A Report on a Week in Turkmenistan

❮ Back To Message Board
Here's the text of a short article that I've offered today to ITN. TURKMENISTAN: LAND OF FIRE AND MARBLE Every country is unique, but few more so than Turkmenistan. Two of its primary attractions are the post-Soviet architecture of its capital, Ashgabat, and a huge, flaming hole in the ground. The flaming hole derives from the fact that Turkmenistan has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world. During drilling in 1971 near Darwaza (alternately, Derweze), near the middle of the country and about 250 kilometers north of Ashgabat, the ground collapsed into a cavern roughly 70 meters or 230 feet in diameter. Plumes of natural gas spouted from many dozen fissures and holes on the cavern floor and walls. The escaping gas was ignited in the hope that it soon would burn off. No such luck. The gas continues to burn 40 years later, though the government apparently is talking about trying somehow to douse the flames. Until then, it is an eerie place to visit, out in the Karakum desert, especially after dark but even during daylight. Think of science fiction movies depicting huge craters created by crashing asteroids or invading space ships, and you can begin to imagine what it’s like. We passed through only a handful of villages on our way from Ashgabat until we turned off into the desert. If there were any road markings, I missed them, and there are no facilities at all near the site. We camped for the night and dined on whatever our guide and drivers brought in their jeeps and land cruisers. We spent five of our six other nights in May 2011 at the Grand Turkmen Hotel in Ashgabat, an “international class” hotel that’s well-located in the center of the city and has an excellent restaurant (and casino). The city was more or less leveled by an earthquake in 1948 that may have killed two-thirds of Ashgabat’s population. There was plenty of room, therefore, for the grandiose ambitions of Saparamurat Niyazov, the last party chief during Soviet days who became the first president of independent Turkmenistan. He was subsequently re-elected, then designated president for life, and finally took on the title of Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmens.” When he died in 2006, he left behind a city replete with his image on huge paintings both inside and outside some of the buildings he commissioned, other portraits of him depicted in the Turkmen rugs for which the region is well-known, and a collection of golden statues far bigger than life-size that are found outside some of the city’s pre-eminent monuments and buildings. Our excellent guide, Abdullah, stopped to say a prayer when we visited the gold and marble mausoleum where he and several family members are interred. I think the only other place where such a cult of personality persists is North Korea. Although Soviet-era buildings remain, the skyline and cityscape are dominated by a host of recently-constructed marble palaces: museums, conference and music halls, government ministries, and apartment buildings. Oppressive as all this may sound, I must admit I found it all surprisingly appealing to the eye, the buildings combining elements of modern, classical, and Islamic architectural styles. None of the buildings are more than perhaps twelve stories tall, in recognition of the continuing threat of earthquakes, and their appearance is complemented by the a greenery that is kept watered in what is very much a desert environment. What I did find strange, though, was the dearth of people on the streets, making me wonder just who, if anyone, works in all those new offices and lives in all those new apartments. In addition to the various monuments, Niyazov’s mausoleum and the mosque next door are worth visiting, as are the impressive carpet museum, another museum devoted largely to gifts that Niyazov received as head of state (and grantor of state contracts to foreign companies), the Toluchka bazaar which recently moved into covered buildings on the edge of town, the “Russian bazaar” two blocks from the Grand Turkmen Hotel, and the Azadi mosque, modeled on Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. By contrast, we spent one night in Turkmenbashi, the country’s major city on the Caspian Sea, which had been Krasnovodsk unti l 1993. Like other provincial cities in the former Soviet Union, Turkmenbashi hasn’t benefitted from Turkmenistan’s natural gas wealth nearly as much as the capital. Visiting there gives a fairly good picture of what Ashgabat probably was like before the earthquake and Niyazov’s building spree. Yet on the outskirts of Turkmenbashi, a “tourist zone” is being created at Awaza, already featuring half a dozen or more high-rise hotels and a seven-kilometer artificial canal. The question is whether “build it and they will come” will become Turkmenbashi’s motto or a forlorn hope. This tour is offered twice a year by the Koryo Group (www.koryogroup.com), a British-owned and operated company that’s based in Beijing and specializes in trips to North Korea. Most members of our group of 13 already had traveled with Koryo to the DPRK and I hope to do so next year. The group included British, Australian, Hungarian, French, Finnish, and Portuguese participants, in addition to four Americans; two of us were in our 60s, most of the rest were under 50. Koryo uses Ayan Tourism and Travel Company as its local operator (email: ayan@online.tm and/or info@ayan-travel.com; website: www.ayan-travel.com/index.html). The trip, including most meals and flights between Asgabat and Turkmenbashi, was 1210 euros, plus 210 euros for the single supplement. I paid half in advance by wire transfer through my bank, and the rest in euros upon arrival. Turkish Airlines operates non-stop flights between Istanbul and Ashgabat (I paid $444, roundtrip), though the flights may arrive and depart at odd hours. I downloaded Lonely Planet’s chapter on Turkmenistan for $4.95. Some remnants of Soviet thinking remain. Koryo had to get a letter of invitation for all of us before we could qualify to receive visas when our flights arrived in Ashgabat. Ayan had to register us with the government after we arrived, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was forbidden to take photos of a fruit and vegetable market. If you might think about buying a carpet, I recommend consulting the useful information at the U.S. embassy’s website (http://turkmenistan.usembassy.gov/carpets.html). Stanley Bach Washington, DC ---------- Moderator note: title changed at request of author.