Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Turkmenistan a Bust

It was a 17 minute walk in the 98 degree sun at 9 in the morning from the Uzbekistan side to the Turkmen. A minute later the Brits came walking up. A minute later the minivan that no one had told us about followed. The Turkmen guards told us to wait for the minivan from their side. We did.

Our tour guide was waiting for us across an invisible line. When they let us cross it she helped with the rest of the entry process. And then we were on the road.

Today was the first day of school in Uzbekistan, and all the little girls were wearing identical blue and white dresses. It was also the first day of school in Turkmenistan, and all the little girls here were wearing identical green and white dresses. Otherwise it looked pretty much the same, pretty flat, the irrigated areas supporting crops and the rest of it sandy brown desert dirt with various weeds a'growin'.

After forty km or so we arrived at Turkmenabat, a city of around 150,000. More so than anywhere else so far this looked like a town straight out of the last years of the Soviet Union, except 20 more years of decrepitude. A strange mixture of nameless, faceless four story cement apartment blocks, occasional rundown grassy areas, and spread throughout it all railroad tracks, small cement plants and the like, and dormant or belching smokestacks. Since the Soviets idolized heavy industry as much as we idolize consumerism, it all makes a loopy kind of sense.

We slowly made our way through it and emerged on the other side. A few km more and Angela, our Armenian (who ended up stuck in TM after the breakup) guide directed the driver to pull over at a small restaurant. I had potatoes for lunch, along with old style Russian soda.

Then it was across much the same landscape for around 240 km. Joseph Stalin had had a vision of an irrigation ditch connecting the Oxus River with the Caspian Sea, and the 850 mile long Kara Kum canal was completed in the 50s. Now thanks to far sighted Joe most of what we were going through was cotton fields and the like. The dry area had now turned into flat, light brown sandy desert. Kind of like on the Arabian peninsula. Hardly inspiring.

After a few hours we pulled off the road to the site of the ancient city of Merv, in the Middle Ages one of the great cities of the world. But Jenghiz Khan leveled it to the ground around 1330, so now all it was was a site. With only a couple of foundations of buildings left. In 108 degree heat. Hardly inspiring. Angela said that last week it was really hot in Ashgabat. 135 degrees. 140 in the desert.

We got to the city of Mary, a virtual carbon copy of Turkmenabat, around 6. Our hotel was actually kind of a shabby motel next to a truck stop on the edge of town. Remember, I paid top dollar for this tour. At least the a/c worked when you got up on top of the tv stand to adjust it.

The restaurant downstairs was actually a very dark bar with very loud music and a few sundry prostitutes waiting for Iranian truckdrivers to show up. Angela took us across the street to a little place where the nice Turkmen lady made up plates and plates of vegetables for almost nothing.

The next morning we were over there again for breakfast. Then we started out on the 360 km drive to Ashgabat.

The road was technically paved, but it was so buckled by the heat and those Iranian trucks that we jounced uncomfortably the whole way. Around 3:30 we stopped at another totally forgettable ruin, and a few minutes later we turned the corner and beheld the capital city.

Even miles away the eyes were dazzled by all the sparkling white buildings being erected. The level of building was reminiscent of Dubai, although here the recession certainly hadn't been felt. TM sits on a huge supply of gas and oil, and it doesn't have many people to spend it on. We worked our way around to the south end of town.

A little background: Up until four years ago TM was ruled by a former Soviet bureaucrat who renamed himself Turkmenbashi the Great and set about trying to build a personality cult around himself. He renamed the months of the year after himself. He built a collossal 'Arch of Neutrality' with a 120 foot high golden statue of himself which rotated to always face the sun. He built this mile long strip of empty white marble hotels south of town called Berzengi. Any of the rest of the world which paid attention justifiably mocked it all.

Then he died. A successor with a name about 27 letters long took over. Turkmenbashi was no longer so great. In fact, we had just found out that last week they had taken down the golden statue, which is of course one of the main reasons you would want to come to TM.

But the building continued. In overdrive. Now Berzengi was dwarfed by giant marble buildings on the other side of the road. And giant marble government buildings and apartment buildings were finishing construction all the several miles back into town.

Our hotel was already tiny and faded. The room was okay, but hardly grand. My first order of business after settling in was to go out to the Turkmenbashi Tramway a few km away that went up the side of the brown dead mountains a few km away. Sorry, it was closed.

Okay, how about rustling up some food? The staff explained in pidgin English that there was a Turkish superarket that any cab could take me to. As in KZ or UZ you just stand out in the street and every third or fourth private car going by is cruising for fares.

When I entered the Yimpash Center it seemed like I was in the midst of a wondrous futuristic hypermarket. After a few minutes I realized that it wasn't that big or overly modern, it was that the commerce I had been in since Almaty had been so small and poor.

