Through its deserts I roamed and its mountains I took for my protection
And the breeze that blew from the valleys I took for Allah’s blessings
Its deserts, rivers, and mountains, I took for the edifice the True One Built
(Ruhnama, In My Motherland)
Zolota quietly escorts us down the empty street. She kisses Marta, smiles and turns back. The morning star rises magnificently from the empty desert colouring the air in transparent pink. If the nothing exists, its throne must somewhere around here, in Etrek. And yet, it is queerly charming. The air is a surreal lens that reveals an unexpectedly alien face of our planet. Stepping heavily, we reluctantly head away, unaware that the void stretches for many miles ahead. Environmental, social and political bubbles collide to give birth to a whole country, shaping the lives of more than 5 million people. We have only four days left to pass by in a transit rush, failing to hide our astonishment at each corner, our move accelerated by the uniformed servants of a smiling portrait.
Tumbling into unknown landscapes
Just after sunrise, when the blinding light gives only a hint of the approaching heat, we squeeze in a non-reliably looking broken bus, crammed with a jolly Turkmen crowd. There are no signs of anything that faintly resembles a road, which renders the presence of cars highly unlikely. With the midnight visit still fresh in our heads, we decide that hitchhiking in Turkmenistan may well rest till tomorrow. Trotting merrily up and down the desert, we watch her vainly changing dresses. The flat wastes topped with dusty swirls, give way to peculiarly shaped waterless hills, then to colourful mountains twinkling in the scorching sun-haze. Heavenly birds in tropical colours sporadically break the lifeless monotony materializing in front of the window like winged mirages. Out of a sudden, time stops around us. A goat-like bearded old man, his age written in wrinkles, closes his eyes ceremoniously and abruptly starts mumbling prayers in Arabic. The rest of passengers follow. Their quiet chorus last only a few seconds. Then they put a final cord to the ritual by symbolically washing their faces with hands. The performance, that at that moment resembles a magic spell, is routinely performed by Central Asian Muslims. Later on we learn that it means paying respect to the dead while passing nearby cemeteries or roadside shrines, but it is also used after meals as a humble act of giving thanks to God. The old man smiles, probably laughing at our surprised expressions, and sits a calm and round baby in his lap. While the motor keeps on roaring, we stare at the picture of the two extremes of the circle of life quietly merging to the rhythm of the swinging bus on the dusty path.
Several patches of asphalt clearly indicate a nearby city. One of the peculiarities of the post Soviet world dictates that paved roads in remote areas are reserved only for the vicinity of cities and villages. This, in turn, guarantees wildly racing angry and tired drivers rushing through, enjoying the tormack as much as they can, before plunging into the dusty lunar roads again. In Serdar though, this is not case, probably because the number of cars managing to cross the desert and reach it is limited. Slightly larger than Etrek, Serdar is another lost settlement, slowly burning under the sun. Sober assessment of the situation evaporates Boris’ last hope of taking a short detour to Ashgabat, the bizarre capital, boosting an extraordinary sample of dictator’s attractions that range from a huge golden statue of the former president rotating to face the sun to a spectacular monument of Runhama, a book purportedly written by the same man, which opens at sunset surrounded by splashing water cascades. Surprisingly enough, way more fascinating than the sculpture, is the actual content of the book itself. It is supposed to summarize the knowledge of the universe and specially everything Turkmen, which naturally makes it mandatory in schools and universities and additionally requires its reading in mosques along with the Quran. President Nyazov spent sixteen long years of his life building and consolidating the core of the Turkmen nation, along with a brain-shattering personality cult that still lingers in the air years after his death. Unfortunately, pressed by time restrictions, unbearable heat and sparse traffic, this time, we won’t be able to confirm weather the wonders of Ashgabat are real or legendary and how many of them are still in place. We hop into a picturesque train heading west.
