In the foyer of the Dayhan Hotel in Ashgabat, the cheerless receptionist took her time evaluating us. Tapping a long fingernail upon a desk indented through years of practice, she fixed my brother and me in the crosshairs of her withering gaze, before finally deciding to do us a favor and allow us to be gouged by their bedsprings.
"Fifteen dollar," her slightly friendlier assistant informed us, nose pressed against the smudged glass of the reception booth.
That would've been remarkably cheap. The waters grew muddier, however, when she pointed to a boxy clock, its stopped hands fixed at noon.
"Check out twenty o'clock," she bellowed.
Scrutinized by security cameras, we dragged our bags up flights of stairs where faux crystal chandeliers grasped at glamor, portraits of the smug-looking president glaring down from the peeling walls. It being unclear if our room was bugged, as many hotels, cafés and public places in Ashgabat are, I decided to keep my counsel as to my first impressions.
If ever a nation was forged in the image of its overlord, Turkmenistan is the place. Leading the country to independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov—who declared himself "Turkmenbashi," literally "Father of the Turkmens" —went on to oversee arguably the most fully formed cult of personality ever seen. He steered his nation into a new era of international isolation, purges, and choreographed show trials played live on TV that would have made Stalin proud. Declaring the country to be experiencing a "golden age," among his decrees were bans on cinemas, car radios, clowns, gold teeth, and beards.
Despite 58 percent of his people living below the poverty line, by the time of Niyazov's death in 2006, there were 10,000 new statues in Turkmenistan, largely of him and his family.
Niyazov was succeeded by his dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who likes to be called "Arkadag" (Protector). Besides writing books, being a pilot, and crooning ballads, Berdimuhamedow is presented as a sportsman of immense ability. With competitors tugging at their reins for dear life in fear of beating him, in April, 2013 the 56-year-old president was victorious in one of Turkmenistan's most prestigious horse races. An omnicompetent dynamo, it was no surprise when he picked up the eleven million dollar prize again the next year. Around the country, effigies of Arkadag are beginning to replace those of his predecessor.
On the deserted streets of the city, air-con units were spewing out sapping heat. A procession of white marble towers trailed into the distance, meticulous, indistinguishable, and straight as bed bug bites. Triumphal arches leading nowhere, ubiquitous statues and fountains abounded, the surreal city silent save for the splashing of wasted water. Turkmenistan is two-and-a-half times more profligate in its use of water than the next worst culprit in the world.
Offering respite from the scorching sun, underpasses adorned with stars led to a monument to the cataclysmic earthquake of 1948. The disaster having killed his mother and two brothers, according to the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's pseudo-spiritual book of revisionist history, he spent six days alone in their ruined home before being pulled from the rubble. A globe gored upon its horns, the monument featured a black bull seemingly borrowed from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch logo on Wall Street. Emerging from a crack in its surface, Mary-like in her shroud, there was Niyazov's mother lifting her golden child from the misshapen orb.
Across a parade ground lay lavish and gaudy Independence Square. A tangle of right angles and star polygons, ornate lampposts encircled yellow flowerbeds, Tuscan columns stretched for city blocks. Facing the vacant square, the Presidential Palace had cost more to construct than the nation's annual health budget. Aptly obscured behind this, the rubberstamp parliament was one of a row of flag-topped, gold-domed buildings in a relentless succession.
"How many pictures do you think I can take before the police stop me?" I asked my nervous looking brother.
The answer was eight.
Blasting on his whistle, a red-cheeked militsiyaman shook my hand before taking my camera and clicking through the images. A muster of soldiers descending upon us, he inevitably came across the offending snapshots.
"Foto problema. Udalyat! Delete!" he tetchily demanded, his disposition darkening.
Earlier that day, I'd spotted Niyazov's so-called "Arch of Neutrality" on the distant horizon. Recently removed from the city center to the suburbs, our efforts to reach it had been thwarted by taxi drivers not having a clue what we were talking about. Shooting quizzical glances, they'd shrug before pulling away.
Heading determinedly in the vague direction of our no longer visible goal, we marched along shadeless streets where spindly saplings had been planted. Every few hundred meters there were air-conditioned bus stops, but no buses, the space age telefon boxes like teleportation booths containing no telephones.
With Ashgabat holding the record for the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world—4.5 million square meters of them—many bore an embossed bust of Niyazov, attached to the top corner like a postage stamp. Their architectural style alternately described as "Walmart-meets-desert-emirate" or "somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang," the towers bore the logos of Western and Korean companies: Coca-Cola, LG, Samsung. Sponsored, yet barely occupied, the tiles had fallen from some high-rises, while other buildings slanted.
