Travels among the Turkmen

Turkmenistan is a country not many people know a great deal about. Unabashedly authoritarian, it has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, yet doesn’t attract as much attention as geostrategic threats like Iran and North Korea, or European Belarus. In this post, Molly McParland  goes behind the last remaining vestiges of the Iron Curtain.

Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov - the Turkmenbashi. Photo by the author.

Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov – the Turkmenbashi.
Photo by the author.

Home to ancient civilisations and the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, Turkmenistan is a country many would struggle to locate on a map. Unlike its more infamous neighbours (particularly Afghanistan and Iran) Turkmenistan, following independence in 1991, has been largely peaceful and neutral, with many Turkmen people proudly declaring themselves as Central Asia’s Switzerland. However, Switzerland’s political stability has not been the result of authoritarian rule by a man who styled himself “leader of Turkmen” (Turkmenbashi) until his death in 2006. This was a [sorry, had to introduce a verb] man who included himself in the national anthem, renamed months after his family, and whose cult of personality resonates publicly with gold statues on every street and portraits in every building.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan has the second worst press freedom in the world (behind North Korea), and only 5% of citizens have access to the (heavily censored) internet. There haven’t been extensive changes under the new President (Berdimuhamedow), and Turkmenbashi’s policies, ranging from the celebration of “Melon Day” every August, to the prohibition of elections, largely remain.

Turkmenistan, however, has enjoyed economic growth due to its natural resource wealth. Electricity and gas are free for citizens and petrol is a meagre US$0.26 per litre. Many actually prefer to leave their gas stoves running constantly than to buy new matches. Economic growth has not brought liberalisation though, and, hostility to foreigners remains. Turkmenistan’s Lonely Planet entry begins with “all hotel rooms are bugged”, and reminds readers of the total absence of ATMs.

To visit Turkmenistan for tourism requires joining a registered tour, ensuring you don’t stray from designated areas. This sounded not only expensive but also extremely limiting, so we opted into the bureaucratic game of obtaining a transit visa, which the government reportedly refuse at random. This required, among a host of forms, photos and embassy visits, writing a formal letter to the government of Turkmenistan explaining our situation. A month and multiple appeals later, our transit visa was finally granted.

Despite a three-hour detention at Ashgabat airport by suspicious Turkmen soldiers, our initial impression of the capital was one of awe. Turkmenbashi destroyed buildings that weren’t white, and in their place he built towering, gleaming structures resembling rockets, birds, and of course himself. Ashgabat’s skyline and the vast road networks and modern infrastructure that shines in the desert sunshine, maintained by teams of people employed to clean the city continuously, is beyond impressive.  The only people more plentiful are the police, who, we were told, strictly enforce the 11 PM curfew to ‘maintain public order’.

Unnecessarily, it turns out, as the streets are strikingly empty. Where people are present, they are generally alone or in very small groups, walking purposefully. Particularly unusual is the prevalence of female uniforms. Schoolgirls are clad in green traditional dresses, while female university students wear red equivalents. Whole areas are seemingly deserted, with no sense of the hustle and bustle of a population centre. Ashgabat appears to be a show-piece city, its masterpiece the US$20 million cable car that climbs the southern mountains. The view is fantastic, though you must wonder whether, with only 7,000 visitors a year, it was the best investment.

To leave Ashgabat requires personal transport, the desire to spend days in a Marschrutka, or an official tour company. We finally found one willing to book an internal flight to Turkmenistan’s second city – Mary. These flights are cheap (about US$11), and you will be greeted by larger-than-life effigies of the President not only outside and inside the airports, but throughout the plane, and, around 20ft tall, on the runway.

Mary is a much smaller, more agricultural version of Ashgabat. Every billboard celebrates Turkmenistan’s cotton industry, second to oil in national importance. However, Mary’s greatest attraction is the ruins of Merv, an ancient Silk Road city that some claim, prior to events including its destruction by Genghis Khan, was one of the world’s most powerful cities.

Driving back towards Uzbekistan over the pot-holed, sand-strewn desert roads, damaged by vast temperature fluctuation and often covered by camels was uncomfortable, but worth it to reach the Darvaza gas crater. The result of a 50-year-old Soviet decision to burn away a “left over” natural gas deposit, the crater is still burning, and is locally known as “the Door to Hell”. Camping close to the crater and watching the dancing flames at night is truly unforgettable.

The Door to Hell - a gas crater left to burn since the Soviet era. Photo by the author.

The Door to Hell – a gas crater left to burn since the Soviet era.
Photo by the author.

After hiding evidence of deviation from our itinerary, we entered the border patrol point expecting to be frisked. Instead, we were hastened through excitedly while guards named their favourite English Premier League teams. In fact, all of the Turkmen people we encountered were remarkably friendly. We were fed, plied with vodka, and asked endless questions about UK life. The new President has hinted towards slight liberalisation. Let’s hope that comes true. Turkmenistan has much to offer.

Read more of Molly’s travels in Central Asia and Russia here.


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