November 2013

Turkmenistan Today: Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi meet Pyongyang

Slightly more than ten years after I visited the four other “Stans” of the former Soviet Union, I went to the last former Soviet Republic that I had not visited, Turkmenistan. I went with Koryo Tours, the group with whom I went to North Korea one year previously.

In some ways, Turkmenistan has become the marginally more visitor friendly Saudi Arabia of the former USSR. While not hostile to visitors officially, the reality is that natural gas and oil wealth make any income derived from tourism marginal. Therefore the country seeks to limit outside influences and does it on its own terms. Its slightly bizarre model of massive resorts on the Caspian Sea resembles the sort of group tourism favoured by the USSR from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s.

Of all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan makes independent travel the most difficult. Some travelers manage to visit the country cheaply on transit visa, but for the most part you enter on a tourist visa accompanied by a local tour company. In our case, Koryo, working through their local company, Ayan Tours, faxed Letters of Introduction issued by the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan.This allowed me to board the plane in Istanbul and obtain a visa on arrival at Ashgabat airport.

The capital of the country, Ashgabat , is an extraordinary and almost surreal place. As natural gas and oil money flows massively into a country with a total population of barely six million, the capital has been transformed into something oversized yet vaguely familiar (Washington?, Abu Dhabi?, Las Vegas? Pyongyang?) but also unique. There is a monumentalism at work here, perhaps only paralleled in the Gulf States. There are literally hundreds of oversized marble buildings, massive Ministry buildings, the largest, and probably the only, indoor ferris wheel, extensive parks and monuments in the desert, dozens of fountains, a long cable car up a mountain close to the Iranian border and elaborate mosques. More building are under construction. What is missing, when visiting these sites, even in comparison to Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, or Las Vegas, is people. The city is kept immaculately clean.

Perhaps the greatest draw and most remarkable site in the country is the large flaming gas crater at Darvaza, slightly under a four hour drive north of Ashgabat. It is the result of an industrial accident in the  early1970s. The former Soviet Union is full of environmental disasters. Chernobyl, the Aral Sea, and the toxic waste ponds of the Abseron Peninsula, now in Azerbaijan, are a few that come to mind. But this flaming gas crater is something extraordinary and even appealing. There are three craters within about a thirty kilometre distance. One of the craters now has no flames, only a pool of water at the bottom. The second still has a few flames at the bottom, and the third and most spectacular is a representation on earth of Dante’s Inferno. Impressive enough during the day, the kilometre wide crater full of flames it is even more dramatic a night. We camped overnight a few hundred meters from the lip of the cater.

Later we went by air to the northern town of Dashoguz, then went to the ancient ruins of Konya Urgench. The ruins are spread over a fairly large area. The highlights include a 72 metre minaret and a few building spread over a large area. The lavish largesse bestowed on the capital is far less in evidence in Dashoguz, although there are still a few nice buildings. Even more stressed are some of the villages in the Karakum desert that we visited en route to Darvaza. Here the juxtaposition between Ashgabat’s increasing opulence and the traditionally austere life of Turkmen surviving in the Karakum desert is thrown into high relief.

The current President, the second since Turkmenistan became independent,  is Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. His photo is ubiquitous, for example, an all Turkmenistan Airways flights. Various magazines have him riding a horse, on a mountain bicycle, giving earnest speeches. Yet veneration of a leader is hardly unusual by global standards and it is certainly less extreme and unusual in comparison to North Korea. National dress is worn by most women, with only a small minority wearing western-style clothing. In this respect, it reminds me more of Bhutan.

In a world where the effects of globalization seem to be penetrating ever more remote areas, Turkmenistan still has the feeling of a place apart, and which is modernizing on its own terms, and which is preserving its Turkmen identity. That makes it, at least for me, a place special and apart.