Other than the gas crater, if there’s anything Turkmenistan is known for, it’s… how little everyone knows. The country has a reputation comparable to North Korea in more ways than one. Foreign visitors are heavily restricted, with visas subject to arbitrary rejection and guides mandatory (although, to their credit, transit visas without guides are allowed). According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedoms in Turkmenistan rank third-last in the world. (The bottom five are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea in dead last.) But most notoriously, until his death in 2006, Saparmurat
Niyazov Turkmenbashi was the dictator president of the country, forming one of the most bizarre personality cults in the world around himself.
This is a man who wrote (or possibly ghost-wrote, as an electrical engineering dropout purportedly not fully literate) a book, the Ruhnama, calling it the spiritual guide for all Turkmen people, and cut subjects from schools like physics and algebra while making Ruhnama study a mandatory part of the curriculum and a tested subject, and closing libraries around the country since “only the Qur’an and Ruhnama are necessary”; who renamed the Turkmen names of the months and the days of the week, some after himself, his book, and even his mother, and required all media to use them; who renamed himself as Turkmenbashi (“leader of the Turkmen people”) and used it in the country’s motto (“People, Nation, Turkmenbashi/Me”) and named a city after himself; who issued arbitrary decrees banning lip syncing, owning cats, facial hair on teens, ballet, smoking in public, and hospitals existing outside of the capital city (?!) in this very large country. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.
And there’s no greater showcase for Niyazov than the capital city of Ashgabat, home to the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world. Not only is it blindingly white, it’s also blindingly full of gold, most of which is used in statues of Niyazov, commissioned by the man himself. (North Korea-like in more ways than one!) Government buildings are decorated with gold-laid carpet patterns — Turkmenistan’s most famous export, even displayed on their flag. And at night, it all lights up impressively too, like some sort of Las Vegas, except all the hotels are made of marble and they’re all empty.
Whew. That’s a lot (of crazy) for a country I just said people know little about. But how is it actually? We know a lot about its presidents (and more on the current one later), but what about everyone else?
I had a glimpse of Turkmen television while in Uzbekistan. Everyone, from the crowd to the performers, is dressed either in suits or in beautiful traditional clothing. Singers and dancers of immense skill perform on flashy stages and in fancy, gilded rooms. The crowd is expressionless. They applaud robotically, unsmiling, neither bored nor exasperated. I’ve never seen anything like it — is this brainwashing?
It’s thus rather shocking to me that Ashgabat is quite laid-back! Life bustles in the bazaars, people are friendly though surprisingly unphased at the sight of a foreigner (and I did not see a single one other than myself the whole time), people go about their days — heading to work, going to school, taking the bus, shopping in bazaars or gleaming malls, relaxing in cafes, taking selfies, watching silly videos on their phones. There’s affluence here — while there are some beat-up Soviet-era cars, most are fancy (and of course, gleaming white). Everyone I talked to seemed perfectly normal, not brainwashed — which defies expectations given what the world does know about the country! There were even some who excitedly used their English with me, also something you wouldn’t expect from such a closed country where people are still heavily restricted from travelling outside of it.
Men here wear hats, as per usual in Central Asia, but less frequently. Instead, it seems to be the women dressed to the nines here — girls wear the same hats as men, on top of their braids and their eye-catchingly green or red traditional outfits. Older women tie their headscarves over large hats, making them look like they’re all sporting faux-beehive hairstyles. Style here looks nothing like the other Stans.
Unlike Uzbekistan, no one ever raised up the topic of their president to me. Nothing negative, nothing positive. Sure, I only stayed for an incredibly short time, but it’s still a little telling — perhaps they just don’t care. And it sure looks like it as I headed into “downtown” and visited the countless lavish monuments in the city: despite looking like public spaces meant for thousands, I was often entirely alone, save for the cleaning staff either sweeping, mowing grass, wiping down the marble, or sleeping in the shade.
Most of these monuments are of questionably tacky taste but undeniable expense, with nothing but the best of materials. (The statue industry must be making a killing here!) In terms of city landmarks, spread out far beyond where anything interesting is happening yet still important enough to each warrant long detours for accessible bus routes, there’s the Wedding Palace, with a golden globe surrounded by the Turkmen version of the Islamic star; the Turkmenistan Tower standing far in the distance, hardly visible behind the desert haze; and the ferris wheel Prosperity Monument.
