Saturday, August 14, 2004
It’s a sweltering temperature even though it is now well past midnight. The air terminal is as sparsely populated as the city it serves seems to be; the building could be seen to be as important to the country as the ministries that dot the downtown landscape, it lacks the same style that defines the capital of this odd desert kingdom.
In the heat I elected to part with some of my souvenir-dedicated Manat in order to get a small bottle of water to make the wait until my ship back to the Free World lets me board. A group of men opt for that other clear liquid so cherished in this part of the world: vodka. Otherwise the scene is typical for such a place in Central Asia: businessmen, or as they call them biznismen. There’s no buziniswomen for this is the new wild west of overnight wealth and an elite that seems to have gone from Lenin’s rags to free enterprise’s riches. The room is dotted with the tired and weary, some in that tacky nouveau-riche attire that would fit this town so well, others in the sort of poorly put together business dress that the stereotypical government worker would have. French music vides are fed by satellite to those waiting while some elect to pass the time browsing over the souvenir kitsch stand in the corner complete with overpriced and low quality tuk-muks, or traditional Turkmen hats.
Over a year ago I remember a Lufthansa pilot in one of those normal mid-flight spiels to update the passengers pointing out Ashgabat out the window. I don’t remember his words exactly but still remember him stopping just short of laughing when he mentioned the bright lights being the Turkmen capital. The other day the glow in the desert was just as visible on the horizon, like some sort of peculiar electric show. Once I was in the city late that night I saw just how bright it was and that my first impressions of the place a year ago had not been skewed by the pilot’s tone. It was bright, really bright. Facades of all the buildings were lit up and for no apparent reason. Trees with lights seemed popular; neon signs hanging of wires strung between lampposts were everywhere. On takeoff from Ashgabat that same strange and overwhelming brightness was there again. While I’ve never been to Las Vegas, the electric feel of Ashgabat by night is how I would imagine it to be. At first glance the city looked like Honest Ed Mirvish’s landmark store at Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto.
A woman who was in my van from the border town of Dashoguz was kind enough to try and sort out a taxi to a guesthouse that I wished to go to. The trouble began there. I had no address, only a mark I had copied into my map from another. Describing a location in a foreign location could be simple enough with this if the street names had not been changed about a dozen times since independence. Whereas in other post-Soviet states changed the most offensive street names once, usually shortly after independence, Turkmenistan has seen them change repeatedly, and most if not all are now numbered in the 2000s. The President in Turkmenistan has fashioned himself as some sort of god-like figure and given himself the name Turkmenbashi. His real name is Niyazov and he’s an old-school communist who was a lap-dog of the Soviets in Moscow until he was cut off and let loose on his desert fiefdom.
One would think that if you were in the capital city of a country where there is a giant golden statue of the President who rotates in order to face the sun it would be easy to get to simply on account of it being just so strange. Think again. There seemed to be no way I could communicate that this was the way I wanted to go and as the speeds increased on the drags between lights I figured it was time to get out. Only the universal taxi driver language of opening the car door while it was moving seemed to get the message across. All of this racing cost 15000 Manat – about $3 at the official rate or $0.60 at the real rate. Not wanting to put my life in the hands of another crazed taxi I began searching for this elusive and likely illegal guesthouse. Ashgabat’s main roads radiate from the giant Arch of Neutrality where the President’s gold statue turns to face the sun. Once I could establish another point on the map in the sea of low rise white buildings I figured I was able to get across the main square and over the neighbourhood I was looking for. The police already seemed to be on edge and it was only my going into a high-priced hotel that I had managed to shake them.
As I walked towards the Arch of Neutrality just how strangely surreal this city and country really were hit me. It was all so manufactured, so fake and quite strange. When we were driving into the city my thought was that some of the buildings looked a bit like some sort of alien settlement. The drive all day through the bleak desert combined with the actual architecture made it seem like at any minute some strange Vulcan would emerge from one of these strange buildings. When I got to the edge of the square in front of the arch I was amazed to see the massive police presence. Earlier while in the taxi I had seen police around the city and at one point twelve marching together in rows of three but here at the centre of the regime, it seemed too far too strong a presence even for some crazed novelist writing of futuristic police states. I got about 50 meters across the square before getting detained. I knew he was after me so stretched my stride a little to try and keep ahead until I head the clap of his shoes speed to the point where I knew he was running after me. When I turned out of nowhere this one guy had turned into four and they had brought along two of their comrades in civilian dress. An hour later I was released, but only after asking to use the phone and promptly dialing the number to the US embassy and then having the phone hung up on me as my finger went around on the old rotary phone’s dial for the sixth and last number. Of course I still had to get back across that same square and as my detention had been completely arbitrary I had not got the OVIR paper that was the initial excuse for taking me away. It was a long walk – the police don’t seem to have any cars. Before I could get back to the square and through it I was held up only twice by the police but the look on the faces of the other old recruits seemed as though they wanted to get me but couldn’t because they were too afraid of being disciplined from staying from the exact spot where they had been instructed to stand for the night. Surely my pack with various things tied to the outside combined with what must have been a comical look on my face didn’t calm their nerves. Most of them young conscripts and I wondered whether they had ever seen a foreigner before.
