I’ve spent three days in this crazy excuse for a country, and I’m desperately looking forward to my departure tomorrow. From my short time here, it is apparent that the Turkmenistan Government does not want visitors, and they go all the way to make this painfully clear. That’s just as well, because there’s really nothing to see in this country, as its best attraction is a flaming gas crater unintentionally created by some soviet engineers in the 60’s. See earlier post.
Just to give you an idea of the ordeal that tourists have to put up with – there are no decent privately run budget hotels here, just a collection of crumbling ex-soviet dinosaurs. And they charge tourists 5 (FIVE!) times what locals pay. There is absolutely no photo taking in central Ashgabat. Stray from this decree and you will be shouted at like an animal by the legions of security personnel on every corner of every street. You are routinely interrogated when you step into the 10 sq ft personal fiefdom of these sad little men wearing absurdly large hats, just for being out after dark. And don’t even get me started on the service standards, where staff at hotels and restaurants put in extra effort to ignore you if you don’t speak Turkmen or Russian.
The Turkmen economy is driven almost entirely by oil receipts, and a cotton industry which has destroyed the Aral Sea. Do they use this incredible wealth to make the lives of their people better? Not really. Most of it is wantonly spent building monstrosity after meaningless monstrosity in the capital. Someone has a serious fetish for white marble, and they’ve plastered every building, park and walkway here with it. And because the city’s architects clearly ran out of imagination or talent at some point – who can blame them – every building looks like it’s been replicated from a very limited set of templates. High gates, big rectangular façade, gold dome, roman columns, badabing-badaboom-let’s-move-on-to-the-next-one. The roads are wide enough to land small aircraft on, for non-existent vehicular traffic (Turkmenistan has a population of only 6 million). The parks are pointlessly large, devoid of any character, and a chore to walk around – no touching the grass. And there are enough floodlights throughout the city to make the sun redundant.
At least employment is created for the very large army of cleaners required to keep everything spiffy. Every bus stop seems to have its own dedicated team of cleaning ladies who will likely spend their entire lives wiping down its glass windows. I saw a gang of 8 cleaners scrubbing the white lines(?!?) on the road at night so that they’ll be nice and shiny in the morning - after the road-cleaning truck had already done its rounds. And how many civil servants do they have to employ to fill-up the hundreds (no-kidding) of government buildings?
All this madness seems to have originated from a certain President Nizayov, self-proclaimed leader for life. As leader of the Communist Party, he saw it fit to appoint himself Head of State after Moscow decided that it didn’t want a Soviet Union anymore in the 90’s. In the past 20 years, the despot has turned Turkmenistan into his own personal playpen, naming the days of the week after his family members and declaring that everyone calls him “Turkmenbashi” i.e. Leader of All Turkmen People. His own personal motto “My people, my nation, my Turkmenbashi” is disturbingly reminiscent of Hitler’s “Ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer”.
Since his death in 2007, new President Berdymukhamedov, promoted from Deputy President, once-upon-a-time Turkmenbashi’s dentist, has dismantled some of his predecessor’s more hair-brained rulings e.g. no playing of music in cars, no ballet, no opera, no circus (i.e. no performing arts), and strangely, no gold teeth – Turkmenbashi encouraged his people to gnaw on bones like dogs to strengthen their teeth, so no need for prosthetics. But it seems like delusions of grandeur are not a matter of “if” but “when”. Already, 10-metre tall coloured posters of the new president line the boulevards and adorn the walls of all government buildings. And his recently published book on wild flowers has mysteriously made its way into the recommended reading list for schoolchildren.
Now, I’m fairly tolerant of third world dictatorships and police states, coming from my part of the planet. But what is really creepy to me is the unyielding, unerring precision in which it’s being executed here. It takes a very special psychological profile to do this, and it takes a different kind of determination to believe that something so warped can be so right. It's the people which I sympathise with the most. Blinded by decades of numbing propaganda, they see no alternative, and are trapped on the vehicle of self-interest which the Turkmen elite like to call a country. Unfortunately this vehicle isn't going anywhere, and this makes the ride for most of its passengers depressingly pointless.
Time to wake up, Turkmenistan.