Turkmenistan

I have always been fascinated by repressive, authoritarian regimes, kind of in the same way I slow down to look at traffic accidents and read all I can about serial killers. There’s nothing good about them, but I am curious as to how these things came to be. I want to make sense of them, in hopes that I can avoid them and/or prevent them from replicating themselves. Knowledge is power.

Until recently, I’d have said the worst of the worst of all the countries on earth was North Korea, with its empty cities, famines, indoctrination and buttoned-up-tight borders. I can’t imagine living like that, and I know that that’s simply my good luck for not having been born there. But just recently I heard of a country that is, if anything, even more insane, and the creepy thing is it’s rarely talked about. I’m talking about Turkmenistan.

The only reason this country even popped up on my radar is that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did a hilarious 20 minute segment on its current ruler, Garbanguly Berdimuhamedov because he is so completely and utterly weird. He called him a fierce authoritarian and mentioned that Human Rights Watch World Report 2019 says Turkmenistan is “… one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries.” He went on to call it one of the worst places on earth. There’s no freedom of the press, and no right to voice an opinion. It is known for its arbitrary arrests and detentions, its endemic corruption and its forced labor.

Oliver stated that Berdimuhamedov is truly, deeply and compellingly odd. He showed clips of the man shooting at targets while slowly riding on a bicycle, recording a ridiculous rap video with his grandson, and falling off a horse in 2013 during a race, and then demanding that all footage of the event be destroyed, and locking down the airports until any such footage could be confiscated. (So of course Oliver showed that clip three times.)

Berdimuhamedov is so obsessed with horses that he named himself “The People’s Horse Breeder”. He has ordered beauty contests for horses. He has also written a poem about his latest horse and read it on national television.

All of this had me intrigued. From there, I went on to watch a 48 minute documentary called Undercover in Turkmenistan. This was an older video, about Turkmenbashi, the ruler who started this whole cult of personality business and ruled the country until his death in 2006. If anything, he makes Berdimuhamedov look like your sweet old grandma. This documentary stated that the country is “sealed up tighter than a jar of gherkins.”

Much of the documentary took place in the capital city, which is full of Italian marble and gold. In fact, there used to be a 15 meter tall statue of Turkmenbashi made of gold that revolved throughout the day to face the sun. It’s also ground zero for the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel, which is almost never used.

Turkmenbashi also wrote the Ruhnama, which he treated like a guide for living. You had to answer questions about it to take your driving test. School kids were tested on it. There were crosswords in the newspaper based on it. And Turkmenbashi renamed the month of September for it.

He also banned dogs, cinemas, car radios, ballet, and circuses, because they are apparently not Turkmen enough and unnecessary. He also decreed that all cars must be white. Meanwhile, dissidents disappear, foreign newspapers were banned, the internet didn’t work, and hotel rooms are still bugged to this day.

On the plus side, according to the documentary, child labor was banned, as was the death penalty, and they erected an arch of neutrality to celebrate the decision to never go to war and never join with anyone else who goes to war. Well, those are good things. But they say Mussolini claimed he made the trains run on time, and I wouldn’t want him back in Italy. (Incidentally, that train thing is false, according to this article in Snopes.)

Another interesting video is from a Youtube series called Kinging It, which I highly recommend. Just regular, engaging people, traveling to crazy places. When they went to Turkmenistan, they said a tracker was placed on their car, and there were watch towers everywhere. They were told they couldn’t exit their route, and couldn’t stop. The roads and all the hotels (which are all 5 star) are completely deserted. They went to a big mall, but all it contained was one restaurant, one toilet, and a bunch of empty shops. When they tried to take photos that included soldiers, those soldiers pounded their guns on the ground by way of warning.

According to Wikipedia, Turkmenbashi came to power in 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and immediately became president for life. He closed all hospitals outside of the capital, and all rural libraries. Each broadcast under his rule began with a pledge that the broadcaster’s tongue would shrivel if he slandered the country, flag, or president. (No pressure there.)

Lonely Planet, a travel guide that is never one to mince words, calls this country a “totalitarian theme park”. That made me want to learn more about its tourism aspects. For that I went to Wikitravel.

There, I learned that Turmenbashi had the month of January named after himself, and then he named the month of April and also renamed “bread” after his mother. He also banned lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. He also said, “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it’s what the people want.”

