Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat
I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan. I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year. By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually. Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites. The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement. I didn’t know what to expect. Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police. Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health. These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong. I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with. If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought. I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law. The fear was unfounded. The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully. Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places. Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.
The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight. The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku. I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before. The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane. When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight. All of these six people were foreign tourists. It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign. Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation. However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide. As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas. There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%. Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight. As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan. Thus, I breezed through customs without incident. However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport. This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time. After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings. They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle. They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings. I suppose they might have been bored. I think my snacks were probably disappointing. As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.
Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories. I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel. By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights. So, I barely paid attention to the city. I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird. I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew. I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.
The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city. A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome. I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions. So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking. I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes). It was hot. I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction. When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin. It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around. My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues. People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer. Some meandered through the parks as well. It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments. Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all. The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different. And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer. When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.
Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks. Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past. Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled. The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov. The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself. Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital. Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble. The city is full of well kept parks and monuments. It really is unique. Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.
I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings. Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art. I was the only tourist in the three story building. The staff seemed surprised to see me. This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat. The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets. There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments. On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars. They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history. The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton.
The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds. The Botanical Garden was closed. This is a theme of my life. When I went to Minsk the garden was closed. When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed. I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens. Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral. It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral. I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service. Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day. I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away. Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan. In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot. These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.
The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights. We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world. Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert! The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons. We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year. Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque. The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city). It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star. The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam. Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan. These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan. We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas.
All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing. I thought it was astonishing. Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance). Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating. My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege. I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic. In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev. If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre. Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful. As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences. We are not mired in the same realities of oppression. When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns. This painful reality is framed as shocking. It is framed as a bad travel experience. Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy! Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum. Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.
Perhaps the exotic should be made normal. In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars. But, are our own laws any more rational? The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment. An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas. One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty. The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old. But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures. The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries. What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage? Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million. Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world.
At the same time, differences do exist. We are not all perfectly the same. To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits. It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing. It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few. As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer. The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction. But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union. Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism. There are always bigger forces at play. No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.
Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego. My ego is hungry for experiences. This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself. An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible. The truth is, I am not wealthy and free. I am oppressed. I am a worker. I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely. In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here. I never existed. My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead. Isn’t this the epitome of privilege? Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly? The rest of the world be damned. This is something all travelers do. Many loath to return to work. The most privileged don’t have to. So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from? For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home. Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis. It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.
So here I am. Chronos eats its children. Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis. Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans. Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them. There are moments when I am a titan. But, usually I am just a proletarian. I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction. I love to travel. I love a chance to get away. When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being. I try to be engaged and mindful. Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living. I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits. Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies. Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.