Forgotten Corners of Asia – My Journey Through Absurdistan
“Why do you want to go to Turkmenistan?” Murik asks me time and again as we are slowly strolling through Istanbul’s central Eminönü district. He can’t get his head around the fact that I, or anyone else for that matter,
would choose to travel to his home country for leisure.
Murik has managed to escape from Turkmenistan, at least until he completes his studies at the faculty of law of one of Istanbul’s most prestigious universities. He suffers from bouts of homesickness once in a while, missing friends and family, but nonetheless the thought of eventually having to return home doesn’t appeal. Living abroad has taught Murik too much about the world outside Turkmenistan to feel at ease with giving up again all the freedoms he has been enjoying in Turkey. Murik is worried about me too.
“Please take the phone numbers of my brother and close friends in the capital, in case you get into trouble!” he insists. He seems genuinely concerned…
A few hours later I am boarding the Turkish Airlines jet that’s going to take me to Turkmenistan’s showcase city Ashgabat. The country’s capital isn’t served by many flights from anywhere, and the plane is jam-packed with passengers. The usually highly sought after seats in the emergency exit row of the aircraft remain unoccupied for a long time. Finally a group of obese Turkmen women dressed in traditional garments come wobbling along the aisle from the front of the cabin and settle down in them. Their cabin baggage allowance is, on the evidence, unlimited, as it appears they have brought every single item they own with them on the plane. With the overhead luggage bins already stuffed full with other passengers’ carry-on bags, the women start stacking up their luggage in front of the emergency exit doors on both sides of the cabin. One of the women in the group settles down in the seat next to me. She’s not in good health and sneezes and coughs loudly throughout the entire flight. Spotting the piles of bulky items stacked up next to the emergency exits a member of the cabin crew makes a token request to stow the bags away elsewhere, but it is a lost cause.
While the plane is taxiing out to the runway the woman sitting in front of me attempts to recline her seat all the way back. I forcefully push my knees against her backrest to stop her from reducing my already very narrow legroom even further. She makes repeated attempts at this, loudly cursing me in a language I fortunately don’t understand.
Four cumbersome hours later the Airbus touches down on the bumpy runway of Ashgabat’s airport. It’s 3:30 AM. There is one open immigration booth for 176 passengers. It’s manned by three red-eyed officials wearing ugly green uniforms and the kind of ridiculously tall and wide hats that are so common in ex-Soviet armed forces. One after another all passengers are asked to step forward and present their letter of invitation to Turkmenistan, without which nobody is able to get issued a visa on arrival or board a flight to this country in the first place. I am quite far ahead in the line, yet it takes more than thirty minutes until it’s finally my turn. The visa I get issued is good for the exact period of time I was previously authorized to stay, nine days, and not a single day longer. The visa fee is 114$, or 100€. Today’s exchange rate is 1.35$ for 1€. I didn’t bring any US dollars.
The visa and entry stamps almost take up two entire pages in my passport. Having stepped only a few meters away from the booth another official asks to inspect my documents. He’s very skinny and at least a foot shorter than me. With an extremely stern and almost comically serious look on this face he repeatedly eyes me up from head to toe before handing my passport back and gesturing me to move on. Before I finally get my hands on my luggage this procedure is repeated another two times, as if the immigration officials want to make sure that their colleagues before them haven’t overlooked any important detail about my person or documents that’s somehow critical to the nation’s integrity or security. It’s amusing and tedious at the same time. There is no doubt this is a land gripped by authority.
Xenophobia runs deep in the upper echelons of Turkmen authority, and tourist visas to Turkmenistan are not easy to come by. In fact it is only possible to get one by going through one of very few government-approved Turkmen travel agencies. Only they can issue the coveted letters of invitation that are necessary to get a visa. You are also required to hire a guide through them for the entire duration of your stay in the country.
The group I am travelling with is a bunch of randomly thrown together people who all share a passion for travelling to outlandish destinations. Just like me, almost all of them have been to North Korea (DPRK) before, the only other Stalinist nation still in existence, which is in many ways similarly structured to Turkmenistan.
Five Days in the DPRK – An Account of a Journey to the Edge of the World / Part 1
Five Days in the DPRK – An Account of a Journey to the Edge of the World / Part 2
This is definitely neither your average all-inclusive package tour group, nor your average Joe’s holiday destination. In this nation, just as in the DPRK, the government is in firm control of nearly everything. Turkmenistan is a tightly-controlled police state, surreal and totalitarian in nature, with a recent history of having had two brutal dictators at its helm.
