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Last Updated: Friday, 14 December 2007, 16:58 GMT
A night on the town - Turkmen style
On a recent trip to Turkmenistan, the BBC's Natalia Antelava saw signs of a nation preparing to open up - and discovered a vibrant party scene in the nation's capital, Ashgabat.

A man working behind a bar in Ashghabat
Ashghabat's bars are a popular destination for young people

Dozens of young people crowd the bar, trying to shout over the deafening techno tunes and attract the bartender's attention.

"They are closing soon," one of them yells to his friends, "so last orders before we head to the club".

This is an ordinary Friday night in an extraordinary place.

Outside, the brightly lit streets of Ashgabat are quiet and empty. In the capital of one of the most isolated countries on earth, parties do not seem to spill on to the streets.

For more than two decades Turkmenistan, ruled by its authoritarian, isolationist leader Saparmurat Niyazov, was a mystery to the outside world.

The few who managed to visit the country during his rule talked about the eccentric personality cult of a man who renamed months of the year after himself and his mother, built golden statues to himself and banned beards and ballet.

Life is cheap here, and I can definitely afford to take my girlfriend out

Mr Niyazov tolerated no dissent, jailed his opponents and controlled the media.

But a year on from his death Turkmenistan is beginning to open up, and although the political system remains the same, when it comes to entertainment there seems to be plenty of choice.

'No restrictions'

There may not be a great variety of bars and nightclubs in Ashgabat, but on Friday night they are full of young people.

Alcohol is flowing, dancing carries on late into the night. And it is not just the elite who party here.

Men in a bar in Ashghabat
The bar visitors say life is improving in Turkmenistan

"Life is cheap here, and I can definitely afford to take my girlfriend out," says 22-year-old Dima who works in a mobile phone repair shop.

The couple refused to be photographed, but it is not the government they fear, it is their parents. They do not want them to find out that they have been drinking.

"The outside world is wrong in thinking that this is a depressing place. We have a great time here, and we don't feel any restrictions," says Dima's friend, Anton.

In unison, young people everywhere say that life is becoming better in Turkmenistan.

"When it came to entertainment we never really felt restrictions, but with the new president things are much more open, the atmosphere has changed," Lena said as she and her friends celebrated her birthday in another crowded bar.

At a wedding celebration across town balloons floated in the air and hundreds of people danced away beneath them.

People in Turkmenistan may live under one of the most autocratic systems in the world but, despite the stereotypes, the lack of political choice does not seem to mean lack of fun.

Turkmenistan's tourism ambitions
26 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Turkmenistan
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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