EXTREME TRAVEL GUIDE: Hermitage Green's Dan Murphy heads to Turkmenistan (Part Three)
In the final account of his experiences in Turkmenistan, a pensive Dan Murphy is trying to get his head around possibly the oddest place he will ever visit.
By Dan Murphy
In the third and final part of Dan Murphy's trip to Turkmenistan, he takes in Independence Day celebrations and the closing of the horse racing season, has a brush with the infamous 'men in black' and momentarily becomes a mouthpiece for Turkmen government propaganda.
Entertain this thought for a moment. Let’s say, for argument's sake, that society is a construct. And that almost every aspect of daily life is really just a series of complex habits that we humans have adapted over centuries. If this is so, then Turkmen society is a particular collection of habits that are diametrically different to our own.
Picture a boat that veers in a different direction to the rest of the fleet by .5 of a degree. It's not much at first, but if that boat veers for long enough on that trajectory, it will inevitably end up in a place that is very far away from everything else. And that place is kind of like what Turkmenistan is.
Turkmenistan is one of the least-visited countries in the world. I returned home from there last week and have been trying to digest my thoughts on the place ever since. In last week’s article, I talked about our first impressions of some of the cultural oddities, hitch hiking around the capital and visiting a 240-foot flaming gas crater in the desert that is fondly known as the 'Gates of Hell'.
This week, I’m going to try and delve a bit deeper into some of the nuances I observed among the people there.
Planning the itinerary for this trip needs to start up to 15 months beforehand. At Global Village Tours, arrangements are already well underway for our 2019 Turkmenistan trips. The main reason for this is that getting clearance to attend state events takes a lot of bloody work and months upon months of negotiating the bureaucracy and idiosyncrasies of the Turkmen government.
We managed to get clearance to attend a couple of 'juicy' ones this year; the first was the Independence Day celebrations. We literally got the go ahead to attend this about an hour beforehand. It featured a two-hour pop concert that was mimed by an entire orchestra and numerous Turkmen pop stars and also a pretty impressive fireworks display at the Wheel of Enlightenment (the world’s largest indoor Ferris Wheel).
The next event we were allowed to go to was the closing of the horse racing season. And this one was really strange. Horse racing is huge in Turkmenistan. Gambling is illegal mind you, but they still love a good horse race. We were informed that even the President himself would be attending this event.
After an early start, we were greeted on our bus at 6am by two men wearing black suits and earpieces. These are the infamous ‘men in black’. Whatever you want to call these guys – minders, informers, secret service, etc. – they are never too far away in Turkmenistan. However, they are pretty good for organising police escorts, which allowed us to get to the stadium in record time.
We were in our seats by 7am sharp, and the men in black had managed to reserve the entire front row of the stand for us, which overlooked the race track. Only about 100 tourists have ever attended this event, and all it takes is for one superior official up the chain of command to say ‘no’ at the last minute, so we knew we were incredibly lucky to be there.
We were treated to an elaborate dancing exhibition followed soon after by, lo and behold, the President of Turkmenistan! President Berdimuhamedow only appeared on a screen to make a short speech, which marked the opening of the festivities. He couldn’t be physically seen anywhere, so it remains a mystery as to whether or not he was actually there at all. Peculiar as that was, it was only when the races kicked off that the true oddness of this whole event began to emerge.
The first thing you will notice is that everyone is dressed the same. A crowd of thousands with the same suits, same dresses and same haircuts as far as the eye can see... and it doesn’t stop at appearances either. If you watch them for long enough, you'll soon notice that they are also behaving the same. No one gets up out of their seats in between races. No one drinks. No one eats. No one shouts at the horses. What’s going on here?
This is something that I observed at various different places in the country – a sort of uniformity among the people. Individuality is not something you will see a lot of among a crowd of Turkmens. At least not in the way we understand it anyway. And I honestly don't know if that's because they're subservient, under the control of a repressive government or if it's really just an innocuous - but vast - culture difference.
I didn’t have too long to ponder this conundrum because we were approached by a Turkmen TV crew, who asked me if I would like to say a few words about our trip so far. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, but this wasn’t a concern for very long as one of the reliable men in black soon appeared. And his job was to tell me EXACTLY what to say. I think I would make a good Turkmen because I obliged and momentarily became a mouthpiece for government propaganda. One of our group managed to film the whole thing, I think I did OK but I was privy to the language barrier as you will see in the video below.
I’m aware that all of the above might make the country sound like some sort of authoritarian dystopia, which it definitely is not. Last week I talked about how incredibly kind and helpful the people are and how geographically stunning a nation Turkmenistan is – and I couldn’t wrap up this series without painting a picture of the many peculiar idiosyncrasies of the place. And what better way to highlight that than being ordered by the secret service to tell the entire nation that you think the horses are great?
I had an absolute ball on this trip, as did the 23 others in our group. The world is a far more interesting place to me when I know there are countries like Turkmenistan out there. The people are visibly happy. The streets are clean. Crime rates are low and the horses genuinely are gorgeous. So who am I to judge if it all just seems a little bit odd?
Alas, society is but a construct anyway...
Global Village Tours have three tours running to Turkmenistan in 2019 and are currently offering an early bird discount of 5% to anyone who signs up before 31 December. More at www.globalvillagetours.ie.