(James) It’s difficult to know how to even begin to describe Ashgabat so perhaps first we’d all be better off with a brief introduction to the complete ‘nut house’ that is Turkmenistan. Most of you will know little, if anything, about Turkmenistan (don’t feel bad, there’s absolutely no reason why you should!) and to be honest until our route planning indicated we’d need to cross it, neither did we. So, here’s a very brief summary of the country which might go some way to help paint a picture for you, although you’ll have to trust us when we say nothing can prepare you for the reality of the place.
Historically, Turkmenistan has benefitted greatly from its position on the Silk Road which has bought it great wealth and allowed its various rulers (many invading armies have passed through the region over the centuries including Ghengis Khan and Tamburlane) and inhabitants to flourish both economically and culturally. You may not know it but every one of you has been affected by some of the great thinkers produced here. You’ve probably never heard of the Saminids but up to 13 centuries ago they were making scientific and mathematical discoveries that we have all come to know and love/hate (I suspect mostly the latter!), discoveries that directly affect our lives and are still essential to all of our scientific and technological advances. Can’t think of any? Well, the Saminid Astronomer, Al Biruni (973-1046AD) not only proposed that the Earth rotated on its own axis and circled the sun but also calculated the distance of the moon from the Earth to within 20km, remarkable in itself but consider that he did this at the turn of the first millennium and some 500 years before the likes of Galileo and Copernicus were even born! Al Biruni wasn’t a one off either – whilst he was making his advances in Astronomy, a contemporary, Abu Ali Ibn-Sina (980-1037AD) was making huge leaps in medicine culminating in his book, the ‘Canon of Medicine’, that was so far ahead of its time that it became a bible to doctors in Europe until the mid 17th century, some 600 years later. Probably most important of all were the Saminids’ advances in mathematics, discoveries made some 200 years earlier than those of Al Biruni and Ibn-Sina. The greatest of these was Al Korezmi (787-850AD) and he has two claims to fame which we all know well. He invented a mathematical formula whose name, although slightly bastardised over the years, still bears his name: the algorithm (taken from ‘alkorezm’). Not finished there, he went on to produce a book titled ‘Al Jabr’. Again we know it by its slightly bastardised name, ‘algebra’.
So, with a list of great thinkers in its history, a geographical position on the silk road that not only made it strategically vital to any ruler or invading army, but also ensured its prosperity, and more recently, having discovered itself sitting on absolutely vast natural gas reserves you’d think that modern Turkmenistan would have a fine blend of culture, character and a sense of itself. Er,…. no.
Turkmenistan is one of perhaps two countries (the other being North Korea) that have almost total control over their population and that do almost anything without fear of being questioned. In 1924 Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union, and it remained so until the latter’s collapse in 1991, when it’s former Soviet puppet governor Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself President of the newly independent state, and shortly after declared himself ‘President for life’. Niyazov felt that the country lacked a sense of national identity so embarked on a program to correct this – the identity he chose? His own. He started by renaming himself ‘Turkmenbashi,’ which means ‘Leader of all ethnic Turkmen’, but this was only the beginning of his personality cult. He renamed the capital’s airport ‘Turkmenbashi’, and followed this up by renaming the Caspian port city of Krasnovodsk… you guessed it, ‘Turkmenbashi’. Niyazov didn’t stop there, giving his name to hundreds of streets and schools around the country, and also renaming January, you guessed it – ‘Turkmenbashi’! And he didn’t stop there, either – April was renamed after his mother as was the Turkmen word for bread (the use of the actual Turkmen word for bread was made illegal!). His picture hangs everywhere throughout the country so he’s always watching you with an expression that clearly says ‘I bloody OWN you!’, there are large gold statues of him everywhere (some of which rotate so they always face the sun), his face is the logo of the three state TV channels and is legally required to appear on every Turkmen branded bottle of vodka as well as every clock and watch face.
