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 as it got me 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 some 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 notes 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 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. He did like to make a mark.

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 then most jobs; which meant that experienced educated people from the older generation which 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’ - this ‘arch’ was said to have been designed by Niyazov himself and was strikingly different comprising a column on a tripod (which one assumes he thought were arches) and on the top of the column was a full length golden statue of the president with his arms outstretched towards the sun. Yes, it actually rotated so that his face was always towards the sun. Of course the locals would point out that this meant that the sun did appear to shine out of his arse; unintended consequences.

I don’t speak much Russian at all (and no Turkmen) but I didn’t meet many people on my wanderings in any case. 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 this 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)).

… To be continued….