A Very Weird Country: Turkmenistan

Türkmenistan is, in my opinion, one of the strangest countries I have ever visited and I have been to over 100, although not to North Korea to which it invites comparisons. For example, North Korea has an authoritarian regime led by Kim Jong-un while Turkmenistan has Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a dictator “elected” in 2006 with 98% of the vote following the death of Turkmenistan’s first president for life, a former communist in the USSR who embraced a form of socialist/nationalism upon Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991. Both the North Korean and Turkmenistan dictators demand excessive personal portraits be displayed, embark on ostentatious building schemes and starve their populace. Another similarity: North Korea attracted 10,000 tourists in 2016, many from China while Turkmenistan had just 7,000, half Iranians.

Like North Korea, Turkmenistan is a secretive society where government misinformation is rife and criticism of the government or Mr. Berdimuhamedow is not tolerated. According to Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org/worldreport/2019/country-chapters/Turkmenistan), dissidents are quickly arrested, summarily imprisoned and disappear. Religious and sexual freedom are non-existent. Foreign media is denied access. Arbitrary laws, like no black cars, exist.

There are, however, differences. While North Korea marches forth on the path towards nuclear armament in its war with South Korea and the rest of the world, Turkmenistan has no such weapons (to my knowledge) or ambitions. It maintains a policy of strict neutrality, rejecting overtures by the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia (it is a Muslim country) for assistance, requests to use its lands or accepting foreign aid. It did, however, have a tense relationship with its neighbor Uzbekistan, stemming from a botched assassination attempt of the former Turkmenistan president in 2002 and disputes over border boundaries. A visit by Mr. Berdimuhamedow in 2017 to Uzbekistan seems to have improved relations, at least according to an Uzbek government release (http://uza.uz/en/politics/Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-a-new-stage-of-cooperation-24-04-2018).

Despite trying to tightly control information in and about the country and enforce draconian laws, there are plenty of holes and leakage. Google is acceptable while Facebook is blocked but everyone seems to know the workaround (use a VPN) and it is tolerated. Smoking and alcohol are officially illegal, yet the government sells cigarettes in state-run stores to anyone over 18. Wine from Italy, France and Georgia are for sale in the hotel bar, although at astronomical prices ($10 per glass) and a number of beer breweries are in the country. Attempts to limit foreign criticism about Mr. Berdimuhamedow have been largely unsuccessful; one of the most flagrant international diatribes against him is by John Oliver, the US late night comedian, whose scathing 22 minute monologue contains very unflattering footage of Mr. Berdimuhamedow (https://Youtu.be/-9QYu8LtH2E), highlighted by repeated showings of him falling off a horse.

I had to go. Thus, I made the trek  in September, 2019, with the tour group Adventures Abroad, and emerged completely fascinated, but also saddened, by the country.

The Entry:

Part of the reason Turkmenistan has so few visitors is that getting into the country is no easy task. A tourist visa is needed for citizens of every country and to acquire one requires maneuvering though a bureaucratic nightmare ultimately involving getting a letter of invitation from the government, in our case obtained via the local travel agency. A transit visa is theoretically possible, but varies in length from 3-7 days depending on the vagaries of the government bureaucrat whose desk it lands upon. Visas are generally denied for certain holidays, specifically September 27, Independence Day, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, ours included September 27.

A travel agent is also needed as tourists cannot wander the country unattended, just like North Korea’s minders, but a tad more liberal. We could walk unchaperoned on the main city streets and into the malls, but with strict instructions as to photography prohibitions, no smoking in public as it is banned and not saying anything negative about Mr. Berdimuhamedow or his policies. Despite being in the country on Independence Day, we could not (and did not) watch the parades of soldiers, musical bands and dancing children as that can only be done by special invitation and from a designated viewing zone.

Our first glimpse of Türkmenistan was from the Uzbek border crossing near the Türkmenistan town of Daşoguz. After clearing the efficient Uzbek departure procedures, we were met at a 14 foot high fence. At the gate, a Turkmen guard checked our passports against a pre-approved list. Satisfied the 18 members of our group had the appropriate clearance, we were ushered to the side. A mile and a half of no man’s land awaited over which our luggage might be dragged (no porters exist), but today we were lucky. A decrepit white bus with torn upholstery and cracked windows covered in filthy clothes ferried us to the distant border building.

