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  • Jerome Kocher

64. Turkmenistan - The Happiest Place on Earth?

Travel books often refer to Turkmenistan as the North Korea of the “Stans.” Before entering we were instructed to contact those close to us to tell them we will not have internet or cell communication for the next few days. Does that mean to say “I love you one last time?” Leaving Uzbekistan we took a bus through rural areas with some  greenhouses and even a fake police car. I remember seeing those in California in the 60’s. But those CHP cars were side profiles. In Uzbekistan it was just the rear end of a car, a billboard, on the side of the road, more effective from a distance. Meanwhile in the bus the song “Downtown”by Petula Clark played over the speakers. But we were anywhere but downtown.

Our prime destination was Ashgabat, The White City. The city center and downtown are all white, not just painted, but all white marble. All the cars are white with a handful of silver. This is not an actual law, but an expectation. In Turkmenistan you do not want to stand out or be noticed. Though elected, the current President is a dictator. He rules by fiat, or as we may say in the States by “executive order.” He’s the son of the last president. Already you can interpret this as shades of North Korea, a family dynasty.

But the capital was more Vegas Bellagio than Korean malnutrition. Huge ostentatious monuments lined the main boulevards and round abouts. Several were crowned with a golden statue of the first president who set the stage for how to rule by personality cult. He actually had the names of the days of the week changed to reflect his own personal grandeur.

Turkmenistan’s wealth comes from its natural gas reserves, the bulk of which goes to China. They don’t export oil like the Emirates. Under their desert which is 80% of the country lies their wealth. Under this restrictive regime, the handful of people I talked to are relatively happy. The government takes care of them. Gas is 40 cents a gallon, cheaper than bottled water. Utilities cost $20 for six months. Taxes are 1/10 of 1% (.01). People don’t rent, but buy apartment space if not a house. A one bedroom apartment is about $30,000. But guess what, if you are a mother who has borne eight children, then you are honored as a national hero (a medal?) plus a free apartment and free utilities for the family. This is all relative based on their income, but 40 cents a gallon sounds pretty good.

Ministry of Education (Book Building). Parking Garage.

Taking photographs were restricted in certain areas. Although I paid a photo fee in the National Museum, if I took a photo of the white lion (taxidermy) there, it was not allowed. A minder was stationed next to it. If I got to close to a text information poster board, I was reprimanded. My guide scolded me for taking a photo from the bus in a restricted area. My bad. The bus could be stopped for an hour while they went through and deleted anything that was deemed sensitive. 

The architecture is all centrally planned. They had the US embassy demolished because it extended past an imaginary red line, too far towards the boulevard. Talk about HOA rules, come to Turkmenistan. You don't see people walk around downtown on the streets or in the parks. And at 9 am in the morning when every city in the world has commute traffic, here there was very little to no traffic. Where is everybody? When I asked our guide about censorship in the press and online, he responded by saying he is here to give the state approved information. He likes his job. You never know if the bus driver is listening. Or is the bus bugged? But we did go to the Russian marketplace, a nomenclature left over from Soviet times. I browsed around and bought some Ayran fermented milk, a cold savory yogurt based drink. Even sampled three types of caviar for the first time in my life. What the heck, I got a very small bottle of sturgeon caviar for $5, after negotiating down from $10. My guide said it was probably fake. But it tasted good to me. What do I know? And anyway, what about this fake democracy. But I didn’t say that because I also wanted him to keep his job.

Not only do school children have uniforms, boys with ties, but even university students have a dress code with young women in long red robes and guys in ties and jackets. Half of the students who leave and study abroad return here because it’s a good life for them, besides having family roots here. We also took a plane flight on Turkmenistan Air and were told not to photograph the airport. I didn’t listen again, but was discreet. There was only one plane on the tarmack. The young man who sat next to me was a computer engineer. Just finished six months in Italy, but came back because life is good here. I asked him about the censored political sites and he said he didn’t concern himself with politics, just work related information. Why should he? Big Brother already has taken care of the politics. I asked him what he thought about the dangers of AI, artificial intelligence. His answer was quite wise. He said it’s like a knife. It cuts both ways. You can slice bread and eat. Or you can cut yourself. I was impressed. He also came back because as a dutiful Muslim, the youngest son is expected to care for elderly parents. I asked if he lived with them. No way. “I’ll watch out for them, not live with them.” More wisdom. Who needs politics if you are that wise.

Neighborhhods in the suburbs sometimes all have green roofs. Not by law but by peer pressure in that section. The flag is green, so that is seen as being patriotic. I don’t know if there’s any connection, but I saw a John Deere tractor business on the way into the city. And John Deere is green? Just saying.

But back to our border crossing in the morning. The border consisted of at least four passport controls and two shuttles buses (40 cents) used as transport for the 1 1/2 kilometers over "no mans land." The three hour wait process was chaotic. More like refugees seeking asylum. We had to pay a visa fee, an immigration tax and take a PCR Covid test. They could care less about the test results as it was a money making scheme totaling $100 for Americans. Call it a cover charge to enter a theme park, a cross between Vegas and Disneyland. I would have taken photos of the human traffic jam, but again, it was illegal to photograph at the border.

We ended our stay by traveling to the Black Sands Desert, not because of color but because its dangerous if you get lost. We went to a yurt camp at Darwaza Crater, a manmade accident combined with a natural phenomena. In 1971 Soviet engineers drilled there for natural gas but it collapsed within days. Later they set fire to it to prevent the spread of poisonous gases. They underestimated the volume of the gas reserve and it has burned for the last forty plus years. NIcknamed The Gates of Hell, at night in the desert it is a spectacular sight to be seen.

From the White City of marble to the Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan is definitely worth going to . . . once! Oh, and I forgot to mention that on the way to the white marble paradise we had to drive for five hours over a seriously potholed road. No dividing lines or stripes because you just drove on either side anyway to avoid the potholes and the camels roaming free.

A country of contradictions and stark contrasts. I have no idea how the people lived along the pothole routes. And I’ll never know. Because you’re not allowed to travel without an official guide. Another example of choosing safety and security over individual freedom of expression.

It's a tough choice.

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1 Comment

May 25

Wow, I feel so lucky to get a peek at all of these exotic places. Thanks for sharing. I am also enjoying the connection, your personality shines through all you write and it is delightfully shiny.

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