Like any other dictator running a personality cult he needed a book of his own; after all Mao had his little red book. So in 2001 he wrote the ‘Ruhnama’ which means ‘Book of the Soul’ which contained moral guidance, poetry and a highly revised history. The book was to be a bible for Turkmen, and became required reading for all Turkmen citizens. Niyazov instructed that it was set next to the Koran in all mosques (itself a blasphemous act) and those clerics that refused or questioned this were arrested/beaten or closed down. He declared that he had spoken with Allah and had been told that if anyone read the ‘Ruhnama’ three times they would be assured a place in heaven (in doing so was attempting to deify both his book and himself – he largely succeeded). To this day, any student wishing to enter university has to sit in-depth exams on the ‘Ruhnama’. Exams on the book are also required if one wants any job working for the state, or even a driving license, and school children are required to study the book for two hours every day! Nihazov also banned all Soviet-era books and closed all libraries in the country outside of Ashgabat, claiming that Turkmen did not require non-Turkmen literature (today the only books in the capital’s library are the ‘Ruhnama’ and other books written by Nihazov). The ‘Ruhnama’ went on to win the Magtymguly International Book prize, which could be described as a sort of Booker prize but for pro-Turkmen poetry. Following the judging panel’s decision, the award was presented by the panel which consisted of none other than the winning author, one Saparmurat Nihazov!!
To solve Turkmenistan’s healthcare problems, Nihazov fired all 15,000 of the country’s public health employees who had been educated in techniques not developed within Turkmenistan and thus alien to Turkmen culture, and replaced them with conscript soldiers (he reasoned that not having medical knowledge meant they wouldn’t order expensive treatments). He also closed every hospital in the country except the one in the capital, claiming that the sick would have to make their way to Ashgabat if they were ill! Niyazov didn’t like beards or long hair on men so both were banned, he didn’t like make-up as it tended to ‘whiten’ peoples faces and claimed it made it difficult for him to differentiate men from women so make up was banned. He particularly hated lip-synching on songs so to stop it (and to promote ethnic Turkmen music) ALL recorded music was banned! In 1997, he quit smoking, and not wanting to go it alone, banned smoking in public places throughout the country. He also banned gold teeth and gold caps claiming that the best way to prevent tooth decay was to chew bones.
On the positive, all Turkmen have free access to gas, but unfortunately matches and lighters still cost; the solution to this is that all Turkmen leave their gas hobs lit constantly -as if the country weren’t already hot enough!
Tukmenbashi died very recently but, like Kim Il-Jong in North Korea, he has been elevated to such deity-level that he is still considered to be the ruler of the country. He has since been succeeded by one of his key advisors who, rumour has it, is his illegitimate son (they certainly look very similar!) Given the crazy legacy of this ‘great leader’, and the control over his people, we entered Ashgabat with our eyes wide open. We were not disappointed. The city is a giant vanity project, full of very new, very over the top bright white and gold buildings of all shapes (most of which sit empty), wide roads with white and gold lamp posts and, of course, golden statues of the great man himself! The city is a cross between Las Vegas (without the ‘fun’), Dubai (without the wealthy communities) and Pyong-Yang (not that I’ve been there but it has the strange buildings built purely to make some sort of statement) and is so utterly unrepresentative of the rest of the country it defies belief. There doesn’t seem to be any social scene worth mentioning and the people, unlike those in more rural areas, seemed nervous (they are told foreigners are likely to be spies) which is not surprising given the very high police/military presence in the city.
Having found a hotel for the night, we were assigned a room. Our room was in a ‘special’ part of the hotel away from Turkmen guests, not for reasons of racial purity (although the country’s leadership is highly xenophobic) but because all tourist rooms, as well as cafes/restaurants frequented by foreigners, are bugged, as are all telephone calls. Having had a much needed shower, we did some laundry and headed out to do some ‘sightseeing’ which proved to be a bit of a farce as by every building and statue stood a really angry looking soldier who, when asked if we could take a photo (you absolutely have to ask before taking out your camera) would bark an answer back at us that was hard to mistake for anything other than ‘NO!’ (still, we managed a few sneaky shots but nothing to do it justice!)
