Arch of Neutrality, with revolving golden statue of Turkmenbashi
If you want to know what Ashgabat looks like and how Turkmenistan is run it would be wise to read the following section I copied from the book that every dictator has on his bookshelf: A handbook for megalomaniacs:
• Build yourself a new capital, either by:
a) Starting from scratch, preferably in a desolate and unsustainable location, and forcebly moving the entire population from the old to the new capital.
b) Bulldoze entire sections of the old capital to make way for your new centre; in this case you certainly shouldn't provide for alternative housing for those who have been dispossessed by this.
• Your new capital should be made up of huge new buildings, entirely out of proportion with the needs of the administration or the people. It needs to be made out of expensive material, like marble, with a lot of gold to top it off.
• Intersect those useless behemoths with unnecessarily wide ceremonial avenues, making it very hard for the local population to cross them. Remember there shouldn't be enough traffic or people to inhabit this new town, because you want to create a general air of emptiness.
• There should be many parks and fountains,
Lets take a closer look at that golden statue
again, bigger is better!
• Put up golden statues of yourself in front of every building, at each fountain, in every park and on ridiculously large plinths. Also if you can make it rotate with the sun so you are always facing it, that would be excellent.
• Rename yourself, don't forget it needs to be something grand like 'Father of the State' and make it a law that everybody refers to you in that way.
• Rename every other street, town, building after yourself.
• Rename the days of the week and the months after yourself and preferred family members (like your mother for example).
• Public holidays on your birthday, your mother’s birthday, your name day etc.
• Write a book, in which you exalt the glory of the country and especially yourself, than make it compulsory material for everybody to read.
• To be able to pass any exam people have to be able to quote from your book, everything else (like actually knowing the subject material of the exam) is unimportant.
• Put up statues of your book and stock all bookstores with it. Have quotes from your book adorn public buildings everywhere.
• Close down all hospitals and schools outside the capital to raise
Earthquake memorial, guess who the golden baby is supposed to be?
the money for all those golden statues, marble buildings and books that need printing. Slash pensions as well.
• Put a policeman at every corner, behind every bush and along all roads to keep a close eye on things.
• Bug all hotel rooms, houses, restaurants and toilets.
• Tourists are a nuisance, make it hard for them to get a visa, the best is only to allow tour groups who pay lots of money to visit.
In Turkmenbashistan's, oops I mean Turkmenistan's case, the man in charge changed his name to Turkmenbashi, which means Father of the Turkmen. He also wrote a book which he subsequently (as per instructed in the above book) made compulsory reading material. Huge parts of the old capital were razed to the ground to create 'exciting' new marble structures with no evident purpose, except maybe to displace the ordinary citizens who used to live there before. Golden statues were erected around the country, and every man could count on the company of at least one police officer, one KGB agent and one soldier, just so they would never feel lonely.
Although the 'great' man is dead now, his spirit lives on with
Second World War memorial, as this was built pre-Turkmenbashi (during Soviet times), there was no golden statue
those glittering statues still standing and dazzling you at every turn. The new strong man looks uncannily like the old one and the rumour goes he is his illegitimate son. I say he is just a clone. If you can make golden statues of yourself, surely you can clone yourself as well!
So much for Ashgabat. In the five days I was allowed in this country on a transit visa I also managed to have a look at Merv its most important archeological site. Once one of the biggest and most important cities in the Middle East, but that was before the Mongols raised it to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants, and before Timur did the same a few hundred years later, and also before the Emir of Bukhara sacked it one last time just for good manners. Now all that is left are some evocative ruins, spread out over a rather large area.
Most likely you will have the sight to yourself, and while walking it is a pleasant way of seeing the sight, it is also very, very tiring, especially in the blistering sun. I must have some English blood in me, because I keep
A few of the marble edifices taken from a distance (too many police around them for comfortable close up shots)
repeating the mistakes of that old saying, that one about 'mad dogs and English men' doing stupid things in the blistering sun! Or perhaps it was Ricky's (my travelling companion through Central Asia) influence, who although he is an Aussie, is travelling on his British passport.
And what about the Turkmen themselves? Well they seem to take it all in good stride, being good natured and ever friendly. You walk around large archeological sights in the middle of the day and instead of calling you and idiot they take pity on you and invite you for tea and food in the shade of some trees. Just don't talk politics; they government might be bugging the tree!
After five days of glorious golden statues, charming people and surly police, I ended up at the border where the usual assortment of unpleasant figures was lurking around, bureaucrats, custom officials, moneychangers who give you peanuts for your money and taxi sharks waiting to make a quick buck on any unsuspecting tourist. I thus ended my journey through this most whimsical of countries, with a step and a whistle, passing under the strict and benign gaze of Mr. Turkmenbashi. I salute you,
And more administrative nonsense, including the, I presume, unused parliament
oh farcical one!
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