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Entries in Turkmenistan (10)


Mr Berry in Central Asia

While not approaching the levels of India, Hayden was very popular indeed in Central Asia. Everyone wanted to hold him; in resturants he was often whisked out to the kitchen to meet all the staff, coming back with a small treat. Walking through the markets Hayden would come out with fists full of loot, being showered with small presents. Actually, having Hayden along was the perfect ice-breaker, allowing us interactions we would not normally have had.

The staff at the Mary museum were especially happy to see Hayden.

At the summer palaces outside Bukhara, the museum staff insisted that they would take care of Hayden while we walked around.

This shopkeeper in Bukhara wanted to know what we fed Hayden to make him so big, so that she could feed her own son. Baby food was non-existant in Uzbekistan, with everyone feeding their toddlers milk and yoghurt until they were old enough for adult meals.

Our kindly babushka washed some of Hayden's baby clothes for us, commenting that he seems to make a lot of hard-to-remove food stains. We gave her a big tip for her effort.


The last Soviet economy

In many ways, Turkmenistan is the last remaining vestage of the Soviet economy. With large gas reserves (third in the world after Russia and Iran) and little other economic prospects, the government is the major employer - around 90% of jobs are in the public sector. Wages are not high, but then either is the cost of living. Water and natural gas are provided free to each, and electricity is nearly free (a large house with multiple airconditioners running constantly will only rack up ~$20/year). Petrol used to be only 2c per litre, now the price has risen to 25c per litre but every car owner gets given vouchers for 1300 litres per year, so it is almost free. As a reference, the mean hourly wage is ~$3.50. There is no unemployment benefit (the government doesn't acknowledge the existance of unemployment), but education is free even to the tertiary level and an old-age pension is in place.


Traffic on the Turkman roads


The ancient ruins of Merv

The ancient city of Merv is one of the archeological treasures of the world. The city may go back as far as 5000 years, and the treasure of the site is that snap-shots of more than 1000 years of history are all preserved. The oldest ruins are the old Persion walls, dating back to ~550 BCE. The city was then expanded and moved by the next rulers, the Greek-Bactria empire which ran until ~200 CE. The Sassanid empire, the next to occupy the region, built in yet another site, and in 671 CE this city was emptied by its new Arabic invaders, who founded a new city just outside the walls. All came crashing down when the Mongols conquored the city in 1221, and as for its one million inhabitants:
The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. To each was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the mountains became hillocks, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty.
The utter anniliation of cities by the Mongols was a theme we encountered again and again in central Asia, but at least in Merv enough ruins remain to piece together the remarkablely rich history of the region.
The Greater Gyzgala, ~750 CE
The current inhabitants of Merv
An ancient ice-house, once a conical shaped building where snow was collected during the winter and compacted into ice-blocks for the summer. The design of the building, with air insulation between the double layered walls, allowed ice to be kept for up to two years. The owners would then sell blocks of ice during the summer to city residents, who kept them in a small floor cavity to act as a low-tech refrigerator.
Fast food, Turkman style.
In Mary, the modern Turkman city near ancient Merv, the local museum had an enormously funny exhibit on Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the new President of Turkmenistan. It was put up in a hurry to replace the one on the old president, Turkmenbashi, and it looks like they just (badly) photoshoped Berdimuhamedow into old photos of Turkmenbashi. It was absolutely hilarious as to how badly it was done, with Berdimuhamedow wedged into a photo out the front of a yurt, picking cotton, addressing the UN, driving a formula one race car or performing surgery. They didn't even try to match the colouration or shadow with other people in the photo. I really wanted to buy some postcards of the pictures, but (despite there being twice as many staff as visitors) the giftshop was closed. 

Images of Abiverd


Islam in central Asia

Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities - around 90% of the population in each country. Just like Azerbaijan, however, they are no more "Muslim countries" than American is a "Christian country". We visited the most holy shrines, mosques and mausoleums in both countries, and most were empty apart from a couple of pilgrams sitting outside with palms upraised or a few groups of women walking around. Certainly there were no scenes of lines of Muslims praying on prayer carpets, and in the few places where a call to prayer was sounded it was ignored by every person in sight. 

