Before we visited we knew very little about Turkmenistan, a small, mysterious, desert republic squeezed between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea, except that it was a totalitarian state with leaders who sounded decidedly weird: the previous President had changed his name to Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen), renamed the days of week and months of year after himself and family members and – declaring his “reign” a new Golden Age of Turkmenistan – erected enormous golden statues of himself around the town. We’d heard that since his death in 2006 his successor had toned things down a little, and implemented some much needed reforms but with the media so controlled we had no real idea what to expect.
Unfortunately, the restrictions placed on foreign travellers meant that we were limited to just a few days in the country. Yet even in our fleeting visit we saw that the cult of personality of the President continues to be cultivated: photos of the new President are everywhere and he has even built a National Museum focused on himself. We were fascinated by the contrast and contradictions between the ostentation of the grand buildings of Ashgabat and the apparent paranoia of the regime, and the gulf between the wealth and grandeur of the city and the poverty of the provincial towns and villages we saw.
Ashgabat seems designed as a showcase city to show-off the brilliance and wealth of Turkmenistan. It’s a mix of lavish white marble palaces, gold statues and domes, huge manicured parks and extravagant water features. The city is so green with trees and glorious flowerbeds it seemed unbelievable we were in the midst of a desert. The huge Government Ministries, all white marble of course, line the central streets, with fabulous Orwellian names like the Ministry of Fairness. Yet the buildings all seemed curiously quiet and we couldn’t quite believe there were enough staff to fill them. On the edge of the city are row after row of neoclassical mansion blocks of flat, all 12-15 stories high and clad in the obligatory white marble. At night the city is illuminated in garish colours, which seemed reminiscent of Las Vegas and a long way from the old Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.
The President’s “main goal is...reviving the cultural and spiritual heritage of our nation”. This is clearly visible throughout the country: women are encouraged to wear only the national dress, while the output of the five domestic tv channels is limited to folk singing and dancing, and the statues around Ashgabat depict traditional nomadic Turkmen and their glorious and ancient past. These conveniently ignore both the Soviet period and that nomadic Turkmen were notorious for abducting and enslaving Russians and Persians. Our first day in Ashgabat we chanced upon a parade celebrating the end of the school year and it was fascinating to see a large choreographed set piece. Thousands of students in matching national dress were assembled to march in the parade, line the streets waving huge flags, or take part in traditional dances. Bizarrely though, we seemed to be the only spectators as it was largely being filmed for national television.
Walking about in Ashgabat there is no doubting that you are in a police state. There are policemen or soldiers on every corner and guarding every building and park. On many streets they outnumber the pedestrians. Armed with frequently used whistles, they continually direct people to one side of the street or the other, often for no apparent reason, and become agitated if you venture within about 30m of any building or loiter near one. Photographing any public building is strictly forbidden and so we had to become quite clandestine about taking photos and confine ourselves to capturing the residential buildings and parks outside the centre, which are less grand and less well guarded. These restrictions were mirrored in the rules for foreign tourists, who are obliged to travel with a Government authorised guide and are only permitted to stay in the few hotels set aside for foreigners (all apparently bugged).
Turkmenistan’s wealth comes from its huge reserves of gas and oil (it has the world's fourth-largest reserves of gas and substantial oil resources) and on our drive to the Caspian we saw the oil rigs stretching out across the desert. A great deal of this wealth has been spent on Presidential ‘vanity projects’, such as the new 66,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, which is curious as sports have declined in Turkmenistan since independence and apparently no Turkmen has ever qualified for an Olympic event. Similarly, a huge amount of money is being spent on developing the Caspian Sea coast as a tourist destination but unless travel restrictions and exorbitant visa fees are waived we can’t see which tourists they will attract for a break in the sun.
