Published: May 29th 2010May 7th 2010
Turkmenistan is a strange little country in so many ways.
From the Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi we head to the capital Ashgabat then spend 2 days driving across the Karakum desert to the Uzbekistan border. Ashgabat is all grand white marble buildings topped with golden domes Presidential Palaces surrounded by rose gardens and manicured walkways. Wide avenues lined with white marble public buildings with names out of 1984; The Ministry of Fairness, the Arch of Neutrality. Its all very ostentatious and impressive. But its also very sterile and unreal, where are the people? The everyday people going about their everyday lives? There is just nobody around. The only place we see any life is in the Russian market where there are local smiley faces selling all sorts of things. Its the cleanest, neatest, tidiest market I have ever seen with all the fresh goods sellers wearing their white hygiene hats.
President Niyozoy, who took control after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had a thing about big, white, marble buildings. He also had a thing about himself and started a personality cult by ordering everyone to call him Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen) and erecting gold statues of
himself everywhere - the one is Ashgabat is on top of the Arch of Neutrality and rotates so he is always facing the sun (or is it the sun following him??). The country should be a really rich country with its vast oil and gas reserves but all the money seems to have gone into the gold statues, ostentatious public works, and his multi-million dollar white marble, gold domed mausoleum.
There's no denying that the buildings are beautiful on the eyes and exquisitely crafted in the finest materials but drive 50 miles away into the Karakum desert and there are some desolate villages. Real desolation. Tiny scruffy villages in amongst the sand dunes with rubbish littering the dunes around the village. And these are the better desert villages, when Turkmenbashi travelled through the desert he ordered the village of Darvaza to be destroyed as it was too scruffy and didn't fit with Turkmenbashi's Golden Age (the government guides version is it didn't have electricity and water so Turkmenbashi had the people moved to the city where these were available). It is such a sharp contrast to the opulence of Turkmanbashi's grand cities. There's a difference in the people too
in the cities and towns they are all well dressed and out with there mobile phones videoing us as we drive past. In the desert they just glance then get on with the lives, there doesn't seem to be much happiness and energy here.
The desert occupies 90%of the country and is described as “ a sun scorched expanse of dunes and vegetation .... the hottest desert in Central Asia” - so how come it rained for the 2 days we rode across it?? I'm pretty sure I was taught at school that it didn't rain in the desert!!! At least it had camels roaming around like a desert should. Right in the middle of the desert is the Darvaza Burning Gas crater, allegedly the result of an industrial accident when the Russians were trying to drill for gas and the dome of the underground cavern collapsed. Its quite impressive in the middle of the night giving of a lot of light and heat. There is one hell of a lot of gas just being burnt away - but apparently this is more environmentally friendly than releasing the natural gas straight to the atmosphere. .
Despite Turkmenbashi's death
Ashgabat - the Arch of Neutrality
it constantly changes colour all night long
in 2007 the country is still a police state. Allegedly hotel rooms and public places are bugged. We have to ride together as a group with a local guide. There are checkpoint regularly along the road and they are all expecting us. Briefly we get split into 2 groups at a petrol stop and at the next checkpoint they are waiting for the 5 stray bikes and telling them that the other 8 have gone through - they knew precisely how many bikes there should be and when we should be going past. Later the 13 bikes get separated from the vehicle with the guide and miraculously 10 miles down the road there's a police car waiting to give us an escort until the guide catches up. You can get on the internet but you have to have to hand in your computer and have it re-programmed!! There's a definite feeling that we are being watched.
Like I said, Turkmenistan is a strange little place on so many levels. What would I do if I had a few 10s of million of dollars to spare - build a grand mausoleum for myself or help those little scruffy kids in
Ashgabat - the Arch of Neutrality
on the top is a golden statue of Turkmenbashi that rotates to follow the sun - or does the sun follow him?
the desert? Guess that's why I'll always be Joe Average and never be a megalomaniac dictator.
Now we are approaching the Uzbekistan border - its been closed for the last week due to local troubles between ethnic groups!! But rumour has it that they will open it to let tourists out - lets hope so.
There are more photos below