We managed to find a ‘restaurant’ and over a particularly crappy meal tried to discuss what we thought of Ashgabat (sticking to slang to avoid any potential problems with bugs or secret police) and then headed back to the hotel at 11:30pm by taxi. I mention by taxi as there is a curfew at 11pm and you do not want to be caught out after this time! (We later met up with one of our ‘China crossing group’, an Italian called Donato, who not knowing of the curfew had ventured out at midnight to find some water. Not being able to find a single shop open he went over to ask a soldier and was promptly arrested and held for questioning!!!)
The next morning we hit the road at first light. Although we were eager to get as far as possible through the desert towards Mary (it’s a town not a person!) before the temperature got too hot, our eagerness was slightly tempered by the fact that the previous night’s gastronomic extravaganza had given both of us a case of the trots (never ideal when riding in hot weather through desert with no cover for ‘emergencies’!). For 50km we enjoyed pretty decent tarmac but eventually it ended and soon the road had deteriorated, forcing us to more than halve our speed (never good in such heat). Even the ‘good’ roads in this part of the country seem to be ‘surfaced’ in the most bizarre and completely inconsistent patterns so we’d get 500m of ‘reasonable’ road followed by 500m of utterly broken tarmac, followed by 500m of totally potholed road and then 500m of gravel. The ‘smoother’ sections of road also contain 2 really deep ‘trenches’ caused by trucks driving on the melted surface. These trenches are often up 30cm deep and on more than one occasion my foot pegs have ground on the road even whilst in a straight line. Once in them you can’t get out until they ‘surface’ which can be a problem (Emily: I discovered this when doing an overtake and got myself stuck in trench whilst heading towards an oncoming car! Not ideal!).
Given our early start we’d managed to get some decent distance under our belt so with the heat of the day approaching as we passed a few small trees and bushes at the side of the road we decided that it might be an idea to take advantage of the shade (and cover provided for the all too frequent calls of nature!) So we parked up and spent a couple of hours reading, sleeping and enjoying the fact that we could take our boots off, disturbed only by the friendly beeps of passing cars and one random wearing a white sheet over his head – a common thing here due to the dust and sand storms – who walked up to us (from where we have no idea!), gave us a large melon and walked off without a word! By 3pm we hit the road again but soon were stopped at another police checkpoint where a Turkish trucker wandered over to say hello and invited us for chai in the shade provided by his truck. Turns out that he was also heading to Uzbekistan and had driven up from down near Cappadocia. He’d had a puncture and having run out of spare tyres, was having to wait for a colleague in another truck (with a spare tyre) to arrive. His plight perfectly demonstrated the issues we’re facing out here. Like us he was on a 5 day Turkmen transit visa but he’d already been waiting at the side of the road for 4 days and his help was still 2 days away!!! It’s times like that that we really appreciate how easy and convenient we’ve got it at home!
Having managed to stop the flow of chai (it really brings on the old bowel movements!) and said goodbye we hit the road again but were soon put onto a diversion by the military that took us onto some horrendous tracks in the middle of the desert, occasionally taking us through tiny settlements none of which were even close to being on our map. This diversion lasted for over 2 long hours (fuel starts becoming a concern at times like that!) but eventually we arrived in Mary but it was already dusk. We wanted to get out of the other side of the city so we could camp but true to form there were absolutely no road signs and no street signs so we were forced to wing it. Although we made it through the town ok. we ended up on a road going east instead of north east which required further cross country riding to correct but finally, with the sun going down, we found ourselves racing northeast on some decent road trying to find somewhere unpopulated so we could camp for the night (stopping anywhere remotely near a settlement tends to result in dozens of people coming from nowhere to ‘talk’ to and watch us – not ideal when you just want to sleep! The setting sun was also a problem as we have a well established safety rule about riding after dark – we just don’t do it, so Em was getting increasingly concerned.
