Welcome to Turkmenistan

Leaving Uzbekistan involved a one hour taxi to the border zone, a place of emptiness with only a barbed wire fence interrupting the view to the horizon of sand and dried vegetation. I then had to queue for two hours in dirty, boiling hot border post, with broken fans not moving the fetid air. The majority of people seemed to be traders, with their bags stuffed full of Uzbek goods, mostly clothes and food. I am fairly patient, but the heat and the boredom of standing in a long line was exhausting.

Nothing was moving. I tried to catch a border guards eye as they wandered around, more interested in talking to each other than processing passports. It was like trying to catch a disinterested waiters eye at a cafe, total indifference. Then a senior guard walked out through the metal detectors on some mission, glancing he saw me wedged between the hundreds of Turkmen traders and their huge amount of baggage. He shouted and gestured to a guard who walked out to me, grabbed my bag and with a nod of the head for me to follow, walked back through the metal detectors, which buzzed madly.

I do not like queue jumping, but hey, this was timely and with no sign of the line moving I was not going to refuse. The other members of the queue looked at me with interest, trying to work out why I was getting pulled out if the line, probably for no good reason. My passport was stamped, my bags were not examined and I was gently pushed out into the demilitarized zone. A walk of 1 km towards what looked more like a palace than a border post.

The post was marble clad and spotlessly clean. Opening the door I felt the cold blast of an air conditioner on my face. Welcome to Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is totally different to Uzbekistan, the wealth from its vast resources of oil and gas had been poured into its government buildings and resulted in both impressive and strange architectural designs and an abundance of marble and gold, particularly in the capital Ashgabat. Their first President after the break up of the USSR, the old communist leader Niyazov, had developed a Personality Cult and this has led to Turkmenistan being one of the more unusual countries in the world.

The first thing you notice is the abundance of gold statues of Niyazov. He regarded himself as a living God, and encouraged his supporters (i.e everybody) to build statues of him. Slightly extreme? No, he had just started. He renamed the days of the week after himself and his family, and then the staple food of bread after his mother. A new national anthem, singing his glories, was performed before any major sporting or cultural event. Normal programming of the three TV stations was replaced with live feeds of him at work, meeting dignitaries, and (somewhat exaggerated) films about his life. Which were then repeated, again and again.

Niyazov then he produced his own bible, which if you read three times ensured you got to heaven. Medical training colleges were ordered to throw out all medical texts and just read Niyazov's books, which have no medical information in them at all. Which goes some way to explain the poor standard of health services in Turkmenistan today. He also banned beards, opera, the internet and, aiming to win the hearts of schoolchildren, algebra; although they now had to study his book instead.

Turkmenistan was going to be an interesting place...

He named several schools, two airports, a city, some theaters, a brand of vodka, two kinds of cologne, a kind of tea, and a meteorite after himself. He plastered the entire country with hand-painted portraits of himself, his mother, and his book, put his face on every denomination of currency, ordered every citizen of his country fly a Turkmenistan flag over their homes at all times, and wrote a new national anthem so that every sporting event started with a choir singing about how great he was. He changed the programming of all three national state-run television channels so that at any time during the day the citizens of Turkmenistan would flip on the TV and see a real-time live feed of Niyazov holding meetings in his presidential office. Instead of the FOX or NBC logo at the bottom of the screen, Turkmenistan national TV naturally had a portrait of Saparmurat Niyazov emblazoned in gold instead.
Saparmurat Turkmenbashy the Great then abolished the death penalty, algebra, physics, P.E., the Internet, the Hippocratic Oath, libraries, and free press. He also banned recorded music, smoking, beards, and chewing tobacco, outlawed the ballet, opera, the circus, symphonic orchestras, and the National Academy of Science, and had musicians arrested for lip synching at concerts because he thought that was the biggest load of crap ever. He ordered that every car imported into the country have the steering wheel taken out and moved over to left-hand drive instead of right-hand drive because he wanted people to drive on the wrong side of the road, but while he was doing this he did not also order that the stereos be removed from these cars – he just made it illegal to listen to them. He banished dogs from the capital because he thought they smelled bad. He banned gold teeth, saying that if people wanted to harden their teeth they should chew on soup bones instead. He forbid make-up on women, because Turkmen chicks were hot enough already and didn't need it. They were so pretty in fact, that if you were a foreigner and you wanted to marry a hot Turkmen babe, you first had to pay a $50,000 fee to the government in order to get a permit to have the ceremony perform
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Read more about Turkmenistan in this just released guide book by Far Flung Places. The second edition of the Amazon best selling first edition with increased coverage of all major cities, and updated listings. Detailed information of the cities and attractions with maps and invaluable contact information. Learn how to travel around and find the best places to visit, stay and eat. Available in paperback from all good booksellers. Buy it now from Amazon.com and from Amazon.co.uk