A guard clutching a thermometer greeted us, checking our temperature as we again showed our passports. A long table held custom forms only in Turkmen to be completed by everyone. Our Turkmen guide, Jabor, joined us at the table and following his instructions, we filled in our names, nationalities, dates of birth, hotel and checked “no” to a long list of untranslated and, therefore, incomprehensible, questions. Forms filled out, we went to another door where our passports were checked for the 3rd time. A 15 minute wait ensued, during which a large Korean tour group came into the small room and squished everyone against the door.

One by one, we were called to the single working immigration officer, sitting behind a wooden cage-like barred counter resembling a 1920’s bank. As my turn came, he asked  for my passport and instructed me to press first my right thumb onto a fingerprint machine, then the left. Fingerprinting completed, he handed me back my passport, now sporting a bright green full page size visa and said “welcome to Türkmenistan.”

Scanning machines, one for people and another for luggage, were next. We were all directed to walk around the human scanning machine and our luggage went through unchallenged. A guard on the other side took the forms we had filled out. Unfortunately, one of our group had used an unacceptable green pen. He was sent to the side and made to do the form again, this time using a blue pen. Another was asked whether he had any medications. When he replied “yes”, the guard waived him on without further question or inspection. Before exiting the building, standing at the doors, another guard did the 5th passport check. Finally, a short walk to the exit gate, where we underwent the 6th and final passport check and we were officially and legally in Turkmenistan.

Our entry had taken only an hour and a half, the shortest time ever according to our Canadian guide, Chris.

Stupid Soviet Engineering Stories: The Darvaza Gas Crater/Gates to Hell

From Daşoguz, a convoy of Toyota 4 by 4’s drove us into the desert. Not your average Corollas, but $100,000 Land Cruiser Prado’s. The “highway” was asphalt but washboard bumpy most of the way. The 4 by 4’s weren’t really needed until 300 kilometers later, when we turned off the highway and onto a half gravel/half sand road for 10 minutes. Ahead, we could see the crater.

Supposedly in 1971 (the date is not certain due to Soviet and Turkmenistan secrecy – it may have happened 10 years before or 10 years after), the Soviets constructed an oil rig on top of a natural gas crater to determine the possible extent of oil and gas below the Karakum desert. The rig collapsed into the ground causing a giant sinkhole to open. Soviet scientists, concerned that the methane gas spewing into the air might be harmful to nearby villagers, deliberately set it afire, expecting it to burn out within weeks.

Forty-eight years later, the fire is still burning.The Soviets forgot to figure out how much methane existed or didn’t think that mattered when they set the crater ablaze. The crater’s current diameter measures about 70 meters or the size of a football field and no one knows if, or when, it will burn itself out.

We visited, first just before sunset, then after dark where the flames lit up the night sky. A fence stands around the crater, presumably to stop idiots like the one we saw from getting too close. As I approached, the heat from the flames below burned my eyes and the hot air distorted into visible waves of heat.

Aptly named The Gates to Hell, the fire mesmerized and unnerved me. Fascinating as the flames were to watch, I couldn’t help thinking I had joined the ranks of the dark tourist – macabre individuals who chase after disaster zones and human catastrophes in search of mankind’s worst moments. Beautiful, and certainly deserving of its nickname, I couldn’t think of any good reason why I was there.

Marbleouse Ashvegas Ashgabat:

Following a 4 hour drive in the dark, forbidding Karakum desert, our arrival at midnight into Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city reminded my of Dorthy leaving Kansas and entering Oz, except whiter. A few years ago, the original President decreed that all new government buildings would henceforth be constructed from white Carreras marble, both because the colour reflected and cooled the harsh summer sun (temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees Celcius) and because white is considered good luck. One doesn’t wish a Turkmen “a good holiday” but rather “a white holiday.”

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In the new city center, the white buildings are blinding. Offices, high rise apartments, hotels, shopping malls, theatres, museums, water fountains, government buildings, etc. all display extensive white marble, lots of neon lights just slightly more subdued than Las Vegas and soaring white marble columns, many topped with domes in marble, glass and gold. In fact, gold seems to be the decorative colour of choice. Styles run the gamut – a library shaped like a book, Greek Pantheon lookalikes, imaginative spaceships, a mosque shaped like the Dome of the Rock and a stadium sporting the giant head of a horse, mimicking the country and president’s obsessions with the much beloved Ahal-Teke breed.

