Turkmenistan: Stranger in a very strange land

Author: By Shaun Walker

Turkmenistan has done its best to keep out journalists for the past decade,
and has long been an unattainable dream for Moscow correspondents like
myself. But due, it seemed, to some kind of administrative error, they had
let a few of us in, ostensibly to cover a tedious-sounding Investment Forum,
and here I was stepping off the plane into one of the world’s most isolated
and bizarre countries.

The gold head was the first sighting of a man that would follow me around for
the whole time I spent in Ashgabat. He was Saparmurat Niyazov, the local
Communist party boss who had taken over as president when the country gained
independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and created a
personality cult unrivalled anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for
North Korea. He decided he wasn’t going to be boring old Mr Niyazov, he
would be Turkmenbashi ? Leader of all the Turkmens. He was Saparmurat
Turkmenbashi the Great; he was the All-powerful and Fearless Serdar; he was
the Eternal Sun of Turkmenistan and the Great Architect of the Golden Age of
the Turkmens; he was the Father, the Prophet, and the President for Life.
Since December 2006, he was also dead. But nevertheless, he was very much
still here.

A scruffy, miserably inhospitable patch of desert with nothing much going for
it, Turkmenistan is watched closely by the rest of the world due to the vast
reserves of gas ? the fourth largest in the world ? that lie under its arid
sands and off its Caspian coast. With the cash that flooded into the country
as the gas flowed out, Turkmenbashi built possibly the oddest city in the
world.

Ashgabat is not simply bizarre. It’s world-class nuts; Olympic-Gold-level
bananas; truly and utterly bonkers. For years it provided pithy news stories
written from Moscow or London (it was rare for anyone to gain access to
check for themselves). Turkmenbashi renamed the days of the week and the
months of the year after himself and his mother. He banned opera, ballet and
the circus, but opened a giant theme park based on Turkmen fairy tales. He
made his book, the Ruhnama, compulsory reading for all schoolchildren, and
everyone needs to sit an exam on it to get a driving licence.

On a first walkabout, the city more than lived up to its bizarro billing.
Turkmens are an eye-catching bunch, especially the women. They wear
ankle-length dresses made of silk or velvet, which come in a whole host of
bright purples, oranges, blues and greens; the necks adorned with intricate
gold-thread embroidery that comes down in a sweeping column from the throat
to the navel. Any gathering of Turkmens turns even the most mundane setting
into a kaleidoscopic whirl of colour and excitement.

But none of them were here. Nobody. Over in the old part of town, the bit they
don’t want foreigners to see, locals live in a normal, shabby Soviet city,
many neighbourhoods of which were simply bulldozed down to make way for the
new city. This ever-expanding new section consists solely of huge white
marble buildings, set along broad avenues completely bereft of people, save
the armies of cleaners who keep them so spotless you could eat your dinner
off them. As few people can afford the new apartments, most of them are
empty. I felt as though I was an extra in an apocalyptic disaster movie,
walking along these long, wide avenues framed with shimmering new buildings
but with hardly a soul in sight. Here in the very heart of Central Asia,
that romantic region of teeming bazaars, mysterious alleyways and ancient
mosques, is a brand-new city full of sterile white-marble high-rises and
glimmering gold statues of the man who ordered them built.

At its centre is (of course) Turkmenbashi Square. On three sides are vast
palaces; the too-new shine of their white marble facades marking them as
recent creations. On the fourth and final side of the square is the city’s
crowning glory. Three wide white legs stretch down dozens of metres,
straddling a roundabout; a giant tripod base on which is mounted a white,
somewhat phallic structure in the shape of a space shuttle. And atop this,
high in the air, a statue all in gold, of a middle-aged man with his arms
outstretched above his head in a pose of religious ecstasy, like a maniacal
preacher. Yes, it’s Turkmenbashi, rotating throughout the day to always face
the sun.

To make things more complicated, the country is now afflicted with a bipolar
personality cult. When Turkmenbashi died in 2006, his former dentist, and
then Minister of Health, the tough-to-pronounce Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov,
took over as the new leader. While the golden statues of Turkmenbashi
remain, the more transient elements of his personality cult ? portraits on
buildings, banknotes, and so on ? have been slowly removed, and
Berdymukhammedov has instigated his own, creeping personality cult.

Younger than his predecessor, Berdymukhammedov’s jet-black hair is swept back
over a pudgy face in the same way as the great Turkmenbashi, but with a more
sinister effect ? he looks like a slightly vampiric librarian in the giant
posters that adorn almost every building in the city. When he came to power,
there was much talk of liberalisation, but in Turkmenistan, everything is
relative. Previously, nobody except a select few government officials was
allowed to use the internet. Now, there are four internet cafes in Ashgabat,
but there are only five computers in each, the connection is medievally
slow, and surfers have a double reminder that Big Brother is watching ? not
only does a portrait of Berdymukhammedov stare down from the walls, but in
the one I visited an officious young man with slicked back hair took note of
everyone’s name and passport number before they were allowed online.

