Fortean Times, 2005

Despite a brief appearance in the Simpsons (episode 311, in a song about the merits of walking), mention Turkmenistan to most people and their reaction can usually be described as blank. This is no surprise – a desert republic by the Caspian Sea with a population of only 4.5 million, Turkmenistan only rarely attracts the attention of the world’s media and it seems forgotten and politically isolated amid its pro-US neighbours.

Long before you get to the hermetic autocracy that is modern Turkmenistan, the reaction of locals to your intended destination makes it quite clear that there’s something strange going on in the Karakum desert. Whether travelling through the bleak wasteland of Karakalpakia in western Uzbekistan, from fundamentalist Iran or tribal northern Afghanistan, inhabitants of some of the world’s most remote and desolate places ask, wide eyed: “Why on earth would you want to go there?”.

You can’t really blame them for their incredulity – Turkmenistan is North Korea meets the planet Tatooine from Star Wars; it’s the world’s second most totalitarian nation and the former Soviet republic that’s taken the strangest path since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Here the one-time Moscow yes-man who inherited the nation at the collapse of the Soviet Union has created a lavish and implausibly bizarre personality cult around himself sufficient to make Mao or Stalin blush. Sapamurat Niyazov, known to one and all by his honorific pseudonym Turkmenbashi (“leader of the Turkmen”) has his grinning, slightly ape-like face staring out at you from every wall and public building in the country, usually accompanied by the ubiquitous slogan Halk, Watan, Beyik Turkmenbashi (“People, Nation, Turkmenbashi the Great”).

Today, an entire nation revolves around Turkmenbashi. His face is on the cover of every newspaper, every day; his silhouette-logo is on every TV channel, many of which spend hours a day broadcasting live feeds from his cabinet meetings or documentaries about his achievements. In a strange move to ensure the people’s isolation from pernicious western ideas, not only have foreign newspapers been banned, but also cinema, ballet, opera and even having long hair are off the cards. Turkmenbashi has declared the current period in Turkmenistan to be its golden age, renaming the days and months of the year and writing an unreadably eccentric “book of the soul” that Turkmen citizens are compelled to study.

Crossing the border to this sleepy yet sinister country as a tourist, it’s safe to say you are conspicuous among the village traders who cross back and forth into Uzbekistan selling fruit and vegetables. Severe border guards go through your luggage conscientiously and with a certain bemused interest before allowing you into one of the world’s least visited countries. Due to the perceived need to control foreigners and their potentially subversive influence, all tourists must be met at the border by a licensed state tour guide, into whose care you are entrusted until you reach the border elsewhere. Our guide, an irreverent man whose hatred for Turkmenbashi was only matched by his love of vodka, quickly became proof that, despite the surreal personality cult, love for the leader wasn’t quite as unanimous as might be supposed.

Essentially a vast desert surrounded by a green belt to the north and south, Turkmenistan attracts people with an interest in archaeology (there are numerous ancient Islamic cities scattered around its barren extremities), wildlife (the grey varan or desert crocodile is just one of the fascinating creatures that roams the Karakum desert) and of course, those fascinated by the highly bizarre.
Even coming from a country as poor as Uzbekistan, the poverty and general chaos of Turkmenistan is immediately apparent as we drive through the market town of Konye Urgench on our way to the collective farm where we’ll spend the night. The posters and statues are everywhere – vast billboards advertise the ‘Altyn Asyr’ or Golden Age and of course, Turkmenbashi and his politically canonised mother, Gurbsoltan Eje, a kind of Virgin Mary to Niyazov’s Jesus Christ.

Crossing the desert is an arduous journey. From the Amu Darya River and the border with Uzbekistan we drive straight across the vast Karakum, one of the world’s hottest deserts. Ramshackle desert towns full of unemployed men smoking in groups all have a golden statue of the leader in pride of place, usually the only post-Soviet architectural addition. The long, virtually featureless journey is broken only by regular police roadblocks and interminable document checks. The young soldiers – often barely 18 and many completely illiterate – enjoy the sudden power following their conscription. Despite the odd sadist, most are very happy to help us out – very useful on the numerous occasions when our car breaks down and needs a push-start. By evening we arrive in Ashgabat, which means ‘city of love’ in Arabic, but whose modern incarnation is anything but romantic.

This has been Turkmenbashi’s greatest project, a city into which billions have been poured to create a capital full of totalitarian chic – marble ministries, palatial public buildings, endless gold statues and more water features than is decent in a country where water is scarce. The vast avenues, often empty of cars, hum with the sound of a thousand water sprinklers – the entire city busies itself with watering and manicuring miles of green nothingness. The desert begins just a few miles out of town, and so maintaining the facade of verdure is a full time job undertaken by a civilian army of thousands. Vast white marble apartment blocks lie empty, earmarked for government employees while old residential neighbourhoods are bulldozed, often at a few hours notice, leaving more and more people homeless and uncompensated.

