Asgabat, Turkmenistan: Admiring The Beloved Great Leader's Book in the City of Love
- Asgabat, Turkmenistan: Admiring The Beloved Great Leader's Book in the City of Love
Asgabat, City of Love in the Farsi (Iranian) language, capital of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic just north of Iran. There's nothing really lovely about Asgabat's architecture they are exaggerated expressions of a egomaniac leader, but what is indeed much admirable is the city's people. They are warm hearted and hospitable, so typical of that friendliness one finds across the plains of Central Asia.
I arrived late at night on 21st day of the month of Alp Arslan (name of the leader of the ancient Seljurk Turk empire) known to the rest of the world as August 2002 (which remains unchanged, for the time being), Sogap Gyun or Thursday to the rest of the world.
Turkmenistan is a land of great antiquity. It lies on the Silk Road, where caravans passed through on their way between the trading cities of Europe and Asia. Great cities rose and fell on its desert plains and oases, among them, Nisa capital of the Partian Empire, and Merv, timeless capital of the Seljuk Turks. Turkmenistan is also a land of great natural beauty and hospitable people. However, this country, which became independent in 1991, is today unfortunately more well known as the personal fiefdom of its eccentric president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose personality cult rivals that of Lenin, Stalin and Kim U Sung of North Korea. Known officially known as Turkmenbashi the Great Turkmenbashi means "Chief of all Turkmens" he became even more well known recently after announcing the renaming of all the months of the year and days of the week. January has been renamed after himself, as Turkmenbashi; and April initially as "Mother". The speaker of the Parliament promptly suggested that April be called Gurbansoltan Edzhe instead, after his mother's name. Humble Turkmenbashi immediately agreed to the request. Other months are renamed after the president's book as well as the national heroes of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan, My Beloved Motherland, My Beloved Homeland!
You are always with me, in My Thoughts and in My Heart.
For the Slightest Evil Against You, Let My Hand be Lost!
For the Slightest Slander About You, Let My Tongue be Lost!
At the moment of My Betrayal to My Motherland, to her Sacred Banner,
To Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, Let My Breath Stop!
Stuff of old Testament? This is Turkmenistan's National Oath. Every citizen knows it by heart, and school children recite this everyday. It is printed on the frontpage of the national newspaper, Neutral Turkmenistan EVERYDAY! (I picked up the centerfold of a random copy of this paper and found at least 6 pictures of the Great Leader in that four pager.)
I walked on the streets of Asgabat and everywhere one sees banners, portraits and statues of Turkmenbashi almost every building has a wall-sized picture of him in the facade. An article estimates that there are over 2000 statues of him in the country. One also finds quite a few of these made of gold in Asgabat and Mary, the second largest city. He is everywhere - you cannot escape from him. In fact, a huge gold statue of him in central Asgabat is mounted onto a revolving tower more than 100 meters high, and he turns around all the time, looking at every corner of the city. One also finds numerous slogans such as "Hulk, Watan, Beyik Turkmenbashi" (People, Motherland, Turkmenbashi the Great) and "XXI Asyr Turkmenin Altyn Asyry" (21st century, Turkmen Golden Century). A Turkmen told me that there are definitely more political slogans and propaganda messages now than the old Soviet days. And of course, not to mention the countless airports, cities, towns and streets which have been renamed after this greatly beloved leader too. One also finds numerous carvings and banners of the new presidential standard a five headed eagle well, three more heads than the Romanov Tsars of Russia. Love live the new Tsar of the desert! Stalin appears to be a really shy guy compared to this chief of the Turkmens.
According to his admirers, Turkmenbashi is one of the greatest philosophers and writers in world history. His greatest work, Ruhnama, stands alongside the Quran, Bible as well as Shakespeare and Kant. I bought an English edition of this thick book. In it the Great Beloved Leader started by saying that the Quran is the greatest book ever presented to mankind and he hinted that his is a close second. He narrated his family history and life how his father died in WWII and his mother and brothers martyred bravely in the great earthquake of 1948 his achievements and so on; his interpretation of Turkmen history which basically tells us that Turkmenistan ranks as one of the five great ancient civilizations in the world (ranking alongside China, Egypt, India and Mesopotamia), that the Turkmens invented the wheel, use of iron and steel and most great inventions of the world; that the Turkmens founded great empires such as the Sejuks, Ottoman and every great empire in the Middle East and West Asia. He also spelled out his vision for his country and in detail, how Turkmens should behave towards the family, friends and neighbors. Indeed, a kind of bible, moral code, history book, national development plan, and autobiography combined. No wonder they say it's one of the greatest books ever written in world history. Now it is a compulsory subject in all schools and universities. I walked into a few bookshops roughly half the shelves carry different language versions of the Ruhnama, 30% of the shelves other of Turkmenbashi's bestselling works (such as Turkmenbashi the Great - World Leader and Neutrality, The Man and his Life, Archievements of Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi), and 20% about other boring non-Turkmenbashi subjects. They say a new collection of poetry by Turkmenbashi has just been published, and local critics compare it well against Pushkin and Yeats indeed Turkmenistans multi-talented president might just be nominated for Nobel Prize for Literature. And yes, if you have Turkmenbashi books, nothing else is more exciting or educational.