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The pictures are far more descriptive than I can ever be:

 

The roads are broad, sparkling silver grey with boulevards sporting trees and well tended flowers, and wide sidewalks with nary a crack or tile out of place. Statues and structures serving no apparent purpose other than decoration abound. The streets are pristine, with garbage kept at bay by an army of street cleaners who diligently worked from before dawn to dusk.

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Our hotel was The Ashgabat Sport Hotel, clad in Carreras marble, with a cavernous lobby replete with pillars wrapped in gold vines and a curving staircase. My room was luxurious, bordering on gaudy, foot-tall moldings, a wall lined with closets, heavy curtains, a chandelier, a chaise lounge and a bathroom with a bathtub and separate shower stall. Everything worked well, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was staying in a parody, someone’s idea of a bad joke of opulence.

 

All is not as perfect as initial impressions would leave one to believe. Many of the newly built marble office buildings and storefronts are empty. The impressive sports complex, built for the 2017 Asian Games, stands abandoned except for the stadium and the monorail has not been used for a few years. Outside of the center are occupied ugly Soviet style rectangular apartment buildings surrounded further out by one and two story brick houses where the roads show cracks and sidewalks do not exist. Rusty, banged up Ladas are more common than Toyotas. Our buses always raced past these areas, as though we weren’t supposed to see this side of Ashgabat.

Fifteen kilometers from Ashgabat are the ruins of Nisa, which translates to forgotten valley. Begun in the 3rd century BC by the Parthians, it enjoyed success as an early Silk Road city, where it taxed silk coming from China, earning the wrath of the Romans who  tried to capture the city in 53 BC. Failing, they left it alone until the 3rd century AD when the Persians, all Zoroastrians, took the city, settled there, built a fire temple and used Roman prisoners of war to learn the art of building arches.

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Remains of arches at Nisa

Back in Ashgabat, we witnessed yet another Mr. Berdimuhamedow obsession, Guinness Book of World Record accomplishments. Amongst them, the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool and the world’s largest carpet, located in the Ashgabat Carpet Museum beside the omnipresent portrait of Mr. Berdimuhamedow:

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World’s largest indoor ferris wheel

 

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President’s portrait in the center; world’s largest carpet on the left

Not surprisingly, Ashgabat also holds the record for most white marble buildings, 543 as of 2013.

Across the hotel was a giant shopping mall, where we were allowed to go. I braved crossing the street, where aggressive drivers, all men, totally ignored the zebra crossings in their haste to get somewhere a few seconds quicker and walked into a four story atrium in the mall’s centre. All around, stores offered women’s dresses, children’s toys and perfume for sale. No familiar name brands shouted out except a Nine West shoe store which was likely a knock-off.

I went up to the escalators to the food fair behind the children’s playground in search of a quick dinner. Six or 7 restaurants provided both sit-in and takeaway service, although fast food would be a misnomer. Lamb ribs would take 25 minutes and shish kebab 20 minutes, so I settled for a tasty 10 minute hamburger costing $5.00.

As a foreigner, I was lucky to be able to afford the non-subsidized prices. Many locals rely on heavily subsidized staples like flour, rice and milk. According to a recent report, queues for food are long and commonplace (https://www.refl.org/a/food-shortages-Ashgabat-Türkmenistan/30187280.html). Apparently the country underwent a severe economic crisis in 2018, resulting in the government embarking on its usual remedy – providing just enough of whatever triggered the dissatisfaction to quell discourse – but failing to make any real change.

All of the population are provided with free education and health care and heavily subsidized electricity, water, gas and food if they can find it. Seventy percent of the people work for the government and thus receive free housing which, after 10 years of employment, they own. Oddly, most of the Carreras marble high rise apartments we saw showed no signs of habitation. Jabor suggested they were not yet occupied as they had just been recently completed.

This is all paid for by gas – Turkmenistan has the 2nd largest natural gas field and reserves (behind Iran) and is, by most accounts, very wealthy. Sadly, much of the wealth goes toward grandiose building projects and buying Guinness World records. 

Mary/Merv

A 40 minute flight from Ashgabat lies the modern town of Mary, situated close to the ancient site of Merv, the largest Silk Road city in the 11th and 12th centuries. Ruins of Merv 1 date from the 6th century BC. One of Alexander the Great’s generals founded Merv 2 nearby, desiring a fancier city and a Hellenistic city existed there until the Seljuks, a Muslim empire, appropriated the region and constructed Merv 3 in the 8th century. It was famous for its 12 libraries, all of which were destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Led by one of Ghengis Khan’s sons, the Mongols razed the city and massacred its 500,000 inhabitants. It never regained its former glory.

