Turkmenistan, filling the void with marble stone

The show…

A « no comment » reportage illustrated with pictures only would as well do to report on our short 4-days incursion in Turkmenistan.  But we cannot resist to share some impressions about this very odd country here.

Crossing the border from Iran, in Mashad-Howdan, and getting to Turkmenistan by bus/taxi is a unique experience. We feel as if we have arrived by air, after a long-distance flight, such is the difference between these two countries striking.

Ashgabat first springs to our eyes, with its megalomaniac marble palaces and huge, empty 3-lanes avenues. There are new sky-scrappers (also made of marble, by the French Bouygues Construction) being built everywhere in the city. But where are the people ? We see hardly a few souls in the street. Turkmenistan has 4-5 million inhabitants and only some elites can afford living in these luxury apartments. So marble carcasses remain empty behind their stained windows.

Turkmenistan was born in a rush in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. President Niazov set the scene and was keen to leave a heavy print on this country : his portraits are everywhere (playing golf, riding a horse, driving his yacht, piloting his helicopter…) and he obviously deemed more important to give himself an immortal status by building hippodromes and useless theaters (there are hardly ever plays) than to improve the education, health, transport and telecommunications systems. He also imposed an artificial identity to Turkmen people (who are nomads in essence, sharing the same heritage as other central Asian countries) by rewriting Turkmen history and making it mandatory to read and learn, even for passing a driving license exam. The same spirit is carried forward by his successor (some say his illegitimate son?) who, quickly replaced the above-mentioned portraits by his own ones.

So, beyond the empty streets we discover quite miserable living conditions. Women are all wearing colourful traditional dresses (what a contrast with Iran!) but this doesn’t hide the evident common disillusionment. Although very different from Iran – where it is the religious fanaticism which holds the country in a steel hand – here is another example of tyranny where elementary freedom is denied (i.e. freedom of speech, right to education…) and where voluntary isolation from the external world tries to maintain an entire people in the darkness, behind white marble walls.