Most of the strictures of Islam are ignored with a bit of slight-of-hand. In Turkmenistan it is illegal to eat camels or horses (camels because they were holy under Zoroasterism and horses because the Turkmen idolise their Akhal-Teke horses). Pig is okay though, and widely eaten, although it is polite to refer to it as "white lamb" to Muslims so they can at least pretend to be obeying the injuction against pork. In Uzbekistan our guide described his religion by saying "my family are Muslim Tartars, but it isn't a big part of our life. We've never read the Koran and don't go and pray, but if there is a birth or death we ask an Imam to come out and give an Islamic ceremony". Sounds pretty much like Catholics in Western Europe.

I wish the Islamophobes would visit countries like Albania, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before assuming that all Muslims are like the Taliban. It is just like assuming all Christians are like the LRA. It is only when the religious really get a chance to turn the youth into radicals that you get nutjobs like the Taliban or LRA. Otherwise, once religion is pushed out to be merely an option, most people absorb a few harmful habits but manage to shrug off the most insane aspects - whether of Christianity, Judiasm or Islam. Interestingly, the ex-Communist countries seem to have done particularly well in this regard, the generation of a secular state seems to have broken the default acceptance of religion, so people feel free to pick up as much or as little religion now as they want. It would be very difficult to argue that America did the right thing in promoting an Islamic uprising in Afghanistan to force the USSR out. An independent Afghanistan that had gone through the Soviet religious circuitbreaker would almost certainly be a much saner place than it is today.

Asghabat, Turkmenistan. The cult of Turkmenbashi tried to coopt Islam. The central mosque is covered in scripture from both the Koran and the Ruhnama, painting the two books as equals. Walking inside it was empty apart from guards and sweepers, and our guide saw nothing wrong with standing in the centre and proclaiming in a loud voice that echoed throughout the building "Turkmenistan isn't an Islamic Republic, we don't really care about that type of thing". 

Anau, Turkmenistan. The social agreement between men and women is one of the major drivers of pilgrimages. Like many conservative societies, women are expected to stay home and look after men their whole lives. For many, the only socially acceptible escape is for religious purposes, so typically women form a friendship group and go on pilgrimage together to a couple of different sites, which can take up to two weeks to visit all the sites in Turkmenistan. From what we saw, very little praying goes on, with large gaggles of women and children sitting under a nearby tree, cooking, eating and laughing. The holiday aspect is no secret, but the men are party to the deal, taking the chance to have "men's nights out" while the women are gone.

Hayden quite likes mosques. Unlike Christian churches, with the hard stone floors, mosques give him all this lovely carpet to crawl around. He also delights in the acoustics, finding a spot with the best echoes and then loudly grunting. Sure, he manages to break nearly all the rules on this list, but everyone else ignores them too.


Registan Madrassa, Tashkent. The founder of this madrassa saw no problem with picturing animals on the main portal, usually a big no-no in Islam. The Nodir Divanbegi madrassa in Bukhara even more strikingly pictured animals that were either pigs or dogs on their main portal, showing a dedication to art above the Islamic injunction of "unclean" animals.


The Parthian City of Nisa

In the barren featureless plains of Turkmenistan, natural formations are few and far between. Instead, every hillock hides an ancient civilisation, a forgotten city buried beneath the dust of ages, waiting to be unearthed. The hills near Nisa have been excavated to reveal the ancient Parthian capital, founded ~250 BCE and destroyed by an earthquake nearly 2000 years ago. This was once the centre of a vast empire with dominion over modern Iran, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Syria and Afghanistan; now it is merely dust.