On the third floor was a large Turkish restaurant. After chancing upon a fluent English speaking Turkmen we concluded that the one thing I could eat was... pizza. Pretty damn good pizza, though.

The next morning was Saturday, so of course I wanted to head out bright and early to the giant Tulgushka Market, five miles north of town, and according to the LP one of the most amazing sights I would ever see. Unfortunately, whatever camel trading or old Turkmen jewelry trading that had ever gone on had been closed down by the authorities, and now all that was left was a gargantuan dusty lot of temporary flea market stalls selling toothbrushes and ladies' underwear. Still, it was interesting to look at all the shoppers, mostly women. In town about half were wearing Turkmen garb; here they almost all were. It consists of a long, floor length shift/dress made of cotton bedspread material, often complemented by a matching turban. Though not amazingly exotic, the look was still quite pleasant.

Then back to the Yimpash Center for lunch and internet. And then for a walk 'downtown' in the afternoon sun. It was only in the 90s, which was a hell of a lot more comfortable than the 100s. Oh yeah, and my allergies were horrible.

There was plenty of traffic zipping around, but I was about the only pedestrian, which made the following experience all the more surreal. Because all around me were what could only be described as giant marble government palaces, often domed in gold. It was kind of hard to know what to make of it.

TM has been described as 'Las Vegas meets North Korea', but that is unfair, since Las Vegas is far, far tackier. And the North Korea comparison is way off the mark. After all, the Soviets had a very good educational system that actually created sharp minds. Just about every apartment in the country gets satellite tv. The Turkmen cab drivers are blasting Eminem on their stereos. It's unlikely that a single Turkment bought the Turkmenbashi the Great bit for one minute. Every one I talked to thought the man to be totally insane.

It would be far more accurate to say that TM is 'former Soviet Republic meets Gulf Oil state'. Which is what it is. And in that context Ashgabat is far less jagged and chaotic than Dubai; it is far more pleasant than Kuwait. But as a Soviet Republic it was naturally attracted to broad meaningless roads and gigantic megalomaniac buildings. And of course there is virtually no commerce going on; outside of Yimpash it was hard to even find a Coke for sale.

Construction fences blocked most of the sidewalks, so I ducked inside one and walked along for about a quarter of a mile, nobody stopping me. Why is it, I wondered, that we always presume that dictators have atrocious taste? If you ever check out Hitler's water colors, you'll find that he was a half decent artist. If someone built one of Stalin's neo-Gothic skyscrapers today, they'd be hailed as a post-post-modernist genius.

So it was hard for me to judge the Presidential Palace, People's Hall, etc.,etc., that I was slowly strolling past. A little too much marble and gold for my taste perhaps, but you had to admit that there definitely was a unity of design here. If these buildings were being put up in Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi--and very similar ones are--nobody would be describing them as the result of a power mad fool.

When I got to the Ministry of Defense building a soldier made sure that I didn't take pictures. But they do that in just about every Third World country. Across the street was the Orwellian named Ministry of Fairness, but the statue in front was the same as in front of any Ministry of Justice anywhere.

Which made me start thinking, 'Who's being Orwellian here?' Any other country, the Western press would have translated it into "ministry of Justice', but somehow the story line has stuck that this is a horrilbe police state.

But nobody had looked over their shoulder when talking to me. Nobody had looked or acted any different than people anywhere else. Nobody had stopped me from clicking away at all the other sights. They had asked for a passport or identity card when I had used the internet at Yimposh, but for all I knew that was so that people didn't go away without paying.

It's true that they don't allow political parties. But what good are political parties doing for us in the US these days? Anyway, I judge a police state by how scared people are that the police will catch them without their seat belts on. And in that regard TM beats US hands down. Not to mention that the US has by far the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. Or try to write 'Osama bin Laden' 100 times in an email and see what happens.

Anyway, I was walking for block after long block past one monumental building after another, and I was getting tired of it. I went past the naked Arch of Neutrality, now covered in scaffolding as they were dismantling it. At its base was a free museum about the 1948 earthquake which killed 200,000 people here. But it was closed and empty. I walked a couple of more blocks to where the Museum of Turkmen Weaving held the world's largest handwoven carpet. But it was closed and empty. I gave up and headed back to the hotel. .Turkmenistan a Bust

On Sunday we were supposed to leave at around 1, so that left only the morning. I would have liked to go to the 18 km long set of steps that Turkmnbashi had carved into the side of the mountain, but the LP never said what it was called or where it was. So instead I opted for a trip to the national museum.

