Silk Road Part 17 of 17. Click here for 1 of 17 >>>
We woke early and after breakfast hit the road. Although a pretty shoddy road, it was far superior to the one we had taken the day before and the craters in the road now firmly put into perspective. About an hour from Ashgabat we stopped to look for a car wash. Apparently it was closed. We tried another place and the same story. The driver looked concerned and some conversations were had. Next thing our driver and the driver of a vehicle with 2 Japanese tourists were out with cloths on a mission, washing the cars. Jenia explained that to get into Ashgabat the car must be clean. I looked in the mirror, suddenly conscious that I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. Would they let me into the city? I had read that one of the rules of the previous strongman leader, the self-named Turkmenbashi (“father of the Turkmen”) that had been repealed by the current strongman leader was a ban on music in cars. Given our driver’s taste in music I felt this was one I could have lived with.
Before we hit Ashgabat we stopped in old Nisa, a Parthian city dating to the 1st century BC. Blooms of poppies decorated the site. Granted UNESCO status in 2003, much still remains unknown. It is a royal residence, but no necropolis has yet been uncovered, though only 30% of the site has been excavated to date. Much of what was found at the site can been seen in the National Museum in Ashgabat. The Sassanids came in the 3rd century and destroyed the city and it has stayed, largely untouched, ever since.
We drove into Ashgabat and Jenia explained the way neighbourhoods were organised into self-contained units with their own shops, kindergartens and schools, meaning people rarely had reason to leave their own enclave. The city immediately stood out for being white. White buildings (albeit with gold trim in many cases), white cars, white monuments. The dress of locals was more colourful, but largely uniformed. Anyone who worked for the government wore a uniform, as did school children, even those in university wore uniforms.
We passed the Palace of Happiness, a strange cuboid structures where Turkmen went to register their marriages, and divorces. What greater joys? We visited the neutrality monument, built to commemorate the decision of Turkmenistan’s first president, the self-styled Turkmenbashi (meaning “father of the Turkmen”) to make Turkmenistan a permanently neutral country in 1995. The golden Turkmenbashi statue perched atop the monument used to spin around, Jenia told me. The next stop was the national museum where the very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Nuri showed me around the museum, explaining the history and heritage of Turkmenistan and the significance of the various archaeological sites in the country.
We stopped off to visit the Monument of Independence, with another golden Turkmenbashi and a golden 5-headed eagle and drove past the enormous horseshoe-shaped Olympic stadium where the Asian Indoor Games will take place in September. Counters around the city showed the number of days, minutes, seconds. 135 days, 2 hours, 6 minutes and 27… 26… 25 seconds.
The government buildings seemed to take up an inordinate amount of city space, and of course no photos were allowed. Jenia explained that Turkmenistan had a Ministry of Horses as well as a Ministry of Carpets. “No Ministry of silly walks apparently”, though she suggested Ministry of Silly Constructions might be more apt. And Turkmens don’t like Monty Python. They like Benny Hill and Mr Bean. I was beginning to worry that they had no sense of humour. The US embassy was on a street that had been renamed 1984 street. I needn’t have worried.
One things that occurred to me walking through the park across from my hotel a little later was every statue in the park, and indeed every historical figure on Turkmen money sported a substantial headdress and a bushy beard. Until Turkmenbashi. Now also the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is clean shaven and bare-headed. Perhaps the heat-trap of marble and gold that is modern Ashgabat makes beards a less attractive proposition than it used to be.
The modern state of Turkmenistan seems a million miles away from the world of the ferocious Turkmen warriors that terrorised many a Russian or British traveller. Did the Soviet occupation break these fearsome people, or the strict discipline and sometimes bizarre rules of their eccentric “father”? The apparent docility of the people made me think of something Jenia said to me when I arrived. “Turkmen are too lazy for revolution”. Only time will tell if she was right.