The train, an odd caravan of travelling houses, runs through the desert, drawing a short-living trail of sounds that disappear quickly like rain drops. We carefully stand on the hard wooden seats avoiding the parade of cockroaches marching on the wall. Surrounded by a curious crowd, we soon forget the timeless insects and get involved in an intense exchange of gifts and thoughts on life that shed some light on the interesting details of Turkmen everydayness. Several new head-scarves somehow find their way into Marta’s backpack, all women insisting that the traditional scarf from their particular region is more special than the rest. From the conversations with several groups of passengers we deduce that, whether out of fear or because of successful government propaganda, the current president is highly praised and hold in high esteem. His image, of a fair father and teacher, has moved beyond the portraits and billboards on streets and houses, creeping its place into the life of people. He gives free natural gas to everybody all year round, supplies each household with unlimited amount of salt, provides large quantities of gasoline out of charge, and offers to families with more than seven kids special large and modern flats – “elitichni”, the women tell Marta with a proud smile. All of that, it seems, he does unilaterally and out of true love of the Turkmen nation. It feels as if a Medieval European saga has mysteriously materialized in the desert of Central Asia, with the only exception that the word ‘king’ is replaced by ‘president’. And while the conversation jumps wildly touching different topics, the wagon fills with dozens of curious eyes and the mobile phones of kids and grandmas pile around us, taking photos that will never find their way to a censored facebook. Then, the train ominously breaks in the middle of nowhere. A few seconds of silence and confused looks, interrupted only by the undisturbed runs of children casually roaming back and forth, are finally broken by an upset policeman that storms into the compartment heading straight to us. Angrily, he disperses the crowd and announces the end of the fun, reinforcing the rule of law. Foreigners – he repeats the mantra we have heard before – should not have contact with locals. Brief passport check and the train sets in motion again. It looks like the new self-styled father of the nation, Murad Berdimuhamedov, who we learn has recently demolished the golden statue of his predecessor, seems to be simply washing out the personal legacy of the former president, while skilfully accommodating the tyrannical system to his own benefit, leaving intact all the mechanisms that constitute it.
A hitchhiking race to Turkmenbashi
As we move north, towards the Kazakh border, we finally try our luck by the roadside, sinking deeper into an schizophrenic travel reality spiced up by a mix of encounters with amazingly friendly people and the paranoid eyes of the inmigration police. Like in any old anti-uthopian low-budged movie, after every passport check, a policeman or an army official picks up a green landline phone and reports to a faraway faceless power that we cannot help but to imagine sitting behind a large wooden bureau. The west of Turkmenistan rarely sees foreigners and our unexpected appearance perplexes the policemen and puts them on high alert. The chance to get some details about life and love and travel in the ex-communist brother Bulgaria, and Boris initial interest in practicing Russian with the authorities, may have played its part in the long questionnaires we are subjected to, but we soon grow tired of repeating ourselves once and again and again. “I can see you face – says an senior officer when asked about the excessive control – but one never know what is inside your heart, and we must always be alert”. The degrading influence of the outside world is dangerous and so it better be minimized. Slowly moving from PYGG to PYGG (the accurate abbreviate of the road police that captures straightforwardly the essence of their behaviour), we finally arrive to the shores of the Caspian sea. Exhausted after a long ride in the dark, we collapse in a park in Turkmenbashi. After a couple of hours someone offers us water and in a little food stall we convice the cook to substitute the meat in her pastries by our own cheese and tomatoes, under the suspecting gaze of the local customers who smile while nodding at our eccentricity. The unconcealed plan of the men in uniforms to force us as quick as possible out of the country, clashes with the genuinely welcoming nature of the ordinary people. Something inside us cries for a longer visa, for the chance to spend time and dig under the skin of this mysterious country.
Small and quiet, probably due to the sea breeze, it feels more appropriate to describe the Turkmenbashi as relaxed instead of sleepy. Rusty, decadent ships and boats with names in Cyrillic undulate calmly in the quiet port, swinging like a pandelum measuring the time of a long-gone age. Old Soviet style playgrounds, ice-cream that brings back scattered memories from Boris’ early childhood and an light atmosphere of timelessness draw a picture of nostalgic melancholia that reminds us in a way of Sokumi, by the Black Sea. Just like everywhere else in Turkmenistan, beautiful women in long green dresses sway their plates and bodies in elegant, queenly rhythm. Like a special type of desert flowers growing under the intense sun, they ‘dot’ each city or village we pass by, adding a fairy touch to the surreal environment. Falling asleep under a lonely tree that casts a feeble shadow, we conclude that the presidential decree forbidding women on TV from wearing make up on the basis of their unrivaled beauty, is as absurd as it is actually well-grounded. Next to our backpacks, a plastic bottle of fizzy drink now full with ayran, a blue toilet towell and a huge glass jar of kompot, the random gifts from a Dagestani lady that gave us lift the day before, crown our ultimately alien and absurd appearance. We prefer to think, though, that precisely these three acquisitions, make us look more at place.
