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Travel Guide > Asia > Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan Travel Guide

  
 
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Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia with a population of about 5 million, and an area around half a million km2, or almost the size of Spain. Neighboring countries are Iran and Afghanistan to the South, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North. It has a coast on the Caspian Sea, but is otherwise landlocked. Nearly 80% of the country is considered part of the Karakum Desert. Turkmenistan is one of just two Stalinist countries in existence (the other being North Korea) and the government is in firm control of nearly everything, although, surprisingly, tourism is welcomed as long as you don't discuss politics or omnipresent police/military. The cult of personality the previous president created for himself is truly amazing and reminders of the Turkmenbashi's legacy are everywhere. The traditional life of the Turkmen is that of nomadic shepherds, though some have been settled in towns for centuries. The country is known for its fine carpets (one is even featured in its flag) and horses. It is a fairly poor country, that has been isolated from the world. Other than that, Billions have been spent on modernization in Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, and many other cities in post Soviet times. And also, the country has extensive oil and gas reserves being developed, with recently opened pipelines to China, Iran, and soon Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan is also the second wealthiest country in Central Asia.

North Korea may get all the press, but even Kim Jong-Il's cult of personality fades when compared to the surreal totalitarian state set up by Turkmenistan's former all-powerful President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, a brutal dictator. He adopted the title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), named the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) after himself, and built a 15-meter tall golden statue that rotates to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat. The month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after himself, while the month of April and the word "bread" became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of Niyazov's mother. Decrees emanating from Niyazov's palace have banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. Through it all, Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great (his official title) remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said. Niyazov's government also spent billions in renovating the country, shut down libraries and hospitals, and even wrote the Ruhnama, a spiritual book to improve the Turkmen people.

Since Niyazov's abrupt if unlamented death in December 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow has slowly peeled back the worst excesses of the Turkmenbashi. The Ruhnama has lost it's popularity, Berdimuhammedow has continued in the process restoring pensions and old names, while cementing on his own slightly more subdued cult of personality.






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