I am half way through my jog round Ashgabat when I start to get worried. The police are starting to take an active interest in this random Westerner who is running around the government district at dusk, and I am worried about the language gap. To me, I am a harmless traveler keeping semi-fit while providing semi-amusing travel / jogging anecdotes to a very small group of touchingly devoted blog followers. To a cynical policeman, I am an undocumented foreigner running around their equivalent of Whitehall in an ex-Soviet (now proudly independent) state with an earpiece and a GPS tracking device. I wasn’t sure at the time whether I would have been able to explain that yes, my documents are at the hotel, that my earpiece is the unbroken half of my earphones keeping me supplied with Leonard Cohen tunes and that the suspicious tracking device is an iPhone with an app allowing me to count calories and to send maps to my mates, officer. And my, what lovely truncheons you and your friends have.
As it was, the police / army interest was mercifully restricted to two loud flurries of whistles and lots of truncheon waving, and happily died down when I ostentatiously gave the international sign for: “Who me? Oh, I’m terribly sorry officer. Yes, I will happily run across this six lane highway to keep away from your turf.” You may see a couple of sharp kinks in the track below.
Ashgabat is a strange city, but not how you think. I don’t know how many of our dear readers could accurately point out Turkmenistan on a world map (other than S___, our excellent guide, who may be reading this). In the West, news on Turkmenistan is pretty sparse – we have mostly heard of Turkmenbashi, who governed the country after independence from the USSR. A strongman in the Central Asian tradition, he did an enormous amount for his country, but also … renamed the months of the year after himself and his family, banned opera, ballet, beards, the wearing of make up by news anchors etc.. Cool, huh? Ashgabat was leveled by a massive earthquake in 1948, which also killed eight year old Turkmenbashi’s mother and left him an orphan. As such, when the massive post-independence oil and gas revenues poured in, Turkmenbashi decided to get Dubai-serious with the reconstruction of his proud nation’s capital. This includes:
- Scads of white marble. Seriously, more white marble than you can shake a stick at. Gold domes, gold doors, huge white marble pillars. Unofficially titled White City, we rechristened it Need-Sunglasses City. Did we mention the white marble?
- A white marble foreign ministry with a whacking great globe on top (Turkmenistan picked out in gold); an education ministry in the shape of a huge white marble book; repeat for every ministry
- A humungous arch called “The Arch of Neutrality”, summing up Turkmenistan’s foreign policy, but also handily including a 12 metre high golden statue of Turkmenbashi which revolves to face the sun. This used to be in the centre of town, but was moved by the new government apparently because … it got in the way of a parade
- A massive fairground in the centre of town called, handily, “The Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales”. We tried to get in to this one evening, but we foolishly tried to get in at the entrance marked “Entrance” on all the maps – you know, the one with the ticket office and the turnstiles. The entrance is actually round the back
- What else? Oh, a massive gold and white marble ferris wheel, huge monuments and museums to Turkmen independence, a museum full of presents given to Turkmenbashi. You name it, if it is magnificent and has been done before (even in Pyongyang), it is here, all bright and shiny. Class.
We loved Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is clean and modern, with excellent infrastructure (if a lot of policemen, and not too many opposition parties). We were entertainingly and interestingly shown round by our excellent guide and driver and shown truly wonderful old-world gracious hospitality. The markets were groaning with fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and every kind of dairy product (there is a post brewing somewhere about the entire milk / cream / yoghurt / cheese spectrum and quite how many delicious individual points there are along it). There was architecture in the countryside from when the proto-English were still living in mud huts (anyone remember the Parthians from schoolboy latin lessons? Their capital was here, and still is). There were spectacular dusty mountains with Iran on the other side. You could really feel that you were on the Silk Road. It was fantastic.
And Turkmenbashi? Well, he unfortunately died in 2006, and has been replaced by his number two, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. The Turkmen are reasonable, if passionate people. Imagine asking a married acquaintance of yours about his ex-girlfriend – you know, the one for whom he made all the truly wild romantic gestures when he was younger – and that is the type of response you get when the subject of Turkmenbashi comes around. Yes, we went out. Yes, it was great. Yes, we have both moved on. Have you met my wife?
By the way, those of you who read the back page of the Financial Times may have noticed that Tyler Brulé, that habitual roué, has started to taking inspiration from my “Short Runs” blogs for his articles. Oh Tyler dear, all you had to do was ask. Perhaps we should expect high powered expositions on international Tuna / Rice cuisine to appear next?