Demarcating the border with Iran, the Kopet Dag Mountains glimmered in the distance as we sped along a six-lane superhighway lined with parched earth coloured tanks. Entering the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, conurbations were soon consumed by the otherworldly megalopolis. Our taksi rattling through former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov’s hometown of Gypjak, the minarets of his sixty-metre wide, gold-domed tomb dominated the landscape. As we approached the city centre, a giant billboard of current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow offered his welcome, endless white marble towers spreading out before us.
A moderately young metropolis, its name meaning ‘City of Love’ in Persian, Ashgabat developed around a Russian garrison during the 1880s. Levelled in a cataclysmic earthquake of 1948, prefab Soviet blocks soon sprung from the debris. Shaping the ‘city of [his] dreams,’ post-Soviet dictator Niyazov had these torn down and replaced by boxy skyscrapers with dazzling, reflective windows, some wearing tiny domes like skullcaps.
It’s impossible to understand Turkmenistan without a rudimentary knowledge of its two post-Soviet leaders, as the nation is effectively forged in their image. Leading the country to independence in 1991, Niyazov – who declared himself ‘Turkmenbashi,’ literally ‘Father of the Turkmens’ – went on to forge arguably the most fully formed cult of personality ever seen. Steering his nation into a new era of international isolation, purges and choreographed show trials Stalin would’ve been proud of played live on TV. Declaring the country to be experiencing a ‘golden age,’ among his decrees were a ban on cinemas, car radios, clowns, gold teeth and beards. Despite fifty-eight percent of his people living below the poverty line, by the time of Niyazov’s death in 2006, there were ten thousand new statues in Turkmenistan, largely of him and his family.
Niyazov was succeeded by his former dentist, Berdimuhamedow, who likes to be called ‘Arkadag’ (Protector). With all seven ‘opposition’ candidates declaring their loyalty to him, Berdimuhamedow won eighty-nine percent of the vote in window dressing elections which followed Niyazov’s death. In addition to writing books, being a pilot and crooning ballads, Berdimuhamedow is presented as a sportsman of immense ability. With competitor’s tugging at their reins for dear life in fear of beating him, in April 2013 the fifty-six-year-old President was victorious in one of Turkmenistan’s most prestigious horse races. An omnicompetent dynamo, it was no surprise when he picked up the eleven million dollar prize again the next year. Around the country, effigies of Arkadag are beginning to replace those of his predecessor.
Fixing us in the crosshairs of her withering gaze, the receptionist at the centrally located Dayhan Hotel tapped a long fingernail upon the front desk before deciding to do us a favour and allow to be gouged by their bedsprings. Along 2022 Street, air-con units spewed out sapping heat. Triumphal arches leading nowhere, ubiquitous statues and fountains abounded, the surreal city silent save for the splashing of wasted water. Turkmenistan is two and a half times more profligate in its use of water than the next worst culprit in the world.
Offering respite from the scorching sun, underpasses adorned with stars led to the Earthquake Monument. The disaster having killed his mother and two brothers, according to the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi’s pseudo-spiritual book of revisionist history, he spent six days alone in their ruined home before being pulled from the rubble.
A globe gored upon its horns, the monument featured a black bull seemingly borrowed from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch logo. Emerging from a crack in its surface, Mary-like in her shroud, there was Niyazov’s mother lifting her golden child from the misshapen orb. Glared at by bored militsiya, I tugged at the doors of the Earthquake Museum, but as a hobbyhorse of the former autocrat, its entrance was locked steadfastly shut.
Across a parade ground lay lavish and gaudy Independence Square. A tangle of right angles and star polygons, ornate lampposts encircled aureolin yellow flowerbeds. A single bird circumnavigating turquoise domes like upturned chay cups, Tuscan columns stretched for city blocks. Facing the vacant square, the Presidential Palace had cost more to construct than the nation’s annual health budget. Aptly obscured behind this, the rubberstamp parliament was one of a row of flag topped, gold-domed marble buildings trailing off in a relentless succession.
‘How many pictures do you think I can take before the police stop me?’ I asked my nervous looking brother.
The answer was eight.
Blasting on his whistle, a red-cheeked militsiyaman shook my hand before taking my camera and clicking through the images. A muster of soldiers descending upon us, he inevitably came across the offending snapshots.
‘Foto problema. Udalyat! Delete!’ he demanded tetchily, his disposition darkening.
‘I just don’t get it,’ I said as we sidled away. ‘I mean, what’s the point in banning pictures of the Presidential Palace when it’s featured on the banknotes?’
At the far end of Ten Years of Independence Park, Turkmenbashi’s World of Fairytales theme park was situated behind by a wall painted with sights from around the globe: the Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty and Niyazov’s Arch of Neutrality among them. A toy train circling the grounds, a rusted stairwell led to a stationary rollercoaster, the obligatory Ferris wheel less than half the height of the towers which overshadowed the site.
Earlier that day I’d spotted the Arch of Neutrality on the distant horizon; which was a boon. Recently moved from the city centre to the suburbs, our efforts to reach it had been thwarted by taksi drivers not having a clue what we were talking about. Shooting quizzical glances, they’d shrug before pulling away.
