Turkmenistan: The Ministry of Silly Walks

 Tolkuchka Bazaar Ashgabat
Just some of the colours seen on a cloudy morning in the Tolkuchka Bazaar situated in the desert outside of the capital Ashgabat.  There is no doubt  in my mind that this is the finest and most impressive of the markets in ex-Soviet  Central Asia.  And that's quite an endorsement in a region famous for its markets
.  Still almost untouristed because of the closure of the country, one can imagine that  little has changed through historic invasions by Arabs, Mongols, Russians, crackpot dictators, and the modern world.  Stretching for miles along its long axis, bazaar attracts participants from hours away by bus and sells everything available in the country, from tractor parts to candy bars.  The carpet, fabric and textile aisles keep the famous handicraft production alive in the distinct Turkmen desert nomad traditions.  The contrast of the colourful women's clothing to the black chador across the border in Iran just a few kilometres away is one of the most striking fashion transitions I've seen anywhere in the world.

If the biggest enemy of the long term traveller is ennui, then the surest antidote to be blasted out of this stupor is to enter a country that its own planet unto itself. It's not a coincidence that these countries are usually run by highly repressive regimes and populated with some of the most blissfully unjaded and sincere people.  Though I remained only 5 days on a Turkmenistan transit visa (not enough time typically to justify its own page here), the heady vapours of a world gone awry linger long after the visit.  Anytime travellers who've been to Turkmenistan meet, they get excited and start sharing their stories enthusiastically.  Few places in the world generate the kind of buzz and wicked wonder.


Modern Turkmenistan is the creation of one man, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who prefers to be known as the Turkmenbashi (meaning leader of the Turkmen people).  Appointed by Mikhail Gorbatchev as the Party leader of the Turkmen SSR because he was an orphan believed to be less attached to nationalist causes, the Turkmenbashi nonetheless quickly drew Turkmenistan into a nationalistic timewarp upon independence, and subsequently into his own personal and absurd slipstream.  The cult of personality that he's created might only be surpassed today by that of the North Korea founder Kim Il-Jong.

The architecture of Ashgabat is a giant open air museum of the Turkmenbashi. Most often cited is the 12 meter high gold statue of the Turkmenbashi atop the Arch of Neutrality in Neutrality Square, the focal point of the city.  With his fluttering golden cape and back arched slightly backwards, the Turkmenbashi looks up to the heavens and rotates his gaze around the city, the sun following him around throughout the day.   Innumerable golden statues of an enthroned Turkmenbashi are scattered across the city, often in front of government ministries which he creates for his pleasure, and guarded by Kalashnikov-armed soldiers.  Giant posters of the Turkmenbashi are ubiquitous on buildings, and on street corner billboards, often portraying him as a smiling, benign paternal figure.  My personal favourite is a billboard across from the Turkish-funded Yimpaș mall, showing the Turkmenbashi standing nobly erect and looking down at his wristwatch.

Neutrality day fireworks Ashgabat

Neutrality Day fireworks in Ashgabat were spectacular, and I'd guess contracted out to a foreign company.  Here, a soldier clad in the furry coat and hat common in Central Asia and the Russian empire, stands watch, preventing spectators from approaching too closely the Ruhyyet Palace, located in the same square as the Palace of the Turkmenbashi.  Neutrality Day celebrates the declaration of neutrality by the Turkmenbashi in 1998.  He was, however, good friends with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan until their downfall, and ready to support their threatened invasion of Uzbekistan.

In the Independence Park south of the city centre past the "Olympic" stadium, colossal monuments to the Turkmenbashi are flanked by modern gleaming white buildings ostensibly built as luxury hotels but which are in practice almost completely unoccupied.  The park highlights are the Monument to Independence (a giant golden inverted plunger housing a museum), a pyramidal shopping mall which has the largest fountain in the world with the water streaming down the sides of the pyramid, and a giant statue of his first book the Ruhnama, or Book of the Soul, offering spiritual guidance for the "Turkmen way of life."  The white buildings are lined up on long axes emanating from the city centre and extending out to the deserted countryside.  The longest one that I counted was 23 buildings before they disappeared over the horizon.   As a former urban planner in the communist government, the Turkmenbashi relishes his artistic freedom and with the help of his court builder, Bouyges Construction of France, feels empowered to beautify the city with his vision.  The function of any of these buildings appears to be somewhat random. It could be a luxury hotel, it could be a new ministry that he'd think up overnight, or simply just left empty.  The real estate for development along these grand axes is confiscated by the government without any compensation or concern for local residents left homeless.