Berdymukhammedov has also carried on Turkmenbashi’s penchant for vanity
mega-projects. His big idea is the construction of one of the world’s best
tourist resorts at a cost of billions of dollars at Avaza on the Caspian
Sea. No matter that the water is too cold to swim in most of the year, the
beach is covered in sea snakes, and it’s almost impossible for anyone to get
a visa and visit the new paradise. The order was given to build a giant
resort, so a giant resort is being built. Nobody questions the president.
The television news follows his every move, and he’s followed everywhere by
hordes of clapping, grinning schoolchildren. Recent televised stunts have
included driving across the desert country in a race against two
professional racing drivers (no prizes for guessing who won), and the
inauguration of a new cancer centre. Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by
training, performed complex surgery to remove a tumour from a patient,
although informed sources told me that he simply wielded a scalpel and
grinned for the cameras, while the real work was done by two German surgeons
who had been specially flown in.

The Investment Forum was held in a vast white hall with delegates seated
around dining tables laden with fruits, nuts and drinks, and was meant to be
opened by the Big Man himself, but he pulled out at the last minute, leaving
everyone to make do with the enormous portrait of him that was hung above
the podium. (Though he was unable to find 15 minutes to talk to the
biggest-ever gathering of international investors to descend on his country,
Berdymukhammedov did, however, find time to spend several hours ceremonially
opening a chicken farm the next day.)

The Turkmen officials at the forum spoke in a tedious monotone, droning
imaginary statistics and making obligatory references to the “marvellous
initiatives of respected president” roughly every 30 seconds.

I cornered the deputy health minister at the end of one session to ask if the
country had a problem with HIV. She shot me a look of worried suspicion, and
said: “We are building a big new HIV prevention clinic. But luckily so
far we don’t have a single case.” This in a country that borders
Afghanistan and its heroin supplies, where prostitution is widespread, and
where all the other countries in the region admit to a serious HIV problem.
She later suggested it would “perhaps be better if you didn’t write an
article about this”.

“People don’t solve problems here,” a foreign resident of Ashgabat
told me. “They simply deny them.”

Not that this seemed an issue for companies looking to invest in the country.
Speech after speech of praise from Western companies drew smug smiles and
nods of approval from the Turkmen officials listening through their
translation headsets. The parade of foreigners telling them in obsequious
language how wise and talented their president is was reminiscent of
emissaries sent to the courts of ancient Khans to win trading concessions
with gifts and beautiful words, and hardly seemed like the best way to drag
the country out of its self-imposed isolation.

“Zis Prezident it trruly an innovator,” chirped one overexcited
German from the podium, urging delegates to invest in the gold-plated haven
of Turkmenistan. A Brit, representing the EBRD, spoke of the country’s wise
political course. Nobody deemed it fit to remark that we were in one of the
weirdest and most autocratic countries in the world. And of course, few of
the companies actually wanted to make-long term investments in such an
opaque country.

“Most people here are vendors, not investors,” one delegate
confessed quietly on the sidelines of the forum. They’re happy to build any
palace or five-star hotel that the Turkmens ask them to. But actually invest
long-term and expose their money to risk? Not a chance.

I escaped from the conference and got chatting to a group of young Turkmens
sitting in a café. They were well dressed and tapping on i-Phones, and it
transpired they all worked in international companies in Ashgabat ? they
were some of the lucky few who had been allowed to study abroad for a year,
and had picked up English in the US.

“I learnt more in six months in the US than I did for four years at the
best faculty of the best university in Turkmenistan, where I learned
absolutely nothing,” one of them told me.

“All the really talented professors were fired in the Nineties and
replaced with idiots who were happy just to talk about Turkmenbashi and the
Ruhnama,” he continued, talking quietly so as not to attract too much
attention. “Everything was destroyed under the old president.
Everything. I’m patriotic, I love my country and I want to stay here. I
could’ve got citizenship in the States if I’d tried hard enough, but I
wanted to come back here. But if things don’t improve in the next decade,
people like me will start to leave. I want my kids to have a decent
education, and right now, that’s impossible here.”

While there might not be brutality on as widespread a scale as in neighbouring
Uzbekistan, this is only because Turkmens on the whole appear to have
accepted their lot, and know not to talk out of turn. This is partly due to
the most spectacular dumbing down of society. No books are printed except
the Ruhnama ? Turkmenbashi’s turgid ramblings on life, morals and Turkmen
history ? and Berdymukhammedov’s tomes. Despite being in office less than
three years, he’s already managed to knock out a book on cooking, one on
horses and one on herbal medicine, and the TV news features nothing but
Berdymukhammedov and dancing children.