Eventually we spied a farm track leading away from the road and into some trees so we headed down it and quickly the trees came down so low that we had to duck under them – a good sign that the track was seldom used. We followed it for 1km before arriving at a small clearing with some grass on the side underneath an overhang of trees. Perfect! We quickly set up our tent using just the mesh so we could see all around us, and parked the bikes on either side, before enjoying dinner (more tuna!) and an amazing sunset. We were ready for bed by 8:30pm as it was dark and we wanted to hit the road at first light in the morning in order to allow time for a potential border crossing. And that’s when our evening got a little surreal!…
It must have been about 11:30 when we were abruptly awoken by the sound of some large vehicle crashing through the tree covered track to our right. A full moon was up and was bathing everything in white making it really easy to see all around us so we could make out a truck with one very weak headlight. It came to a grinding halt no more than 5m from us and two people, a man and a woman, stepped out and walked off in different directions before coming back a couple of minutes later. They were standing talking quietly so close to us but couldn’t see us as we were just in the moon shadow caused by the trees above us. It would be fair to say we were a little nervous. What had we stumbled upon, who’s land were we on? We had absolutely no idea so silently sat there wandering what to do. Occasionally we’d see one of them (or was it a third person?!) walk off one way and then come back a few minutes later. All the while we’d whisper reassuring things to each other:
“Perhaps they’re travelling workers just looking for somewhere to sleep too?”
“Then why aren’t they sleeping?”
“We just need to stay quiet and make sure we’re packing up before first light”
“Oh shit, I’ve lost sight of that other guy, where’s he gone?”
This went on for a while and we did ponder the fact that absolutely nobody had any idea where we were should this be something untoward. At one point we heard noises coming from the vehicle, and figured that if they were having sex (who know’s what Turkmen sex sounds like but if it’s a weird as everything else in this country!?…) at least they’d likely be asleep soon and we could ‘relax’. A while later we heard more talking and again people were walking around the clearing (all the while staying surprisingly quiet given that they were in the middle of nowhere with, as far as they were concerned, nobody nearby to disturb) within a few metres of us but again the shadow and our tent’s mesh seemed to completely conceal us. After what seemed like an age they climbed back on the truck and started the engine, before engaging first gear and starting to circle the clearing. The truck had a horrendous turning circle and it crashed through the trees on the other side of the clearing at an all too rapid speed.
“Shit!” I cried, as I realised that its current turning circle would take it straight through our pitch.
“Em, open the mesh door on the tent in case we have to bail out!”
Em quickly did it but we both knew that hitting our tent would also mean wiping out the bikes.
“They’re definitely going to see us now” said Em as the one dull headlight swung round to face directly at us from just 10m away. Then the truck slowed to a halt keeping its headlight pointing straight at us for 10 seconds before straightening up and coming to a stop where once again the driver left the engine running and the occupants got out.
It’s fair to say that at this point we a tad nervous. They had to have seen us, and now they were walking around the truck with torches. Finally it got to the point where the game, we thought, was up.
“You’d better say something” piped Em.
One of the men was now just 3m from the tent so I tried to say hello, but with the truck engine running so close the man didn’t seem to hear me, and suddenly turned on his heel, walked back to the truck, selected 1st gear and ploughed off through the trees!
We were left dumbstruck!
“What the f*@k was that??!!!….”
We had no idea, and although we talked through it, and tried to work out how the hell they hadn’t seen us, we laughed nervously at what had been a completely surreal 2 hours! We decided we couldn’t have a been witness to an illicit affair as women here simply don’t have the freedom to disappear out of the house at night, other ideas were raised and dismissed in rapid succession leaving us to conclude that we must have been witness to some sort of Turkmen ‘dogging’ scene and it’s been referred to as ‘dogging-gate’ ever since.