The stories about Turkmenbashi's whimsical tendencies are legendary.  Once, he was said to have stopped in front of a cotton farm where the elderly manager was berating a young boy on his cotton picking techniques.  Displeased, the Turkmenbashi came out of his car and ordered the two to switch positions permanently, the boy taking over the farm and the old man ruined for life.   Incidentally, cotton is the secondary export from Turkmenistan after fossil fuels and all citizens are obliged to spend time every year picking cotton for the state without compensation.   Plenty of damning stories can be heard in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where residents in the Nukus area have been separated from their ethnic Uzbek relatives in the adjacent part of Turkmenistan following the breakup and partitioning of the Soviet Union.  Not only does the Turkmenbashi restrict his citizens from crossing over to Uzbekistan, but Uzbeks who drive across the border to see their relatives must pay $250 for the privilege, a few months' average salary.  Turkmen soldiers have instructions to shoot to kill any Uzbeks violating the immigration laws.


If you ask your average Turkmen on the street his or her opinion about the Turkmenbashi, however, you may be surprised to learn that he is adored by some.  On TV, he is shown receiving poor families into his palace, and upon learning of their financial and health woes, giving them money to salvage their lives.  Television is, not surprisingly, completely controlled by the state. A golden head profile of the Turkembashi appears on the upper right hand corner of the screen on all channels.  Only Turkmen programming is allowed.  Foreign contamination such as ballet or motion pictures or literature are deemed un-Turkmen and strictly illegal.  This may explain why the Turkmenbashi's own books always remain atop the national bestseller lists.   Apart from the usual folk dancing and singing shows, I watched one TV talk show with two teenage girls discussing passages excerpted from the Ruhnama, which is mandatory reading for all schoolkids.  Turkmenistan is rich in celebrations of its culture and proud history.  I regrettably missed the national Melon day holiday, but I was fortunate enough to have arrived in Ashgabat on Neutrality Day, the anniversary of the Turkmenbashi's 1998 declaration of political neutrality.   Indeed, he prefers to steer clear of American and Russian alliances, despises the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, and was quite cushy with the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.  The lavish fireworks show in the Neutrality square was very professional and the most impressive one I'd seen in years.


Ruhnama statue Ashgabat

A statue of his book Ruhnama is one of the "great" monuments inside the the Berzengi Independence Park created by the Turkmenbashi to glorify...himself.   This one stands between the largest fountain in the world and museums of the Turkmen people guarded by giant gold statues of the Turkmenbashi.  The giant white buildings in the background are just a few of the infinite axes of giant while buildings stretching to the horizon created by the Turkmenbashi for...no reason at all but his own personal pleasure.   Some are nominally luxury hotels but they stand empty.  The Ruhnama, or book of the Turkmen way and traditions, is required reading in Turkmenistan schools, the bestselling book in the country, and available in a dozen translations in the Turkmenbashi bookstore.

One of the most ambitious building projects of the Turkmenbashi is the Serdar Yoly, a 37 km long "Walk of Health" built along the steep slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains, not altogether unlike a concrete version of the Great Wall.  A red marble archway greets you on arrival, adorned by pictures of the Turkmenbashi of course, and where you'll pass by a 280 kg, 1.2 metre wide marble ball perpetually spinning on a fountain.   Though he encourages all Turkmen citizens to do the gruelling walk annually for their health, his ministers are obliged to do so every year, and the Turkmenbashi flies out by helicopter to greet them warmly at the finish line.  It's perhaps a signal to his subjugated employees to show humility, and indeed the Turkmenbashi's ruthless suppression of any competing political figures is certain to lead to a chaotic succession when he dies.   Getting to the Serdar Yoly, well out of the centre of Ashgabat is convenient and cheap by public bus, costing about $0.02.  This is still expensive relative to the cost of a local bus ride within the city (50 manat, or $0.002) or the cost of fuel ($0.01 per litre), but cheap enough that payment is still done by honour system.  You put your money into a cardboard box when you get off the bus, taking whatever change from the box that you need. 


