Hot news from Central Asia: Ashgabat has officially been named the city with the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, thus earning it a place alongside Tajikistan (world’s tallest flagpole) and Uzbekistan (world’s largest light picture made using LEDs) in the annals of the World Records You Did Not Know Existed Until Now. Still, it is good to see that the chief urban planner of Turkmenistan is receiving recognition for his work: the president has just been named “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to honour his achievements.
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.