Heading determinedly in the vague direction of our no longer visible goal, we marched along shadeless streets where spindly saplings had been planted. Every few hundred metres there were air-conditioned bus stops, but no buses, the space age telefon boxes like teleportation booths containing no telephones.
The City of Love holding the record for the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world – 4.5 million square metres of them – many bore an embossed bust of Niyazov, attached to the top corner like a postage stamp. Their architectural style alternately described as ‘Walmart-meets-desert-emirate’ or ‘somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang,’ the towers bore the logos of Western and Korean companies: Coca-Cola, LG, Samsung. Sponsored, yet barely occupied, their expansive car parks stood empty. A marmoreal chimera not constructed from solid marble, the tiles had fallen from some high-rises, others slanted through subsidence.
The consummately straight roads peopled only by conscripts and the occasional gardener sculpting the grass with pairs of scissors, a two-hour walk led us to the Arch. Looking like something from the set of ‘Lost in Space’ that could never hope to leave the Earth, Niyazov had spent twelve million dollars on his seventy-five-metre tall rocket. At its apex, a twelve-metre gold statue of him was planted, arms aloft as if receiving plaudits. His likeness used to turn to face the sun – or the sun rotated to face him, as a Turkmen saying had it – but now no longer performing pirouettes, the father of the nation had been downgraded. Dumped in the outskirts, the lift upon its frame long since out of commission, two soldiers stood like mannequins in glass boxes at its feet. The ticket booth closed, nobody was going to come. The sun had set on Niyazov’s golden age.
In the dying twilight that evening, some signs of normality finally surfaced on a slim green traffic island on 2022 Street. Overlooked by a rash of casinos, children on illuminated neon rollerblades darted about. Carefully minding their own business, chic women in kitten heels and singlets sat on benches staring dead ahead, their well-groomed partners occasionally offering reserved, grunted greetings to their comrades.
Across 2022 Street, the Bar Bar was the place where trendy young things liked to go for cheap drinks. On a makeshift stage, a DJ was singing along karaoke style to records already containing vocals, fizzing speakers carrying the thumping beat through the ground. At precisely ten thirty PM, though, with a sharp scratch the music stopped mid-song, replaced by a deafening hush as both staff and patrons melted away. Rising to leave, I noticed a throng of agitated, well-oiled men pressed against the bars exit. Apparently the victims of an involuntary lock-in, they pushed at the doors to no avail, their expressions somewhere between fury and wide-eyed panic.
By ten the next morning, it was forty-three degrees in the shade. Swinging batons, sweltering militsiya in blues, greens and khakis loitered at the side of the roads. Unstaffed ministry buildings stretching to eternity, the Ministry of Deserts was shortly followed by the State Joint-Stock Corporation for Carpets and the State Konserni for Turkmen Horses.
Cranes busy extending the madness, we headed towards the Alem (Universe) Cultural and Entertainment Centre. Puttering along at fifteen miles an hour, our gummy driver was befuddled by the construction. Circling dizzily at roundabouts, neither he nor the other passengers wedged in the back were able to fathom out how to get there. They weren’t alone; you couldn’t. A recently completed multi-million dollar complex boasting the world’s tallest enclosed Ferris wheel, it had been cut adrift, new worksites offering no through route.
Its arcs like a titanic clam shell, we drove past the optimistically named Olympic Stadium. On Independence Day, North Korean style celebrations would take place here, children who’d been excused from school for weeks to learn dance routines parading beneath the President’ s skybox. With soldiers handing out flags and orchestrating cheers, leaving early wasn’t an option for those forced to attend.
Disembarking, we traipsed across Independence Park to the Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) Shopping Centre in the Berzengi District. Resembling a colossal, seven-tiered wedding cake, until recently it had claimed the world’s largest fountain, but having been outdone by South Korea, the water features were summarily switched off.
The bulk of its metal shutters firmly drawn, inside most of the units were vacant, the remaining staff pacing somnolently. A gold-plated elevator replete with a piped muzak version of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ took us to the fifth floor Minara Restaurant, purportedly one of the capital’s finest dining establishments. We were the only patrons. Through the restaurant’s windows, a panoramic view of Ashgabat revealed residential areas. Concrete jungles reminiscent of a prison, satellite dishes – a lone connection to the outside world – vied for space on the rooftops.
Back in Independence Park, giant monitors showing men in white telpeks dancing for their President played to no one. Everything was flawless beneath the cloudless sky, not a paving slab out of place in the litter-free synthetic city. The immaculate junkyard of futuristic kitsch, Doric columns, domes and pinnacles stretching on for klicks, every fifty metres public address speakers sprung from the soil on tall metal struts, ensuring the good word of the President would be heard by all.
We circled back to the pink and green Ruhnama Monument, an outsized testament to the once holy book. Ringed with gold, at its centre sat a bust of Turkmenbashi, looking far more handsome than he’d ever done in real life. In the hazy evening light, we lingered for some time, wondering if the fabled book would open as promised in documentaries to display episodes from Turkmen history on its movie screen pages. With nobody to ask, though, and it being unlikely they’d know even if there was, we left the hulking structure to its solitary spot, consigned to a past many would rather forget.
This piece is excerpted from Stephen M. Bland’s forthcoming book ‘Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans’.