Closer to the new city district of Berzengi is where the good stuff begins. There’s the Monument to Neutrality, rebuilt even taller than before, in its new location (no longer in Ashgabat’s central square, but on the southern edge of the city), infamous for the statue of a heroic Niyazov on the top that seriously used to rotate to face the sun. Not even kidding. I’m a bit sad that it doesn’t now, but it’s no longer sitting in a position where it can do that properly.
East of that are the National Museum (lots of golden domes and huge doors) and the national hospital (where each hospital building is accessed by a freaking suspension bridge). And across from the Palace of Knowledge, which looks exactly as it sounds, is the creme de la creme — Independence Park, featuring the Independence Monument… which absolutely looks like a golden toilet plunger. It’s surrounded by gilded statues of Turkmen historical figures, and despite virtually no other people around to witness the event, I unexpectedly glimpsed a highly choreographed changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the top of the hour. Do they really need all the exaggerated movements and pomp and circumstance, if no one’s around to see it?
Down the hill from the plunger is one of many, many, many more statues of Niyazov (I counted at least 7) in the city, but this one’s probably the biggest. Most hilariously to me, he’s surrounded by several golden copies of what I think is a national symbol he introduced: a five-headed eagle clutching a two-headed snake.
North of that is the infamous Ruhnama Monument, a giant copy of the book set on a fountain. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that every night at 8 pm, the monument opens and commences an audio-visual show reading a passage from the book. Agh! Further north of that is the underwhelming Altyn Asyr Mall, whose exterior supposedly doubles as the world’s largest fountain…which isn’t running. (There are far more than enough fountains in this city already, it’s in the middle of a desert!)
(For reference, this is the landscape I saw for hours, before arriving in Ashgabat:)
After Niyazov passed away suddenly in 2006, current president (and former dentist) Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took over. He rolled back a lot of the ridiculous stuff — reverted the days of the week and the months, gradually phased out the Ruhnama from “read it three times a day and go to heaven” status (seriously) to “you don’t need to write exams on this anymore”, and slowly began to peel away Niyazov’s personality cult.
However, it appears that he’s started his own. Pictures of Berdimuhamedov, in a suit or military garb or racing a horse or whatever a la Kim Jong-Il, grace virtually every building. Rather than taking the name/title Turkmenbashi, he’s referred to as Arkadag, or “protector”. He’s even commissioned his first statue of himself riding a horse on a white cliff, and there are giant lit-up monuments dedicated to him in the city, one facing directly in across from a golden statue of Niyazov.
He’s also responsible for the new Presidential Palace, dwarfing the old one standing one block adjacent. Glowing beautifully at night and with some of the largest gates I’ve ever seen on any building, the new one is several city blocks long, and if the heavy police presence catch you so much as looking at it for more than a second, you’re gonna be shooed away. Pedestrians aren’t allowed to walk around it, and cars aren’t allowed to drive adjacent to it either. (I somehow managed a few quick photos before being yelled at.)
With all of these extremely lavish buildings, it’s clear that Turkmenistan has the capability of earning a lot of money — oil and gas are their bread and butter. But how much of it benefits the people? I mean, sure, the roads are huge and pristine (so clean you could probably eat off of it); there’s an excellent public bus system with lots of routes that go everywhere and air-conditioned bus stops that look like space pods; and most importantly of all, gas (up to a quota, past that, you’re paying 30 cents a litre for the most premium quality gasoline), water, and electricity are provided free to citizens. And again, it’s clear that people have *some* money, even in the poorer areas of the country; people in the most ramshackle rest stops seemed to have smartphones, and one even had a fancy iMac surrounded by their dishevelled display of convenience store goods.
You really have to wonder though, how much more they could be getting. The road linking Dashoguz/Konye-Urgench and Ashgabat is the busiest in the country, yet so riddled with potholes and no lighting, save for a completely new and modern bridge plopped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand. Speaking of sand, some of the communities are literally being consumed by it, and they look like they could just disappear. The major town of Konye-Urgench, home to one of their most revered historical sites, looks more like a backwater that could really use some upkeep. And most tellingly of all, the currency is now already subject to a black market rate, meaning something’s going on — who knows what?
Meanwhile, Ashgabat continues its construction boom, unabated. New streets are lined with hundreds of street lamps, newly planted trees, a dozen bus stops, and no buildings. In another area, new hotels show no signs of habitation. Giant stadiums and even a monorail (servicing only the cluster of new sporting venues) are currently being built in advance of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games being hosted next year, to absolutely enormous fanfare almost as if they were hosting the Olympics themselves — they’re spending US$5 billion. And who knows how many more fountains and golden statues are due to spring up!
All to spread the good and mighty name of Turkmenistan: the country still too paranoid to let people in or out freely.