The centrepiece of the city is Independence Square, where Turkmenbashi’s gold-domed palace overlooks nearby ministries and the bombastically tasteless Arch of Neutrality. Atop the arch is a vast golden rendering of Niyazov engaged in what looks like the first bit of the “Y-M-C-A” dance and which has gained the local nickname ‘batman’ for obvious reasons. The genius of this ridiculous statue is that it revolves to face the sun, beckoning it up from the east and bidding it farewell in the west. Elsewhere, Niyazov is portrayed with the sun glowing around his forehead – hubristic nods to Louis XIV being fairly obvious in both cases.

The real madness begins outside Ashgabat, where some of the most hare-brained schemes seem to have been undertaken. For example, to encourage people to enjoy walking in the Kopet Dag Mountains just south of the city, Turkmenbashi has had staircases built across the hillsides, creating an even concrete surface to walk on. Taking a walk along the staircase has about as much of the romance of mountain walking to it as a trip to a shopping mall, but ‘The Walk of Heath’ is an encouraged weekend activity and once a year Turkmenbashi sends his entire cabinet, along with all the capital’s civil servants, to complete the course live on television (he flies from one end to the other in his helicopter, naturally). When we visited, armed guards surveying the walkway looked at us suspiciously, presumably because we were visiting of our own free wills.

Niyazov’s seemingly cruel reign over Turkmenistan has generated other outlandish projects that have defined the nation as something of a joke for the western media, including the construction of the world’s biggest shoe and an ice palace close to the capital (see panel). A meteorite landing in the desert was interpreted as a divine symbol of Turkmenbashi’s destiny to rule the country (it landed on the sixth anniversary of his election); unsurprisingly, it was named the Turkmenbashi Meteorite, just one of a thousand things to be named after the president, including Ashgabat’s airport, the country’s largest port and even a brand of aftershave for those who want to smell like the Dear Leader.

Despite the endless roadblocks (every 50km, even in the middle of the desert!) and the stultifying bureaucracy, Turkmenistan is an easy and relatively inexpensive place to visit. Even paying for your guides and for their meals and hotels, you’ll rarely spend more than $100 (£54) per day, and in most places you’ll stay in decent accommodation (another favourite Turkmenbashi pastime is building vast international-standard hotels for the legions of non-existent tourists who come here every year). Indeed, there’s an entire neighbourhood of Ashgabat, the wacky Berzengi, where all the buildings are (empty) hotels, and more are being constructed all the time.

Beyond the omnipresent personality cult, Turkmenistan is a land of mystery and mysticism – entire ancient cities lie unexcavated in the desert, women roll down hillsides to ensure fertility, and dinosaur footprints preserved in lava can be seen in the Kugitang National Park on the Afghan border. Once away from the population centres, Turkmenistan is an entirely different place – the haunting desert and mountains, not to mention the particularly lunar-looking landscape of the western flank of the country create some wonderfully unusual geological phenomena. The desert night is lit up by gas craters that burn permanently – Turkmenistan is, after all, sitting on a mine of mineral wealth that has developed nations all over the world salivating in excitement and turning a blind eye to Niyazov’s excesses and human rights abuses.

From Ashgabat we drive east to the city of Mary. While most visitors to the country head here to see the vast ruins of Ancient Merv, once one of the greatest cities in the Islamic world, we head into the desert in an old Russian army jeep, sweating from the intense heat and being thrown around violently as we improvise our way through the sand dunes to the vast excavation site of Gonur Depe. This is where Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has been working since 1971, excavating what he believes to have been the capital of the fifth great civilisation – along with Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China – the capital of the Margiana Oasis, undiscovered until recently and believed to have been the founding place of the world’s first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster, Sarianidi explains with great passion dismissing those academics who do not accept his still controversial theories, probably lived in the city, where he began preaching against the priests here who used a poppy, hemp and ephedra plants in a potion to bring about a state of peace (known to most people now as getting stoned to within an inch of your life). On and around Gonur Hill, Sarianidi has already discovered four fire temples, and the royal palace itself is in almost unbelievably good condition – its walls and layout are still remarkably preserved, so you can walk through its corridors and even see the throne room. If you’re lucky enough to get Sarianidi to take you around personally, he’ll point out some of the more bizarre architectural features, such as entire walls in which malformed foetuses were buried to ward off evil.

Heading south from Gonur Hill towards the Iranian border, after several more breakdowns and some makeshift repairs in the desert heat, we reach the sleepy border town of Serags and here we spend the night before crossing into comparatively liberal, democratic Iran the next morning. The contrast with its northern neighbour couldn’t be more stark – and this in a full-on member of the so-called Axis of Evil!

Turkmenistan will doubtless weather the cruel and eccentric reign of the world’s most preposterous dictator, just as it has survived Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Stalin before him, its timeless desert beauty and rich cultural heritage dwarfing the excesses of one man’s ego. But until then, the golden statues and adoring billboards will continue to rule the day in Central Asia’s strangest land.