My next stop on this grand voyage is a country that I feel requires a little introduction and context — Turkmenistan. It’s not widely-known, and has made efforts to keep itself out of the spotlight. The more I researched it prior to my arrival, the more interesting and strange the country became. So without further ado, here we go.
First off, where is Turkmenistan? It shares borders with several Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and is kind of a historical crossroads. It’s also one of the final edges of the former USSR.
On the north is Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the latter of which taking up the majority of its north-northeastern border. On the southeast is Afghanistan, and the south Iran. Its entire western border is the Caspian Sea, the largest saltwater lake in the world.
The majority of the country is arid desert. The Turkmen Karakum Desert is among the driest and hottest in the world. As a result, it is also one of the most sparsely-populated countries in all of Asia. Every settlement is essentially an oasis town, because there’s literally nowhere else to go.
Population: 5.6 million
Area: 189,660sq mi/491,210sq km (this makes it the 55th-largest country in the world)
Population density: 27 people per square mile
Religion: 93.7% Muslim
Language: Turkmen with some Russian
Climate: 70% of the country is covered by the Karakum (Turkmen: Garagum) Desert
President: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (ber-DI-mu-ha-meh-dov)
Historically, Turkmenistan is an extremely important country. It was one of the great Silk Road civilizations. Much like Uzbekistan and a lot of Central Asia, the history of who ruled who is quite complex and tumultuous, with new empires rising and falling all the time. Sometimes it was ruled by Iranian civilizations, sometimes by Mongols, sometimes by Central Asian nomad groups. But despite the constant power changes, Turkmenistan was always a prominent region.
In the late 1880’s, Turkmenistan and its neighbor Uzbekistan came under the rule of the Russian Empire. Its early history under Russia was rife with conflict, and Turkmenistan suffered heavy casualties as a result of conscription into WWI by Russia. Following the war and the Russian Revolution, Turkmen forces joined with Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz militias began an anti-conscription revolution of their own across Russian-controlled Central Asia against the newly-formed Soviet Union. The Basmachi Movement, as it was called, was hugely popular among the Muslim peoples of Central Asia, and rallied massive support. A massacre of 25,000 people in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan by the Russian army further rallied nationalists to the cause. However, after a period of fighting across the region, the Basmachi resistance was overrun by the much larger and more well-equipped Red Army, and they came under Soviet rule.
During the time of rule by Tsarist Russia, Turkmenistan was known as Transcaspia. Under the USSR, the area became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. From then, Turkmenistan (along with much of Central Asia) had a rough road. Soviet reorganization of agriculture practices all but destroyed the traditionally nomadic Turkmen way of life. All political power remained in Moscow. A 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat killed a massive proportion of the population. For the bulk of the 20th century, Turkmenistan played its designated economic role for the USSR and did very little on the world stage. When the union collapsed in 1991, Turkmenistan was not prepared for independence.
Turkmenistan’s head of state at the time of independence, Saparmurat Niyazov, abandoned communism and declared himself President for Life after several laws passed forbidding opponents to run for election, beginning Turkmenistan’s descent into one of the most reclusive and repressed countries in the world.
On the international level, Turkmenistan maintained few relationships, but did maintain relations the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, its chief foe in Afghanistan. Only after 9/11 did Turkmenistan offer limited resistance against the Taliban. In the early 2000’s, tensions rose with Uzbekistan after President Niyazov accused them of a role in an alleged assassination attempt.
By 2005, Niyazov had closed all libraries and hospitals outside the capital city of Ashgabat. In 2006, Niyazov further limited exports, despite Turkmenistan having one of the largest oil reserves in the world, closing the country off even more. Niyazov died suddenly in 2006, and his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has been in power ever since.
Today, the government of Turkmenistan has almost completely isolated its people from the outside, and does very little on the international level. It’s been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and its repression and human rights violations have been compared to those of North Korea, though Turkmenistan has stayed out of the spotlight.
Its economy relies almost exclusively on oil and gas sales to China, though Iran and Russia may be allowed to purchase from Turkmenistan once again. Within the country, agriculture is limited to intensely-irrigated oases. Most businesses are state-owned, limiting the ability of ordinary people to really make money.
All in, it’s not a great situation for the people in Turkmenistan, and the government seems to be doing very little to change that.
Why I’m Going
Despite everything I’ve read about Turkmenistan, I’m curious. In fact, it’s because of what I’ve read. It’s the same reason I’m fascinated with countries like Iran and Afghanistan: we only know the bad stuff. Even now, most of what I’ve shared here is bad stuff.
So why go someplace where everything seems bad? Because that’s not all there is to a place. It’s a real place full of real people who, despite their unfortunate circumstances, are probably a lot like me. I want to see it for myself. I know it’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. When it comes to countries like this, a lot of people who have been to them get off on writing about how crazy and dangerous and difficult they are, to the point of forgetting to write about the good. So my goal is to see what I can see, and form my own opinions on the matter.
There’s also a second reason — because of how isolated the Turkmen government keeps the country, getting in is extremely difficult. Some say it’s one of the hardest visas in the world to get. A coin toss would have better odds. The fact that I got the visa is a goddamn miracle. Not a lot of people visit. I know very few people who have heard of the country, and I don’t know anyone who has actually been there. It is among the least-traveled countries in the world, though that seems to be changing.
Nonetheless, I am very excited to get to be one of those people who can say, Yes, I have been here, and lemme tell ya all about it.