Turkmenistan's artificial economy is a variation on the Soviet controlled economy, and the Turkmen manat is not changeable anywhere outside the country.  It's today's surviving economy that is the closest to the original Soviet system and arguably the most socialized economy in the world along with Cuba.  The people haven't known a free economy or personal liberties in over a century, dating from Tsarist colonization through to the Bolshevik revolution and passage from the Soviets to the Turkmenbashi.   Fuel and transport are heavily subsidized (a domestic flight costs about $1 to $2), food is not well subsidized and quite expensive for the average salary, and alcohol almost as cheap as bottled water.  A bottle of decent local vodka sells for $0.50, about the same as a 1.5L bottle of tasty Turkmen Cola.  Bureaucratic procedures remain antiquated (think of the film "Brazil"), inefficient, and laborious.  All transport tickets are hand written.  The only computerization that I saw was at the border immigration posts. Internet cafes do not exist and only foreigners who pay $20/hr for a slow dialup connection at the Sheraton have access to email at all.  Supposedly, some government censor reads every email that gets sent out of the country.  To mail letters, citizens bring their letters to the post office clerk, who then insert them into proprietary envelopes and copy by hand the destination address furnished by the client.  International airmail is no longer dirt cheap and heavily subdized (like Myanmar's for example) but all of the stuff I mailed out of Ashgabat reached their destination, even posters and greeting cards of the Turkmenbashi.   I loved the 5000 manat stamp of a Turkmen horse, the largest ordinary stamp I've ever seen at 9 x 11.5 cm.



Turkmenistan is by no means devoid of historical interest.  Little remains of the great silk road cities of Merv, shown here, and Konya Urgench, but  they are the two great historic sites in the country.

I realized my first day in Turkmenistan that the Turkmenbashi is unaware of the conditions on the ground that his citizens have to deal with because of the artificial economy.  I was told in the Mary train station that I would have to return to the ticket window at 7 pm to buy a sleeper berth on the night train to Ashgabat.  No problem I thought, and I went out to eat dinner and came back at 6:45 pm, staking a position with a layer of about 3 people in an unorganized mob between me and the ticket window.  When the window opened for sales (30 minutes late), I was astounded at the brutality that my fellow passengers showed to fight to the front.  Those well placed in front of the window took passports from those further back (I'm guessing for a fee) and I did not advance at all in half an hour. I made the mistake the first time of ceding passage to someone who'd bought their ticket and was trying to get out of the mob.  I lost ground and realized that nobody was letting anybody out.  Anybody who wanted to get out literally had to push their way out, and I do mean I saw bodies flying to the ground.  I didn't make that mistake a second time.  When in Turkmenistans, do as the Turkmen do, as they say, and to share my lifestyle with them, I had to get ornery too.  Whenever someone was coming out, I had to brace my shoulder low and lock my back foot for leverage.  Eventually I fought my way to the layer just behind the front row and managed to shove my passport into the window over other people's shoulder (as my neighbour was encouraging me to do).  The unfriendly ticket baboushka then told me that the sleeper berths were sold out but kept my passport and said that I should come back later.   It turned out later that she was doing me a courtesy and a big favour  for a foreigner.  There are always last minute ticket openings available, but she decides who gets them.  One guy who worked for the Turkmen natural gas company seemed unconcerned about the possibility that he might not get a ticket, and invited me for a coffee.  Sure enough we both got sleeper tickets, 3 hours after the opening of the ticket scrum, the worst I've ever experienced (and I'm including India).  The dirt cheap tickets (about $0.70 for a very comfortable overnight train) are what caused the madness, as it's cheaper than the unsubsidized shared taxis.  The flights for that matter are cheaper than taxis too but tickets are always sold out soon after they go on sale, and weeks in advance, so it's not an option for the traveller not on an organized tour.  The inefficiencies of the Soviet system remain and by all appearances, the Turkmenbashi takes more pleasure in constructing his ideal society like a Lego set, using proceeds from oil and gas exports without which he couldn't fund the trappings his personality cult frenzy, than he cares about his loyal and brainwashed subjects.  I really liked the Turkmen people, a gentle desert culture where people don't try to harass or cheat you (unlike in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Iran) but will try to be genuinely and unselfishly helpful to a traveller in need.  This hospitable grace, which must be in part cultural and in part due to its isolation and lack of foreign visitors, is very much a part of Turkmenistan's charm. If and when they ask about you and your country, they truly are curious and open about what you say, because they have no preconceptions about what it must be like.  They are truly perturbed when they learn that almost nobody outside central asia knows the first thing about Turkmenistan, and that the veil of world ignorance about their country is as complete as theirs is of the outside world.   This refreshing naivete, like in Paraguay, must result from information control and a lack of observations of outsiders with which they can form opinions.   And unlike Cuba or Myanmar, there is really no imminently foreseeable risk of Turkmenistan being spoiled by foreign tourists in the coming years. 


