Welcome to Turkmenistan
Konye-Urgench: The Ruins of Khorezm
First Published in IndraStra Global, 29/03/2017
Plastered on the front of the Shovot-Dashoguz border post building, a billboard featured a white dove taking flight as a waving President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow smiled down on visitors, welcoming them to Turkmenistan. Indoors, decked in khaki as he perlustrated their papers from a second portrait, he struck a more vigilant aspect.
An intermittent power cut not helping matters, officials lumbered away to a back office, reluctantly reappearing almost an hour later when the whirring pedestal fans clicked back on.
‘Hmm, if you go other place we deport you, understand?’ a bug-eyed bureaucrat growled upon hearing my itinerary. ‘Now, welcome to Turkmenistan.’
Leaving the rigid, Soviet-built grid town of Dashoguz – ‘Stone Spring’ – behind, the bus to Konye-Urgench pulled through parched sunflower fields and scattered old kolkhoz compounds. Renamed daýhan berleshik (peasant associations), the collective’s directors still rely on brigade leaders to order workers (kolkhozniks) into action. Their plots leased from the state, the government then purchase the lucrative crops – mostly cotton - at a fixed rate which equates to indenture. Nowadays, with machinery long since broken down, almost all Turkmen cotton is laboriously harvested by hand.
Overcoming warring tribes, Russia conquered the land mass which now constitutes Turkmenistan in the 1880s. Despite sharing a common ancestry, the sedentary, semi-nomadic and nomadic people of the region spoke different dialects and had little by way of governance. Barely anything was done by the Tsars to alter this state of affairs.
Drawn up under Stalin’s supervision in 1924, the borders of the Turkmen nation include a sizeable Uzbek minority. Working largely in agriculture, the Turkmen had few urban centres, so the heavily Uzbek cities of Dashoguz and Charjou - now Turkmenabat - were thrown in for good measure. Driven into these severe gorods, the Turkmen were Russified, their folklore, arts and crafts eradicated through propaganda, or failing that, by force.
I gazed from the window as a blur of agricultural land slipped past, each new village announced by a triumphal arch which led to nothing in particular. A flat, harsh land of unyielding geography, the Russian influence was immediately apparent here, Turkmenistan favoured by its former masters for its natural resources and its security blanket of unremitting law and order. Keeping their own counsel, each passenger stared dead ahead, silence reigning on the bus for the entire journey. In Turkmenistan, ranked near the apex of most closed off and repressive countries in the world, regardless of appearances, anyone could be a government informer or a spy.
It’s impossible to understand Turkmenistan without a rudimentary knowledge of its two post-Soviet leaders, as the nation is forged in their image. Leading the country to independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov – who declared himself ‘Turkmenbashi,’ literally ‘Father of the Turkmens’ – steered his nation into a new era of international isolation, purges and choreographed show trials Stalin would’ve been proud of playing live on TV. Declaring the country to be experiencing a ‘golden age,’ despite fifty-eight percent of his people living below the poverty line, by the time of Niyazov’s death in 2006, there were ten thousand new statues in Turkmenistan, largely of him and his family.
Niyazov was succeeded by his former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who likes to be called ‘Arkadag’ (Protector). With all seven ‘opposition’ candidates declaring their loyalty to him, Berdimuhamedow won eighty-nine percent of the vote in window dressing elections which followed Niyazov’s death. In addition to writing books, being a pilot and crooning ballads, he’s presented as a sportsman of immense ability. With his competitor’s tugging at their reins for dear life in fear of beating him, in April 2013 upon a steed called ‘Mighty,’ the fifty-six-year-old President was victorious in the country’s most prestigious horse race. An omnicompetent dynamo, if anyone can, the Berdy Man can.
With the President taking a spill just seconds after crossing the finish line, a dumbfounded silence descended over the crowd. Fifty dark-suited secret service agents wearing worried expressions scampered onto the track. The sheepskin telpek and kaftan-clad Berdy Man was soon back on his feet, though, waving to his vassals as he claimed the eleven million dollar first prize.
On the outskirts of Konye-Urgench, identic new pastel painted mansions were losing their sheen already. A smattering of militsiyamen patrolling the empty road, traffic light counters idled down for no one in particular. Signalling our arrival in the centre of Konye-Urgench, the flat-roofed mud-brick houses felt incongruous beneath a swathe of towering streetlights.
Shocked to see us, the proprietor of the Gürgenç Otel ogled through our passports. In a padlocked shop attached to the foyer, the shelves were devoted to bottles of vodka. Led to a room set off the main corridor, it didn’t much matter that the key was steadfastly jammed in the lock or that the door didn’t actually close; nobody else was likely to check in.
Once the centre of the Islamic world, the Aral Sea Basin remnants of Konye-Urgench are now largely forgotten. Besieged for six months by Jenghiz Khan’s forces in 1221, defenders fought pitched battles in the burning streets after the Mongols broke through the city walls. Piqued by their resistance, Jenghiz Khan diverted the city’s lifeblood, the Amu-Darya River to drown his enemies.
