26 November, 2007

Flashback #2: Turkmenistan

While I was in Moscow I worked for a telecom company which provided satellite connections for Western companies working in remote areas. I managed several different projects in Central Asia. Or didn't manage them, because the rules of the game seemed to be completely out of my hands most of the time. As frustrating as this was, it did provide some very interesting travel opportunities.

By far the weirdest place I ever visited was Turkmenistan. Our client was a British company that was mining gold outside of the capital, Ashgabat. We were only a few kilometers away from the border with Iran, a fact which I found truly awe-inspiring.

The landscape was desolate-- lots of desert and scrub brush. Wild camels wandered along the streets like stray dogs. On our way to the client's site we stopped to get out of the car and stretch-- I felt someone staring at me, turned around and found myself face to face with a baby camel!

The most interesting thing about visiting Turkmenistan, though, was the country's dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known for his authoritarian ways and eccentric decrees. He renamed himself "Turkmenbashi", the father of the people, and fostered a cult of personality that even rivaled Stalin's.

Wikipedia has a great list of some of his outrageous decrees. Among them:
  • He renamed the days of the week and the months after himself and his mother
  • He proclaimed that the youth of Turkmenistan should chew on bones rather than get gold caps on their teeth (???)
  • Beards were outlawed
  • All hospitals outside of Ashgabat were shut down because he felt that the sick should travel to the capital to be treated
  • Ballet and opera were banned when President Niyazov decided that they were "unnecessary to Turkmen culture"
He also decreed that all public buildings should prominently display his picture. And when I say "prominently" I mean that entire outer walls were dedicated to his portrait. At any given street corner in Ashgabat one was privy to his solemn glare from several different directions.

The streets were a mess and one taxi ride was particularly memorable. The driver was speeding and driving very erratically-- swerving crazily around potholes and driving through red lights. Growing increasingly nervous, I was trying to concentrate on all of Niyazov's different portraits when suddenly the driver slammed on the breaks and we came to a stop. He was cursing under his breath.

"Anything wrong?"


He pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket. They had thick coke-bottle lenses and one of the arms was broken off. For the rest of the trip he held them up to his eyes with one hand while he steered with the other. Up until that point he had apparently been driving blind...

Once we'd finished our business with the client there was some time to go sightseeing. One of the engineers offered to take us to see some hot springs just outside of the capital. Always up for adventure, my colleague and I agreed.

We drove for a couple of hours out into the middle of nowhere. The engineer led us to a cave and we went inside. Once our eyes adjusted to the dark we saw a large pool of water. There was a single electric lamp on one side of the cave which didn't do much to cut through the gloomy darkness. Bats hung from the ceiling above and the air was thick with steam and the heavy smell of sulphur.

My colleague and I stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped in. The water was bathtub temperature and very murky. I held my breath and let myself sink down as far as I dared but I couldn't touch the bottom.

Strangely the engineer refused to join us, but preferred instead to hang out at the cave's entrance and smoke.

The water temperature was pleasant but the sulphurous smell became overbearing after a while and the atmosphere was just plain creepy. My colleague and I climbed out, dried off and put our clothes back on in silence.

We exited the cave and were climbing back into the car when a rickety, rusted-out old bus pulled up and a dozen locals piled out. They were dressed in colorful, ratty garments and were a pretty ragtag bunch.

"Who are they?" I asked our guide.

"Oh them."

And then he told me that this particular hot spring is famous throughout the country. That its warm sulphur waters supposedly have healing properties and that people with otherwise incurable skin diseases were bussed in to bathe here in as a last resort for a cure...

It took weeks before I was convinced that I hadn't contracted leprosy...

(Move on to Flashback #3:  Moscow)


Greg said...

I love these renditions of your times in Russia. I'd heard about that nutty dictator before, and I think the U.S. is using him as an ally in the supposed "war on terror."

I had a disgusting image of the murky water of the hot springs having chunks of..ahem...people floating around in it somewhat like croutons in onion soup.

anno said...

Yikes! Shudder!

These are amazing stories, and amazingly well-written. Would you mind if I shared bits of them with my middle-school writing class, just to show them how interesting nonfiction writing can be with a few well-chosen, very specific, supporting details? Thanks!

Betsy said...


I would love it if you shared them, Anno! What an honor!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I hadn't heard about that particular dictator and this was fascinating. I was wondering why your engineer didn't join you. Glad you didn't contract anything nasty. I still have stomach parasites from 1989 and trying to eat at a children's camp in Anapa. Good times!

Goofball said...

oooh the baby camel thing was so sweet, wish you had a picture.

the cave pool story is very funny though, but other than that Turkmenistan sounds like a creepy place to live.

Philip said...

I love reading these.

Gardner said...

Nice stuff. Can't find that on CNN, or anywhere else for that matter. Keep it up.

Jenn in Holland said...

Oh! YIKES!!!
What. A. Story.
I am completely captivated...

Africakid said...

Ugh, now I can't get the picture of that pool out of my mind...did you want to throw your engineer in afterwards?
Like everyone else said, great story!

ian in hamburg said...

Another great Russia post!

Isn't that sulphur smell awful? I have a childhood memory of Miette Hot Springs in the Canadian Rockies outside of Jasper. Though the water was piping hot, the whole place smelled so bad we had to leave early - just couldn't stand it.

Anonymous said...

More, give us more...even if it does conjure up images of slimy snakes in the water. Now, that to me, is writing a good story. Keep 'em coming. Lurking Lisa