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Silk Route Project Craig and Simon are currently travelling from India to Istanbul with the fantastic support of World Nomads. On behalf of Footprints, World Nomad's charity, they will be visiting of a number of projects along the route to deliver supplies of essential medicines to impoverished children.

Introducing Turkmenbashi

TURKMENISTAN | Monday, 16 October 2006 | Views [1904] | Comments [4]

Propped between Uzbekistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea is the incredible country of Turkmenistan. It is a land of incredible history and beauty, lying on the crossroads between Asia and Europe but not many people would have heard of this country before, we certainly hadn’t before this trip.  However visiting this country was one of the most surreal experiences of this trip, purely because of one thing – Saparmyrat Niyazov, the outrageous leader of the country, aka Turkmenbashi.

When the Soviets pulled out of Turkmenistan in 1991 Niyazov was fortunate enough to be highly placed in the Communist beaurocracy and he certainly didn’t waste the opportunity. While other ex-Soviet satellites made token murmurings of democracy or took the more popular option of civil war, Niyazov took firm control of the country and united it by centering peoples attention on one thing – himself. Appointing himself with the unambiguous title of President for Life, he also changed his name to Turkmenbashi (meaning “leader of the Turkmen”). Carefully removing all opposition to his domination, he declared himself the nation’s saviour and organized for people to worship him.

That’s right, not only does he have his own country but he’s got himself an exquisite personality cult, a population of 5 million dedicated to HIM. Most city buildings are adorned with giant posters of his smiling face, statues of him are everywhere, his picture is on all of the bank notes. His has written a tome of a book, the Rukhnama, that describes his life and the history of the Turkmen people. All citizens must read it.

Turkmenistan is blessed with oil and natural gas reserves, enough to last 200 years apparently,  and the wise President for Life is using oil money to build himself an empire. Ashgabat, the capital, is by a long way the most ostentatious city in Central Asia. He has built the largest waterfall in the world and put a restaurant on top. All of the ministerial buildings are brand new and have golden roofs. We saw at least twenty giant apartment blocks, that would rival anything in Manhattan, which have popped up in the last couple of years. The ironic thing is that they are all empty because no one can afford to live in them.

The best example of the big man’s building bravado can be seen in the centre of Ashgabat (in fact it’s impossible to miss). To celebrate his decision that Turkmenistan will be a Neutral country (hence avoid having to deal with anything outside its borders) he constructed a 60m high arch that Napoleon would have been proud off. Atop the arch what else could there be but a giant GOLD statue of the despot-in-residence, his arms open wide embracing his nation. 

But wait, it gets better-

The statue revolves to follow the sun. I am not joking. From dawn to dusk it slowly turns to follow the sun’s arc through the sky.

I was very surprised to find local people were apparently happy with their leader. No one would say a bad word about him, which is impressive but I had to wonder what would happen to them if they did. Their leader has them firmly insulated from the outside world – there is no internet and to marry a foreigner you have to pay the state a fee of US$100,000! The thing that most Turkmen were proud of was the price of petrol in their country. While most other countries are experiencing spiraling fuel prices, petrol in Turkmenistan costs approximately one cent per litre. To fill up an average sized car costs less than US$1.

Visiting Turkmenistan as a tourist can be a bit of challenge. To get a tourist visa you must book your whole trip beforehand and be accompanied by a tour guide for your whole stay. There is no flexibility for travelers like us and it certainly didn’t fit our budget so with some smooth talking at the embassy in Uzbekistan we were forced to get a transit visa which lasted only 5 days. Once we were in the country things were painless. The local people were very welcoming and the police were on every street corner but they left us alone. Except on one particular occasion …

One evening we were wandering around Ashagabat’s gold-topped edifices having a good chuckle at their megalomaniac builder when we found an extremely large TV screen showing local music concert. It seemed interesting so we stopped for a bit to watch. Immediately a soldier appeared, blew his whistle (soldiers in this part of the world love whistles) and told us to go away! In what other country would there be a giant screen showing in a public place but people aren’t allowed to watch it? It is incidents like this that had us laughing throughout our visit to Turkmenistan (but if I had to live there I don’t think I would find it funny, though the cheap petrol would be good).

Now that Saddam has gone and Central Africa is pretending to be democratic I had thought the world was lacking in totalitarian madmen, what a relief it is that Turkmenbashi is around to make things interesting. I wonder if he and Kim Jung Il of North Korea get together and compare notes?

PS: The authors mean no offence to the wonderful people of Turkmenistan and their beautiful country. It’s just that your leader is ridiculous and a megalomaniac.

Tags: Laughter

Comments

1

I'm LOVING it!... no offense but your leader... :D

  Lola Oct 17, 2006 5:42 PM

2

Hey guys! I'm loving your entries. They make me feel like I'm reading 1984 all over again!!

  Jenn Oct 18, 2006 3:28 AM

3

This has just been brought to my attention. I am in awe. It would be hilarious if it wasn't true. Check this out-

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/6063700.stm

  Simon Oct 20, 2006 12:25 AM

4

Does anyone know whether we can drive a car into Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan and travel overland?

  Rensina Apr 12, 2009 7:10 PM

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