A Turkmen Odyssey

It's hard to know where to start with this trip. I was working on a project, which will remain nameless, but it was nice to get the opportunity to visit a country off the beaten track. The country is bordered clockwise by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran with the western border being the Caspian Sea. Like most of the ‘Stans’ (which just means ‘Land’) it formed part of the Soviet Union. The year I went there (2003) there weren’t many visas being issued so I was doubly lucky. The leader at the time was one Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, declared himself Turkmenbashy literally ‘the Head of the Turkmen’ (he was said to have called himself the ‘First Hero of the Turkmen State’). You could say he had a bit of an ego problem; he’d renamed the days of the week and months after family members (he was brought up as an orphan and had a few issues one suspects).

If you live there you need to be flying the flag and having pictures of the great man on your walls. After he dyed his hair you needed to make sure that the picture was one of him wearing his darkest locks; even though all the
manat banknotes in your pocket would show him with the greyest of grey hair. You really couldn’t make it up. There were massive posters showing him on shops, businesses, and government buildings. There were gold busts and statues of him in town centres and squares, the most famous of which was the ‘Arch of Neutrality’ said to have been designed by him. This ‘arch’ actually comprised a column standing on a tripod and on the very top was a full length golden statue of the man with his arms outstretched. Better still it rotated so that he was always facing the sun - the locals pointed out this meant the sun really did shine through his arse.

Niyazov was the President in 1985 and like all the leaders in the Stans became the de-facto president in 1991 at the collapse of the USSR. He was later declared ‘president for life’ and so he was through to his death in 1996. He made Turkmen the official language rather than Russian that everyone had been taught through school and reintroduced an amended Turkish alphabet. Later on it became a requirement to be able to speak Turkmen to get some of the more important jobs; which meant that experienced educated people from the older generation who had lived and been educated under the Soviet system would not be able to easily get into positions around him - let’s face it he didn’t like anyone in any position of power that could challenge him.

Anyway, enough of that loon, what about my experience?

It was September 2003 when I flew from Birmingham on a direct flight to Ashgabat. I would not expect any direct flights, but it turns out to be part way on a cheap route into India. On the packed flight I was the only white person on board - apart from the pilots and crew who were Russian - and when I got to Turkmenistan I was the only one to get off.

I was picked up and taken to my hotel on Saturday early evening and was told that I’d be picked up on Monday to go to the office, which meant I had Sunday to myself with no guide or assistance; just like I like it. Nothing better than getting familiar with a place than walking around and getting lost in it I reckon.

I had a Lonely Planet to Central Asia which had a page or two on Ashgabat so I could just about find my way around and I circled the area around the government buildings which were roughly centred on the infamous ‘Arch of Neutrality.’

I don’t speak much Russian (and no Turkmen) but I didn’t meet many people on my wanderings. I found my way up the tower and took some photos of the lovely white marbled government buildings (palaces and parliament etc). I later found that there is no marble in Turkmenistan and that the buildings were all ostensibly concrete with white marble facings imported from Turkey at great expense. The city of Ashgabat suffers from earthquakes quite often - much of it was destroyed in 1948 where anywhere between 10,000 and 110,000 people died (no data from Soviet system) - so when the next even minor earthquake hits all these buildings will likely have the lovely facings shaken off. But they looked grand at the time. The earthquake of ’48 actually killed the future president’s mother (his father died during WWII) and most of his family died too - which was how he became orphaned. I did spend an hour or so in a Russian bar having fun with some locals with beer and Russian billiards. The communication was problematic but there was lots of laughing (largely at my inability to pot those enormous balls (or work out how the game worked - it’s ALL white balls)).

The hotel I stayed in was nice enough. It had an okay bar with a couple of very smartly uniformed bar staff. After a couple of days I bumped into a group of Americans. By bumped into I mean I was sat at a table reading with a pint whilst they came and went at the bar talking shit to each other. They ignored me which I was happy with. Their conversations were a mixture of inane and down right ridiculous; Trumpesque I would say these days. The official line was that they were engineers in case any US planes going in and out of Afghanistan needed emergency assistance. Personally I wouldn’t have trusted them to rewire a plug. I decided one of the women seemed the only one with any sense or personal manners. But even this was quashed one night when the TV behind the bar showed the weather forecast for Berlin, Bonn, Hamburg and the like and she said looking at it
‘I’ve always wanted to go to France’. Lord give the Americans an atlas.

The hotel were frequented by a group of prostitutes who seemed to spend most of their time talking to each other except when the Americans were about. They loved my digital camera (it was only 2003) and took some shots of each other with it and I took some of them. That was my only interaction with them other than on my last day.

I ended up being in the country for a couple of weeks or so and covered a wide geography myself all the way from the Caspian Sea and in the north west in Karabogazgol to the east near the Uzbek/Kazakh border. In between we were hit by Turkmen transport issues: 'you don’t have the right paperwork/permissions to be on this road’ (despite passing a police checkpoint a few miles earlier and judged to have the right paperwork). In a throwback to old Soviet days bureaucracy, fear and incompetence prevailed a lot. Life goes on despite the government not because of it.

