Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Ashgabat of White and Gold

Five-hundred domes and five-hundred more
In Ashgabat's walls I ween.
Never before such streets of gold
Or towers of white I've seen.

The streets are eerily empty. Freshly painted streets lamps in white and gold stretch in interminable ranks where they stand guard over deserted ten-lane roads. Ghostly bus stops open their silent, automatic doors to sterile, white rooms. Grand and ornate government buildings peer out over sidewalks bereft of life, human or animal. Empty alabaster apartment complexes rise up like white stalks of wheat. Colossal marble monuments preside over huge green parks while apartments in the desert city go without water. There are no storefronts or restaurants amidst the sea of public buildings, nor are there tourists, only 8,000 of whom visit this city every year. This is Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and an open-air museum to the extravagant impulses of one of the world's most bizarre dictatorships.

Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the city with the highest density of white marble buildings. The entire precisely regimented city is garbed in white and emblazoned with gold. The vast empty squares betray an obsession with the rub el hizb, the eight-pointed Islamic star, and the spotless facades of palatial edifices trumpet the nation's five carpet designs that decorate the Turkmen flag and represent the five regions of the country. Symbolism is a useful tool for dictators that seek to obfuscate the flexing of their own egos with national pride. Here fountains and statues occupy spaces that would have given way to lively pedestrians and street-food vendors in other cities. The city even holds another Guinness World Record for having the greatest number of public fountains, a feat that it less impressive when taken in conjunction with the country's ranking as the ninth most water insecure nation in the world.

photo from www.advantour.com

The city as it is today is an authoritarian playground shaped by the two dictators the nation has had since achieving independence in 1991. Amidst the carefully manicured parks and pristine pathways, a golden statue of Turkmenbashi strides above his city in a business suit with his long cloak billowing behind him. President for Life up until his abrupt death of heart failure in 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov had an effect on the country that has far outlasted his reign. The founder of one of the world's most authoritarian regimes, Niyazov styled himself Turkmenbashi, "Father of all Turkmen," and built up a cult of personality to rival any religion. Known for his invasive and capricious decrees, he banned such things as beards, long hair on men, ballets, video games, lip syncing, golden teeth and playing recorded music at weddings. When he had to give up smoking following heart surgery, all of his ministers had to do the same, and he banned smoking in public places throughout the country. Niyazov used the world's fourth-largest gas reserves to forge his luxury capital while his country's population of five million starved. The average income is less than $50 a month, and while some things like housing and fuel are inexpensive or free, education is a luxury. A modest man, Niyazov commented once that he was personally against seeing pictures and statues of himself everywhere, but "it's what the people want." As testaments to his eccentric reign and unlimited financial resources, outlandish and fantastic monuments dot the desert. While he was in power, a 12m-high golden statue bearing the president's likeness stood in the center of Ashgabat atop a giant three-legged arch called the Monument of Neutrality. Perhaps the most defining symbol of his authoritarian regime, the statue rotated so that it was always facing the sun. Not satisfied with simply being able to control every detail of the lives of his citizens, His Excellency Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great changed how they speak and think. He renamed the days of the week after his children, the month January and the city of Krasnovodsk "Turkmenbashi" after himself and April and the word for bread "Gurbansoltan" after his mother. His semi-autobiographical spiritual book, the Ruhnama, was required reading for students, job interviews and anyone wishing to take their driver's test. Unsurprisingly, his two decades in power were also marked by unprecedented human rights abuses. Imprisoned political prisoners who survived the regime speak of how they expected physical torture, but were unable to withstand the unexpected torments, like watching their innocent family members being beaten before their eyes. His successor, an ex-dentist and the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, nicknamed Arkadag ("Protector"), immediately began rolling back the more bizarre excesses of Niyazov's cult of personality. The Monument of Neutrality, the $12-million 75-meter tower built in 1999 to commemorate the country's spurious honor of becoming the first neutral state in the world, can still be viewed in its new location on the outskirts of the city, though the golden statue no longer rotates. However, on the human right's front, the current regime has made little progress. In the direction of Niyazov's golden gaze is another square, equally grand, in Golden Age Park. It features a massive image of the current president, also dressed in a business suit but without the arrogance of a cape. The portrayal of these two despots so near to one another seems to suggest that they are sharing a private joke, one above the heads of the poor population that has fueled their ambitions.

While I was visiting Ashgabat, the city was in a fluster preparing for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. One can grasp the importance of this event in the minds of the Turkmen people by its nickname - "The Olympics." The games, which took place in the middle of September 2017, spurred the undertaking of new and impressive architecture, including a large hall built exclusively for the chess tournaments to be held. They also necessitated a sweeping facelift of the city, to which end legions of working women armed with brooms and spades took to the vacant streets and deserted gardens in the sweltering summer heat.

