In Tehran leaves are budding on trees and flowers are blossoming, the days are longer than the nights, birds have returned and are beginning to sing and build their nests and I've managed to add three visas to my passport (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). All of which means that winter is over, spring is here and it is time for me to pack my rucksack and hit the road once more. My upcoming route will take me through the 'Stans of Central Asia, a collection of countries that have fascinated me for some time and whch I am really excited to explore. It's a region with a rich cultural and historical legacy, but which is off the radar for most people unless there is some heavy civil unrest or uprising. Even when the 24-hour news channels report the global weather they manage to metion such insigificant countries such as Mozambique, Honduras and Timo l'Este but skirt past the entire Central Asian region. Perhaps there are strange weather phenomenon going on there that make forecasting difficult?
My first port of call will be Turkmenistan, a country which keeps pretty much to itself but which is without a doubt one of the most closed an repressive countries in the world, on a par with North Korea and Eritrea. For 15 years following the break-up of the Soviet Union it was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself as Turkmenbashi ("Head of Turkmen") and created one of the craziest cults of personality the world has ever seen. Not only did he emulate the likes of Mao and Gaddafi by writing his own book (the Ruhnama, which is pretty much the only book studied in school and its knowledge essential for anything from geting a job to obtaining a driving licence), but he also changed the names of two of the months of the year after his mother and himself. Bankrolled by the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world Turkmenbashi went on a megalomaniacal building spree that has seen no equal in the world, creating vast new building complexes in downtown Ashgabat, complete with shopping malls, five-star hotels and wide boulevards that are completely empty and unused by the poverty-stricken population of the country.
Of course a country such as this doesn't let people in willy-nilly and you can only really visit on a transit visa which is valid for five days, meaning an in-depth taste of the country is nigh-on impossible. Internet is also non-existant in Turkmenistan (and severely restricted in most other countries in the area) so it may be a while before I can post again.