In the afternoon, two teenagers approach us cheerfully.’Where are you from?’ ‘Do you like Turkmenbashi?’ ‘Do you want to play table tennis with us?’ – they throw a cascade of questions in pretty good English. Taking a break from their language lessons in a nearby school the kids have decided that we are a great opportunity for them to practice in between a ping-pong set and the next. ‘I want to go to Azerbaijan’ – one of them says – ‘It is freedom there, you know.’ We wonder if changing one totalitarian system for another qualifies as freedom, but decide it is better just to listen, rather than starting a long conversation’Do you know that we live in the North Korea of Central Asia?’ – he continues – ‘we live under police control’ – but he is quick to add that in that country ‘only the president is nice’. We play and talk for a while until the disturbed and confused English teacher comes along. ‘I am really sorry’ – he nervously begins – ‘but the police is not happy at all with you being around and it is me who will suffer the consequences’. Like an iron fist, he brings us back to reality. The tranquillity of Turkmenbasi had blurred our perceptions, making us feel free once again to chat around with whoever came to us. As we go away, one of our young friends smiles from the other side of the fence.’You see, we are not free here’. It looks like each day in Turkmenistan needs to carry the air of an Orwellian chapter.
Awaza – a seaside mirage
Following the advice of a few locals, we head for the evening to Awaza – a nearby resort they seem to be truly proud of. Deeply curious about how precisely a holiday place would look like in a country where poverty is the norm and foreign tourists are considered a threat to national security, we hop into a city bus heading there, expecting some sort of decadent post-soviet sanatorium. The road to Awaza, however, suggest that the place may actually surprise us. The 8 km from Turkmenbashi to the resort are a well-maintained and marked highway built to meet all requirements for a spotless infrastructure. Peculiarly enough, the rest of the main roads we have travelled on so far were either bumpy dust ground or national roads under construction. As we get closer, we drive through a strikingly contrasting nature. On one side is the void – dry, arid, semi-desert, seasoned with meagre leafless shrubs. On the other, a garden of neatly mowed grass, beautiful fresh flowers and trees, all shadowed by a row of massive white hotels. Absolutely empty, they stare at the sea like silent ghosts. Month by month, it looks like the eerie party increases in the national plan to create top-class tourist infrastructure in a place that gives little to no visas. So the workers, the only visitors to the resort, tirelessly erect more and more hotels and irrigate lavishly the green paradise in the desert. Speechless, we set our tent inside a painting of Dali. Confronted by such a lavish explosion of wealth, we start to fancy that a fairer management of the countries resources, could maybe even allow for a completely idle and happy life in the People’s Republic of Turkmenistan, where additionally to gas and salt, all basic needs could be granted for free. But maybe the president, as every wise father, knows how detrimental such spoiling might be for his children, so he and those guiding the country may batter keep a healthy portion of everything for themselves. But, anyway, one does not need to come to Turkmenistan to see the devastating effects of speculative construction and unsustainable tourism business, right? Isn’t that a worldwide virus?
Hospitalized in Garabogaz
Our last day in the country fails to bring anything new and we swim the waters of wild surrealism for another 24 hours. Cosily seated in the truck of H., we travel the lonely road to a forgotten border in the middle of nowhere. The graceful solitude of Turkmenistan pours another dose of rough, wild beauty over our enchanted eyes. Like in a fantasy world, the road plunges into the Caspian sea, but the truck miraculously stays afloat. Running through a bay straight through the water, the last few km of the road to the border town Garabogaz, are built on sand piled in the sea. H., a bright young man, brings life to the void with his stories of long-haired beauties and local health myths, in the 5 hours we spend together. And just before getting to Garabogaz he warns us: ‘Be careful tonight. This city is weird. Criminal serving sentences and their families are the only inhabitants of this town. It is like a Gulag’. He pulls over a few km ahead of town. ‘I cannot continue, my friends. Garabogaz is a border town and I would need a special permission to enter. Every day I deliver materials but only till here. I have never been to the city. You will see by yourselves, if my warning is true’. – he shrugs shoulders and waves us goodbye.