The highlights of my time in the country was seeing the the Gulf of Karabogaz as I remembered covering it in geography lessons back in my ‘O Level’ days at school. Don’t know why I recalled it, but something of it must have resonated with me. Like climbing a volcano in Mexico on the company dime it was great to see the place. It really is an incredible sight, part natural and part manmade. The water from a narrow inlet rushes into the shallow pans behind the bars that separate it from the Caspian Sea and due to natural evaporation the salty water in the heat of the mid continent climate quickly crystallises into natural salts. By creating different ponds and directing the water from one to another different salts can be produced to. Simple, effective and very pretty. The salts vary in colour somewhat but are largely white resulting in the vast swathes of salt looking like snow fields. The salts are collected and used in industrial processes and I guess as er salt. The place fell into disrepair with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the markets for the salts collapsed, but it is in use now. Amazingly the salt was largely collected by hand with big paddles and enormous bags and tiny wages - in the heat and snow white glare an unenviable job. Of course there were some machines that were designed to collect the salts efficiently. Needless to say these were not in working condition or were never in fact actually efficient at all.

The best bit of being on the coast there was staying over night in Turkmenbashi and having a thoroughly excellent evening of barbecue, caviar, vodka, piva, backgammon and storytelling with a lovely family and our crew.

On the way out east we covered a large area by road. It took an age to get out to the east of the country but the advantage from a
tourist perspective was getting the opportunity to visit some of the remains of Merv (now Mary) in the Karakum desert. This was one of the major stops in one of the routes of the Silk Road but now comprises dusty fields with the odd remain standing less than steadfastly in the desert. The city would have been constructed mainly with mud and bricks and time has eroded even the largest buildings. There was some work being done on the 12th Century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar but other than that the place was deserted except by camels. The remnants of the one large defensive building the Kyz Qala were impressive if reminiscent of a chicken carcass. It is sad to see how little trace remains of the city which apparently may once have been the biggest in the world (around 1200AD). It had been a cultural city with many libraries and a place of learning (mathematics and astronomy) and then came that Genghis Khan chap and his rather one dimensional political methods (he sacked the city and killed everyone). It never recovered. Damn those Mongol hordes.

Then it was on to Guardak which meant crossing the Amu-Darya (the Oxus) over a rather ramshackle but functional pontoon bridge. Guardak proved to be an industrial mining town. Not much there but heavy wounds from decades of mining of all sorts of rocks in vast quarries. Not pretty. On route we’d stopped at a market to buy some supplies. I was spotted in the vehicle with my camera and non-locals were so infrequent it caused a bit of a stir. Took one of my favourite photographs I’ve ever taken of a bread seller there. All the children behind her were laughing. I ended up talking to her through my interpreter. They’d assumed I was a journalist. Oh for a job like that; a traveling journalist… I wish.

Work completed the main highlight was going into an isolated cave system where the Soviets had mined ‘Marble Onyx’. The cave was behind a rather industrial looking metal door in an unassuming dry valley and we had to wait until someone could obtain the key. When we got in the stalagmites and stalactites were pretty impressive and the mine comprised drilling out solid cores from the best veins of the mineral. The main thing we noticed though was the humidity. The heat outside was dry and bearable but in the cave the heat was a killer. More than a few minutes in their I’d have resembled a sad and unusual stalagmite myself.

On the plane back to Ashgabat (yes, we managed to get a plane) the government official I was with me handed me a most wonderful gift: a marble onyx vase made from the mineral taken from the mine we had visited. I was quite taken aback by it. It was beautiful - and very very heavy.

On my last day back in the capital I had one last night in the hotel I’d first stayed in. The girls were about again and there were no Americans in the bar, which was probably why the ladies were still about. The one I’d thought was the prettiest heard me say to the barman that I was going back to the UK the next day. ‘
Why did you not come with us? Are you gay?’ She asked. Short and to the point; and I bet she knew Hamburg wasn’t in France too.

My main thoughts after visiting the country was how messed up it was. The city of Ashgabat is white and blue with marble facaded grandeur and fountains. Whilst the country almost completely desert. The few rivers in the country don’t make it to a sea and water supply is the main issue. The dumbing down of the population and subjugation by control of jobs, information and even getting down the road is a throwback to the worse of Soviet system controls. Then there are all the drugs on the street (taken as baksheesh) during their transit to the west from Afghanistan. The west would be up in arms about this place - if it had oil. It’s not a pretty place yet it had a grand past there would be possibilities for some tourism and there are natural resources (natural gas and many minerals) for the country to be able to make money; it’s not exactly packed with people so a little money could make a massive difference to those who do live there if tied with better government policies. I just hope the Americans don’t decide to give them money; they’d probably accidentally give it to Tajikistan (well all these foreign places seem so similar, don’t they?). To this day I wonder if that American engineer/spy ever made it to Berlin, France.


(check out my Turkmenistan photos)