Thursday, April 14, 2011

Back In The USSR

I hadn't even crossed the border to Turkmenistan and I already felt the familiar Soviet vibes: decrepit border-post, old ladies with enough gold teeth to buy a Merc, oversized shoes and countless forms and endless bureaucracy feeding the KGB machine. I was getting too comfortable in Iran and Turkmenistan is just what I needed to jolt me into action.

Turkmen family visiting the ruins of Merv on the weekend. I particularly like the elegant, colourful velvet dresses of the women.

I must admit that Turkmenistan wasn't at all like I had expected. I realise that after having travelled so much that prior expectations are to be taken with a shovel-full of salt, but I couldn't help myself as the country was such an exotic enigma with many outlandish tales swirling around it was hard to know what to believe. I was perhaps expecting a nation of automatons that had been brainwashed into acquiescence. Instead what I found was a surprising degree of normalcy. On my first day there I visited the ancient ruins of Merv. It was a Saturday and I saw many local families on day-trips, having pic-nics and generally enjoying themselves. Kids playing football, women dressed in traditional colouful, long velvet dresses and men knocking back the vodka. They seemed open and friendly and quite curious, although conversations generally didn't go far due to my broken Russian and my unwillingness to stray into politics (which, I was later to find out, was the right course of action). Otherwise the roads were in pretty poor shape and lacking in any signage, but were populated by surprisingly decent cars: mainly Toyota sedans of various descriptions. It was later whilst taking a shared taxi that I learnt the reason for this: they are second-hand imports from Japan. And due to the steering being on the wrong side there is a burgeoning cottage industry of steering wheel transposition in Turkmenistan.

Some local guys out for a spot of fishing and a picnic on the weekend in Merv. When they saw me they insisted I join them for lunch, washed down with some strong homemade vodka (the Russian influence easily trumps centuries of Islam!).

The capital, Ashgabat (literally "City of Love"), does however live up to its strange reputation. Full of modern, gleaming ministries, apartment blocks and hotels all clad in spotless white marble. Most of these have been built by the French construction firm Bouygues and there is a veritable army of expat engineers to erect the latest follies of the president. Turkmenbashi might have died over 4 years ago and some of the more extreme aspects of his cult of personality removed (a shame, as I really wanted to see the building with the 12m high golden statue of him that rotated to point towards the sun) but his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (don't be put off by his long name or cheeky-chappy jowly features) is no less a despot. The shiny buildings look totally out of place as the rest of the town is, in comparison, woefully underdeveloped. Gurbanguly doesn't seem to mind and keeps on ordering ever more white elephants to quench his architectural desires. No sooner had seven such ministry buildings been completed last week when another bunch were ordered. It seems as if ministries are simply being invented to satisfy the quest for more opulent buildings (Ministry of carpets anyone?). Despite the grandeur when you get up close you notice that the finishing and details are all shoddy. Furthermore all these buildings are woefully under-utilised (if at all). Instead of people working in them there is an army of cleaners and groundsmen employed to scrub, polish, prune and water. On top of this there are hordes of policemen standing at every junction to ensure people don't walk on the grass, take pictures of touristic sights, and pay bribes (actually ensuring some order such as respecting the rules of the road doesn't seem to be in their remit). All this gave me the distinct impression that Turkmens are lost in their own country. Expats are doing all the skilled jobs and Turkmens aren't being taught the skills necessary to replace them; the history they are taught is a farce so they don't know their own roots (their parks are filled with fibre-glass statues of Persian and Seljuk personalities that the authorities have appropriated as being Turkmen); people are kept in check by an overbearing regime that has remained stuck in the Cold War and wants to know their every move and doesn't let them leave or express themselves. So finally all that is left for the Turkmen themselves is to tend these empty follies as their leaders waste the nation's finite resources.

The grandiose mosque built by Turkmenbashi in his home village is one of the biggest in the world, with 91m minarets, and yet it is almost always empty (except for the cleaners).

As well as wanting to witness the unique police-state that is Turkmenistan (the only other countries that control their populations with such paranoid ruthlessness are North Korea and Eritrea, neither of which is anywhere as accessible as Turkmenistan) I had another reason for visiting: Darvaza. It lies some 260km north of Ashgabat in the middle of the Karakum desert. There used to be a village there until Turkmenbashy drove through one day, disliked its scruffy appearance and ordered it razed to the ground and its people moved. There is nothing left to see of the village. But a few kilometres from the road amidst the sand dunes is one of the strangest sights in the world; a perverse marriage of man and nature. A drilling accident in the 70's whilst the Soviets were exploring for gas resulted in a giant, 70m-wide, hole opening up in the ground. It was linked to a gas reservoir and so, in order to prevent toxic fumes from building up they chose to light it. It has been burning ever since. There are no signs to direct you to the site, but if you start walking from the little roadside teahouse (all that is left from the village) at night, you soon notice the glare emanating from the ground on the horizon. It's all you need to guide you there. Rounding the last corner it's as if you've found the very doorway to hell (apt, because the name Darvaza itself means door or gate). Flames lick the sides of the whole, arising as if from nowhere, the heat forms an almost physical barrier when you get close to the edge and there is a continuous hissing underlying it all. It definitely has to rank as one of the odder places that I have camped, but at least I didn't have to worry about it getting cold at night.

The door to hell.


Kamiar Khazdozian said...

Very revealing. I though things were bad here in Mexico.

I liked your picture with the SANGAK NAN. I could almost tase it.

Big Bule said...

Much like Kim Ir Sen or even Khadaffi in his good days, Turkmenbashi is loved by the Turkmens. Based on what I read he was a dictator that succeeded in making the nation follow him.

My Turkmen aquaintances speak very highly of Turkmenbashi's heritage.

Even Ruhnama they believe it to be a work of deep historiographical research :), as valid scientifically as it is patriotically.