A few meters down the road a car stops and offers us a lift to town. We jump in, empirically trying to assess if H. criminals story is in any way founded. As the driver safely drops us in town, he whispers. “I am a doctor in the local hospital. If you have any troubles – come to me”. At sunset we rush to the hospital. It is not the mythical bandits that forced us seek refuge, but our good PYGG friends. Following closely each step we make, they drive in a black car behind us, checking out if we intend to disregard their authority and camp on the beach, which they had informed us is explicitly forbidden. Since the only hotel in town is closed for renovation, because the president is coming in a week to inaugurate a new salt factory, we run out of options. Declining a few offers to stay at people’s places, knowing by now that this might put our potential hosts in trouble, we decide to go to the doctor. Quickly grasping the situation, he smiles and says.’Hide the camera, do not take any photos. And..hm..let me see. Oh, you have such a strong headache. You need to stay here overnight.”But, I don;t have a headache..’-naively objects Marta. ‘ I am sure you do. Listen to the medical opinion of a professional’ -he insists – ‘And when somebody comes to ask what are you doing here tonight, by now you know that you have a strong headache’. Half an hour later, ‘somebody’ gets out of his black car and comes to ask some questions. He claims to be the hospital’s director and wants to know the symptoms. Satisfied with our little lies, the chief goes away, probably back to the his other office in the police station where he picks up a green phone… Meanwhile, the smiling nurses, arrange a hotel-looking room for us, reassuring us that here we will be fine. There are no emergencies today, and the staff kills time cleaning once and again the windows and furniture of the neatest medical institution we have ever stepped into – despite having no running water. The doctor stuffs our backpacks with basic medicine, ‘for the way’ and lets us devour with hungry interest the wonders of a detailed book on herbal remedies (written, as you may suspect by not, by the president himself) while a shy young nurse comes along with diner, juice and blueberry jam. ‘I asked by mum to cook something for you. I hope you like it’ – she says – ‘Now, tell me about your travels. Does your government sponsors them?’ Still unable to fully comprehend what is happening and moved beyond our senses by the kindness that surpasses their curiosity, we sit down with warm tea and coffee, chatting to the beautiful people in white aprons.
Border business as usual
In the morning the ‘director’ kicks us out as soon as the sun rises. Quickly, we make our way to the border in the first pick-up with some free room heading there through the steppe. A shapeless queue of local travellers fights for their place in a list that will let them walk to Kazakhstan for a box of vodka – we wonder if it’s worth the effort at all. A thorough backpack check sees us out of Turkmenistan. We had crossed five days before from one dictatorship running the lives of hundreds in the name of God, to another oppressive system commanding people in the name of human authority. Where are we now? What is Kazakhstan? In fact probably it doesn’t matter. Regimes like the Iranian or the Turkmen are striking because of their old-fashioned ways of control. They lack the finesse of other governments around the world and look ridiculously prominent in their crudeness. But digging a bit deeper into the broader political picture of our time, we remember how we simply try to forget in our daily life how much we are naively unaware of the surveillance and control imposed on us. Is it so truly democratic that in many places around the world people are allowed to mock at and protest against governments and institutions as long as that does not threaten their mighty rule? Don’t all regimes, regardless of whether labeled free or tyrannical, have their money-loundring ‘Awaza’ schemes? And don’t they all try to filter and control the number of ‘dangerous’ foreigners on their territory, with ridiculous movement restrictions that render people “legal” or “illegal” in a discriminatory manner. And maybe many Turkmeni believe in the good-will of the president, but how many admire the humanity of Obama,trust their goodwilling kings or simply give away their power to those who store it and misuse it in their name? Just after the customs control, we crawl into a lonely house, the only one we would see for next 300 km of steppe before getting to Aktau. We discover the kind face of the local criminals from our truck driver’s stories. Just like in the famous train Sofia-Belgarde, engaged in a heated debate, the lively women that will carry vodka as disguise, actually push boxes of cigarettes in their bras, stick them on their thighs underneath their skirts and shamelessly smile, posing for a picture with the foreigners, before heading back to Garabogaz to earn a few extra bucks (or better said Manat) from their petty contraband. All around the world, the same people, the same struggles, the very same ways to survive the heavy impositions of every day.