Enter the alternative reality of Ashgabat

My image of Ashgabat before coming was of a dry dusty desert city, with poor families living in crumbling mud houses. Our over-crowded plane landed and we had to stand in a queue for hours before getting permission to enter (for “Adrian Liston + 2”, wife and infant child clearly not needing independent permission) and find the “baggage taking place”, enforcing the idea of a backwards city.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ashgabat was like nothing I’ve ever seen, part Dubai, part Las Vegas, but on a scale inconceivable to either city. In every direction we walked, there were grand white marble buildings surrounded by gardens, fountains and golden statues. Each building was a masterpiece of design in its own right, fusing modern French design with neo-classical themes, yet each also fitted into the city scape of white, green and gold. Government departments, cultural buildings, shopping malls or residential towers – none were marred by any type of advertising*, so each seamlessly followed the next in clean elegant lines. It had echoes of the monument district of Washington DC, but on a scale 10 times, 100 times, greater. And it was empty. 

Ashgabat is not small, with close to a million people it has nearly 20% of the population of the country. Yet the city was built in a scale that would serve many millions. One street housed four grand dramatic arts theatres, which sit empty most nights. The city has sports stadiums, museums, galleries and monuments to rival many a cultural capital, yet no one is there to see them. While the beautiful residential towers have all the modern conveniences, many people prefer the large suburbs, a fear of tall buildings being the legacy of the 1948 earthquake which killed 2/3 of the population and left only four buildings standing. Even those who resist the suburban exodus hide from the fierce sun within malls and markets, giving an already under-populated city an eerily feeling, like Tom Cruise wandering around an empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky. It is only in the evening when a legion of women sweeping the streets and men grooming the lawns come out that you realise people inhabit the city, even if they seem to be serving an edifice gone mad rather than actually living in it.

*which actually found it very difficult to find any bars, cafes or restaurants – you just had to know which buildings to enter and look around

Monument dedicated to the official neutrality of Turkmenistan

Wandering mile after mile of empty lush green lawns in the middle of the desert - surely one of the most surreal experiences of my life

Hayden contemplates the vast gardens

Walk inside the right unmarked building, and the city is humming


Better know a dictator: Turkmenbashi

From the independence of Turkmenistan to his fatal heart attack in 2006, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov was “President for Life” of Turkmenistan. In the few elections he held, Niyazov (who modestly renamed himself Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen) “won” well over 99% of the vote. Naturally, this type of constant adoration by your people can go to one’s head. Sure, he created giant gold-plated statues of himself that rotated so they would always be facing the sun, but then who wouldn’t in his position? He perhaps went overboard in renaming the months of the year, including turning January to Turkmenbashi (which could get confusing) and renaming April after his mother (kind of sweet, in a authoritarian-dictator-type-of-way). But Turkmenbashi also had his good points, outlawing capital punishment, lip syncing and opera. In another modest touch, Niyazov claimed to be a direct descendent of both Mohammad and Genghis Khan. The latter is even possible, since 10% of men in the region have a Y chromosome suggestive of being in the direct male lineage of Mr G Khan.

My favourite touch may be the adoration of the Ruhnama, a book written by Turkmenbashi for his people. This book, proclaimed to be the most perfect Turkman prose, was placed in every school room and required reading for every Turkman. There was even an exam on the Ruhnama in order to get a driving licence! It sure takes a certain type of arrogance to declare that you wrote a book which, if you read it three times, gets you straight into heaven (*cough* all Abrahamic religions *cough*).


To Turkmenistan, and Beyond!

Hayden's geography lessonI've been asked several times, "why Turkmenistan?". Good question. You just know that Turkmenistan is off the beaten track when Lonely Planet introduces it with an unfavourable comparison to Afghanistan:

“By far the most mysterious and unexplored of Central Asia’s ‘stands, Turkmenistan became famous for the truly bizarre dictatorship of Turkembashi.... but the least-visited of Central Asia’s countries is actually far more than the totalitarian theme park it’s often portrayed as being”

But how has tourism in Turkmenistan not taken off? Afterall, it has famous “Door to Hell”, a gas well in the desert that imploded and has been burning continuously for 40 years. Not to mention the furnance that is the Karakum Desert, covering 70% of the country and reaching a scorching 50°C (122°F). It is not like Turkmenistan is even the most authoritarian country, Reporters without Borders puts it in front of both North Korea and Burma! Plus you get this handy government-mandated escort at all times.