This is a place where any kind of criticism against the government and its institutions, as well as the military, is officially considered a serious crime. The DPRK may get all the press, but even Kim Il-Sung’s and Kim Jong-Il’s self-aggrandizement somewhat pales in comparison to the pervasive cult of personality set up by Turkmenistan's former all-powerful president for life Serdar Saparmurat Niyazov, and his successor with the even more complicated name, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. In the mid-80s of the past century Mikhail Gorbachev had installed Niyazov as the head of the Soviet republic. Gorbachev was later quoted as saying that he had picked Niyazov because he was a loyal and compliant simpleton.
Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death due to cardiac arrest in late 2006, reminders of the nation’s first president and his legacy are still everywhere. Niyazov adopted the name of “Turkmenbashi the Great”, which translates to “Great Father of all Turkmen”. He named a city and even a calendar month after himself, and had a plethora of sculptures made and statues built in his honor. The most imposing one of them was 15 meters tall, polished-gold, and was constructed to mechanically revolve to follow the sun throughout the day. The word for the month of April as well as the word “bread” was changed to “Gurbansoltan”, which was the name of Turkmenbashi’s mother. In official statements the great leader remained modest:
"I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it's what the people want", he said.
In an attempt to allegedly protect Turkmen culture from negative foreign influences the Turkmenbashi banned cinema, opera and ballet, describing them as unnecessary. Similar decrees banned the playing of recorded music at all public events, including weddings. Car radios and lip synching were outlawed as well, and it became a criminal offense for young Turkmen men to grow beards or long hair. In a move that had far graver repercussions he ordered all libraries and even hospitals outside the capital closed.
Through it all, Turkmen people have remained poor and isolated from the rest of the world, despite the nation’s incredible wealth of natural resources, especially reserves of oil and gas. After Turkmenistan had become a newly independent republic, the Turkmenbashi announced he would turn the country into a society akin to Kuwait’s, promising prosperity for everyone. Yet instead of investing the country’s wealth into its citizens and a brighter future for the whole nation, billions have been spent on transforming the capital into a surreal and self-congratulatory world after the president’s liking. Ashgabat’s modern incarnation is somewhere between Pyongyang and Las Vegas, with a mixture of Bellagio fountains and Stalinist parade grounds. It consists largely of seemingly endless boulevards flanked by lavish palaces, ostentatious buildings constructed of imported white marble, gleaming golden domes, and vast expanses of manicured parkland and general emptiness. Yet the city continues to boom, with whole neighborhoods still getting demolished to make way for more enormous, but mostly completely impractical, architectural wonders. Ashgabat isn't so much a city of “must-sees”. It's more a matter of soaking up the bizarreness that permeates the place.
Since the first moment sovereign Turkmenistan came into existence, foreign companies eagerly lined up on the dictator’s doorstep to tap into the country’s wealth. They were the ones who turned Ashgabat into what it is today, reaping rich profits by at least passively collaborating with one of the most repressive political regimes on this planet. In order to gain access to this rich and untapped market, many of them readily agreed to translate the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi’s self-penned books filled with spiritual teachings, wooly thoughts, and distorted historical facts, into many foreign languages. Ruhnama means “Book of the Soul”, and was written by Turkmenbashi in an effort to subordinate his people to his thoughts and ideology. He made it required reading at every level of the educational system. It was even blasted into space on board of a Russian satellite.
Turkmenbashi consequently used those translations of the Ruhnama books to prove the legitimacy of his regime, as well as its alleged admiration by foreign powers, to his subjects. He promised his people that anyone who reads the Ruhnama at least 100 times will have guaranteed access to heaven. He also often emphasized that the Ruhnama was at least as important for the Turkmen people as the Holy Koran. He even ordered verses from his book to be inscribed into the walls of newly built mosques, which enraged many of his traditionally pious but usually not openly conservative countrymen.
Since Turkmenbashi's sudden death the political situation in the country has eased a bit, with the new president having slowly begun to peel back the worst of his excesses, while cementing his own slightly more subdued cult of personality. To this day the Ruhnama is still sold and taught to students in schools. Profound knowledge of the teachings of the Ruhnama is asked for both when applying for any kind of public office, as well as for mundane tasks such as taking a driving test.