The consummately straight roads peopled only by conscripts and the occasional gardener sculpting the grass with pairs of scissors, a two-hour walk on them led us to the Arch. Looking like something from the set of "Lost in Space," Niyazov had spent twelve million dollars on his 75-meter-tall rocket. At its apex, a statue of him was planted, arms aloft as if receiving plaudits. His likeness used to turn to face the sun—or as a Turkmen saying had it, the sun rotated to face him—but now no longer performing pirouettes, the father of the nation had been downgraded. Dumped in the outskirts, the lift upon its frame was long since out of commission. Two soldiers stood like mannequins in glass boxes at its feet. The ticket booth was closed, nobody was going to come. The sun had set on Niyazov's golden age.
In the dying twilight that evening, some signs of normality finally surfaced on a slim green traffic island on 2022 Street. Overlooked by a rash of casinos, children on neon rollerblades darted about. Carefully minding their own business, chic women in kitten heels and singlets sat on benches staring dead ahead, their well-groomed partners occasionally offering reserved, grunted greetings to their comrades.
Across the street, the Bar Bar was the place where trendy young things liked to head for cheap drinks. On a makeshift stage, a DJ was singing along karaoke style to records already containing vocals, fizzing speakers carrying the thumping beat through the ground. At precisely 10:30 PM, though, with a sharp scratch, the music stopped, replaced by a deafening hush as staff and patrons melted away. Rising to leave, I noticed a throng of agitated, well-oiled men pressed against the exit. Apparently the victims of an involuntary lock-in, they pushed at the doors to no avail, their expressions somewhere between fury and terror.
By 9:00 the next morning, it was 43 degrees Celsius. Swinging their batons, sweltering militsiya in blues, greens, and khakis loitered at the side of the roads. Passing cranes busy extending the madness, we headed towards the Alem (Universe) Cultural and Entertainment Center. Puttering along at fifteen miles an hour, our driver was befuddled by the construction. Circling dizzily at roundabouts, neither he nor the other passengers wedged in the car could fathom out how to get there. They weren't alone; you couldn't. The recently completed multi-million-dollar cultural center complex, boasting the world's tallest enclosed Ferris wheel, had been cut adrift, new worksites offering no through route.
Eventually, traipsing through a building site to the Ferris wheel, a tug on the handle of its mirrored door brought forth a guard.
"Niet inostranets—no foreigners allowed," he growled.
Instead, we walked past the optimistically named Olympic Stadium, its arcs like a titanic clam shell. On Independence Day, North-Korean-style celebrations would take place here, children who'd been excused from school for weeks to learn dance routines parading beneath the president's skybox. With soldiers handing out flags and orchestrating cheers, leaving early wasn't an option for those press-ganged into attending.
We traipsed across Independence Park to the Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) Shopping Centre in the Berzengi District. Resembling a colossal, seven-tiered wedding cake, until recently it had boasted the world's largest fountain, but after it was outdone by South Korea, the water features were summarily switched off.
The bulk of its metal shutters firmly drawn, most of the units were vacant inside, the remaining shopkeepers pacing somnolently. A gold-plated elevator replete with a piped muzak version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" took us to the fifth floor Minara Restaurant, purportedly one of the capital's finest dining establishments. We were the only patrons.
Through the restaurant's windows, a panoramic view of Ashgabat revealed residential areas. Concrete jungles reminiscent of a prison, satellite dishes—a lone connection to the outside world—vied for space on the rooftops. Residential neighborhoods in Ashgabat are frequently destroyed to make way for new government towers, with no compensation or allocation for rehousing.
Back in Independence Park, giant monitors showing men in white telpeks (sheepskin hats) dancing for their president played to no one. Everything was flawless beneath the cloudless sky, not a paving stone out of place. The immaculate junkyard of futuristic kitsch, Doric columns, domes and pinnacles stretching on into the distance, every fifty meters public address speakers sprung from the soil on metal struts, ensuring the word of the president would be heard by all.
We circled back to the pink and green Ruhnama Monument, an outsized testament to the once holy book. Ringed with gold, at its center sat a bust of Turkmenbashi, looking far more handsome than he'd ever been in real life. In the hazy evening light, we lingered for some time, wondering if the fabled book would open as promised to display episodes from Turkmen history on its movie screen pages. With nobody to ask, though, and it being unlikely they'd know even if that was going to happen, we left the hulking structure to its solitary spot, consigned to a past many would rather forget.
Passing the Presidential Palace once more, the urge to retake the photos I'd been forced to delete proved too great to resist. Materializing from an alcove, a militsiyaman whistled furiously, shaking his fist and chasing after us. Fleeing in panic, I was glad to reach the relative safety of the hotel.
"I just don't get it," I wheezed as I bolted the door. "I mean, what's the point in banning pictures of the Presidential Palace when it's featured on the banknotes?"
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com
In North Korea - a Journey Behind the Fiction - Rory MacLean
Gold Digging and Vodka Chugging on Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan - Stephen Bland
A Capital Built for Kings and SUVs - Robert Reid
Tensions Beneath the Bling in Chechnya and Ingushetia - Stephen M. Bland
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