I found travelling independently in the country less frustrating than some others have reported.  I encountered many police checks and "registratsi" which consists of the police taking you into a back room and copying your passport information in a notebook with the Turkmenbashi on the cover, but nothing unpleasant.  Invariably the stoic demeanor and somewhat brutish behaviour of the officer melted into warm and curious chitchat once we were outside of the public view.  They are quite happy to see foreign tourists and help out if they can.  At my entry border (from Uzbekistan), the price of an extortionate shared taxi ride to the nearest town was fixed at $5 by the taxi mafia, exponentially higher than market rates.  I refused to pay this and an impasse developed, which I was ready to wait out.  Finally, a police officer came out of his shack, grabbed me by the nape of my jacket and brutally threw me into his office.  I was more than a bit worried as this was my first hour in the country and knew that Turkmenistan was a police state, so I was thinking through all the things he could do to me behind closed doors. But the second the doors closed, he started smiling and chatting with me (in my feeble Russian) and later he told a taxi driver to come in and to take me to my destination at the price of my choosing.  A similar taxi mafia situation happened at my exit border (to Iran).  The monopoly van transporting passengers across the neutral zone charged the manat equivalent of $10, which could be enough to take public transport all the way to Kazakhstan, 3 countries away.  I balked at this price and after chatting with the driver, again in Russian and out of earshot of the other passengers, he was quite happy to take a US $5 bill which he deftly slipped into his pocket.  It was clear that this was a common procedure for him.  Corruption is a way of life in many poor countries, and Central Asia is renowned for its version.  I am not proud of participating actively in corruption, which I'm a fierce opponent of, but it does save me significant money and playing the game provides interesting insights into the fabric of daily popular life that package tourists would never see.


There are definitely cultural and historical sights to be visited in the country, despite its vast deserts and small population.  Turkmenistan has two UNESCO world heritage sites, Konya-Urgench and Merv, and that's more than the total in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan combined.  I must say though that I found Merv to be disappointing.   Not much left there of the legendary Silk Road town on the main trading route between Bukhara and Baghdad.  With a 5 day visa and fixed entry and exit points, it's really impossible to give the country a fair look around.  A longer duration tourist visa must be organized through a tour agency and that option is considerably more expensive as it requires lodging in government approved hotels at fixed tourist prices.   The Tolkuchka bazaar in the desert outside Ashgabat is without a doubt one of the greatest markets in the world, spanning kilometers on its long axis, with beat up vehicles clunking in from all over southern Turkemenistan for the thrice weekly extravaganza.  The famed carpet market sells souvenir size rugs which can be easily taken out of the country without customs restrictions, and the house sized carpets hanging off of the makeshift partitions in the desert is a sublime subject for photography.  Prices are excellent, and I imagine the best place in the world to get a steal on a high quality "persian" rug.   Incidentally, the national carpet museum in Ashgabat is named after Ete, "the hero of Turkmenistan."  She is the mother of the Turkmenbashi, killed in the 1949 earthquake that annihilated Ashgabat but was kept secret by the Soviet propaganda machine.  Turkmenistan seduces us like an odd and eccentric curio found in a dusty chest in the attic, that takes us through a time-and-place-machine to a planet that is impossible to shake in your memory.  Love it, hate it, or be creeped out by it, but you will never forget it.