What would you do if you were suddenly in charge of an entire country and free to do whatever you wanted with virtually unlimited wealth and power? Collect Guinness World Records by building obscure and grandiose structures? Maybe design a 2.3 billion dollar airport in the shape of your favourite bird? Perhaps have gigantic statues erected in your honour? Or would you ban dogs simply because they smell “funny”? Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, seems to be the product of all these bizarre scenarios.
Dubbed ‘The Hermit State’, Turkmenistan is a strangely wonderful nation that exists in a shroud of citizen stifled secrecy. To get the inside scoop, we caught up with our man on the inside for all things ending in ‘stan,’ Bryn Colbourne – who was incidentally one of the few foreigners lucky enough to be granted a Turkmenistan tourist visa last year.
When applying to visit, tourist options are incredibly strict and limited. Visas are either an expensive 7 to 9 day guided tour requiring an official letter of invitation to enter the country or a brief 5-day transit visa if travelling through the country to nearby Uzbekistan or Iran.
“Applying for the visa definitely lived up to its name as the hardest visa in the world to get,” says Bryn.
“The entire process was absolutely excruciating. I came very close to giving up on many occasions.”
But he didn’t. And as a result, we get to enjoy some rare insight and illegal photography from one of the most secretive places on Earth.
“Walking around the streets of Ashgabat has to be up there with one of the most interesting and surreal experiences you can have.”
“There are no tourists and no people on the streets. It’s like being in the world’s largest theme park and you’re the only one attending“
As the least known and visited country in Central Asia (maybe even the world), Turkmenistan is home to 5.6 million inhabitants who have very little knowledge of or access to the outside world. Being a sovereign state that borders Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran, Turkmenistan has been left to its own devices since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
On face value, the country’s capital is stunning.
“The streets are impeccably clean. There’s no homelessness, no trash, no stray dogs or cats of any type, and the gardens are truly stunning. Even the bus shelters have A/C and TV to watch while you wait for your bus.”
Despite the gleaming architecture (with white marble buildings everywhere), sprawling highways, Olympic Park, and immaculately kept gardens… the place is total a ghost town.
Granted, it’s one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia. But this goes way beyond being “spacious”. During the day, you’re likely to walk the streets or drive the highways in a surreal social vacuum. The only people you’ll bump into are officials either guarding government structures or staffing their facilities.
Case in point, Ashgabat’s giant indoor Ferris wheel. Verified by Guinness Records as the largest covered Ferris wheel on Earth, this incredible architectural feat services next to nobody on a daily basis.
So how is this clandestine, empty country so minted? Turkmenistan possesses the world’s fourth-largest reserve of natural gas. From 1993 to 2017, citizens received government-provided electricity, water, and natural gas free of charge. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the state’s compassion goes.
Workers generally earn around $150 a month maintaining the white marble city, and, if you peer past the shiny façade of Ashgabat, the general population appears to be seriously oppressed and impoverished.
If I was to publish this article within Turkmenistan’s borders, chances are I’d be snatched off the street by state police and never heard from again. Such is their human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch:
“Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal.”
Turkmen journalist, Saparmamed Nepeskuliyev, was arrested in 2015 after reporting on the poor condition of roads in his native city, the lack of drinking water, and the problems in health care and education. His three-year imprisonment may have been extended indefinitely as his name was recently added to a list of people who have disappeared in Turkmen prisons. None of his family knows his current whereabouts, nor would they question it any further. After all, we’re talking about a place where 90% of cars are white because the former dictator made it illegal to have a black car in the city.
Meanwhile, the airport cost $2.3 billion to build, and while it could serve up to 1,600 passengers per hour, it only operates at 10% capacity. It’s possibly the most unique airport in the world and has been designed to look like a giant falcon. Bryn admits that this is “… kind of ironic, considering only a handful of people would use it each year….”
Even worse is the fact that an entire village of an estimated 50,000 people was demolished because the president was worried foreigners might see the ‘ugly’ reality of everyday Turkmenistan.
Justice in Turkmenistan seems farcical, due to the fact that the entire judicial system is in the hands of the president. State media touts the president as a respected hero yet people are afraid to say a word against the authorities. Go figure.
“If you do meet locals, they can be very timid and sometimes reluctant to speak with you.”
“On one occasion, I spoke with a lady who admitted she was fearful to apply for a passport to leave the country as this was seen as very suspicious without a valid reason.”
All social media is blocked and the slow-moving internet is a moot point with most sites inaccessible.
“A VPN is required to access any form of social media and only 1 or 2 places in the entire capital had accessible Wi-Fi available for tourists.”
As for taking tourist snaps?
“You feel like James Bond when taking photos because government agents are on most corners watching your every move.”
“Photography is banned in many areas so it’s a rush to snap that perfect pic knowing you could get phone confiscated or worse.”
Thanks for taking the risk, Bryn!
RELATED: A Camper’s Guide To Afghanistan.