It was only less than a mile away, here in Beshengi, amongst the line of buildings on the other side of the ultra wide highway that bisected the district. At first I walked into the wrong monumental building, which turned out to be the national theater/opera house. A guy took it upon himself to show me the stage, dressing rooms, etc..

The national museum next door was humungously humungous, with the plaza in front of it at least an eighth of a mile wide. I went to the ticket window. It was $30 to see the museum, a third of which was devoted to gifts given to Turkmenbashi. Plus $20 if I wanted to take pictures. I passed.

I went back out to the base of the flagpole which held the world's largest flag flapping above me and looked at the colossal museum, which was probably bigger than the National Museum of Greece and the Cairo Museum combined. And the Turkmen had been a nomadic people with no real history!

It dawned on me that this was no Police State. This was an Idiot State. Why lavish all this expense to show yourself off and then price it so that nobody would ever want to see it??? And all the buildings around me: Dubai had been founded on the premise of 'Build it and they will come'. But Turkmenistan doesn't want anyone to come. And there's absolutely no way they will be able to use all these hundreds of marble monstrosities. I walked back to the hotel.

Where I was informed that Ilyas, our new guide, wouldn't be coming until 3. The sand would be too hot until then. But wouldn't the sand be too hot every day? What's the use. Even though I wasn't all that hungry, I went back to the Turkish supermarket complex to have a last meal.

At 3 we started out. Same boring desert, only now with even fewer weeds. If only there were someone interesting to talk to. For Mark and David, my traveling companions, had shown themselves to be quintessential passive aggressive British twits. Unfailingly polite but never friendly. David in particular was constantly annoying. All of 25, and with a newly minted Master's degree in Economics, he would sit there and didactically pontificate, coming up with such gems as, 'Only rich people benefit from National Health', and 'The poor invest just as much money as the rich'.

So we're going along and Ilyas, a former English and History teacher, had asked me a question, which I was endeavoring to answer. In the middle of my reply David interrupted to announce that I was totally wrong. Up to now I had been doing my best to be unfailingly polite, but I finally snapped. 'Have you ever had a single experience in actually buying or selling any kind of anything in any actual real marketplace!?' Silence.

It was kind of depressing to realize that we in the West had done far better than the Soviets in coming up with a generation of brainwashed atheists. Plus it had never even occurred to the Bolsheviks to include total self absorption.

Some actual sand dunes briefly appeared. Then a woebegone settlement of former nomads where we stopped for three minutes to take pictures. A bunch of camels and motorbikes up against rundown yurts and wooden shacks.

Then the Darvasa gas crater. It was only 7 km off the road, on a dirt track that a passenger car probably could make. All the breathless reports that I had read made it seem that an enormous flame would be shooting 200 feet into the air. Uh uh. There was only a tiny faint glow below the surface of the crater as we reached it in twilight.

Mark and David acted helpful and unoffended as we were setting up camp. Looking around me I realized that this was one of the most unexciting deserts that I had seen. Dull grey brown. Almost flat surface. As the sky darkened the glow from the crater got a little brighter.

When we had eaten and it was fully dark I walked down to the crater. Here's what it was: About 100 yards across, it had straight walls that went down about twenty feet, then a talus of rocks which made an inverted cone which came to an almost point about 200 feet down Amongst all the rocks were hundreds of places where natural gas was seeping out. On fire. Most of the flames were about 10 feet high. A few were 20 or 30 feet high. Sort of impressive if you weren't expecting something impressive.

I went to the edge to look down into it. Then I circled the pit in the silent darkness. Kind of neat. When I got to my tent I realized that I hadn't slept on the ground for many, many years. And once I tried it my bones were, uh, not happy campers. But I hit upon the idea of taking twice as many sleeping pills as usual, and soon I was dead to the world.

In the morning it was back to the road and north across the stinking desert. To the city of Konye-Urgench. Or rather the faint traces of remains of ruins on the outskirts of said city. It seems that in the Middle Ages Konye-Urgench had been right up there with Merv. And that Jenghiz Khan totally flattened it just like Merv. So that now there were a few mauseleums and the remains of the world's tallest minaret scattered across the wasteland.

Sad to say, but Medieval mausaleums and minarets were all starting to look the same.

There were two possible exit points from Turkmenistan, Dashogus and Konye-Urgench. Dashogus would have been a lot more convenient for Khiva, but Mark and David decided that they preferred the one here. So my time in TM was at an end.

Like the Galapagos, Turkmenistan had turned out to be somewhat interesting, but hardly worth the money. What's more, most of the fun/bizarre sights for which I had come had been closed down. And even most of the police state controls had been dismantled. All that was left was the building spree at Ashgabat and the miles and miles of empty light brown dirt and weed desert.

Like I said, kind of a disappointment. But now that I've done it, at least you don't have to.


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