With only 5 million inhabitants, Turkmenistan is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, as it mainly consists of deserts. Since its independence from Russia in 1991, Saparmurat Nyazov, a former Communist party leader, acts as head of state, president of the parliament, and prime minister at the same time. He calls himself Turkmenbashi, leader of all Turkmen. His face is visible on gigantic posters hanging on every building of the city and statues of his are placed on almost every square. Norwegian travel writer Bjørn Christian Tørrissen arrived in this surrealistic world and shot the amazing photos below. (All photos and captions are his copyright. For more of his photos from Turkmenistan, see the gallery titled “Sovjetistan” on his website)
Watching Over You
There aren’t that many options for flying into Turkmenistan, but if you want to get right into the experience, Turkmenistan Airlines is your top choice. They fly from London, Birmingham, Paris, Frankfurt and Istanbul. Onboard, the stewardess does her job, and the president’s portrait does the rest.
In the marble streets of Ashgabat, we soon grow a bit tired and sweaty. In theory, we could rest a bit inside one of the many bus stops, designed to be air-conditioned. The air-conditioning has stopped working, so instead they are now glass ovens where you can bake yourself. We decide to wait outside.
It’s not only the bus stops that are hot. The streets of Ashgabat are full of young girls wearing the exact same red dress and braids. They are graduating students, and this is how they must present themselves. The only room for variations is when it comes to footwear. You see all kinds, from extreme high heels to basic sandals. Oh, and they’re allowed to have individual faces. Body shape seems to be rather standardized, though. It’s quite cute, but it’s difficult to see how it would work back home.
White Marble Road in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Here’s a view from high up of the city outskirts. This very posh road connects the city centre and the airport, and it’s all lined with white marble buildings. Italian marble only, of course.
Large and Small
In addition to all kinds of purpose-built buildings, Ashgabat has a large number of monuments. Not many people can be seen around them, and those few you see are either huge and made of metal or stone, or they work there. Neither category seem to enjoy being there very much. Here’s an example of both at the Independence Monument.
Driving around in Ashgabat, I have a flashback from North Korea. It may be partially because it’s Sunday, but the roads are empty enough that you start looking around for zombies to watch out for. It’s a bit eerie, but it enables us to move around quickly.
Goats Are Us
These aren’t plastic. Live goats in transit at a market. In the back there you can see several veterans from the Soviet war in Afghanistan. When the Soviets retreated, many of the vehicles they used during the war were sold to people in Turkmenistan. They still run just as well or as bad as they did in the 1980s.
Where the Streets Have No Names
While Ashgabat struggles to seem like a modern city in a modern country, just an hour or two outside it we find towns with very basic conditions. Little by little civilization disappears as we drive. Gas pipelines end. The electricity grid looks ever more vulnerable. The road cover gets spotty. People basically live harder lives. Not that I saw any sign of anyone complaining about it.
This is what we came for! It’s the “Door to Hell”, a burning gas crater near the village Derweze in central Turkmenistan. It’s been burning like this for more than 40 years, and now there are plans to extinguish it. While of course it is great for the global climate that this place stops burning, it’s such a spectacular sight that it’s well worth going there now, in time to see it.
Living on the Edge
My group of travelers performing the worst rendition of the YMCA routine ever, right at the Door to Hell. It looks better than it felt at the time.
On our way back to Ashgabat we stop by at another desert village. I could spend a full day here just walking around and looking at how people construct their fences out of a million different things.
Back in Ashgabat. In most of the world, people build Ferris wheels to create an artificial vantage point from where you can have a nice view of the surrounding area. In Turkmenistan, they built a Ferris wheel, and then they built a building outside it, so that although you lose the view, at least you can claim to have the largest Ferris wheel in an enclosed space. Congratulations.
Hook Up Here!
This is the Wedding Palace, a place for celebrating the love between two Turkmen citizens. You can see the eight-pointed star, a national symbol, all over the place, but the disco ball is not quite as golden as it may seem in this light. Many couples can register the marriage here simultaneously, and then have their wedding party right after that.
Faces of Ashgabat
Walking around a cemetery in Ashgabat, I feel like someone is watching me all the time. But that’s okay. I can stare back, and I use the opportunity to observe the fashion trends of the region during various times.
Lenin and I
It’s 17 May, Constitution Day in Norway, so as my visit to Turkmenistan ends, I head for Lenin Square to see if I can have him join me in celebrating the day. It’s the most exotic Lenin statue I have seen anywhere. I hope the country will retain its uniqueness in many ways, but hopefully not in all ways. I’ll probably check back in 20-30 years time, as I don’t expect too much happening too soon.