Why come to Turkmenistan? The prospect of negotiating a letter of invitation, obtaining a visa and grappling with a body named the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens, all in order to visit a little-known country in Central Asia consisting mostly of desert is not, perhaps, instantly alluring. Yet this is a remarkable place.
Turkmenistan emerged as a newly independent state only in 1991, but the land has been shaped by the legacies of many occupants. The Kugitang Mountains in the east bear traces of the footprints of dinosaurs.
At Margush in the heart of the country, archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has toiled for decades in the hot desert to unearth a civilisation of Bronze Age fire-worshippers. Major sites representing different ages and rulers can be visited without fear of encountering jostling crowds of visitors.
The Silk Road city of ancient Merv was long one of the most important capitals of the Islamic world, where the recently restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar stands as a proud tribute to the Seljuk Empire. Yet the camels here outnumber the tourists. The visitor can feel a pioneer too at Konye-Urgench, capital of the once mighty Khorezm empire, or the Parthian royal residence of Old Nisa, where fabulous carved drinking horns were unearthed.
The legacy of Turkmenistan’s membership of the Soviet Union during much of the 20th century is recalled in many unusual monuments quietly decaying across the country. The MiG plane standing outside a fire station in the town of Mary. A spring deep in the western desert, where surely no Bulgarian has ventured for years, which announces itself as a monument to friendship between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. The apartment blocks in the oil town of Balkanabat decorated with symbols of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
These fragments of Turkmenistan’s recent Soviet past are however disappearing fast, to make way for the structures and symbols of its present. Turkmenistan has been ruled since independence by President Saparmurat Niyazov, the local Communist Party boss when the Soviet Union collapsed, who has consolidated his hold over the state.
The capital Ashgabat, once an unremarkable provincial Soviet city, is being transformed into a fantasy of white-marble palaces, modern apartment blocks and large fountain complexes. In the centre of the city is the three-legged Arch of Neutrality, a monument to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution which gave Turkmenistan its neutrality status. It is topped by a golden statue of President Niyazov, which revolves to face the sun.
The President is known as Turkmenbashy, the father of the Turkmen. His image is everywhere, from billboards to vodka bottles. The country’s main port has been renamed Turkmenbashy, as has the month of January.
But the major impression the visitor will take away from Turkmenistan is of the Turkmen people. Of ladies wearing elegant velvet dresses, with intricate embroidered trims. Of white-bearded elders sporting apparently oversized woolen hats, telpeks, throughout the height of summer. Of small children, whose initial shyness when confronted by foreigners soon gives way to a barrage of questions about the mysteries of life in far-off countries.
This is a people proud of its traditions: the magnificent Ahal Tekke horses; the burgundy-toned Turkmen carpets; the brides bedecked in heavy silver jewellery who are the bashful centres of attention in lavish and noisy wedding celebrations. Turkmenistan may not be an easy destination for the tourist, but for those who come here the rewards are great.