Rumor has it that in Turkmenistan all top-range hotel rooms are bugged, as are many offices, restaurants, and anywhere else where foreigners meet. At Ashgabat’s centrally located Turkmen Grand Hotel I share a room with Mike, a middle-aged New Zealander with a passion for dark tourism. Upon entering our room for the first time he purposefully starts searching all around for hidden cameras and microphones, using a small electronic scanning device he brought for this particular purpose. Moments later he almost squeals with excitement when he his scanner appears to detect some electromagnetic signals from behind a large mirror on the wall. He asks for my help to dismount the mirror to prove his discovery, but it is firmly fixed on the wall and also looks way too heavy to be removed. Mike takes a towel from the bathroom and tries to cover the mirror from top to bottom to shield us from potentially curious observers.
By and large the hotel is not in the best shape anymore. Carpets and furniture are worn and could well use a refurbishing. Service is reasonably efficient but rarely delivered with a smile. Turkmens are supposedly among the friendliest people in Central Asia, an alleged fact the service staff at the Grand Turkmen Hotel hardly lives up to.
Looking for a bit of entertainment in the evening I decide to check out the top floor of the hotel. According to a sign in the lobby that’s where the hotel bar is located. The sign refers to it as the “Moonlit Bar”, yet the sign over
the entrance spells “Star Bar”. It’s a small place, and not very busy. It’s noisy inside and the air is thick with smoke. Three rather rough looking Turkmen guys are sitting at the bar downing shots of vodka and smoking.
Next to them a couple of overly dolled-up local girls are facing a wall-mounted TV, taking turns at singing karaoke in Russian and eating slices of pizza that looks as if it is made of rubber. They are doing an awful job with the singing, and
my initial feelings of amusement quickly turn into a headache. It doesn’t take long until one of the girls spots me and throws me a smile. A moment later she walks over with her friend and chats me up. When they realize that I don’t
speak any Russian one of them steps closer and starts running her hands over my legs.
Every morning in the breakfast room I have a choice of some assorted Turkmen newspapers. Of course I am not able to read them, but they are interesting to leaf through nonetheless, mostly for the many pictures of the president striking identical poses in different settings.
From the hotel it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the centrally located Gulistan market, commonly referred to as the Russian bazaar. It’s a universal market that’s very popular with locals. It’s housed in a large, half-open concrete building. Several of the local brands on sale at the different shops of the market amuse.
I walk up a flight of stairs leading to a gallery that extends around most of the hall on the upper level to take a picture of the market from above. Just as I am taking the camera out of my bag three men spot me and start shouting at me in Russian while gesturing that I’m not welcome to take any pictures here.
“Problem! Problem!” they repeatedly say with an unmistakably angry look on their faces. They don’t stop until I have put my camera back into my bag.
Down at the ground level I stop at a stall to buy some pastries from a friendly looking family of vendors. After handing over the money I point at my camera in an attempt to get their permission to take a picture of them with their shop. Surprisingly they agree with a nod and a smile. I take out my camera and the family strikes a pose.
“No! No! Problem! Problem!” From the corner of my eye I spot one of the three men again who stopped me from taking pictures of the market earlier. With his eyes firmly fixed on me and my camera he comes rushing towards me. He’s clearly upset and starts shouting at me in Russian again, wildly gesticulating and pointing his finger at me and my camera. The crowd around us watches curiously.
A heated discussion ensues between the man and the vendors, who apparently seem to think that it isn’t any of the man’s business if they have their photo taken or not. Not thinking that I can contribute anything to resolving the dispute that I have triggered I quickly put the camera back into my bag and scurry off into the crowd.
Other than anywhere in the DPRK, roaming around Ashgabat unrestricted and without the company of a guide is usually not a problem. In a lot of places policemen are lurking in the shadows and stop me from going places that are off limits for one or the other reason. Frequently I am asked not to take pictures, and sometimes, just like at the market, for indiscernible reasons.
Getting around the city is not very difficult, but knowing to ask for directions in Russian language definitely helps. The only kind of public transportation is buses, but they run frequently and fares are very cheap. Another option is to simply walk out onto the street and stick your thumb up. There aren’t many official taxis in Ashgabat, but Turkmens are in the habit of giving each other rides in exchange of a small fee if they happen to drive in the same direction. This works surprisingly well, and one doesn’t normally have to wait more than a few seconds until a car stops and asks where you want to go.
