In a single word – stressful!
Firstly, there is getting permission. We put on our itineraries that we intend to attend certain events, events that no other tour companies even bother trying to attend due to the pressure, anxiety, and heartache involved. While we add the proviso that itineraries can change and not everything is guaranteed, we still know we’ll have some not very happy campers if we fail to deliver. And while we put these things in the itinerary and have yet to fail in succeeding to get to something we intended to, (in fact we’ve often managed to deliver more than what we have promised,) we also never get official permission until 1 or 2 days before, sometimes the day of the event. Thus, it’s extremely stressful.
Then there’s the guests’ questions:
“Can I take my camera in?”
“Can I take multiple cameras?”
“Can I take a laptop, drone, camera, laser pointer and 256-piece cutlery set?”
These are always tough questions because sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no and we never really find out until very close to the event. Sometimes we never find out at all and just have to play it by ear right up until we’re sitting in our seats. Fortunately 99.9% of the wonderful people we take to Turkmenistan not only get it but love to be part of the chaos. Even the simplest questions such as “Can I take a water bottle with me?” can be extremely difficult to answer.
The timing of these events is always a fun part as well. Some events such as the Independence Day Presidential Horse Racing begin at roughly 10am, but because of heightened security and ensuring everything is arranged before the event begins, this means a 4am start for the group. Making sure everyone understands this isn’t a joke is usually the first step, as such an early start for a 10am event is quite unusual. But then again, the security surrounding any event with the President present is unusual. And it’s not like you’re at an event with the Turkmen President every day. Sometimes I’ll get questions such as “well how long does this event go for?” which I know is then leading on to “well it doesn’t matter if we miss the first 30 minutes etc” to which I immediately explain, “If we miss the cut off for all the roads into the event area being closed then we miss it all together. You either go or not go, there’s no just arriving late. There are of course some who really dig their heels in at the early mornings but in the end I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t think it was worth every second of missed sleep!
Then at the events themselves there are of course the basics such as toilet stops and food. Unlike your normal sporting event back home or even something like an Olympic opening ceremony, you can’t just get up and wander around. Western tourists who are used to ‘doing what they want’ find it quite difficult to realise that no, they can’t just go to the toilet; the doors have been locked because everyone needs to be in their seats. Of course, the normal responses of “well what happens if I just go in my seat then?” sometimes come up.
Photos are also a problem on occasion, that is when you’re allowed to take your camera. You can’t just take photos of everything and making this clear is more important than any other part of Turkmenistan trips, as it will greatly jeopardise our ability to share the same experience with others in the future. While it’s completely understandable wanting to document these amazing events, other future people should also have the opportunity to attend so we need to be on our best behaviour so that we can keep taking people to these once in a lifetime experiences.
Lastly, it’s not just stressful, it’s also thrilling. Knowing that we’ve taken people to some amazing events that most other tour companies even both thinking about let alone trying is why we do what we do. Whether its large displays of artistic and gymnastic brilliance in Ashgabat stadium, horse racing events in the famous hippodrome or open ceremonies for new buildings or celebrating at national monuments, these are the highlights for us in an already sensational destination.
I once had one of our travellers come up to me after an event in Caspian Sea resort of Avaza, in which we were personally invited to attend and then have lunch with the Turkmenistan Minister of Tourism afterwards, and say to me “I enjoyed watching your face as much as the festivities, you really do love it don’t you!” The answer is yes!