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Turkmenistan: through the looking glass

October 23, 2008

Borders rarely delineate cultures. Since attending university, I have come to conceive of nations as, for the most part, artificially constructed entities, especially postcolonial states. It only takes one glance at a map of Africa to deduce that the continent was divvied up among the imperial powers using the contents of an adolescent’s pencil case.

Consequently, populations have always found themselves split according to these inorganic divisions, and history has been stained with the blood of millions caught on the wrong sides of geopolitical rifts. The shallowness of national boundaries often translates into the presence of the same ethnic groups on either sides of national borders, creating transitional areas between countries that reduces the starkness of crossing borders: it is rare that one feels complete cultural difference from one side of a border to another. With those ideas in mind and past experience to support them, I found the abrupt changes that constituted crossing the border from Iran into Turkmenistan gobsmacking.

We crossed over the border at Bajgiran, some 200 km from Mashhad. Unfortunately, we arrived at the border at 3:45, 15 minutes after closing time, and had to spend the night in the remote border town, which, with its middle-of-nowhere calm and crisp mountain air, was pleasant. We awoke at 6am the next morning, ready to catch the border opening at 7:30. Instead of braving the 20 minute march uphill to the border post with our backpacks, Di and I thumbed down a passing lorry and hitched a ride up, while our stubborn companions faced the incline ahead. Our saviour was a chatty trucker from north-western Iran, who was happy to spare us the sweat of the climb and also offered us some sustenance for the crossing: apples and toffee.

The crossing itself was quick and painless. The most amusing aspect of the experience was the face-off between the Iranian and Turkmen customs offices: facing outwards from the inner wall of the former, the obligatory photographs of Khomeini and Khameini projected their stale stares across into no man’s land, while a poised, iconic portrait of Turkmenbashi returned their imposing gaze. The juxtaposition of the faces gave a preliminary insight into the potency of the Turkmenbashi personality cult. It also highlighted the irony of absolutism, in that it accentuated the geographical limitations of the totalitarian. It was a parody of national hegemony, in which the leaders of each regime were reduced to the egotistical, melodramatic competitors of an American wrestling match. I could almost here the stereotyped television voice laden with forced suspense spouting: ”In this corner, the deceased yet timeless self-proclaimed leader of the Turkmen people! In the other corner, the quasi-twin-named tag-team of the twentieth century’s most influential Shi’a clerics!”

My amusement was suspended by the realisation that a single step through a set of white gates could lead to hair freedom. After walking past the line that demarcated the border into Turkmen territory, I subtly slipped off the scarf hat had covered my head for the previous three weeks, and felt slightly risqué doing so. At the same time, I reflected on the spatial arbitrariness of morals; how in five metres, one could cross from indecency to acceptability with no other reason than property.

After passing through Turkmen immigration and customs, which included a not-so-thorough medical check, we had o wait for over an hour for a mini-bus to arrive, which would take us the remaining 20-odd kilometres into Ashgabat. The soldiers were very strict, they would not allow us to even venture over to the area where the trucks were coming out of customs in order to ask for a ride. Heeding to the subservience required by the circumstances, we obediently waited.

Finally the minibus arrived, and we began our descent into Ashgabat. No amount of nominal change of territory could have prepared us for what we saw: a woman crossing the road in Ashghabat: in a short sleeved, knee-length dress. We all turned around at each other in mutual shock! Really, apart from the odd white marble buildig, the first thing that struck us most was the way in which the women were dressed. The stood grouped on roadsides in bright, solid coloured dresses, in blues and reds and purples, accompanied with green, yellow and brown patterned head-wraps. The contrast of these scenes compared to those that we had left in the holy city of Mashhad the day before was shockingly stark. From women hunched under opaque tents (‘chador’ literally means ‘tent’) to women standing tall, straight-backed and proud in technicolour glory.

The amazement did not cease there, but grew exponentially as we discovered more and more of the capital. The starkness of the difference in people’s appearances was compounded by the intensely grandiose characteristics of the architecture and sanitized, fairy tale-like town planning. Vastly wide, perfectly straight roads bypassed tall, white, almost colonial style buildings, each as perfect and poised as the next, none too close to the other. Every now and then, the eye would be accosted by a glimmer, and your attention would be drawn to one of the many gold-plated statues that grace the entrances of public buildings and banks, or constitute statues in their own right.

The many monuments immortalizing Turkmenbashi, who died from a heart-attack in 2006, are ostentatious and have a futuristic, sci-fi quality to them. The most bizarre is probably the Arch of Neutrality, which resembles a a huge rocket ready for lift-off, adorned with a golden statue of leader that rotates to be constantly facing the sun. At night, it is lit up with an ever-changing array of garish colours: fluorescent green, pink and blue fade into one another, and reinforce the impression that the rocket is bound to take flight at any given second.

In our first venturing around the city, we happened to fall upon a military parade, which we later realised was the rehearsal for the seventeenth anniversary of Turkmen independence from the USSR. Watching it from atop the Arch of Neutrality, we felt as if we were experiencing a true example of totalitarian regime, a small-scale reenactment of the images of Maoist China or Nazi Germany, until Caro pertinently reminded us that military parades are infact still quite common in the twenty-first century and not only in North Korea, but for Bastille Day in France and national independence days for many other non-dictatorships. Our romanticisation aside, our amusement shifted to the hectic disorganization of the soldiers instead of taking every single incident to be part of the ideologue’s landscape, which, in the context, was admittedly difficult.

The sudden and immediate bizarennes of my first few hours in Turkmenistan, and especially the contract of the cultural landscape with that of Iran, made me feel like I had fallen down that deep, dark rabbit hole, and had emerged in some odd parallel universe. Unfortunately, due to our transit visa that meant our time in the country was severely restricted to 4 days and other rules like an 11 ‘clock curfew for foreigners, I didn’t have the chance to see any other sides to Turkmenistan that challenged the initial impression of a country drowned by personality cult.

The most marking incident outside of Ashgabat was when we were stopped on the highway in the middle of the Karakum desert, because the new president was visiting the inauguration of a new town 100 km away. Firstly, we flet that stranding a handful of truck-drivers and families in the middle of the desert was a slightly excessive security measure. Then later we drove past the new village, which was surrounded by a perimeter of Turkmen flags, and the sparkling new buildings were wrapped up in big blue and white bows… Again, I wondered when I had slipped through the rabbit hole.

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