Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map VIII

The best description of Ashgabad can be found in Lonely Planet, which I’ll paraphrase as being Las Vegas as if designed by the North Koreans.  Each and every building looked like a casino, most of all the ministries that were of an impossible scale.  The roads that lined them were near empty, home only to angled street lamps that looked like the psychedelic bats that nest in ralph Steadman’s imagination.  We weren’t allowed off the bus, but I kept my camera clicking like a machine gun the entire way.  It truly was a bizarre experience, touring a city that we weren’t exactly welcome in.  As we drove around the word that kept rolling around and around in my brain like a Lotto ball was “ostentatious.”     

Besides lunch in a building completely devoid of signs, the only stop we made was a museum.  It was Wednesday, the usual day off, but the opened up just for us, which no doubt made an already dour looking staff even more unhappy.  The whole placed reeked of kerosene, in an abrupt attempt at fending off the gloomy day outside.  The staff seemed to do little but keep our groups in the sections we were designated to see.  One of them led us around, explaining things in a very bizarre English, filled with mispronunciations that hinted at a passive language development with only books as a resource.  He went into remarkable detail about absolutely everything, which hinted at a long morning ahead. LYL and I broke away to explore on our own, under the pretext of needing the bathroom.  (While the museum itself was a beautiful specimen, the toilets were like an archeological site, with sandpaper toilet paper.)  All the non-historical (read: non-tourist friendly) rooms were monuments to the glory of the empire, and got more and more bizarre as we went along.  The minders we passed didn't seem too happy with our being there, but simply kept their heads down and fiddled with their phones.  As is always the case with these kinds of museums, the payoff comes with the most recent exhibits where the central motif is the handsome, well-coifed leader, photo-shopped into action hero poses before an array of backgrounds.   

We got some reprieve from all of this by driving out to the Nissa, the Parthian capita until the 3rd Century CE.  The land here was lush, the white marble falling away to be replaced by juniper and pine.  Hundreds of thousands had been planted, thickening the closer they came to the carved out hillsides beyond, yet of a smaller height. The easy comparison for me was with New Mexico, right down to the blocky adobe structures baking in the sun, beside the more curved walls of kiva.  

Nissa itself could have been an uninhabited Taos Pueblo, shadowed by monstrous peaks that shot rapidly toward the sky.  On their far side was Iran, a lone road curved and dipped dangerously up to the pass leading up and over.  Somewhere as I walked along my iPhone sent me a text telling me that I’d actually entered that country.  It was a tantalizing thought, but I was happy enough here, walking through the narrow passages that would open now and again into keyhole-shaped doorways that revealed the green oasis that surrounded us. 

Tukemenbashi had ordered some of Ashgabat’s biggest and most garish structures to be built outside the city, including our own rocket-ship shaped hotel.  Nearby was the world’s largest (and perhaps least-used) indoor ferris wheel that looked like a massive lozenge.  Another was an enormous TV tower that brought in very little, but did extend a middle finger toward neighboring Iran. 

Largest of all was the mausoleum to the great leader himself.  It was a beauty indeed, probably the most impressive in town, and certainly the most colorful building in Central Asia, with towering minarets and that ubiquitous 8-pointed star that could be seen everywhere and never failed to remind me of a sheriff’s badge.  How fitting then that we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.  Their self-conscious showboating was like a Monty Python skit, especially when the highest-ranking officer twirled his rifle high in the air and nearly got a bayonet in the forehead.  Fear of detainment is all that kept us from bursting into laughter. 

The sun eventually fell, and the marble neon was once again lit by a million colored bulbs.  An oil-rich nation, Turkemenistan lacked nothing for natural energy.  But it was the absence of life here created a bigger impression.   How ironic the parallel that an alignment of marble such as this is more often found in cemeteries. 

Our dinner that night was equally dead, energy-wise.  What is the point of throwing a farewell dinner for people who already wished they were gone?  There was music, there was dancing, but the life had gone out of the group and dinner seemed more something to get through than to enjoy.  Like everywhere else in country, the service was inefficient, the people cold. (I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking populace, who only broke their scowling countenances when shouting at you if you tried to raise a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed at them.)  The highlights of the trip were already behind us, leaving Turkmenistan as an amusing afterthought to the glories of Uzbekistan, the beauties of Kazahkstan.  (And if I were to condense the entire journey to a single line, it is this: Kazahkstan has the landscape; Uzbekistan has the monuments; Turkmenistan has the oddball politics.)   But I couldn't imagine starting here. 

After a few hours sleep back at our space capsule, we went to catch our late night flight to Istanbul.  The airport was brand new, just in time for the Asian Games later in 2017, and it was a beauty, but it wasn’t long before the flaws began to reveal themselves.  Security checkpoints began just inside the sliding glass doors, which ensured that queues spilled out onto the sidewalks and roads.  The check-in process was a long and complicated one, the blind leading the blind.  Before reaching the gates, our bags were checked twice, our documents three times.  You never quite knew when you were through, and could sit and caffeinate toward the 4 am departure.   And it was with great relief to lift off, the bright lights of the city receding behind our wings.  I’d never been so happy to leave a country, and am certain I’ll never return.  That said I’d recommend a visit very highly, as you will never find a more bizarre place on earth.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as a compliment.  For which I feel slightly guilty.   As I left the Turkmenistan Consulate in Tokyo a few months before, visa in hand, the last thing the Consul said to me was “Write something good about my country.” 

I’m very sorry sir, but I’m not sure that I can. 

On the turntable:  Dead Kennedys, "Live at the Deaf Club"

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