Much of this spending has probably resulted in less investment in other much needed infrastructure in the country, but a lot of oil and gas revenue does subsidise life in Turkmenistan. Gas, electricity and water are all free. Food – even imported foods - are heavily subsidized in the shops (for example a 500ml bottle of coke or a Mars Bar are both about 20 pence), as is transport with car drivers entitled to 120 litres of free petrol a month (and petrol costing 12 pence a litre after that) and a bus ticket in the city costing only 4 pence. The Government provides credit for people to buy property and only charges 1% interest on loans. Taxes too are kept very low: the maximum rate is only 2% and those who work in agriculture pay no tax whatsoever.
Our guide, an ethic Russian with Turkmen citizenship, was – at least to us – an emphatic supporter of the regime and extolled the virtues of the high quality of life of people experience in Turkmenistan. It certainly feels much more affluent than either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, not least on the roads where battered Ladas have given way to gleaming new Toyotas and Mercedes Benz. However these perks were less relevant in a village we visited in the centre of the country where there were no mains energy supplies, little public transport and housing looked extremely dilapidated. A group of American Peace Corps volunteers working in Turkmenistan we met disputed our guide’s account, and believed that most of the population remained very poor.
From visiting the President’s National Museum, we learnt that the current President was elected in 2006 following the death of the first President with a staggering 89.2% of the vote – even his main opponents supported him. The museum is hilariously packed with badly staged and photoshopped images of the President engaged in cultural pursuits: sitting outside a yurt, cooking plov, the national dish, on a mud stove, or riding a horse, as well as more modern pastimes like driving a speedboat, riding a bicycle, playing a guitar and at a shooting range. His target is even on display with the label noting his “unbelievable” perfect score! There are also photos of the President with all the world leaders he has ever met and the gifts he’s received from them.
Despite the President’s pre-election promises of reform, he remains all powerful and there is no separation of powers in Turkmenistan (the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary all report to him) and thus there are no checks and balances on his power. The museum even states that the role of Parliament is to “accept laws” the President has decreed. The President has said that “the greatest value of our society is an individual, its rights and freedoms. Today it is at the centre of our state policies”. Yet the Peace Corps volunteers we talked to suggested that life was still extremely oppressive for the people they lived and worked with, as well as for them as foreigners. Even after only a few days we found the continual police presence oppressive and were disturbed to learn that Reporters Without Borders ranked the country second to last in the press freedom index, only ahead of North Korea.
We’d entered Turkmenistan from the north, in a region that offers another example of Stalin’s damaging carve up of Central Asia. The ancient kingdom of Khorezm which existed in this region was divided up between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, meaning that there is a large Uzbek population in this part of Turkmenistan and that there are similarities between the local ancient architecture and that we saw in Uzbekistan. For example, a 12th century Mausoleum, the II-Arslan Mausoleum, features a conical dome tiled with turquoise tiles in a zigzag design, which is the first of its kind and was exported to Samarkand by Timur. It was also interesting to see the different approaches Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have taken to conservation and restoration. In Uzbekistan most ancient buildings have been restored (and even rebuilt) to reflect what they may have looked like when new. In Turkmenistan the focus has been on only rebuilding sections that threaten the collapse of the building. No new decorative work has taken place. This may make the monuments less awe inspiring on first sight but chancing upon an original and perfect piece can be even more rewarding, for example the original 12th century sparkling mosaic ceiling we saw in the Turabeg Khanym Complex.
From Konye-Urgench we travelled south to Ashgabat spending a night en route camping at the Darvaza Gas Craters. Sadly the village of Darvaza no longer exists (the old President didn’t like the sight of it when visiting the new nearby highway and ordered its destruction) but the gas craters, 10km off the highway in the desert, are one of the most surreal sights we’ve seen so far. The craters were dug during soviet gas exploration in the 1950s and one was set alight and is still blazing after 60 years. At night the inferno is particularly dramatic, drawing many comparisons to the gates of hell.
Similarly bizarre was the Kow-Ata underground lake, another contender for the most unusual sight we’ve seen, and certainly the strangest place we’ve ever swum. As we climbed down into the cave, the air got hotter and the smell of sulphur grew stronger until we reached the lake, 65m underground, which is naturally heated to about 36 degrees where we spent a very enjoyable morning swimming and lazing about while bats flew about overhead in the gloom.