Turkmenbashi is not only popular in his country but with foreigners as well, or at least that's what the state claims. A Turkmen movie heavily promoted recently was about an American female reporter who came here, fell in love with the country and its culture, and then married a Turkmen man. Guess what ? She also raved about how wonderful Turkmenbashi is to his citizens and what good fortune Turkmen citizens have in having him as a leader.
Is it fair to criticize the Great Leader's love for the personality cult ? After all, one finds portraits and monuments to the Queen all over the UK. Whilst non-ethnic Turkmens (about 20% of the population) tend to be more skeptical about Turkmenbashi, many ethnic Turkmens I met seem to have a genuine affection for him. You may argue that millions cried when Stalin died, but I suspect Turkmen society always have a traditional reverence for its leaders. When I asked a Turkmen why his wedding party went to the monument to the President's Mother on the wedding day, he said, "The President's Mother is the Mother of the Nation, of course we have to go there on wedding day."
Turkmenistan is rich with natural gas. Turkmenbashi had proclaimed at independence that this would be a new Kuwait of the future. However, Turkmenistan is a landlocked nation (ok, it has the Caspian Sea which is more lake than sea) and its rusty old pipelines pass through Russia, which imposes huge fees for the privilege. It wants to build a pipeline through Iran but was unable to find international lenders due to US sanctions on Iran. Its dreams of richness couldn't be realized, except for the illusions of wealth fired by the Ali-Baba fantasy style Presidential Palace, huge grand monuments and amazing fountains built in Asgabat by Turkmenbashi. Its citizens earn average of US$150 per month. School teachers earn US$50 and have to supplement their income with bribes for passing exams from students, or private tuition for students. Police and civil servants feed their families from bribery and assortment of tips for petty favors. Turkmenbashi makes life for everybody easier by providing free electricity and low fuel costs. The latter means that one can fill up a fuel tank by paying only $1.50, and taxi within Asgabat centre costs only 15 cents.
Turkmenbashi probably loves to see himself as a promoter of tourism his chubby smiling face appears on all the tourism publicity brochures, together with amazingly irrelevant personal quotations. However, planning any holiday in the country is a paperwork nightmare. Like all former Soviet republics, one needs an invitation from a travel agency. Turkmenistan, in addition, requires a fixed arrival date whereby the travel agency is obliged to present the relevant documents to the border officials in advance, without which one would not be allowed to enter. The tourist may wander around freely in Asgabat but has to be accompanied by a guide outside the capital. This is most inconvenient for independent travellers. Many border regions, including a few which are major tourist attractions, are now restricted zones where everyone, whether Turkmen citizens or not, have to request for permission to visit. Frequent roadblocks on highways as well as on internal provincial border crossings, which resemble international ones, enforce rules like that. One sees long lines of vehicles and all travellers, including Turkmen citizens, have to show their passports and register themselves, while moving across provincial borders. Looks as though this country is turning into a kind of highly controlled regime similar to North Korea or Iraq, or have I missed the plot ?
I explored the famous bazaars of Asgabat. None is more famous than the Bazaar of Tolkuchka, where nomads and villagers from afar gather to sell their wares, anything from camels and carpets, to toothbrush and old T-shirts, plus the colourful spices, and smell of shashilik (BBQ meat), manty (Central Asian dumplings) and pilov (fried rice). The smell and sights of Central Asia reminded me of the wonderful time I spent in Kazakstan, Kyrygzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 1998. (See http://weecheng.com/silk/index.htm). I bought a camel saddle, an exquisite treasure though hardly an antique - embroidered in the style typical of the Turkmen Yomuk tribe. I hid it at the bottom of my backpack, lest Turkmenbashis henchmen had any excuse to extort some coffee money.