In the center of the city, the people begin to appear on the streets and the bazaars bustle with life. Residents of Ashgabat live in constant fear of a brutal and merciless police state. Though tourists are uncommon, people generally avoid eye contact with outsiders and only risk the occasional stealthy glance. Photographing locals is difficult because most react to the request with either outrage and disgust or fear and suspicion. One lady told me in Russian, "I'm afraid. My husband would kill me." Another shouted hysterically for me to delete the photo before I'd even pressed the shutter, so great was her fear that the police would harass anyone who even appeared in a tourist's camera. One man was afraid of being disappeared if he spoke honestly about the regime and expressed any criticism of the state. Walk up to a stranger on the street and you are just as likely to meet a plainclothes policeman as a regular citizen. Secure in the knowledge that they sit at the top of the food chain, the police are suspicious of anyone, local or foreigner. During my short stay, I was accused of spying for the American government and had to beat a hasty escape.

The traditional dress for women in Turkmenistan is truly breathtaking. Ankle-length caftans cut from brightly-colored silk are worn with elaborate embroidery and a gold broach on the front. For traditionally nomadic people, gold and silver long been valued as a means of keeping wealth small and portable. On their heads, most women wear tall hats called "kalpaks." Fashioned like small cylindrical wedding cakes covered with decorative fabric, they summon to mind the images surviving of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertari. The size and shape vary by region, with some being small and round and others large and square. Younger women do not wear the kalpak, but have their own specific fashion. They wear a long red dress with an embroidered skull cap called a "talhya" gracing their long black hair, invariably in double braids on either side of their head to mark that they are not yet married.

photo from www.reddit.com

260km to the north of Ashgabat in the sprawling Karakum Desert lies Darvaza gas crater, or as it's known to the locals, "The Gates of Hell." 69 meters in diameter and 30 meters deep, the eternally burning conflagration was formed after a preliminary survey of the site by Soviet engineers struck a gas pocket that caused the ground beneath the drilling rig to collapse into a crater. Expecting dangerous gases to be released from the crater and to poison nearby villages, the engineers decided to burn the gas off. However, instead of burning for a few weeks as they'd calculated, it's now been raging for over four decades. Viewed from afar, the dust of the desert rises up skyward in an continuous gust of wind that creates the illusion of a bubbling witch's cauldron. Viewed from the edge, the frenzied inferno dances and swirls and seems to be burgeoning into life. After being driven back by the searing winds that roar outwards with the deafening ferocity of a jet engine, it's hard to imagine so much intensity continuing unabated for such a long duration.

August 27, 2017

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cycling the Pamir Highway of Tajikistan

'Twixt northern range that proudly shrouds
Its snowy peaks in th' ambient clouds
And southern vale 'neath azure sky
The Pamir road's long windings lie.

The Pamir Mountains, known historically as "The Roof of the World," stand at the crossroads of the tallest mountain ranges in the world. They stretch from Kyrgyzstan and the dramatic Tien Shan Mountains in the north to the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan in the south, where they meet the Hindu Kush range. To the east, they extend across the Chinese border and toward the Karakoram, Kunlun and Himalayan Mountains, which frame the Tibetan Plateau. The lion's share of the Pamir range, however, resides in Tajikistan's northeast Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

This isolated region boasts a natural diversity and beauty that are oblivious to the ascendancy of humankind in other parts of the globe. The high-altitude northern wastes occupy a harsh and barren plateau surrounded by indomitable peaks. The soil is fine as sand, but with a salty crust that only a few weeds can penetrate. Scattered pools of water can be found north of the 3,960-meter Lake Karakul, the largest body of water in the region, but all of them are poisoned with salt. Descending toward the south, the peaks begin to shed their white crowns, but the inhospitable desolation of the land persists in the steep mesas and vast deserts where clouds abjure the sky. The route west is an exhalation of rugged trees and twisting streams that gradually give way to swaths of green and lush river valleys as you descend from the unforgiving and oxygen-starved heights.

Few animals dwell on the craggy plateau where food and fresh water are hard to come by. Herds of yaks and goats follow their nomadic owners to wherever the grass is, and gregarious marmots poke their heads up from their hidden burrows along even the harshest stretches of road. Yet more formidable creatures like wolves, brown bears, snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep shun the route plied nightly by semi-trucks and make their abodes in the trackless reaches beneath the peaks.

