The Silk Road, China

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Ashgabat - you have to see it to believe it

Ashgabat is surely unlike any other city in the world. At the heart of the small (in population at least) Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan is a quite extraordinary waste public money. Despite the fact that the country is the hottest and driest in the region, there are literally thousands of fountains and water features set amongst carefully manicured and watered lawns.

Monuments, ministries and museums abound, including: a 12m gold statue of Niyazov, the late president and self styled 'Turkmenbashi' (or ruler of all Turkmen), which with outstretched arms, rotates througout the day to face the sun; a massive monument to mark the recent declaration of neutrality (at which the international community must have heaved a sigh of relief); the tallest (and most grotesque) fountain in the world and - perhaps most ironically - a Ministry of Fairness.

Fairness is not something normally associated with a dictatorship. Amongst a catalogue of extraordinary decrees, Niyazov closed all hospitals in the country outside the capital so the sick would have to come to Ashgabat, renamed the words for 'bread' and April with the name of his grandmother and outlawed ballet and opera on the grounds of being 'unnecessary.' He also blessed his subjects with a book outlining his view of Turkmen national identity and his version of history. The book is compulsory and imposed on the educational system. Needless to say, there is also a monument to the book in Ashgabat which opens once a day and passages are recited from it.

The book

We found all this construction in Ashgabat initially impressive, often tasteless and increasingly unsettling. Unsettling because downtown Ashgabat is eerily deserted and clearly nothing more than veneer designed to impress the President and any official visitor who does not care to wonder why it is so quiet.

Downtown Ashgabat - heaving

It is not clear whether anyone is allowed to enjoy it all. Armed guards prevented us from approaching public buildings - most ironically, we were prevented from approaching a massive open air television, thereby slightly calling into question the reason for its existence. The thousands of park benches - often in beautiful surroundings - were also deserted; we suspected that the police discouraged locals from using them so that they remained 'tidy.'

The official restaurants were empty - some staying in business only thanks to state subsidy, others decaying just a decade after their lavish construction. The array of 30 themed state hotels were a serious overkill for the supposed 3,000 tourists that visit the country each year. Ours, the Hotel Asia, was almost completely deserted except for a Chinese business which had rented some office space on the first floor (the rest of which was literally gathering dust). Even the stunning replica of Istanbul's Blue Mosque - built to celebrate the return of religion to the country - is unused: 3 deaths during construction were seen as a bad omen.

So it seems that most people working in Ashgabat are either state workers or prostitutes. The former are either the notoriously corrupt police (who extract bribes for 'motoring offences' by day and (we were told) sometimes beat up or rape innocent citizens by night) and hundreds of mostly women who toil in the blistering heat for $100 per month to maintain and keep clean the fountains and vast public spaces. Meanwhile, the prostitutes are busy; they approached us in the shops by day and in the discos by night.

This bizarre place came about because of an extraordinary set of circumstances which combined to fuel the ego and indulge the delusions of grandeur of the former President Niyazov. Selected as Moscow's yes man under the old regime, Niyazov was far too comfortable with the status quo to want independence for his country, but he was forced to accept it in 1989. So, he duly gave his communist party a shiny new name that including the word democratic (and promptly banned political opposition), renamed the country and mainted the bureaucracy. Of course, the one big change that was pushed through at independence was a total clear out of anyone of Russian origin from positions of power and officialdom in the name of nationalism.

It is perhaps lucky to be handed a power structure with yourself at the top of it, which you can control with vice-like grip through Soviet style bureaucracy. But to be able to tap into the vast revenue potential of the country's natural gas resources gave Turkmenbashi spending power too. Add to this extraordinary position the tragic earthquake of 1948 which literally levelled Ashgabat, and this former town planner was gifted by fate a blank 'canvas' in order to express his 'creativity.'

We were allowed to explore Ashgabat - and only Ashgabat - without a guide. Therefore we seized the opportunity to track down the 'real' Ashgabat. Perhaps as many as one million live in Ashgabat, away from this eery madness - it is just a question of looking a bit further afield. The real homes are tucked away in sprawling concrete high rises, almost completely out of sight of the bizarre centre. On one evening we finally found a restaurant with some atmosphere; a terrace overlooked by high rise buildings - effectively in a housing estate and proudly removed from Niyzov's downtown area.

We also found the real Turkmenistan at the down-to-earth Torkuchka weekend market. Here we spent a morning wandering through the rows of lorry containers and corrugated iron stalls, which displayed for sale everything from car parts to carpets to the crowd that flocked there from Ashgabat and outside. We loved feeling as though we melted into the scenery here; tourism is not yet developed enough to create a signficant market and the hard sell culture that comes with it.

The market - a far cry from the fountains of Ashgabat

It is a fascinating time to visit the country. Turkmenbashi clearly lived in his gold domed Presidential Palace (no photos allowed!) in a bubble called downtown Ashgabat. Now that he lies in his massive mausoleum just outside the city, will the bubble burst? It is too early to tell, and we not able to get much information out of anyone we spoke to. Since his dentist (thankfully also the former of Minister of Health) has taken over, the main change has been a relaxation of the grip of the police. It also appears that the new President has decided not to replace the ubiquitous portraits of Turkmenbashi with his own. In the critical power struggle for oil and gas, he also appears to have thrown his lot in with Russia, recently signing a major deal with Putin and Kazakstan. We can only hope some of the benefits are spent on the people rather than massaging the presidential ego.


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