But if you are still interested in visiting this strange place, here is some handy, sometimes chilling advice from wikitravel that was too fascinating for me to avoid quoting at length. It begins with several places to visit.

  • Avaza – a multi-billion dollar construction project near Turkmenbashi aimed at creating a “national touristic zone” of over 60 world-class hotels, shopping, and a new international airport. The government likens the project to Dubai, but there is little foreign investment thus far.

  • Darvaza Flaming Crater — At this spot near the town of Darvaza, an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas in 1971. The rig collapsed into the cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. It was decided to let the fire burn rather than let the poisonous gas escape into the nearby town. The fire, while expected to burn itself out quickly, burns to this day and it is popularly nicknamed The Gateway to Hell. The gas crater is best viewed at night. There are no facilities around the gas crater. Camping in this area is common. Getting to the gas crater with a small personal car can be difficult. The last 7 kilometers from the main road are on desert sand and small cars often get stuck. While a handful of travelers do walk to the flaming crater, the hike is strenuous and not pleasant, especially on a windy day or during the summer time heat. If you are traveling on a transit visa, you may ask a nearby teahouse for transport to the crater, which will cost around 150 TM.

  • Pay a visit to Kow Ata underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in – unless you’re handy with your towel. Kow Ata means Father of the Lakes. The cave is more than 200 meters long, 20 meters high and at some point more than 50 meters wide. The water has a constant temperature of 33 to 37 degrees Celsius.

  • National Museum of Turkmenistan — The National Museum of Turkmenistan is a museum in Asgabat. It is split into three sections: natural history, science, and the current president of Turkmenistan. Entry is $30, and the museum is sparsely visited. Photography is not allowed anywhere in the museum, and during your visit you are accompanied by a museum employee who follows you and ensures you abide by their rules. It is quite an experience, and very entertaining as many items in their collections are not genuine – most obviously photos in the President’s museum. There are a slough of poorly photoshopped images of the president showing his wide variety of skills including teaching, playing tennis, racing, horseback riding, and many many more.

You need a visa to get in which requires a letter of introduction from a Turkmen tourist agency. Sleeping pills are not allowed. You need a long list of vaccinations. Lots of red tape. If the photocopy of your passport is oriented the wrong direction, it could delay you for weeks. There are registration fees. Entry and departure cards. You can’t leave without your departure card and a notice to leave stamped on your passport. You’ll also need travel permits for many regions.

No passenger trains or public transportation cross the border. To get there from Uzbekistan you have to walk 15 minutes across no-mans land.

Some travelers have faced problems attempting to travel to Turkmenistan by boat. Travelers should be aware that some “ferries” are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. Passengers are generally not provided food or water on these ships, and sleeping and sanitary facilities are likely to be rudimentary. Travelers should be aware that ships arriving at the port of Turkmenbashy often wait days offshore for outgoing ships to vacate the dock to allow incoming ships to disembark. Some travelers have spent more than a week offshore while their ship awaited permission to enter the port, and they have run out of stores of food and water, or had their Turkmen visas expire before they could be used.

Most taxis are unofficial. Just hail the first car you see and pay what’s fair.

Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.

Expect distinctly average Turkman or Russian cuisine in restaurants.

Do not criticize, insult or speak badly of the President, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since Turkmenbashi’s death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state. The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Suparmurat Niyazov is still sold, and still taught in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best regarded to not criticize the former President as well.

As a general rule of thumb, keep your opinions about the country’s politics to yourself since speaking out against the government is a crime for which you can be given a prison sentence, or if you are a foreign citizen, the remote possibility of deportation from the country.

If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession.

Turkmen law enforcement are well trained and professional, but be warned that they are very aggressive, especially during the night, so do expect some sort of harassment from them.

Due to their low salaries, bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many locals, given that Turkmenistan was ranked as one of the top twenty corrupt countries in the world.

Many hotels are frequently bugged by the police. Bugging in hotel rooms is common – telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Do not sign any documents provided by the police if it is in a language you do not know, as it may be that they may try to rip you off for some more money. Just be polite with them, and just say that you do not understand it.

Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohibited, each of which is punishable with up to 2 years in prison.

So there you have it. Turkmenistan. It certainly makes me appreciate the life I have even more than I previously did.

Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that? http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

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