I was poking about in old files on my notebook the other day and came across this post I'd written about Turkmenistan more than a year ago, which I ended up never uploading due to the Iran clusterfuck. Turkmenistan was an interesting place, even though I was only there for a few days, so I'm reposting it here.
Of all the odd countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps the oddest. It is known (inasmuch as it is known at all) for Akhal-Teke horses (I have to confess that this means nothing to me and here I must turn to my friend Duncan, my go-to guy on all things equine, who reports that these creatures are liable to transport you to Venus should you attempt anything beyond the most gentle of walks; this, apparently, is a good thing) and, perhaps more widely, for the excesses of its former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Clearly a firm believer in the maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, this gentleman fully embraced all the possibilities independence had to offer when it came twenty years ago: he promptly christened himself Turkmenbashi (“father of Turkmens”), renamed the months of the year after members of his family, elevated his writings to the level of the Qu’ran, sprinkled the country liberally with large golden statues of himself, and enthusiastically promoted a personality cult that Kim Jong Il might have balked at. This combined with an official attitude of deep suspicion towards outside influences (all tourists must be accompanied by an official guide, the exception being those, like myself, transiting across the country within five days) gives rise to its reputation as one of the more peculiar countries in this part of the world.
Politics is not a subject which it is wise to bring up in this corner of the world in general, but I did wonder what people in Ashgabat thought about the city and father of all Turkmens and everything which the outside world thinks is so odd. Everywhere in Turkmenistan I had seen the phrase “Altyn Asr” – on the signs for restaurants and bars, on the sides of buildings, on mosques and schools. I asked an Ashgabat taxi driver what it meant. “It means golden age”, he said. “What golden age is that?” “The one we are living in now”. We eyed each other carefully for a moment or two. Russian is a very easy language to do deadpan in.