Back in town, I visited the Carpet Museum the Turkmens say its the largest in the world though I have across similar claims from museums in Azerbaijan, Morocco and a whole host of other places. The museum is interesting enough, especially for an amateur rug collector like me. The two largest carpets in the world are here, backed up by certificates from the Guinness Book of World Records. The older one was made during the WWII, during the Soviet days, with typical Turkmen tribal patterns. The newer one, now the record holder, was sewn a year ago. No prize for guessing what slogan was sewn across it. 21st Century - Turkmen Golden Century, in the Turkmen language, plus the signature of Turkmenbashi. The real Holy Ark in the Museum, however, is a small carpet sewn by Turkmenbashis Mother. That is treated no different from how mediaeval churches in Europe guard the holy relics of saints.
Sightseeing aside, I have also been having a great time in the City of Love. The locals are really friendly and hospitable. I have been invited to two birthday parties and invited to one, plus an obligatory lesson on vodka ethics of Turkmenistan, nominally a Muslim country (- we are modern Muslims, said a Turkmen friend). I was also invited by many locals for chay (tea) and tidbits, just because I past their shop or have a mini-chat with them in the most unlikely of places. Arslan, a guy who works at Ayan Travel, invited me for dinner at his house, and had a great time tasting manty made by his beautiful wife. We compared Turkmen and Singapore Chinese wedding customs while watching the video of his recent wedding we realized that we do have a lot of similar customs. Could it be a common link between the Turkic and Chinese cultures that originated from the windswept plains of once nomadic Eurasia ?
> Asgabat, under 50'C summer heat, I flew to Mary (pronounced Maar-re), the second largest city, on a creaking Turkmenistan Airlines plane. Hot as a sauna. The greenhouse effect is unbelievably unendurable. Reminded me of how Taleban and the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan (who operate not very far from here) suffocated their prisoners of war to death in containers in the desert. I can't complain about the price though - I paid only $7 for the one-hour flight. If I had booked the flight one month in advance, I would only have to pay $3.50. If I were a Turkmen citizen, the ticket cost only a princely sum of $1.50 !!! All courtesy of His Excellency Turkmenbashi the Great - Oh, I forgot, we may soon have to address him Field Marshal. Latest reports say the Army of Turkmenistan has nominated him for a promotion to the rank of a Field Marshal. Right now, he holds a humble rank of a Major General.Mary is the jump off point to Merv, one of the oldest cities of the world. Once an important trading city that has seen, among others, Alexander the Great's conquest, it achieved greatest fame and glory as the capital of the Seljuk Turk empire, which stretched from Egypt to Central Asia. Unfortunately, these came to an end when the Mongols under Genghis Khans son came, massacred all its 1 million inhabitants and totally destroyed the city. Today, across the huge site lying in the middle of a desert steppe, one come across eroded miles of city walls and a few lone shrines and citadels, the most notably the enormous domed mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the only monument the Mongols were unable to raze to the ground. Its once shiny blue tiles totally lost, it stood in the middle of this quiet plain, as if to mourn the destruction of what was once one of the largest cities on Earth.
I returned to Asgabat and explored the surrounding region. With Muktabat, the highly knowledgeable and capable guide from Ayan Travel (http://www.ayan-travel.com/), I explored the ancient citadels and cities in the desert mountains and plains of Ahal Viloyet (or province), for example, the old Parthian capital Nisa, the magnificent windswept fortress of Nadir Shah (of Persia), the ancient Zorastorian city of Abiverd, as well as the old ruined mosque of Anau, once famous for its dragon motifs. This is also the land of the Akhal-Teke, the divine horse of Darius the Great of Persia, which also caught the fancy of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Marco Polo also raved about it. Like everything else in this country, however, the Great Leader too has hijacked it. Our best friend in this country is officially the President of the Akhal Teke Horse Association. Enough of talk about the Great Beloved Leader, or the agents of the Committee for the Defense of Peoples Security (aka Turkmen KGB), may be alerted and attempt to extradite me as an Enemy of the People.
Turkmenistan is an amazingly beautiful country with a very hospitable people. Bureaucracy has made it very difficult for travelers to visit this country. What a pity! I hope nothing but the best for the people of this country. After five days here, I flew to Baku for a connecting flight to the far, far north. Here I am in St Petersburg, from the desert to the northernmost of all metropolises, in a way not too far from the Arctic. See you!
St Petersburg, Russia
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