Turkmenistan: Tinhorn Tyranny
By David Rich
[I suggest money not be wasted going to Turkmenistan, though the country is an admitted hoot. With the mandatory guide any visit is expensive, requiring private transportation over the boring desert, and nothing of interest to see; it’s easier and less expensive, for most, to simply visit Las Vegas.
But for those who must visit every last weird country on earth, such as myself, Lufthansa and Turkmenistan Air fly to Ashgabat from Europe and the Middle East, expensively…
Turkmenistan also has a reputation for ptomaine and unsanitary food preparation. But enjoy.]
The country of Turkmenistan has elevated silliness to a superlative, a tinhorn tyranny that begins at the border and continues for the duration of the visit, relieved only by escape to another weirdo country, for example its southern neighbor, Iran, a mere ten miles south of Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat.
Consider the silliness list: Turkmenistan boasts the world’s longest irrigation canal, 1370 kilometers (850 miles) long, built by the Soviets in the 1950s to divert the waters of the mighty Pamir/Oxus/Amur River to grow cotton in southern Turkmenistan.
Cotton grows like topsy producing the aimed-for $2 tee shirt, now up to $4 with inflation, incidentally destroying both the Aral Sea, former terminus of the mighty Pamir/Oxus/Amur-Darya and Syr-Darya Rivers and the fishing industry in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan around the shrunken Sea named North Aral and South Aral ponds, formerly the world’s fourth largest lake.
Additionally Turkmenistan’s crazy president is building Central Asia’s largest artificial lake in the middle of the boring Karakum Desert, which covers most of Turkmenistan. The purpose of the lake, current cost estimated at 10 billion dollars, is unknown. I’d guess water-skiing.
A Gazillion Barrels A Person
Meanwhile cotton and extra water are nigh superfluous to the Turkmen economy, which enjoys the world’s fourth largest natural gas and seventh hugest oil reserves; these total about a gazillion barrels a person for its population of six million in a country a speck larger than California.
Turkmen brag their gasoline is the cheapest on the planet at $.20 a liter ($.75 a gallon). The government kindly provides vouchers for a free 100 liters a month. For those tired of high gasoline (petrol) prices, Turkmenistan is a retirement haven, especially for those who love Las Vegas, because they’ll love Ashgabat.
The Darvaza gas crater, dug by the Soviets while exploring for natural gas, is the country’s most impressive site, visible for miles at night. Up close it bears a canny resemblance to a Middle-Ages’ painting of Christian hell.
Turkmenistan is awash in so much natural gas that it’s free but matches cost a penny a gross with the result that Turkmen leave their stoves lit 24/7.
The President’s cavalcade happened to sweep through the former town of Darvaza when the ever observant President happened to notice the town’s desert landscaping wasn’t up to his exacting standards, which required neat-as-a-pin lawns.
The President ordered Darvaza razed to the ground, and it immediately was. Word on the whereabouts of former Darvaza residents is illusive. For retirees to Turkmenistan magnetized by cheap gas, be sure to keep the yard neat.
Ashgabat was refashioned by the megalomaniacal President into a schlock Las Vegas prototype, crammed with marble palaces and marble apartment complexes embellished by a liberal sprinkling of golden and colorfully tiled domes, a baby Disneyland and 28 miles (45 kilometers) of concrete staircase built onto the mountains south of the city that divide unhinged Turkmenistan from equally demented Iran.
People, Nation, ME!
Fire up Google Earth and goggle in wonderment at Ashgabat, beginning with the Royal Plunger, which houses the Museum of Turkmen Values and lights the evening sky while segueing through brilliant hues ranging from lavender, rosy red, garbage green and pukey pink, the country’s second most impressive sight at night.
The Neutrality Arch lords over downtown Ashgabat, topped off by a 20-meter (65-foot) high sculpture of the President cast in gold, revolving slowly for the sun to more easily follow the Turkmen star, rays from his flashy façade blinding the lowly populace at his golden feet. His slogan is displayed all over the city: People, Nation, ME! – not necessarily in that order.