The city’s sights can be divided neatly into two halves – the politicized, monolithic constructions of the Soviet government and the politicized, monolithic constructions of Turkmenbashi. Both are captivating and often stand in stark contrast to each other, underlining Turkmenistan’s omnipresent dual persona. There is construction work going on everywhere, with new palaces and ministries being built along many boulevards.
Ashgabat already boasts a “Ministry of Fairness”, a “Ministry of Carpets”, as well as a “Ministry of Horses”. Many of the white-marble buildings are shaped to represent the purpose of the building. The one that houses the national library is shaped like a giant book. The “Ministry of Health” building resembles a giant cobra, while the “Ministry of Energy” building looks like a giant cigarette lighter.
The “Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan”, often referred to as “the plunger” by the foreign community, is a typically ostentatious and tasteless monument. It was erected to celebrate the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan becoming an independent nation, and houses the “Museum of Turkmen Values”. It’s minaret-like tower is 118m tall, which is significant, as Turkmenistan’s became independent from the Soviet Union on the 27th of October 1991 (27+91=118). The complex is guarded by soldiers dressed in ceremonial uniforms around the clock.
Late in the evening I walk along the wide and seemingly endless boulevards of the city. Other than the ubiquitous police that watch every step I’m taking I hardly see any other people on the streets. Traffic is sparse as well. The silently humming ultra-modern traffic lights made of shiny chrome glow in the dark.
Coming out of a restaurant I wait for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green in order to cross over to the other side of the street. Just as the light finally switches to green and I’m about to step out onto the street the cars that were waiting at the intersection start moving as well, forcing me to quickly jump back onto the sidewalk. Checking the traffic lights I realize that their lights turned green at the same time as mine. The lone traffic cop that stands at the corner of the intersection stares at me incredulously yet doesn’t seem to be at odds with the situation at all.
Turkmenistan is a desert country that frequently faces severe water shortages, yet I pass hundreds of large illuminated fountains in many places I walk.
While water is sparser than the amount of fountains in the city would suggest, Turkmenistan is clearly not short on energy. Every citizen who owns a car is entitled to receive 1,500 liters of petrol free of charge per year. Most other forms of energy are also heavily subsidized by the government. A common saying goes that Turkmens would rather keep their oven permanently running on the free supply of natural gas than ever put it out only to waste a comparably more expensive matchstick on lighting it again later.
Many of the city’s museums revolve around exhibits glorifying the old and the new leader, or presents that have been given to them by other statesmen and dignitaries. The aptly named “Museum of Gifts to the President” is the most impressive one of them.
Traditionally two elements of Turkmen culture the country is very proud of are its horses and its proficiency at weaving carpets. Watching and betting on horse races is a favorite pastime of Turkmen people, and the carpets that are still being woven by hand remain one of the country’s most prized traditional export articles. As so predictably common with most authoritarian regimes, also Turkmenistan’s recent leaders have been obsessed with superlatives. Hence Ashgabat doesn’t only boast the largest free-standing flagpole in the world, but also the largest handmade carpet, measuring approximately 24×16 meters, and weighing more than 800 kilograms.
Located in the middle of the Karakum desert, several hours of driving to the north of Ashgabat, is one of Turkmenistan’s most interesting, and at the same time most unusual sights. In 1971 an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas and consequently collapsed into a cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. Named after a nearby settlement that since then has become deserted, the crater became commonly known as the “Darvaza Flaming Crater”. It has also been nicknamed the “Mouth of Hell” and “The Gates of Hell”. Its blazing inferno is visible from kilometers away. After the accident happened it was initially decided to let the fire burn off the gas rather than risk poisoning of the people living in nearby towns and villages. Despite the fact that nowadays nobody lives in the vicinity of the crater anymore, there’s been little talk of putting out the fire in recent years. The crater is unique in the world and has thus become a major attraction for the few tourists that make it to Turkmenistan, and decide to go on the long 4WD drive from Ashgabat to reach it.