To test out just how isolated the place really was, I played a game on a
Friday night out at one of Ashgabat’s few nightclubs. I asked 10 different
people, all young well-to-do types in their twenties, if they could name the
current US President. Seven of them expressed total bemusement, one guessed “Bush”,
and one of the bartenders disappeared to phone a “friend who knows
everything”, and returned a few minutes later proudly brandishing a
piece of paper on which was written in neat Cyrillic letters, “Vagassa
Avama”. Only one, a shy young ethnic Russian girl, guessed Obama, but
then collapsed in a fit of giggles and said she was sure she must be wrong.

***

While the personality cults of both Berdymukhammedov and Turkmenbashi were on
display at every street corner, it was only when I arrived in Gipjak, the
village about 15 miles outside Ashgabat where Saparmurat Niyazov had been
born in 1940, that the utterly outrageous extravagance of his cult really
became clear. This was where the Turkmenbashi Mosque had been built.

The shiny white marble and vast gold dome meant that, like all the new
buildings in Turkmenistan, it was somewhat tacky, resembling what Hotel
Mecca, Las Vegas, might look like if such a thing was ever built. But while
it could hardly compete with the great mosques of Iran and the Middle East
for elegance, its sheer size meant it was hard not to be impressed.
Approaching the mosque from the road, I walked past over a hundred fountains
bursting from lush green grass by the roadside, before entering a walkway
surrounded on both sides by fountains and green Turkmen flags. The mosque
itself was on a platform about four metres above the earth, and water
cascaded down all the sides. The four soaring minarets were of white marble
ringed with gold bands, and the mosque itself encased by a grand wall with
marble columns and eight porticos.

Under the main gate of the mosque was not a quote from the Koran, but a long
quote from the Ruhnama and the words “Turkmenbashi is Great”.

Inside, around the base of the dome, blue-lettered slogans extolled both Allah
and Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great. This was perhaps the crudest attempt
to fuse the personality of a dictator with that of God in modern times.
Turkmenbashi had got billions of dollars of Saudi aid after completing the
hajj in the Nineties, and had promptly built a mosque with his own name
scrawled all over it. Visible behind the mosque were the hazy Kopet Dag
mountains, and behind them, Iran, just a couple of dozen miles away. I
imagined that the penalties in Iran for writing one’s own name inside a
mosque were not pretty. Even the pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and
Khameini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution and his successor, which are
everywhere in Iran, are never to be found blasphemously adorning the outside
or inside of a mosque, still less would their names be allowed to be
inscribed on a mosque interior. I felt a bit sorry for Salman Rushdie and
the Danish artist who drew the infamous Mohamed cartoons ? surely
Turkmenbashi, when he was still alive, was a far better candidate for a
fatwa.

A guard told me the mosque could seat 20,000 worshippers, but when I returned
for Friday prayers, 100 were there at most. The Turkmenbashi Mosque was only
one of thousands of monuments that the odious man had dedicated to himself,
but it stood out as perhaps the biggest and most obnoxious squandering of
money of all.

It had some fairly stiff competition though. Back in Ashgabat, I took myself
off one afternoon to a new museum and library complex that had been built
just before Turkmenbashi’s death. Another Vegas-style extravaganza, this
featured three marble buildings with golden domes facing onto a courtyard,
each with four enormous stone lions roaring from pedestals at the front. The
streets around it were completely deserted, but as I approached the
entrance, I saw two Turkmen guys get out of a car and walk up to the
complex, taking pictures of the building on their mobile phones. I went over
to say hello to them, and they expressed expletives of amazement at the fact
that I was from England. We spoke in Russian, which most Turkmens speak
along with their native, Turkic tongue, in a legacy of the Soviet period.

Murat and Ali turned out to be oil specialists from one of the regional
capitals, in town visiting family. It was the first time they had been to
Ashgabat for four years and they had all the marks of the wide-eyed
provincial in the big city as they looked in awe at the imposing buildings
around them. Ali was quiet and affable, while Murat wouldn’t stop talking
and had a rather unpleasant hectoring tone. He also turned out to be the
first real Turkmenbashi enthusiast I’d come across.

“This complex was built by our first president, the great Saparmurat
Niyazov ? Turkmenbashi,” he shouted unnecessarily loudly into my
ear. “Have you heard of him?”

I refrained from the obvious response that it would have been fairly difficult
to have been in Turkmenistan for more than two minutes and not have heard of
him, and went for the non-confrontational: “Yes, he seems to have built
a lot.”

“Not just built, Shaun. He also did a lot; he did so much for the Turkmen
people.”