Amazing critter, this President Niyozov, who also wrote the world’s greatest book, on sale in all Turkmenistan stores and on display in every shopping mall, government building and hospital, including a copy launched into earth orbit.
The Fountainhead of Civilization
This amazing book is commemorated in dozens of golden sculptures, held reverently in the golden hands of the golden president, a revisionist history of Turkmenistan that established it as the fountainhead of civilization, rather like the histories taught in the schools of all other countries, but even more excessively.
Rush out at the earliest opportunity and snag a copy of Ruhmana, the Book of Soul, or order a copy at ruhmana.com. Also brush up on the Turkmen language because to avoid sullying the native language, no English translation of Ruhmana exists.
Reading it a hundred times guarantees a slot in heaven, but then intimate knowledge of its contents is mandatory for those wishing to pass the civil service exam, enter college or pass a driver’s test, the last perhaps explaining Turkmenistan’s hopelessly inept drivers.
The Prez was a sentimental putz, building Central Asia’s largest and most garish mosque (though repressing the religion to Western delight) on the site where his mother and two brothers perished in a Richter Scale 9 earthquake that killed two thirds of the inhabitants of Ashgabat instantly at 1 a.m. on October 6, 1948, totally destroying the city.
In reverence the President renamed the month of April after his mother and inscribed the massive mosque with the catchy phrase: Ruhmana is a holy book; the Koran is Allah’s Book.
The minarets are 300 feet (91 meters, in commemoration of 1991 independence from the Soviet Union) tall and inscribed with extensive poignant quotes from the Ruhmana; the mosque can seat 10,000 genuflecting people.
A Well-Earned Heart Attack
Fortunately, crazy President Saparmurat Niyozov is planted permanently in the golden mausoleum next to the gaudy mosque, having suffered a massive and hard-earned heart attack on December 21, 2006.
He was immediately succeeded by an illegitimate son who continues enlightened xenophobia and governance under the unpronounceable moniker of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Turkmenistan remains the only country on earth that requires a personal guide to accompany all those entering on a tourist visa, guide hovering at the elbow during the tourist’s every moment in the country, reluctantly settling for adjoining hotel rooms.
But the reluctance is tempered by the fact that all tourist rooms are bugged. This I enjoyed, wondering loudly in my room why the regime was such a baby, scared of its own shadow, and when it might join the rest of the universe. Nothing happened.
However, the country earns points for candor, fielding police on every block and stopping motorists at will; the acronym for the Police Road Eye Service, and they do service the motorist, is reminiscent of the 60s: PYGG.
Mr. Oleg, my trusty guide and driver, was the most nervous person I’d ever met, twitching every second, on the second, from fingers through elbows and shoulders like a groupie listening to his favorite hip-hop band, likely thanks to PYGG.
I scooted out of Ashgabat on Turkmenistan’s grandly celebrated Independence Day, miles of downtown streets lines with army troops, police, rocket launchers, tanks and the famous Turkmen horses, the Akhal-Teke, father to today’s thoroughbred.
The new golden President won a mere 90% of the vote during his first election in February 2007, but his popularity will inevitably swell; rumors suggest he’s working on a new book he’ll hold in his golden hands while astride a golden Akhal-Teke horse, striving to embellish the tinhorn tyranny of his deceased predecessor.
If You Must Go:
I suggest money not be wasted, though the country is an admitted hoot.
With the mandatory guide any visit is expensive, requiring private transportation over the boring desert, and nothing of interest to see other than the Darvaza Gas Crater and schlocky Ashgabat; it’s easier and less expensive, for most, to simply visit Las Vegas.
But for those who must visit every last weird country on earth, such as myself, Lufthansa and Turkmenistan Air fly to Ashgabat from Europe and the Middle East, expensively, Lufthansa from $1000 roundtrip.
In addition to airfare, five days of transportation and hotels will cost about $700 a person.
Turkmenistan also has a reputation for ptomaine and unsanitary food preparation. But enjoy. It was a laugh a minute.
has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 16 years, living in 140 countries to date. He is a full-time international traveler, an occupation he finds far preferable to his former professions of law professor and trial lawyer, from which he says he’s now “mostly recovered.”