Turkmenistan - Marble in the Desert

28 mei 2008 om 12:05 pm | In English Posts, Turkmenistan |

Passing the Turkmenistan border is an adventure in itself. All together it is lot of hassle with visa’s, letters of entries and several small fees (that add up to quite some dollars),with the most curious fee being the  “vehicle desinfection fee”. It took us over three hours, partly because we didn’t have a visa yet. Luckily for us, our guide came to rescue us. With her blond hair, Russian blue eyes and a tight T-shirt, she squared all potential bureacratic problems away. Then we finally drove away, downhill from the rugged Kopet Dag mountains towards Asghabat, the capital.  

During our nine day trip we were suprised by the friendly and beaufitul people, the amazing Silk Route monuments and the good hotels.Normally when you cross the border, the changes from one country to the other are more gradually. But coming from Iran, Turkmenistan looked completely different. This is most visible in the way that women and girls dress. In Iran, they are fashionable, but always covered by a scarf or manteau. Here the girls look like either like models from Western glossy magazines, or they look -equally beautiful-  more traditional, in long, colorful, custom-made silk robes. From the people’s faces you can easily see the Mongol influences, mixed with more European and Persian features. Although the people are friendly, they aren’t as hospitable as in Iran. Maybe the 70-year Soviet reign has made them a bit more distant? 

Turkmenistan also seems to be richer than Iran. The streets look much cleaner, and the white marble buildings in desert-city Asghabat look even more like they belong in Dubai or Washington. The cars are almost all Toyota’s or Kia’s in good shape, with the occasional Lexus, BMW or Audi.  What we liked very much in Turkmenistan are the many remains of the Silk Road. Ancient Merv, Margush and also Nisa were beautiful old desert cities, many times not even completely dug out and discovered. There must be many more undiscovered remains under the desert sand. Often we were the only tourists on these sites!

The landscape in Turkmenistan is not that interesting, but we had great fun driving through a “real” desert with sand dunes and camels. Staying in a yurt with a local family was also a nice experience.  

What is Turkmenistan society like? If you read and believe the Lonely Planet, it’s almost like entering “The North Korea of Central Asia”. After spending nine days in this curious country, we don’t quite agree. Of course, there is no freedom of speech and we ran into police controls several times a day. Turkmenistan is obviously not a democratic state and the president (currently alledged halfbrother of former president Turkmenbashi), is the one and only big boss here in Turkmenistan. He is president, prime minister and highest army official at the same time. The ex-soviet and current government of Turkmenistan had a big hand in “constructing” the Turkmen nationality. Before the Soviets took over, Turkmenistan didn’t exist and many different nomad tribes lived in this area and fought each other frequently. Even today, more than 15 years after being independent, the government promotes Turkmen culture by nationalistic propaganda. 

Despite all this, daily life for the Turkmens doesn’t seem to be so bad. Almost everyone has a job (although many jobs are not that interesting or ‘usefull’ in our eyes), a reasonable income and we hardly didn’t see any beggars. Asghabat is a green city, squeaky clean, without slums or ghetto’s. The government supplies the people with free gaz, salt and electricity, 120 litres of free petrol per month, and additional litres are subsidized, so locals only pay 15 euro cent per liter. Maybe this is the reason why the Turkmens don’t complain that much. In many ways, they are better off than the people in other, poorer Central Asian countries. The government takes good care of them, as long as they don’t complain or interfer with politics. For us tourists, the authorities weren’t that harsh either. We were stopped with our car many times, but we never had to pay a fine or for a bribe (although we have heard otherwise). Instead, they were quite friendly. Our guide told us that most of the time, they also treat local people with respect. They simply have to do their job. The Turkmens have freedom of religion, but the (moderate) Islam seems to be the government’s favourite.Alltogether, maybe the best way to describe the Turkmenistan policital system is: “Mild Dictatorship”. It’s up to you whether you think that is better than your own government….. 

Finally, some crazy facts about Turkmenistan: 

1.Turkmens leave their gas stove always on, gas is free, matches are not!

2. In Asghabat, they grow green trees in the desert, each with its own irrigation

3. Everybody has to know the Ruchnama, the spiritual book of Turkmenbashi

4. Five years ago, all street names in Asghabat were changed to numbers

5. The Neutrality Monument shows Turkmenbashi, and rotates with the sun

6. The white buildings in Asghabat are made from imported Italian marble

7. Nobody is allowed in the streets after 11 at night

8. In Asghabat they have the biggest handmade carpet in the world (guinness book of records!)

9. The silver jewels on a traditional girl’s bride costume can weigh up to 36 kilos

10. The cas crater was once set on fire by a Russian

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