Traveller's tales

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Images of Turkmenistan

My wife and I lived and worked in Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan in the mid 90s. Emails and letters from friends and family were often prefaced with something like, ‘How are things in the back of beyond?’

Being east of the Caspian Sea, bordering Uzbekistan to the east and Iran to the south, it certainly did feel ‘out of the way’.

When Alexander the Great reached the southern shores of the Caspian, he imagined he had reached the point where the Mediterranean Sea comes back upon itself – basically, he hadn’t a clue where he was.

Crossing the Oxus, now the Amuderya River, longest in Central Asia, and watering the last lingering drops of the Aral Sea, must have been similarly bewildering for him, geographically speaking.

So it was for us, suddenly confronted with this Nile-like waterway near the town of Charjeow on the Uzbek border. Whilst traveling east from the capital to the town of Merv, now Mary, rhyming with ‘Harry’, not ‘hairy’, on to the border town, I think I saw its name spelled about ten different ways – a transliteration from Cyrillic Russian.

Ashgabat, the capital was destroyed more or less completely by an earthquake in 1948. Little is left from before that time, and one of the flats we inhabited in the district of Jubilany, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the middle of former tenements in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow.

Later, we moved nearer to the centre of the city, only a walk away from the Turkmen Turkish International University, where I taught English to Turks, Uzbeks, Tartars, Russians, and of course, students from Turkmenistan. All spoke Russian outside the home, their own particular brand of Turkic inside, and English in my classrooms.

Flats in town had very low ceilings, built that way to save building materials, it was said, and on the expressed orders of Secretary Kruschev, no less, in the days before the swift decline of the Soviet Union.

Everywhere in that city, one can see evidence of two regimes: the former Soviet one, and the newer, independent Turkmen regime under the auspices of Tuirkmenbashi, President Nyazov, whose statue and likeness in paint can be seen everywhere, on every street corner and in every square of the city.

On Saturdays, when I had the day off to roam around looking for tea, flour, or sugar, I invariably wended my way to a little park quite close to the offices that employed my wife. This particular one had only one special feature – a very special one – a statue of the former leader and ideologue, Lenin.

Typically, this statue had the great man holding forth to a crowd of workers by the Nevsky in St. Petersburg, soon to be known as Leningrad, and now renamed back to its former sobriquet.

Looking up at him, in full flight, denouncing the ills of the day and pointing skyward, it is easy to imagine the power of this man’s rhetoric, urging revolution to the hungry masses of the then Tsarist Russia.

Those days are long gone. These days, there is talk of the vast reservoirs of natural gas and oil below the plains that were once below the waves of the larger Caspian Sea, for this largest of Earth’s inland seas was, and surely still is, subject to tectonic upheaval, changing in shape and covering a much vaster expanse of what is now desert and salt flat.

In the capital too, more is made of Turkmen poet, Matymguly, than Lenin, Stalin or Kruschev. The poet’s statue sits impassively in the middle of a street bearing his name, his words appear on posters and are read on state owned television, and his name was regularly brought to my attention, particularly when I was holding forth on Wordsworth or Milton in my lessons.

The people, young and old, have a pride in their country, in their leaps and bounds into the 20th and now the 21st centuries, and in the train of events that made it all possible.

Robert L. Fielding

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