A very VERY different country
Trip Start Aug 31, 2005
77Trip End Aug 25, 2006
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The best place to start to describe Turkmenistan is with their dictator President, Mr Turkmenbashi himself. You can't miss him - he's on every building, every street corner, every street name. Even, most bizarrly, a golden statue of Turkmenbashi that, get this, revolves so that its constantly facing the sun.... He's everywhere!
Saparmy Niyazov (his real name)was originally the General Secretary of the Communist Party in old soviet times. Upon independence from USSR (which Turkmenistan didn't want by the way) Niyazov simply changed the name of his party to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and made himself President, creating a personality cult in a similar fashion to the Kim Dynasty in North Korea. He took the name of Turkmenbashi, meaning Leader of the Turkmen, and used the slogan 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi' (people, nation, me) - which is also on every building around :) His family have also been made part of this personality cult, with statues of his mother also seen on the streets. The month of April has also been renamed after his mother....
Turkmenistan is a very wealthy nation. Underneath its deserts and the Caspian Sea are huge gas and oil reserves. Turkmenbashi promised future properity based on this wealth, and started making huge contracts with Russia and whoever they could. I heard that he has promised gas to Russia for the next 20 years based on a fixed price, well underneath (less than a quarter of) the market price, but thats politics for you!
On the spiritual side too, Turkmenbashi is 'educating' his country. He wrote and published RUKHNAMA (book of the soul) - compulsive reading for all his nation. In fact, before entering university, first one must pass a Rukhnama test... Turkmenbashi has even said on TV that reading the Rukhnama can guarantee accesss to heaven. 'Anyone who reads the Rukhnama three times will find spiritual wealth, will become more intelligent, will recognize the divine being and will go straight to heaven.' The book outlines (his version of) Turkmenistan's history, the culture, and the spirituality of the Turkmen. A larger-than-life statue of this book also appears at regular intervals on the sides of the roads... weird!
Turkmenistan is also a police state. In the 6 hour drive between Ashgabat and the border with Uzbekistan, I estimate we were stopped no less than 10 times, having to show our passports. Visas are pretty hard to get too. You have to hire a guide and have a guide with you 24/7 before you can get a visa... hard for a wee backpacker like me. You also must specify when exactly you will enter the country, from what border, and what towns you will travel to. The police/ex-KGB at the check points then make sure that you are travelling on the route you have been authorised for.
Apparantly there was an assasination attempt on the man himself in 2002, which was used as grounds for blood-letting of Turkmenbashi's political opponents and placing of restrictions on civil liberties. Oh yeah, and apparantely hotel rooms, restaurants and offices are bugged. Internet is not available (except in the two top hotels). Not surprisingly, the people are pretty cagey when you ask them what they think about Turkmenbashi and the politics of Turkmenistan.
There are also a few very bizarre policies. To stem the exodus of its citizens, there is a US$30,000 TAX placed on any foreigner marrying a Turkmen citizen. All its citizens need permission to travel anywhere outside the borders of Turkmenistan.
All in all, an EXTREMELY interesting country to travel through! As I mentioned above, you need a guide to be able to get a visa, so being on a limited budget, I only had a few days to speed through the country. But what a full-on few days it was!
My first impression (besides being amazed by all the propoganda everywhere) was that the women are stunningly beautiful. No trace of the veiled Persians just across the border, instead, a bizarre mix of east and west, with the odd scattering of blonde scantily dressed model-figured Russian in between. The first day I was there was graduation day, and so the young beautiful women were traditionally dressed, looking oh-so-glamourous.
My next impression was just how BIZARRE the city of Ashgabat is. Its huge but empty. The population of Turkmenistan is only about 6 million and very spread out. The oil and gas wealth has been used in Ashgabat to create huge and elaborate buildings, complete with massive water features and fountains (in a country with little water...) and Turkmenbashi's statue/photographs everywhere. The streets are enormous and very few people are about. Its beautifully upkept but appears somewhat abandoned. There is even a brand-spanking new amazing olympic stadium on the outskirts of town... for a country that didn't send any representatives to the 2004 Olympic games!
I did however enjoy the shopping. I hung out in the Ruski Bazaar, secretly changing money with the black market money changers. After Iran, it was a shock to see the variety of products available, all imported through Russia (one presumes). Any kind of toiletries we can get in Europe, food food galore, carpets and clothes.
My best time however, was a trip to Tolkuchka Market, apparantly the biggest market in Central Asia. Its only open on Thursdays (or perhaps Tuesdays?), Saturdays and Sundays. EVERYTHING a tourist could ever want is available there - carpets, silver jewellery, russian hats, embroidered bags, silk... I was in paradise! And, believe it or not, the only foreigner there :)
Sigh, by this stage all my senses were on overload. I was lovin' it!
That afternoon my guide, the other guys on my trip (an Australian and an Austrian/Swiss) and I started to head east, to the ancient city of Merv.