Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #57: Turkmenistan: Admiring The Beloved Great Leader\’s Book in the City of Love, II – Turkmenistan

#56: Turkmenistan: Admiring The Beloved Great Leader’s Book in the City of Love, II

2 September 2002
Turkmenistan is rich with natural gas. Turkmenbashi had proclaimed at independence that this would be a new Kuwait of the future.

However, Turkmenistan is a landlocked nation (ok, it has the Caspian Sea, which is more lake than sea) and its rusty old pipelines pass through Russia, which imposes huge fees for the privilege. It wants to build a pipeline through Iran, but was unable to find international lenders due to US sanctions on Iran.

Its dreams of richness couldn’t be realized, except for the illusions of wealth fired by the Ali-Baba fantasy-style Presidential Palace, the huge grand monuments and the amazing fountains built in Asgabat by Turkmenbashi. Its citizens earn an average of US$150 per month. School teachers earn US$50 and have to supplement their income with bribes for passing exams from students, or private tuition for students. Police and civil servants feed their families from bribery and an assortment of tips for petty favors. Turkmenbashi makes life for everybody easier by providing free electricity and low fuel costs. The latter means that one can fill up a fuel tank by paying only $1.50, and a taxi within Asgabat centre costs only 15 cents.

Turkmenbashi probably loves to see himself as a promoter of tourism – his chubby smiling face appears on all the tourism publicity brochures, together with amazingly irrelevant personal quotations. However, planning any holiday in the country is a paperwork nightmare. Like all former Soviet republics, one needs an invitation from a travel agency. Turkmenistan, in addition, requires a fixed arrival date, whereby the travel agency is obliged to present the relevant documents to the border officials in advance, without which one would not be allowed to enter.

The tourist may wander around freely in Asgabat, but has to be accompanied by a guide outside the capital. This is most inconvenient for independent travellers. Many border regions, including a few which are major tourist attractions, are now restricted zones where everyone, whether Turkmen citizens or not, have to request permission to visit. Frequent roadblocks on highways as well as on internal provincial border crossings, which resemble international ones, enforce rules like that. One sees long lines of vehicles and all travellers, including Turkmen citizens, have to show their passports and register themselves, while moving across provincial borders. Looks as though this country is turning into a kind of highly controlled regime similar to North Korea or Iraq, or have I missed the plot?

I explored the famous bazaars of Asgabat. None is more famous than the Bazaar of Tolkuchka, where nomads and villagers from afar gather to sell their wares, anything from camels and carpets, to toothbrushes and old T-shirts, plus the colourful spices, and smell of shashilik (BBQ meat), manty (Central Asian dumplings) and pilov (fried rice). The smell and sights of Central Asia reminded me of the wonderful time I spent in Kazakstan, Kyrygzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 1998. I bought a camel saddle, an exquisite treasure – though hardly an antique – embroidered in the style typical of the Turkmen Yomuk tribe. I hid it at the bottom of my backpack, lest Turkmenbashi’s henchmen had any excuse to extort some coffee money.

Back in town, I visited the Carpet Museum – the Turkmens say it’s the largest in the world – though I have across similar claims from museums in Azerbaijan, Morocco and a whole host of other places. The museum is interesting enough, especially for an amateur rug collector like me. The two largest carpets in the world are here, backed up by certificates from the Guinness Book of World Records. The older one was made during the WWII, during the Soviet days, with typical Turkmen tribal patterns. The newer one, now the record holder, was sewn a year ago. No prize for guessing what slogan was sewn across it: “21st Century – Turkmen Golden Century”, in the Turkmen language, plus the signature of Turkmenbashi. The real Holy Ark in the Museum, however, is a small carpet sewn by Turkmenbashi’s Mother. That is treated no different from how mediaeval churches in Europe guard the holy relics of saints.

Sightseeing aside, I have also been having a great time in the City of Love. The locals are really friendly and hospitable. I have been invited to two birthday parties and invited to one, plus an obligatory lesson on vodka ethics of Turkmenistan, nominally a Muslim country (“We are modern Muslims,” said a Turkmen friend). I was also invited by many locals for chay (tea) and tidbits, just because I passed their shop or had a mini-chat with them in the most unlikely of places. Arslan, a guy who works at Ayan Travel, invited me for dinner at his house, and I had a great time tasting manty made by his beautiful wife. We compared Turkmen and Singapore Chinese wedding customs while watching the video of his recent wedding – we realized that we have a lot of similar customs. Could it be a common link between the Turkic and Chinese cultures that originated from the windswept plains of once nomadic Eurasia?

After Asgabat, under 50�C summer heat, I flew to Mary (pronounced “Maar-re”), the second-largest city, on a creaking Turkmenistan Airlines plane. Hot as a sauna. The greenhouse effect is unbelievably unendurable. Reminded me of how Taleban and the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan (who operate not very far from here) suffocated their prisoners of war to death in containers in the desert.

I can’t complain about the price though – I paid only $7 for the one-hour flight. If I had booked the flight one month in advance, I would only have to pay $3.50. If I were a Turkmen citizen, the ticket cost only a princely sum of $1.50! All courtesy of His Excellency Turkmenbashi the Great – oh, I forgot, we may soon have to address him as Field Marshal. Latest reports say the Army of Turkmenistan has nominated him for a promotion to the rank of a Field Marshal. Right now, he holds the humble rank of a Major General.

Mary is the jump-off point to Merv, one of the oldest cities of the world. Once an important trading city that has seen, among others, Alexander the Great’s conquest, it achieved greatest fame and glory as the capital of the Seljuk Turk empire, which stretched from Egypt to Central Asia. Unfortunately, these came to an end when the Mongols under Genghis Khan’s son came, massacred all its 1 million inhabitants and totally destroyed the city.

Today, across the huge site lying in the middle of a desert steppe, one come across eroded miles of city walls and a few lone shrines and citadels, most notably the enormous domed mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the only monument the Mongols were unable to raze to the ground. Its once-shiny blue tiles totally lost, it stood in the middle of this quiet plain, as if to mourn the destruction of what was once one of the largest cities on Earth.

I returned to Asgabat and explored the surrounding region. With Muktabat, the highly knowledgeable and capable guide from Ayan Travel, I explored the ancient citadels and cities in the desert mountains and plains of Ahal Viloyet (or province), for example, the old Parthian capital Nisa, the magnificent windswept fortress of Nadir Shah (of Persia), the ancient Zorastorian city of Abiverd, as well as the old ruined mosque of Anau, once famous for its dragon motifs. This is also the land of the Akhal-Teke, the divine horse of Darius the Great of Persia, which caught the fancy of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Marco Polo also raved about it.

Like everything else in this country, however, the Great Leader too has hijacked it. Our best friend in this country is officially the President of the Akhal Teke Horse Association. Enough talk about the Great Beloved Leader though, or the agents of the Committee for the Defense of People’s Security (aka Turkmen KGB), may be alerted and attempt to extradite me as an Enemy of the People.

Turkmenistan is an amazingly beautiful country with a very hospitable people. Bureaucracy has made it very difficult for travelers to visit this country. What a pity! I hope nothing but the best for the people of this country. After five days here, I flew to Baku for a connecting flight to the far, far north. Here I am in St Petersburg, from the desert to the northernmost of all metropolises, in a way not too far from the Arctic. See you!