Of all the odd countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps the oddest. It is known (inasmuch as it is known at all) for Akhal-Teke horses (I have to confess that this means nothing to me and here I must turn to my friend Duncan, my go-to guy on all things equine, who reports that these creatures are liable to transport you to Venus should you attempt anything beyond the most gentle of walks; this, apparently, is a good thing) and, perhaps more widely, for the excesses of its former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Clearly a firm believer in the maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, this gentleman fully embraced all the possibilities independence had to offer when it came twenty years ago: he promptly christened himself Turkmenbashi (“father of Turkmens”), renamed the months of the year after members of his family, elevated his writings to the level of the Qu’ran, sprinkled the country liberally with large golden statues of himself, and enthusiastically promoted a personality cult that Kim Jong Il might have balked at. This combined with an official attitude of deep suspicion towards outside influences (all tourists must be accompanied by an official guide, the exception being those, like myself, transiting across the country within five days) gives rise to its reputation as one of the more peculiar countries in this part of the world.
That said, its notorious reputation doesn’t really manifest itself much outside the capital. Leaving Uzbekistan, I arrived at the Turkmen border to find it closed for lunch, which I was promptly invited to share with the guards, who called up their wives so I could say hello and then let me through early and put me in the right taxi in the care of a pair of Turkmen matriarchs who were heading in my direction. So far, so par for the Central Asian course; as, indeed, were the hopeful inquiry from the taxi driver (who had spent the previous three hours telling me proudly about his wife and children) as to whether I required company in my hotel room that night and the vigorous contretemps with the floor-lady at my hotel on that ever-controversial issue of toilet paper (I suggested it might be part of her job to replace this item in my bathroom; she told me to buy my own. Needless to say, she won). The only problem I had during my first couple of days in the country was dealing with the fact that three currencies were apparently in circulation simultaneously, two of which had the same name, which I thought unnecessarily complicated but not necessarily malign.
I stopped for a day to scramble around what was left of Merv, yet another victim of the exuberant Mongol approach towards intercultural relations. Merv was once Merv-i-Shahjahan, the queen of the world and equal to Samarkand and Bukhara as a centre of culture and learning, but it never really recovered from the reputed slaughter of nearly a million citizens and refugees when the sons of Jenghiz Khan passed through. So unlike the other two cities, it no longer lives but is still and empty in the middle of the desert, and it’s difficult to imagine that the roofs of the tombs here were covered with turquoise tiles that it was said could be seen gleaming from a day’s ride away. There being so much oil money sloshing around the country, I would’ve thought the least the ministry of antiquities could do is stick some turquoise tiles back on the solitary restored mausoleum, but in the absence of tourist hordes, Merv has been left to the camels and the archaeologists, and is mainly dusty stockades and crumbling foundations which once were Buddhist temples and Nestorian churches.
In stark contrast to the area around Merv, Ashgabat (it means “city of love”, I wish I knew the origin of the name), Turkmenistan’s capital, is a monument to what the combination of large quantities of petro-dollars and small quantities of checks and balances can do to a place. Since independence, the city has become a vision of white marble and bad taste, with buildings that manage the feat of being simultaneously brutalist and oddly insubstantial, as though it would not take much to bring them down (and however illusory, such a quality is not especially desirable in a seismically active zone). Nowhere is the monumental tackiness more apparent than in the massive Arch of Neutrality, which dominates the central square. Built to commemorate “the unanimous endorsement of the policy of neutrality by the Turkmen people”, it is a giant plunger topped with (surprise!) a golden statue of Niyazov, which rotates to face the sun. At night up it is lit up in a variety of neon colours, only adding to the impression that the whole thing is about to take off.The oil and gas industry means that there is a healthy expat population here with associated western-style cafes and restaurants, but the streets were very empty, and walking in the town centre I usually found myself outnumbered by policemen.
Unlike Tashkent, where the police are ominipresent but generally not terribly fussed about tourists, the ubiquity of the Ashgabat thin (or in this case, pretty thick) blue line is only matched by their zealous adherence to the principle of “everybody is guilty of something” and determination to stand guard over anything that stood still long enough. I was particularly impressed by their ability to find things to salute even in the middle of an apparently empty street. Things that the Ashgabat police do not like include: sitting on a bench outside the national theater, stopping to tie a shoelace by the national carpet museum, taking a photograph of any gold statues (Lenin is apparently OK though). Over at the war memorial, I was again firmly discouraged from photographing another pair of policemen armed with petrol cans who were hurriedly attempting to relight the eternal flame, which had appeared to have gone out.
I popped into a (I should more correctly say the) bookshop to investigate postcard possibilites. The graphic designers of Turkmenistan had recently, so it seemed, discovered photoshop, and were taking full advantage of all the possibilities it offered. Postcards of the main historical sights were evidently considered too staid to tempt jaded expats, and so they had been livened up by the presence of a wildly out-of-scale young lady in national costume added in one corner, occasionally, for reasons which did not immediately present themselves, riding a tiger. The other prominent theme was the president. Niyazov died several years ago, and his replacement (and one-time personal dentist) doesn’t seem to be entirely above a little judicious self-promotion of his own. There were prominent displays of his writing. You could buy posters: the president as a soldier, the president riding an Akhal-Teke, the president hugging some small children (although sadly there were none of the president riding a tiger: the photoshop artists have clearly missed a trick there, although perhaps it’s just that the market in president/wild animal chic has been so comprehensively cornered by Vladimir Putin that there’s nowhere really to go from there). Together with a few coffee-table books of Turkmen national attractions, this comprised the entire stock of the shop.
Politics is not a subject which it is wise to bring up in this corner of the world in general, but I did wonder what people in Ashgabat thought about the city and father of all Turkmens and everything which the outside world thinks is so odd. Everywhere in Turkmenistan I had seen the phrase “Altyn Asr” – on the signs for restaurants and bars, on the sides of buildings, on mosques and schools. I asked an Ashgabat taxi driver what it meant. “It means golden age”, he said. “What golden age is that?” “The one we are living in now”. We eyed each other carefully for a moment or two. Russian is a very easy language to do deadpan in.