Together with the rest of the group I spend a night camping near the crater. It gets bitterly cold at night in the desert, and despite most of the tour group’s members consumption of copious amounts of alcohol after dinner, hardly anyone manages to fall asleep in the freezing temperatures. Lying fully dressed in my tent inside my silk liner and sleeping bag my feet simply don’t stay warm. We were promised first-grade sleeping bags by the local tour agency, but have only received standard Russian army military bags that don’t stand the test of this cold. I end up spending most of the night sitting at the edge of the crater, allowing myself to get mesmerized by staring into the flames for hours. Sometimes birds are flying high above the gaping crater and glow mysteriously in the dark as if they were radioactive, with their bodies and wings reflecting the light of the flames emanating from far below. As the sun slowly comes up in the morning more people join me at the crater.
Back in Ashgabat I meet up with Arsen. I contacted him through a popular online social network a few weeks before my departure to Turkmenistan. He was one of very few Turkmens with an online presence who actually live in the country. This is not surprising, as internet access is heavily restricted by the government. Businesses have to prove their need for access before being given permission to actually use it. For ordinary citizens it’s nearly impossible to go online. In recent years a few government run internet cafes have sprung up in Ashgabat. You have to register with your passport to use them. The connections are surprisingly fast, but the accessible content is severely restricted. (Sorry Stick, your website is blocked too). Prices are very high by Turkmen standards at 4€ per hour.
Arsen introduces me to his friends Suleyman and Shekera. They are in their mid-twenties and all have in common that they have spent significant time abroad in recent years. There really isn’t much nightlife to speak of in Ashgabat, despite the fact that the 11 PM curfew that was in place for many years has recently been lifted. So called “Hukka Cafes’” are most popular with the locals, and we end up spending the evening in one of them drinking badly mixed cocktails and sharing a Sheesha (Arab water pipe) between the four of us.
Arsen studied business administration in Ankara and returned to his homeland after his graduation two years ago. He openly admits that he tried to get a job in Turkey first, but was eventually forced to return to Turkmenistan when his student visa expired. He found a job with one of the large government-run petroleum companies in Ashgabat and says he has slowly become used to living in this country again. Suleyman hasn’t quite given up on the thought of living and working abroad yet. He’s two years younger than Arsen and just graduated from the same university in Ankara a few months ago. In a few days he’ll return to Turkey on a tourist visa and intends to devote his entire time there to finding a job that allows him to stay permanently. Shekera spent the last six years living and studying piano in Moscow. She’s very frank in expressing her unhappiness of being back in Ashgabat.
“It’s reverse culture shock!” she tells me. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand the bullshit here”.
Noticing that it is possible to speak openly with them about otherwise sensitive topics, they willingly share with me their thoughts and feelings about the country and its leader. The common denominators about life in Turkmenistan are that it is boring, restricted, and that there is nothing to do.
Arsen recommends me to pick up an English language copy of the Ruhnama, which I had in mind to do anyway before leaving the country.
“Did you read it?” I ask him casually.
“Of course! I had to!” he tells me and rolls his eyes. “You know, Turkmenbashi did lots of good for the Turkmen people, but with some things he really went too far” he adds.
“Oh, many things actually! He said that the Ruhnama was as holy as the Koran, and when some of the Imams protested they disappeared.”
“So what did people think about that?”
“They became angry, and it became a problem for the president. So he went on the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, and people forgave him as Allah must have forgiven him.”
The main theme of our conversation revolves around the fact that most people are simply too busy with their day-to-day lives to really bother much with politics. Only those who have been fortunate enough to live abroad for some time have a better understanding about the political system they are subjected to, which doesn’t necessarily help with tolerating it.
On my last morning in the city I hunt for souvenirs. I buy two copies of the Ruhnama, which I since then have tried to read but quickly gave up because the text has proven to be far too pseudo-intellectual and tedious. Like a friend of mine who has also been to Turkmenistan has commented: “Tom Clancy the Turkmenbashi was not”.
I also buy a bottle of Turkmenbashi Vodka, two calendars featuring the new president, as well as three Russian-made Turkmenbashi watches.
The last place I get to visit before leaving the country is the famous Tolkuchka Bazaar. It’s the largest bazaar in Central Asia and particularly well known for its carpet and livestock auctions. Any other kind of goods is available here as well, from spare car parts to clothes, food, computers, and electric appliances. It’s an extremely lively and crowded place.
“This place will move next month” my guide Abdullah mentions casually.
“Where is it going to move to?” I ask.
“To a marble palace across town!”
Absolutely wonderful! Great travelogue and fantastic photography!
So good in fact, that I reckon I can confidently cross Turkmenistan off my list of places to visit!