While on tour in Central Asia one of the things we used to have to explain to guests was that they best get used to instant coffee, or even worse, they need to get used to 3 in 1 sachets. For those who aren’t familiar, 3 in 1 coffee sachets already have milk and sugar mixed together with subpar instant coffee, and it all comes in a convenient little sachet. For many who cherish their morning brew, the 3 in 1 is an aberration.
Turkmenistan has always done tea, so for those who love a good cup of tea, you’ll have no issues, but for the coffee drinkers out there, it can be a tough week or so. That was until 2016 when a small café opened on Inspiration Alley, just near the very centre of Ashgabat. Sha coffee was something unlike anything Turkmenistan had previously seen. As soon as you walk in, Sha coffee feels more like something in Berlin, Melbourne, or London, not the white marble and gold capital of one of the Central Asian Stans.
The weird thing is, that from the outside of this café, it still looks like a classic Turkmen white marble building, and even the name on the outside doesn’t correlate with the business inside. When we first stumbled across this place, we had to find out what the story was.
After asking one of the waitresses if there was a manager we could speak to, a young man, maybe in his late 20s or at most early 30s, came walking over. It turns out he was the owner of Sha and was more than happy to have a chat to us about his new business. He had studied in London for some years and upon moving back to Ashgabat was disappointed he could no longer get a fresh barista flat white along with some eggs benedict or avocado. He had fallen in love with the hipster brunch and wanted to bring it to Turkmenistan.
And that is what you get – food served on chopping boards and shovels, thrice cooked chips with focaccias, burgers, omelettes. As for drinks, there are smoothies with concoctions of fruits, American style milkshakes and of course, most importantly, coffee. Lattes and cappuccinos, frappuccinos and mochaccinos. The staff serving these delights wear flannelette shirts and have tattoos showing with haircuts more common in Amsterdam than Ashgabat.
Sha coffee has been so successful that they’ve even opened a second café inside the Berkarar Shopping Centre on the top floor near the food court. We’re just waiting for branches to open across the rest of the country in cities such as Turkmenbashy, Turkmenabat, Merv and Dashoguz. In the meantime, another hip modern coffee shop has also popped up, this one creatively called Melbourne Coffee, after the city in Australia that many argue is the most coffee obsessed city on earth.
This is a small part of the reason why we love Turkmenistan – it never stops throwing up surprises. Just when you feel like you’ve got an aspect of the country worked out, something like this happens. I suppose we should start telling guests they better get used to drinking simple lagers and that craft beer won’t be arriving in Turkmenistan any time soon! Let’s see how that goes.