The first floor of the cavernous museum was devoted to gifts that had been
given to Turkmenbashi ? malachite vases, elaborate timepieces of solid gold,
crystal dining sets, enormous carpets. Murat would call me over every now
and then to bellow about a particularly lavish gift, peppering his speech
with the Russian expletive pizdets, a vulgar expression of surprise derived
from the word for the female genitalia.

“Pizdets, this thing is solid crystal! Can you believe it? Solid! That’s
how great he was, pizdets! Can you imagine? They gave him something of solid
pizdets crystal!”

Who exactly the “they” was for the most part remained a mystery.
Most of the exhibits had a label explaining what it was but not designating
the giver, which led me to wonder whether he hadn’t given most of them to
himself. Especially suspicious were several carpets woven with verses from
the Ruhnama and the Turkmen national anthem (first line: “Turkmenbashi
made Turkmenistan great”).

Afterwards I went for a beer with Ali and Murat. The talk moved to the
inevitable subject of money. They asked me how much was the lowest that a
skilled worker could expect to be paid per month in England. I said about
£1,000, to keep it on the low side, and reminded them that they had to
remember that taxes were higher in England and so were prices. They looked
at each other in amazement. Then they asked how much rent I paid per month
for my apartment in Moscow. I halved the amount and they were still
gobsmacked. They told me that they earned about £100 per month. This for the
employees of a state oil company with higher education and 15 years of
specialist experience. Even though utilities were free and prices in general
were low in Turkmenistan, it was still a shockingly low amount of money. Ali
spent his weekends working as a carpenter to make ends meet.

“With that money I have to buy food and clothes for my wife and two kids,”
said Murat. “It’s terrible how we live. We have no money.” There
was of course a giant elephant storming around the café that I couldn’t help
but mention. “Murat,” I began, as tactfully as I possibly could. “What
good are all these monuments and fountains, that the government has spent
billions of dollars on, if hard-working people like you don’t have enough
money to put food on the table for their family?”

Murat paused for a while. Then he said: “As Saparmurat Turkmenbashi said,
‘He who works hard will have his rewards.'”

It was unclear whether these rewards would come in a few years, or in the
afterlife, but it was fairly obvious they weren’t here yet. I didn’t think
it was worth probing this logical crevice any further. Not for the only time
in Turkmenistan, I was left wondering if someone had been fully taken in by
the years of propaganda they’d been subjected to, or if they were well aware
how messed up the situation was but were trying to persuade me ? or
themselves ? that Turkmenbashi really had been a wise and just leader.

***

I’m at the departure lounge of the airport, waiting for my
less-than-convenient 4.50am flight back to Istanbul. Two of the handful of
destinations that Turkmenistan Airlines flies to turned out to be Birmingham
and Amritsar, and the small, shabby departure area was crammed with around
200 exhausted Sikhs with Midlands accents waiting for their connecting
flight. It’s almost impossible to book tickets on Turkmenistan Airlines ?
they have no website and aren’t bookable at online sites like Expedia. But a
few Birmingham travel agents had apparently got hold of tickets and were
selling the Birmingham-Amritsar via Ashgabat route at knock-down prices.

I asked a few of them if they’d ever heard of Turkmenbashi or knew anything
about the country. “To be honest I’d never even heard of it until we
got the tickets. I’ve got no idea where we are. Are we somewhere near Russia?”
one of them asked me in a heavy Birmingham accent. I started telling them
about Turkmenbashi, the Ruhnama, the statues, and so on, but they didn’t
seem to believe me.

Giving an impromptu 4am lecture on Turkmenbashi’s political thought to a group
of Brummies in turbans was not how I expected to end my time in
Turkmenistan. But on balance, it was an appropriately surreal way to end my
stay in the world’s most bizarre country.

A nation in numbers: Turkmenistan revealed

* Turkmenistan occupies 188,456 square miles, an area slightly larger than
California.

* Major languages are Turkmen (spoken by 79 per cent of the population) and
Russian (12 per cent). Nine per cent speak Uzbek.

* Religion: 89 per cent are Muslim.

* Main exports are oil, gas, textiles and raw cotton.

* Life expectancy for men is 59 years, 68 for women.

* Infant mortality rate is 45.36 deaths per 1,000 live births.

* Annexed by Russia between 1865 and 1885, the country became a Soviet
republic in 1924, called the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

* Gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

* Large reserves of natural gas, produce roughly 70 billion cubic metres each
year, but it has suffered from a lack of adequate export routes. The economy
remains undeveloped and much of the population still lives in poverty.

* The average wage is £120 to £220 a month.

* The gross domestic product for 2008 was estimated at $30.332 billion.

* Currency is the Manat, which subdivides into 100 Tennesi. Previous president
Saparmurat Niyazov appears on the 500 manat (£107) note, currently the
highest denomination.

* Although official figures place unemployment at five per cent, international
organisations estimate it is closer to 50 per cent.

Holly Williams

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