Editor’s Note: Audrey Murray is an American writer and comedian whose debut book, Open Mic Night in Moscow, hits shelves today. The book chronicles Murray’s solo travels in the former Soviet Republics, and many of her stories are wild. Check out her essay below to read an anecdote you won’t find in the book.
When I walked into my hotel room in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, the first thing I saw was a man in a police uniform scrubbing the toilet.
“Oh, sorry!” I yelped, assuming I had stumbled into the wrong room.
But no! He was just a hotel employee finishing up his work, which he quickly did and then left.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not used to seeing police officers moonlighting as hotel cleaning staff. But isn’t that why we travel? To see things that are different, that make us think, that prompt us to wonder things like, “What is the average salary of a police officer in Turkmenistan?”
I quickly forgot about this incident, because so much in Turkmenistan had been similarly bizarre. The country was run by a dictator whose portrait hung everywhere you could conceivably hang a photograph. The side of banks! The walls of airplanes! The capital city also boasted the highest density of marble buildings in the world, which seemed like the type of record that had been deliberately pursued rather than subsequently awarded. Most of the city had been razed and rebuilt 20 years earlier, so everything looked almost futuristic—if you could pretend architects 100 years from now wanted to build skyscrapers out of marble. In this context, the steady stream of police officers passing through my hotel lobby didn’t stand out to me.
A few nights later, I was on the phone with an English-speaking tour guide the hotel had called to help translate a problem I was having.
“Well,” the tour guide replied after I finished my story, “I’m not sure what happened, but you will be fine now. Your hotel is run by the police.”
“Wait, what?” I said.
“You didn’t notice, everyone is walking around in police uniforms?”
Now that he mentioned it, I had been a little surprised by the police officer offering turn-down service the night before…and the one taking my breakfast order this morning. But when you travel, you’re so busy keeping an eye out for the new and unexpected, you sometimes put up blinders for anything that registers as remotely familiar. After finding a police officer in my bathroom, I assumed that was normal and then stopped noticing.
Had I been paying more attention, I might have taken in the sign beside the front door that read: Ministry of Internal Affairs Hotel.
I was certainly seeing it now. The name was printed in English on a small plaque that did not explain what the Ministry of Interior Affairs was or why it was running a hotel. But untangling those mysteries would have to wait until I left the country. The government of Turkmenistan keeps such a tight grip on the flow of information that internet access in the country is, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, I later learned, had been a Soviet agency charged with everything from issuing visas to rooting out white-collar crime. For a while, it ran the country’s secret police force. When the KGB broke off into its own independent institution, the Ministry of Internal Affairs kept the regular police. In many post-Soviet countries, that setup remains the same today.
Because it was charged with such a wide range of disparate tasks, the Ministry of Internal Affairs was also responsible for coming up with some of its own budget. To this end, the ministry launched its own hotel and catering business—like if the CIA decided to start a bakery.
The hospitality industry was, in an albeit roundabout away, a logical choice for the organ that ran the secret police. The Ministry was responsible for keeping tabs on the Soviet Union’s foreign visitors, and if you ran the hotels they stayed in, it made spying less of a hassle. Catering, however, seems like more of a stretch. But maybe the Ministry had a killer recipe for pulled pork or made the best hollandaise sauce in the Eastern Bloc.
We’ve all heard stories of someone who opened a restaurant because she loved cooking only to realize she did not love running a business. By the 1950s, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started to divest itself of many of its food-and-beverage holdings. But it kept its hotels, ostensibly because it was a budget-friendly way to house its own traveling employees.
Perhaps that’s another reason I hadn’t stopped to question the cops folding laundry; by this point, the police in Turkmenistan had been running hotels for half a century. None of the people pushing service carts or opening the door for me saw anything strange about their particular beat. And that’s the other thing we do when we travel: we take our cues on what’s “normal” from the people around us.
On the morning of my departure, a young uniformed officer helped me a hail a taxi to the airport. In that moment, I wished I had an internet connection so that I could Google, “How much do you tip a secret police bellhop?”
Audrey Murray is a redhead from Boston who moved to China and became a standup comedian. A co-founder of Kung Fu Komedy, Audrey was named the funniest person in Shanghai by City Weekend magazine. She is a contributing writer for Reductress.com and a regular contributor at Medium.com; her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’s, The Gothamist, China Economic Review, Nowness, Architizer and on the wall of her dad’s office.