Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Crazy horses. A common site in Turkmenistan.
It's not a country that evokes many images, mainly because not many people know very much about it. Indeed, it's one of the world's most isolated countries, ranked slightly more open and free than North Korea.

I crossed out of Iran into no-man's land without much of a problem. It had snowed heavily the night before and the Iranian guards were in no mood to hang around. The Turkmen guards, however, were only too happy to give my bags a thorough search. At first I thought my usual tourist/VIP status had played its trump card again by letting me jump the passport queue, but the search more than made up for this. They examined everything from my diary (which they discarded after failing to read the English, or my handwriting) to my shoes. They took a peculiar interest in my contact lenses; only after taking one out of my eye did they understand their function. I realised they were more curious than suspicious and I was released to the waiting taxi drivers.

Haggling got me what I thought was a good price to Mary, the silk road town in the centre of the country, but I kicked myself when I saw what the locals paid. It was a hell-raising two hour dash across the desert in a shared taxi - there's no option but to close your eyes and pretend that your seat belt is fastened. Taxis are a funny thing in this part of the world: putting your seatbelt on will surely offend the driver, who will take it as a slight on his driving skills; leave it off and risk flying through the windshield when you crash. And despite every driver's insistence that he's invincible, crashes do happen. At an alarmingly high rate.

In Mary the roads are wide, the buildings clean and white. The difference with Iran was immediately evident: no longer did women have to cover their hair, drinking alcohol was no longer a clandestine activity. I revelled that evening in eating a pork kebab and drinking a beer. The cafe was populated by Russian speakers - being an ex-soviet state, most people still speak Russian; indeed many people look very 'Russian'. Almost everyone can speak at least two languages: Russian and Turkmen, with the younger generation also learning English. My host in Ashgabat would explain that people decide what language to speak to each other based on how they look, which explains why people would begin in Russian with me.

The ex-president Niazov, still overseeing everything.
If Mary came as a surprise, Ashgabat was positively shocking. Arriving by train into the huge, modern station, I was confronted by an horizon of massive marble palaces, towering monuments and golden statues. My host, a guy of 25, showed me around the city's sights that evening and I was speechless. As the sun goes down, the lights come on and every building, everything, is lit up in primary colours that change every ten seconds. We walked through a park some three kilometres long, flanked by glowing fountains and golden busts of the former president Niazov, towards the independence monument that looks like an alien ship. It wouldn't have surprised me if aliens had in fact built the entire place, it was so bizarre. Looking out from the the restaurant at the top, I saw rows of banks, hotels and luxury apartments perfectly coordinated and spaced apart, all lit up as if on show. The library is shaped like a book. At the other end of the park is another monument (to ten years of independence), described locally as the 'plunger', again changing colour to ensure you don't forget it's there.

I've complained before about cities that don't feel real, like they've evolved, but this takes it to a whole new level. As my hosts explain, no consultation takes place here: if the government want to do something, they do it. Whole neighbourhoods are bulldozed and rebuilt in the name of progress; the cityscape is constantly being redesigned in search of an unknown perfection. Large sections are walled off while everything behind it is not just renovated, but completely destroyed and made new. It's like someone's playing a giant game of SimCity. I am particularly disappointed that one thing has been taken down in the last year or so: the giant golden statue of Niazov that rotated to face the sun at all times. Do they not see how much of a tourist attraction that could've been?

Like an alien spacecraft
Niazov had been president since before independence in 1991, having been the chairman of the Communist party before then. He successfully manufactured a huge personality cult, erecting statues of himself and having his picture placed in every building. Possibly the most arrogant thing he did was to make his book of philosophical musings, 'The Book of the Soul', compulsory reading for everyone. He was, to all extents and purposes, God.

I visited the National Museum, priced at a ridiculously high $10. To get there I had to walk along a huge, empty main road (well, actually three next to each other; I don't know why), aiming for what is said to be the largest flag pole in the world. Inside, the first floor of the history section is devoted to president-stroking propaganda.

When Niazov died in 2006, people promptly forgot about him. My hosts told me how strange it was that no-one ever mentioned him anymore. The new (and unpronounceable) president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, came in on the back of more liberal promises, but not much change has materialised. His face has replaced Niazov's in all public places, the same building program continues unabated, and the suspicions of the government are still apparent. Before using an internet cafe you must surrender your passport to the front desk and your usage is monitored. Hotel rooms are bugged, police are everywhere. Propaganda is still spurted from the TVs: my hosts translated a children's programme for me, where the kids had to shout out phrases about how amazing the president is. Furthermore, the corruption is seemingly impossible to stop.

My hosts were a little embarrassed when they explained how things work. Get stopped by the police? Pay a bribe. Want to win a business contract? Pay a kickback to a minister. Sent to jail? Pay an 'amnesty'. They all agree that the country would be better without this corruption, but they say that while it exists, they have to be part of it. If you have money or connections you can get things done; if you don't, you can't. I needed to buy my train ticket but I'd left it too late. But don't worry, they knew the son of a minister. A seat was 'found'.

Ashgabat by night.
I was only allowed five days in the country but I didn't want to leave without seeing what is possibly one of the world's most bizarre sights: the Darvaza gas crater. A three hour hurtle across the ??Karakoum?? desert and then a frightening  three kilometre bumpy ride away from the road into the darkness brought me closer to the eerie glow on the horizon. And then I was there, standing on the edge of a burning pit of fire. When the Soviets were exploring for gas in 1950s, they struck a reserve here. Thinking it was too shallow to be of any value, they set fire to it and left. More than fifty years later, it's still burning. It's like standing at the gates of hell.

Darvaza burning gas crater.
This abundance of gas explains why the country is relatively stable. The vast natural reserves are the reason the government can afford to carry out its building programs, and why all electricity, gas and water is free in every household. And why everyone gets a certain amount of petrol absolutely free every month. No one is complaining about that. I was questioned about the way things are done in the UK. I said that the frustrating thing is that if there are plans to build something new, people would have to talk about it for years first. The reply: "At least you talk about it. Here no one asks us."

On the train to Turkmenabat.
I took the overnight train to Turkmenabat, where before crossing into Uzbekistan a local family took to me and insisted on inviting me to their home, feeding me a large breakfast and gallons of tea. In terrible English and Russian we swapped stories of home life, compared photos and laughed. After all the strangeness and confrontation with the reality of modern central Asia, it's this kind of experience that reminds me of why I love travelling.


  1. Gary Skinner4/3/11 7:54 pm

    I had no idea about Turkmenistan, sweet (free energy! shiny lights & tea) and sour (corruption) all at the same time. I've had Chinese food like that.
    Keep blogging.

  2. At night it's a like a rare version of Vegas!
    And the picture of the crater...WOW!
    Take care,