The road that sustains this remote corner of the world is the second highest international highway in the world. Beginning in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, the Pamir highway weaves south through the rugged hinterlands of the Gorno-Badakhshan region, where it climbs up to 4,655 meters at Ak-Baital Pass before snaking down to the villages of the Ghund River Valley and terminating in Khorog, Tajikistan. This was the 707-kilometer (440-mile) route my companions and I resolved to cover on bicycle. Since we'd opted to cart our food and equipment in a car rather than carry it on our bikes, we managed to complete the journey Osh to Khorog in only twelve grueling days.

The Pamir highway can trace its origins back to the Silk Road, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an with the Parthian Empire. Its modern iteration was laid out in the 1930's, when the Soviets resolved to bring the furthest bounds of their empire into the fold with an ambitious dirt road. Two periods of paving following, the first in 1966 and the second in 1983, but since then the road has been left to slip into disrepair. The condition of the asphalt today varies; sometimes it reasonably smooth, and at other times it yields to bumpy washboard corrugations that can rattle a car or your sanity to pieces. Other parts of the road have suffered on account of erosion, landslides and collapsed bridges, but road crews typically only addresses sections that have become completely impassable. The cost of preventative maintenance in such a poor country simply cannot be justified.

Earthquakes are another source of the Pamir highway's decay, and in 2015 a magnitude-7.2 quake rocked the furthest stretches of the Gorno-Badakhshan region. Abandoned homes here look as though they'd been struck with a thousand sledgehammers, and twisted heaps of metal wreckage form sculptures alongside the road. Other ruins date back much further in time and comprise the remnants of Silk Road caravanserai. They survive to this day in good enough condition that you can almost imagine a team of camels resting the night in one of their courtyards. For the weary traveler, such deserted structures can provide a secure place to pass the frigid nights, though we more frequently camped outside or sought refuge in a village guest house.

Seasonal farmhouses and moveable yurts are the preferred abodes of the northern heath in the extreme highlands, though few choose the challenges of this life. Above the tree line wood is precious, and dried animal dung and small shrubs are used to build fires. In some places, locals must hike several hours in the driving snow just to get clean water to drink. Most of the population of the Pamirs is concentrated in milder climes, where the favored dwellings are constructed of dried mud and are sometimes covered in white plaster for insulation. Flat roofs are easy to construct and are the best for shrugging off the fierce winter winds on the plains. A sea of such roofs can be found in the largest town of Tajikistan's high regions, Murgab, home to an ethnically Kyrgyz community that speaks Kyrgyz, sets their clocks to Kyrgyz time and laments the use of the alien Tajik language on monuments and signs. Down in the green valleys that lead to Khorog, sloped roofs better suit the threat of heavy snowfall. Here and there, signs of wealth can be spied in the form of tall homes built of modern materials. These have almost all been built with the foreign money that pours into the country when sons and daughters, frustrated by the limited opportunities for employment in their own country and the meager pay, leave to work in Russia. European investment has also enabled the construction of water supply networks and earthquake warning systems. Perhaps the most visible sign of foreign aid in the region is the upgrade of local footbridges, built out of rope or bundles of sticks, to much more stable constructions.

The exodus of Tajikistan's youth to wealthier Russia has had a noticeable impact on the poor villages of the Pamirs. Children populate the roadsides where the elderly fetch water and women work the fields, but the only men to be found belong to roadwork crews or manage the occasional herd. Foreigners are so rare in these parts that their arrival is a dramatic event. Kids shout "hello" and stretch their arms out for high-fives or a small candy, the wrapper of which is promptly thrown to the ground without a second thought. Some of the kids possess enough English to ask "how are you?," but when asked the same question in response, their blank stares clearly belie the fact that they didn't grasp the meaning of their own words. Adults, too, are unsurpassed in their friendliness and often invite weary travelers in for "tea." Tea is a crucial part of Central Asian culture, and a whole subset of mores oversees its preparation, distribution and consumption. It is the host's job to pour the tea into little bowls, the first two or three of which are always poured back into the pot to ensure that the tea isn't too weak. The next bowls the host will pass to guests with a hand over the heart to show respect. Typically these bowls are only filled about halfway to encourage the guest to stay and chat. When the host wants to politely signal that the time for palaver is over, a final full cup of tea will be poured. Green tea is the tea of hospitality, but the Tajik tea of choice is black tea mixed with milk and salt. That said, this harsh land breeds exceptionally warm people, and an invitation to "tea" never ends at tea. Soon soups and local fruits are spread before the guests. Fresh flat bread is always present, and it is served alongside kymyz (fermented mare's milk), ayran (salty yogurt), sary mai (a kind of butter) and kaymak (cream). The laws of hospitality to a stranger are sacrosanct, and attempting to pay for such gestures only causes offense and conveys disdain for their generosity. Gifts, such as candy or drinks, are warmly received, though.

July 17, 2017