It’s 5:45. Ashgabat is still asleep. I select a playlist in my
iPod that includes Rihanna, Fun, some Sufi music, Black Eyed Peas, Cheap Trick, and Corvus Corax. A high-octane selection to keep me going for an hour. Today, instead of running around the numerous fountains in The Horses Park, in and out of its trails blocked by KGB-wanna be cars without drivers, I go for a run around the park: a perfect square of about 1.5 miles. It’s a great idea.
I run for long stretches without seeing anybody other than the occasional street
cleaner or a pedestrian on his/her way to work. That is until I make my first
turn and I start to run along the six-lane hwy where buses full of early birds
make frequent stops and inexplicably seem to crawl rather than drive as I pass
them by. Even private drivers slow their beat-up Ladas and blow their raspy
horns as we cross paths. I run by our imposing-looking and empty hotel, by a
brand new palace (also empty), the 15-story ministry of something written in
Turkmen that I can’t decipher. I feel fantastic. I go around once and have so
much energy stored in me even though I haven’t slept all night, that I decide
to go for a second round but half-way through I realize that another 0.75 miles
was too ambitious and run back into the park. Past the statue of the
ex-president: a grandiose, larger-than-life gold-plated monster of a sculpture
depicting the ex in full suit and a super-hero cape, his back to the horses.
Across the street from Mr. ex is another larger-than-life monument of the
current president. It’s called the Neutrality Monument and it strikes me as odd
that in it, the current president is waving as he looks straight into the Horses
Park, which makes me wonder if he is symbolically waving the ex
I follow my routine and do ten laps up and down the steps/ramp combo
that goes up the Horses sculpture. By this time, the night watchmen are up,
folding their mattresses and blankets, changing into fresh shirts behind the
bushes. As soon as they spot me going up and down the ramp they peek through the
bushes. But really, they shouldn’t bother hiding. They are lousy spies and I
know exactly where everyone of them is. I go up the steep ramp, I come down the
steps. Two more watchmen peek through the bushes. I hear laughter. I go down the
steps once more and up the ramp as fast as I can. They are less shy by now and a
few of them have emerged from the bushes flanking the ramp. Before I finish my
20th leg, there is some commotion and it appears as if they are challenging one of them to run along with me. He caves in just as I finish my 10th lap and I am absolutely out of breath, but now this skinny boy is running alongside me and it looks to me that he is
double-dog-daring me to keep up. I cave in too. I have to. I represent my
gender, my birthland, my homeland. The responsibility is enormous. He is fresh
after a full night of sleep, he’s half my age, and he hasn’t been running for
50 minutes. But I keep going and pray that he has a heart attack or something
so that I can go home and die with my pride intact. We do five laps. His
friends are cheering and I want to believe that they are cheering for me
because my knees are about to go and I really, really need to stop. And just
like that, the boy lifts his arms in surrender and goes back behind the
bushes…I hear sneers and I know now, or at least I hope, that they had been cheering for me. I’m about to pass out. I limp my way across the street already dreaming of all the
bread I’m going to have for breakfast and the long healing bath I'm going to take before I plunge into bed and sleep until noon.
By the time I arrive at the hotel I realize that I had been so distracted trying to keep up with this boy that I didn’t notice I had been listening to Kenny Rogers.
Sometimes you just can’t hide your age.
Ok. I got it. I need to go for a run earlier than 7 am. I'm fully awake before sunrise (as I've been throughout the night) and right before six, I'm ready to go. I contemplate whether I should dress like a lady. I decide against it. Nobody can possibly jog in Ashgabat wearing a long-sleeve shirt, so I wear a tank-top today because I'm a rebel like that. I cross the highway, plug in my earbuds, look for my most incandescent salsa songs and start to run. For some reason there seem to be more people out today than yesterday and it is painfully obvious that running is not a Turkmen thing, especially when the one running like hell, going nowhere, is a dark-skin Latina, in tight lycra capris, plugged to her iPod, wearing a tank-top that reveals a gigantic tattoo on her left upper-arm. In my haste to be comfy for my run, I forgot all about the tattoo. But, no worries. Every passerby is there to remind me that I look odd, or stupid, or tacky. It's hard to tell. A few of them decide to stop all together and simply stare at the oddity: a tattoed, unchaperoned woman, running in circles.
The sunrise, is spectacular from the Horses Park. The sun seems to peek through the cloudless sky to burn the buildings in the background, and the horses I have to admit, look simply majestic. I run up and down the stairs, around the fountains in each corner of the park; I run along a canopied trail that leads to somewhere presidential because it's blocked by a KGB-wannabe car with no driver, past the sleeping watchmen who, again I don't photograph, past the cleaning ladies already sweeping the grounds with their miniscule brooms, past some uniformed guards who blow their mean whistles as I jog by, past the fragrant pots of jazmine...So close to Afghanistan, I think. So close to death, to destruction, to sadness. So close to it all, yet so safe. I feel safe, so I blast "Herr Mannelig" a song by In Extremo, a German medieval punk band and make another round.
I'm back in Turkmenistan. My insomnia is being exacerbated by jetlag and I don't seem to be able to go to sleep at any time of the day. I write and read all night long and at 7 am I change into my work-out clothes and go for a run. I dress modestly because I'm a lady: wild hair gathered in a ponytail, lycra capris and a brand-new long-sleeve shirt. I select my salsa music in the iPod and plug in my earbuds. I cross the street (an empty six-lane highway) and run like mad around an unnamed park flanking presidential grounds, which by virtue of having a larger-than-life set of bronze horses, I'll call The Horses Park.
But it's seven o'clock and the sun is already up. The temperature must have risen while I crossed the street, from nice and joggable to the low 90s. Not running temperature. I snap some pictures, debate whether or not to photograph the watchmen who had just slept on the park benches under the stars, in twin-size matresses, and under a light Caspian breeze. I decided not to, in case one of them is not fully asleep and catches me in the act. I play two salsa songs, a crazy merengue, and a lively reggaeton by PitBull in my iPod and go back to the hotel. An hour later, the temperature is 110F.
Lesson learned: If you want to go for an early jog in Ashgabat during the summer, go before sunrise (6 am).