some secret-service dude would yell at us to go back to the sun and stand at attention. For what exactly? Nobody was sure. Our guides were very intimidated by the whole thing, more so than us in our naïveté. Like mother ducks, they flapped around making sure we weren’t causing further ires of the men-in-suit.
My thoughts went to the students waiting for the president motorcade along the boulevard. I had no doubt they were still there, standing, holding their little flags. When nobody was paying our group much attention, I approached one of the Turkmen girls on the field. She said they’d been there since 6 am. It was almost past 10am at the time. Yikes!
Around 11 am, we hear the whomp, whomp of an approaching helicopter. The energy level around us rises significantly. Something is finally happening.
The president is here
As the helicopter was approaching, more men-in-suits ran onto the field we were on. They were yelling at people to stand up and return to their posts. There was a flurry of activities. Finally the giant swings started swinging, the music players were strumming, the dancers were dancing, and the rope pulling competitors were pulling. The whole festival production was under way.
Someone came over to our group to stress the rules: we were to stay hidden among the booths lining the field. We were NOT to show our faces to the president. In the end, we did manage to catch a glimpse of the president, but just barely. Try as we might, the secret service people were quite vigilant in making sure we stayed invisible to the entourage.
There were many booths and yurts in the spring festival arena, each highlighted a cultural pride of the various Turkmen tribes. We could tell where the president and his entourage are in the area because their presence always triggered some sort of activity in the nearest yurt. Whenever the presidential entourage gets near, the people manning the yurt would spring into action. They’d either start dancing, fake-fighting, or – I kid you not – pulling a fake net, loaded with fake fish, out of a fake pool. It was like watching a real-life version of “It’s A Small World” ride in Disneyland.
Plov is life
After the president and his entourage disappeared into the big yurt (I’m not sure what’s inside), our tour group was finally free to explore. I was so excited to see what this festival all about, but first thing of business was food. Like I mentioned I just arrived in Turkmenistan at 2 that morning and I hadn’t had anything to eat. I was staaarving.
But there was nothing to eat. There was no place to buy food. Finally I spotted what looked like a row of food display counters under a big blue awning. Yaaas, I knew it wouldn’t be a festival without some food. As I got closer I realise that it was a fish stand. I hesitated. Would it be safe to eat? How long has it been standing there in the sun?
Then I got closer and I realised… all the fish was fake fish! This stand was all part of the yurt with the fake net and the fake pool. Nooooo!!!
Just as I started to wonder how I was going to make it through the day on an empty stomach, I smelled something in the air. This was definitely food. I followed the scent and came across an open air kitchen. Here there were giant vats of steaming plov – a Turkmen pilaf made of rice cooked with oil, carrot, and lamb – and grilled meat. It was free. People came with big plastic containers to bring plov back to their own yurt to eat with their family and friends. Plov is kind of a big deal here in Turkmenistan.
People were eating in small circles with a big bowl of plov and a plate of boiled lamb in the center. Everyone was eating out of the same bowl (Double dipping? What’s that?) I hovered around drawn by curiosity and potential photo ops. Without fail, I was always invited. Someone would stick a spoon in my hand and made room for me around the food. I don’t eat meat at home, but I make exceptions when traveling so of course I said yes. Part of it was me being polite, but most of it was hunger. It wasn’t like I had other options, you know?
Will the president please leave?
After a couple of hours meandering around taking pictures of everything, I found the rest of the group sitting in the shade of fake mausoleum. “We’re not allowed to leave,” someone muttered. “What do you mean not allowed?” I asked. “We can’t leave until after the president leaves,” he explained further.
For whatever reason, we – along with anybody not part of the entourage, were not allowed to leave the festival before the president. We were all tired and slightly grumpy but were all experienced enough travelers to expect the unexpected. Nothing to do but to hunker down and make the best of the situation.
Well, the president and his group must have had a ton of fun inside the big yurt because they didn’t emerge until 3 hours later (or 3 podcasts later since that was how I marked the passing time). We were finally free to get back to our bus and return to our hotel. What a day it was! And it was only our first day in Turkmenistan!
My Thoughts on Attending Nowruz Bayram in Turkmenistan
The festival is for the president (and his entourage and families) and not for the public. Since this was the first time ever that the president attended the festival, one can argue that it wasn’t a typical spring festival celebration. Our guide said that in the past, we (the tour group) would be free to roam around to see the activities from the very beginning and that the festival would be open to the public in the afternoon.
The day we went, nobody but us, the president, and his VIP entourage came to the festival. Maybe it was open the public the next day? Nobody seemed able to answer that question. I asked one young participant how long he was going to be there, “Until my boss tells me to,” he laughed.
There’s nothing to “do” per se, but plenty to see. Don’t get me wrong, I was totally enamored by everything I saw and experienced that day. From the whole president-is-coming hullabaloo, to my first plov, the colorful costumes, and the fake trees and buildings. I was even interviewed for the local TV (I shameless gushed about how honored I was to be a guest and how excited I was to be visiting Turkmenistan – all true, but I also knew that was what they wanted to hear.)
I. Freaking. Loved. It. But I’m a tourist on my first day in a foreign country. Everything was new and exciting. Of course I loved it! But I can’t imagine what a visiting Turkmen, say a student from Ashgabat, would actually “do” at the festival other than eat plov and hang out with people in costumes sitting in the shades of fake buildings.
The photography opportunities at the Nowruz Festival are endless. The Nowruz Festival is supposed to highlight all the different tribes and the culture of Turkmenistan so you get to see a little bit of everything. Colorful traditional clothings? Check. Camels? Check. Horses and their riders? Check. People willing to be photographed? Check.
I left with more questions than answers. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Were they recruited from villages? Are they volunteers? What went on inside the big yurt?
Nowruz in Turkmenistan without the president would’ve been a totally different experience and I kind of wish, maybe, that I had that experience instead. Having said that I had the most wonderful time at the Nowruz Festival (yes – despite being held ‘hostage’ by the president’s timetable). As an introduction to Turkmenistan as a country… it was hard to beat. I definitely recommend the experience.
Tip for visiting Nowruz: Bring a hat, water, and snack. There’s no place to get proper drinking water at the festival. Also – a reading material or podcasts. You might be waiting for a long time.
Recommended Pre-trip Reading
Daily Life in Turkmenbashy’s Golden Age – An account of life in the country written by a Peace Corp volunteer who moved to Turkmenistan in 2004. So it’s a little outdated but a lot of things are still relevant. There’s really no other country like it (except for maybe North Korea).
Traveling to Turkmenistan for Nowruz
Traveling in Turkmenistan independently is not possible. You will need to join a tour group. I went with Travel Notoria (on my own dime) and I had a great experience. They also helped me in getting the LOI needed to get my Turkmenistan visa in the US.
If you’re not visiting Turkmenistan during Nowruz, don’t fret. You can still visit Turkmenistan’s most famous attraction: Darvaza Crater (Door to Hell) I wrote about it here.