This is the second post about Turkmenistan. Click here for part 1.
Filth is forbidden
Just outside of Ashgabat, Mr. Dima pulls over next to a flowing irrigation channel. It is illegal to drive a dirty car in the capital, he tells me, and so he must wash the Land Rover before we drive any further. Other vehicles are parked nearby for the same purpose. A construction worker tries futilely to wash the mud from his dump truck by tossing buckets of water at it.
When the car is shining like new, we drive the remaining distance to the security barrier that divides the desert from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
The white city
Driving into Ashgabat is like passing through the gates of Babylon. The poverty and decay of the desert vanishes in an instant, replaced by wide tree-lined boulevards and pricy foreign cars. As we approach the city center I can’t help but stare, gob smacked, at the spectacle that unfolds before me. Gleaming white marble palaces line the street, their graceful forms rising from broad squares like ivory-robed giants. Many of their marble and glass facades are adorned with patterned gold lattice, and water tumbles like liquid crystal from myriad fountains.
These are the hotels and offices built since independence in 1991, and paid for with the country’s vast oil wealth. One is called “The Central Commission for Holding Elections and Referendums in Turkmenistan.” Yeah right.
I spend the afternoon and the following day wandering the city, totally transfixed by the magnificent fairytale that surrounds me. I stroll through the resplendent gardens and marvel at the dazzling fountains, long pedestrian avenues, and white-and-gold fixtures. A panoply of water features, classical arches, and gold-peaked gates surround the stunning (and off-limits) Presidential Palace. At the other end of town, massive pillars mark the entrance to an enormous square flanked by the library, arts center, and presidential museum, their shining golden domes rising into the sky like angelic thrones. It is as if the lost city of Atlantis has risen out of the sand, and then the masters of Los Vegas took over management.
The page for “magnificent” in my thesaurus has practically disintegrated from overuse.
The grandiosity of the city is equaled only by the lofty official rhetoric surrounding its construction. Read the excerpt below taken from a poster in the Turkmenbashi museum (all grammatical errors are faithfully reproduced).
Click here to read an excerpt about the construction of the city of Ashgabat, from a poster in the Turkmenbashi Museum
All the times of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great are expressed in his “Strategy of the economic, politic and cultural development of Turkmenistan till 2020” national programme. The great plans and projects of the President are successfully carried out. All cities and villages of our country change their appearance. And Ashgabat, the heart of the Independent and permanent Neutral Turkmenistan day after day becomes larger, wider, more beautiful turning into the one of the most marvelous cities of the word. With the bless of Allah, under the head o the talented and wise Leader Ashgabat would be turned into on of these cities that are entered into the world history forever.
Turkmenbashi the Great
The modern incarnation of Ashgabat was the brainchild of Saparmurat Niyazov, the megalomaniac first president of Turkmenistan who ruled from independence in 1991 until his death in 2006. During his time in power he built a personality cult of epic proportions, bestowing upon himself the title of “Turkmenbashi” (leader of all Turkmens). The cult’s pervasiveness in all aspects of daily life is astounding; this guy made Stalin and Mao look like amateurs.
Like in many totalitarian regimes (and constitutional monarchies, for that matter) portraits of the Leader hang in all sorts of places, like border crossings and supermarkets. Large golden bas-relief medallions of his head in profile are mounted on many of the tall buildings as well, and are visible from anywhere in the city.
Rising from sprawling Independence Park like an enormous marble-and-gold toilet plunger is the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan. It is surrounded by the mustachioed statues of great Turkmen heroes, riding horses and holding scimitars. Standing prominently in front, and larger than the rest, is a golden statue of Niyazov. Across town, mounted on a multi-tiered plinth in the center of a crashing fountain, is an even larger statue of Turkmenbashi, his golden cape frozen in a permanent state of flutter. On the outskirts of town is the acme of self-adulation: a preposterously large three-legged pedestal (and observation tower!) crowned with a shining gold-plated statue of Niyazov, his open arms raised skyward as if commanding heaven itself to lay low before him. Until recently the monument had a more prominent location in the center of town, and the statue actually rotated to face the sun. The new president thought it gauche and had it moved.
These statues, portraits, or monuments are nothing, however, compared to the pure crystallized egotism on display in the Turkmenbashi Museum. Inside this gold-domed palace is a series of exhibits showcasing Niyazov’s entire life, from birth to death. A large oil painting shows him as a child weeping over the corpses of his parents, killed in the massive 1948 earthquake. A series of blown-up photographs documents his life, starting with elementary school (including copies of some of his marked exams) through to university (he studied engineering), and finally his rise through the ranks of the communist party. Several rooms showcase all of the gifts he received as president, ranging from silver and gold statuettes to a John Deere model tractor (presumably given to him after a sales presentation). Niyazov’s presidential writing desk is enshrined in one room, surrounded by copies of his spiritual/revisionist history book, The Ruhnama (the book of the soul), which was required reading in schools, and the subject of standardized testing. A large knotted rug features a design of the Ruhnama being blasted into space by a rocket ship. Sign boards reproduce cloying prose referring to him as President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, and his book as The Holy Ruhnama.
I could go on, but I think my point is clear—this man built a personality cult that might only be rivaled in contemporary times by the Kims of North Korea. And almost nobody outside of Central Asia has ever heard of him.
King of kings
There is one thing conspicuously missing amongst the gardens and monuments—people. No tourists are snapping photos, and few local residents are in sight. The citizens are all hidden inside shopping malls and automobiles, or working busily on more delusional construction projects. Ashgabat is like the ghostly capital of an advanced alien race of poets and artists, suddenly abandoned by its masters in the wake of some long-forgotten cataclysm.
One of the so-called “achievements” of the Turkmenbashi was to decree that water, electricity, and gas be free for all citizens until 2030. That explains the absurd profusion of fountains. I wonder whether the citizens know the fragility of the white marble paradise that insulates them from the advancing desert. I imagine someone standing on the rubble of Ashgabat a thousand years hence, recalling the words of Shelley as I did in the northern town of Konye-Urgench: Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.