On one of the roads that leads away from the Arch of Neutrality I started looking for this guesthouse of sorts. As I mentioned, the street names have been changed numerous times and construction of various monolithic government buildings also seemed to have upset the road plan as it was in 2000, when my map was printed. After going nervously up one small road and upsetting a dog at one plan I tried to establish what the name of the street was and if it was once called the name that I was looking for. I found a man sleeping outside the door of what could have been some small government agency. The building itself was small but lit up and flew a large Turkmen flag. Just then a young guy appeared on the balcony above, a spoke good English. He knew nobody by the name I was looking for and my second choice a little further away left him with the same blank look on his face. I decided to turn the corner there and start looking for my second choice and a block further down a landmark that another traveler had told me about, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, appeared. I had been told that three doors down from the embassy was this second option. Just then the guy who had appeared on the balcony came up behind me offering first to help and then to take me in. It was almost three o’clock.
Mohammad, 18, had learned to English in the classroom in Turkmenistan but had not had any time speaking it until he got to the United States to go to college in California two years ago. He explained that he would be spending the next day getting his visa sorted out at the US embassy as he was due to fly back Saturday. Without much more real conversation I went to bed.
The problem with staying with people when traveling is that generally speaking they are more excited about the whole thing than you are and you get no sleep. To no surprise I was woken up at 7.30, after a much too short four and a half hour rest. Time to face the day and see the absurdity that is Ashgabat. Our first destination would be the US embassy and then on to see the sights.
We crossed back near the Arch where one of the police that had given me so much trouble was still standing on duty. His smile was greeted with the same steely look he had given me just a few hours before. In the daylight I could see just how strange the place was. Since 1995 there have been scores of buildings made from white marble built all over the city. This centerpiece is the arch which is really a giant spire rising from a three-legged base. Next to that is the President’s main palace and the Majlis, or parliament. Most of the government buildings are in a strange modern looking style with eastern domes. Apartment blocks still in white marble stuck out from around the periphery. All the buildings flew the Turkmen flag, making a scene that in many ways looked like the view from the old Soviet Union.
Later in the day we would go out to Berzengi, a newly developed area of the city where there a handful of massive buildings, including one that looks like a giant golden plunger that houses the National Museum and another which is a giant model of Turkmenbashi’s book, Ruhnama. It was when we were walking around the grounds here that Mohammad and I started to have a sort of real conversation.
It started regularly enough with my remarking that all the trees in Ashgabat must need a fair bit of water. Mohammad replied by saying that the government had committed to planting two million trees in this town in the middle of the desert. I asked where the water came from and Mohammad replied we have many fountains in Ashgabat so there must be enough water. Later on, almost out of the blue, Mohammad just said “you know, I don’t really like the government here so much”. Suddenly the country seemed more free to me as it would seem to me that people wouldn’t say such things otherwise. But, just minutes later the warnings that Mohammad gave me made me think again about adjusting my opinion. He warned me not to point at anything at all, because people would know we were talking about it. He then went on to say that we should not use Turkmenbashi’s name and instead say things like the ‘ruler’ so that those who could not understand English would not pick up that we were talking about him. From then on the conversation could not exactly be characterized as really open, but we seemed to quickly develop a bit of an understanding and a repertoire of euphemisms developed quickly.
Later in the day I was able to go up the Arch of Neutrality and see the strangeness of Ashgabat from 20 meters up where the emptiness of one whole quarter of the city is really striking. I took a photo of the old Presidential palace and nearly lost my camera after a run-in with the police. Before long it was time to get moving to the airport and out of this Stalinist-neon lit white marble insanity. Thank God.