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Ruins at Merv

This much of Turkmenistan’s history is clear, but the origin of the Turkmen is murky. The government traces their beginnings to Turkic speaking Oghuz tribes from Mongolia in the 8th century AD, Jabor said they came from near the Attai mountains in Siberia in the 9th century and our more cynical guide in Uzbekistan attributed their arrival only in the 16th century, suggesting that the longer lineage is merely a ploy to establish a better claim to the lands.

What is certain is the Russians captured the area in 1881 and annexed it into the Russian Empire where it remained until 1991. Russia was attracted to the area for several reasons: cotton, competitiveness with Britain during the Great Game and potential access to India, a spiritual connection to the river Oxus, said to contain a God, revenge for the 1717 killing of 2000 Russian soldiers led by Prince Bekovitch who had tried to capture Khiva and stopping the abduction of Russians for sale as slaves by the Turkmen.

It is equally apparent Turkmenistan does not look back to its Soviet days fondly. Stalin, worried a large, coherent central Asian republic might be a challenging force to quash, employed a strategy of conquer and divide, setting up 5 central Asian republics and encouraging differences between each. Turkmen felt particularly hard done by- claiming excessive oppression by Stalin and the worst healthcare in the USSR. The near complete destruction of Ashgabat in 1948 by an earthquake with the death of over 100,000 inhabitants followed by slow reconstruction by the Soviets did little to endear the Russians to the Turkmens. Jabor had a bevy of anti-Brezhnev jokes with which he regaled us on the bus rides to the different sites. My favourite had an aide running up to Brezhnev:

“Very bad news,” he said, “the Americans have launched a rocket and put a man on the moon.”

“That is not good. Us Russians must do something better to prove our superiority,” replied Brezhnev.

“But what?” Asked the aid.

“I know, “ said Brezhnev, “we can put a man on the sun!”

“Problem,” retorted the aid, “but the sun is too hot.”

“No problem,” said Brezhnev, “he can land there at night.”

We toured the ancient ruins, then the 12th century mausoleum of Sultan Sandzhar or maybe that of a famous Sufi religious figure, Abu-Said Mitkhene – no one is quite sure who is buried beneath the tomb – but it is definitely a popular pilgrimage site. All visitors are invited to partake in a free meal (provided by the government), cooked in giant vats by women eager to share their food. We indulged in bowls of steaming hot rice pudding and freshly baked bread.

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Our final stop in Mary was the Mary Museum. Although closed for Independence Day, we were allowed in but without the local museum guide. This was probably a godsend as most of the museum was filled with Turkmenistan crafts – carpets, dress, weapons – and we had already been subjected to a rather dry recitation on how carpets are made, their regional distinctions, their uses, etc. in Ashgabat.

What we missed, according to Chris who had previously attended, was the guide walking around the initial room, dedicated to Mr. Berdimuhamedow. Pictures of his sporting prowess prevailed – the exalted leader playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, doing judo, riding a horse – thankfully all with his shirt on unlike Putin. Portraits indicate Mr. Berdimuhamedow also loves driving a SUV and standing in front of yachts, but it is not all fun and games. There is Mr. Berdimuhamedow beside a yurt, in a cotton field, in a textile factory, at a university, with children, lots of children. In every photo and portrait, his perfect white teeth sparkle; he was, after all a dentist by training although hints the pictures were photoshopped exist. Mr. Berdimuhamedow talents are not limited to being in a lot of photos. He also writes books on various subjects: horses and 2 on display about carpets and Turkmen food and hospitality. Obviously, a very talented individual whose picture rightly deserves to be everywhere – outside mosques, on the main train station, in restaurants and in the lobbies of museums:

Final Thoughts:

My initial reaction to Turkmenistan was positive. I loved the quirkiness of the crater and the craziness of all the marble buildings in the cities. Despite their over-the-top decor, the hotels were the best I have stayed in to date during my travels on the Silk Road. The people, even the border guards, have been uniformly friendly, welcoming and eager participants in photo ops. Except for the madcap drivers, I felt completely safe.

But leaving the country to read on the internet about the oppression, the hunger and the human rights abuses dampens my enthusiasm. Signs all was not as rosy as the government would have us believe existed in the country, but the depth of the dichotomy between what we saw and were told and the reality is disturbing. I suspect North Korea would be about the same.