Turkmenistan is by far the strangest country we’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to see much of it as we were only granted a 5-day transit visa. Due to numerous Iranian visa delays we had to enter Turkmenistan in the east rather than taking the westerly route that we’d intended. This meant the two main sights in Turkmenistan that we really wanted to see had to be missed out; The Darvaza Gas Crater and the Capital, Ashgabat. In any other country we’d make the effort and take a little detour to visit them, but Turkmenistan isn’t any other country.
Right from the off we knew it was going to be an unusual experience as our route was dictated to us at the border by the ‘The Ministry of Do What You’re Told and Travel From A to B Without Photographing a Thing Whilst Collecting The Appropriate Rubber Stamps En-route’ who drew it on a special map. “You must not deviate from the map.” We were told in a stern voice.
Unfortunately the route given to us was a straight line across the east of the country. Had we been able to take the westerly route we would have passed both Ashgabat and the Crater. The previous week we’d read countless reports of overlanders being refused transit visas and so we were just happy to be able to get through to Iran.
The entry process involved taking the ‘special map’ to at least 6 other departments, having our details entered by hand into 6 separate ledgers whilst gathering the 18 pieces of paper, 38 stamps and 25 signatures needed to enter the country.
The drive was fairly uneventful but passed through some beautiful desert. We didn’t really experience the weirdness until we reached the city of Mary. The town had a slightly surreal feel to it as, like Ashgabat, most of the buildings were made from white marble. The dreamlike strangeness didn’t end there; every student from 5 to 21 had the exact same uniform and identical haircuts, a phenomenon that is seemingly countrywide.
The highlight of our visit to the National History and Ethnology Museum in Mary was undoubtedly the room dedicated to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The display of 30+ badly photo-shopped photographs of the supreme leader in an array of poses that showcase his talents from caring puppy handler to dental surgery is actually so absurd it makes you wonder if his PR team are actually mocking him.
Berdymukhamedov recently honoured himself with a soaring 20 metre tall 24-carat gold leaf covered bronze statue of himself atop a golden horse on a white marble cliff outcrop. According to the state-run media the monument was commissioned after public demand, in response Berdymukhamedov said “I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose”.
According to the World Press Freedom Index the country is ranked 178th, third from last, ahead of only Eritrea and North Korea. It’s not surprising then to learn that between the state-run press and television the heroic Turkmen President has been featured winning a $11 million prize horse race, flying in a supersonic jet, removing a benign tumour and playing a Rick Wakeman-esq keyboard solo. In 2011 Berdymukhamedov awarded himself with the country’s highest honour – The Hero of Turkmenistan Award!
Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult seems relatively grounded compared to his eccentric megalomaniacal predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov was “elected” as lifetime president entitling himself as "Turkmenbashi", or "Father of the Nation". He promptly banned beards, ballet, circuses, gold teeth, lip-syncing, make-up on TV presenters and recorded music at weddings. Niyazov infamously declared July 10th as a public holiday to honour melons, renamed January after himself, and April after his late mother, Gurbansoltan. Not content with renaming a month after his mother he changed the word for bread to her name and portrayed her as Justice in a statue outside the Orwellian "Ministry of Fairness".
To make sure the proles didn’t forget who he was he constructed a huge golden statue of himself in the capital that rotated 360° so that he would always be facing the sun. Golden statues feature heavily throughout the country dominating public parks and squares. For those lucky enough not to live in spitting distance of a statue, Niyazov’s face adorned most walls, in most buildings, in most towns; watching over the people like Big Brother.
Niyazov, not satisfied with just visual iconography to keep the people in line, wrote Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul), a spiritual and philosophical book of moral guidance (which occasionally dips into poetry). The book became compulsory reading for all school children; adults were also required to bone-up on it as job interviews and driving tests referenced ‘The Book of the Soul’. According to Niyazov, reading the Ruhnama three times would be rewarded with the ultimate benefit- he had made a deal with God to ensure that dedicated bookworms would get a pass to heaven.
To his credit, when Niyazov had to give up smoking after major heart surgery all his ministers had to follow suit. He then banned all tobacco advertising, smoking in public, state buildings and the army. If this didn’t improve health in his cabinet he ordered a 36km “path of health” to be built into the mountains surrounding Ashgabat which government officials were forced to walk. The former Soviet republic now tops the world’s non-smoking league with fewer than one in 12 people still smoking.
The Darvaza Crater is definitely still smoking. Nicknamed the "The Door to Hell" it is a truly unique site, one which I was looking forward to visiting for nearly 5 years! At 69 metres wide and 30 metres deep this flaming pit in the middle of the desert is worthy of its nickname. Its origin is disputed, but the theory most widely accepted involves a Soviet expedition for gas, some noxious fumes and an overzealous desire to chuck a match in! Contrary to what the Soviets thought would happen it has now been burning for over 40 years. Hopefully it will be burning for another 40 years so that we’ll finally get a chance to visit it.