Reborn once more, Konye-Urgench became a vibrant trading hub, described by fourteenth-century traveller Ibn Battuta as the ‘largest, grandest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks.’ Sensing a possible rival to his beloved Samarkand, however, Timur sacked Konye-Urgench. When the Amu-Darya changed its course in the sixteenth century, its residents admitted defeat, abandoning the settlement to the Kara-Kum Desert.
Today, scattered traces peek from the sands of this neglected town. Despite the structures usage being the subject of debate, it is generally agreed that the underside of the crumbling dome on the twelfth century Törebeg Khanym Complex functioned as a calendar. Representing the days of the year, the 365 sections of its glittering mosaic lead to twenty-four arches signifying the hours of the day, which now serve as a refuge for nesting pigeons.
Across the scrub, the tapering, pencil thin sixty-two metre Kutlug Timur Minaret – the tallest in Central Asia - leant ominously. Wrapped in wooden scaffolding, the self-commissioned Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum commemorated a ruler whose Khorezm Empire once stretched into modern-day Iran and Afghanistan. On sacred Forty Mullahs Hill, scene of the last stand against the Mongol invaders - a mound of graves within a city of graves - young couples left offerings in acts of supplication for healthy offspring. Plastic dolls lay in miniature wooden cradles garlanded with knotted shawls, hairpins piled upon stone shrines. Completing the fertility ritual, woman sprinted downhill at breakneck speed, some losing their footing and becoming rumbling powdery balls as they rolled.
In lesser visited Konye-Urgench, from mild curiosity to outright gawking, with their sense of reserve cracking I soon became a diversion for interested locals. Fielding enquiries as to my nationality, photo opportunities were grasped by baseball cap clad boys. Their koyneks - ankle-length dresses with a brightly embroidered neckline - shapelier and more colourful in this hamlet than in industrialised Dashoguz, women shot shy smiles at me.
Night was falling by the time I reached the Nejameddin Kubra and Sultan Ali Mausoleums, tucked behind a construction site and a military barrack. Facing across a courtyard, the eroded twin sandstone tombs bowed towards each other as if to finally touch.
A famous Khorezm poet and Muslim scholar, local legend tells how Nejameddin Kubra inadvertently sealed his own fate along with that of his people. Founder of the Sufic Kubra order, Nejameddin Kubra taught three hundred and sixty students, one for each geometric degree. When Shah Ala ad-Din Mohammed II had Kubra’s star pupil executed following a false accusation, the holy man flew into a blind rage, damning the Shah. His invocation shortly came to pass.
In retaliation for the Shah having foolishly executed his envoys, Jenghiz Khan’s army obliterated Khorezm in one of the bloodiest massacres in recorded history. Kubra and his students fought in vain to protect the city, the mausoleum marking the spot where the holy man fell. With nowhere left to run, a few weeks later Shah Mohammed II died of pleurisy on an island in the Caspian Sea.
Nejameddin Kubra’s remains lie in two tombs, one for his head and one for his body, separated by Jenghiz Khan. The graves of Kubra and the protégé who lies beside him are said to have healing properties, but that hadn’t prevented one of the mausoleums domes collapsing on them some fifty years ago. Still unrestored, pilgrims intermittently come to pray at the debris.
Back in front of the military barracks, a gold-plated statue of former President Niyazov stood clutching the Ruhnama, his precious book of pseudo-spiritual cogitations. Suited and booted, an illuminated portrait of current President Berdimuhamedow stared down at him. Meet the new boss. Wherever statues of Niyazov remain, in a bizarre game of one-upmanship, Berdimuhamedow had ensured that his image was hoisted higher still.
Leaving a bevy of suspicious militsiamen behind, I hailed a taksi. That the driver had no idea where the hotel was located didn’t really matter, petrol was state subsidised at the time. Gasoline costing less than a bottle of water, smuggling fuel into Uzbekistan was a vocational mainstay in Turkmenistan. With unemployment running at fifty percent, however, as of 2017 the powers that be have decided to end subsidies on gas, water and electricity. Having amended the constitution meanwhile, Berdimuhamedow is set for another seven years in office.
Its’ musty walls redolent of despair, the Gürgenç was one of those decrepit old Soviet joints that simply demands vodka. Spotting me peering through the darkened shop window, the hotelier, Ogulgerek’s lifeless eyes suddenly lit up.
‘Good, good,’ she cried enthusiastically, unlocking the door and hoicking dusty bottles from the shelves.
One of numerous Turkmen naming protocols, with Ogulgerek literally translating as ‘we need a son,’ I presumed our hostess must have many sisters.
Sitting with the now melancholy proprietor and her mother on the concrete steps out front of the deserted hotel as dusk fell, we watched the sporadic traffic go by. On the horizon, a storm was threatening to arrive.
Later that evening, Ogulgerek had a gentleman caller. The wind sighing through a gap in the front door, illuminated by distant lightning as she twitched at the net curtains, Mother eavesdropped from the foyer. Past midnight, I heard an eerie banging emanating from the room next door. Escaping the prying eyes of her mother, it was Ogulgerek and her boyfriend.
The Törebeg Khanym Complex
Couples leave offerings on Forty Mullahs Hill
The ancient Nejameddin Kubra and Sultan Ali Mausoleums lean in as if to finally touch
President Berdimuhamedow Takes a Spill
Shoppers at the Konye-Urgench Bazaar