Last Postcard from the Golden Age

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan was the showpiece of Turkmenbashi’s Golden Age. Originally a village, then a Russian fort, subsequently a dusty soviet settlement, the city had been transformed once again by gas money into a grandiose fusion of Stalinist monumentalism and oriental fantasy. Cluttered with palaces, temples, towers and chubby golden statues of the nation’s equally chubby dictator it was certainly spectacular—but it was also hard to ignore the dark side, thanks to the not-so secret policemen lurking under every tree, scrutinising the populace for signs of doubt. After all, maintaining the Golden Age required the denial of reality on a staggering scale—for here were gleaming skyscrapers in an earthquake zone, concrete dolphins shooting precious water into the arid desert soil, a pyramid of shops without shops, restaurants without customers, and a nightclub where the band played Careless Whisper to an audience of three. On the viewing platform of the famous monument where a golden Turkmenbashi rotated to face the sun I was informed I couldn’t take a photograph of the presidential palace below. But that was OK—its image was on the wrapping of every block of butter in the city, so I bought some once I was back on the ground. The sustained absurdity led to a sense of deep disorientation that was compounded when, behind the new theatre I stumbled upon a monument to a different father of the nation, from an earlier Golden Age:

“That’s Grandfather Lenin” said an old man sitting on a bench, spitting out sunflower seeds. “He lived a very long time ago.”

I left for the desert. The white marble towers disappeared long before I hit the first security checkpoint. The policeman looked dazed: he spent most of his waking hours guarding an awesome emptiness, after all. Then I plunged into the Kara Kum, the legendary ‘black sands’ where roaming bands of Turkmen had spent centuries capturing travelers for the slave markets of Khiva and Bukhara . Now, the descendants of those nomads lived in mud huts, herding sheep in the aftermath of an apocalypse the rest of the world hadn’t noticed. Here the Golden Age occurred when Brezhnev gave them electricity, and compulsory military service transported young tribesmen to faraway cities such as Saint Petersburg or Moscow. That brief era of illumination in the desert night had lasted about 15 years. Then the immense, silent darkness returned and the Turkmen once again had to pick their way through the nocturnal dunes by the dim emissions of a distant moon and stars.

Centuries earlier some of the pre-Turkmen denizens of the desert had worshipped Ahura Mazda, a god of ever glowing eternal light, for this territory had been part of the ancient Iranian empire, and Zoroastrians had erected fire temples here. They were all long gone, but in an irony of history a soviet engineering disaster had caused a huge sinkhole to open up in the Kara Kum, and an exposed pipe leaked gas into the air. A shepherd, concerned that the fumes were poisoning his herd, set it on fire with a burning rag, hoping the gas would burn itself out. Thirty years later it was still aflame, an infernal shrine without worshippers blazing in the heart of country.

The more I traveled the more I felt that the whole country was a vast memento mori, an object lesson on the brevity of life, the transience of empires. Lost cities, dead cities and forgotten cities kept appearing, seemingly from out of nowhere. Kunye Urgench contained sacred shrines few remembered. Further south Merv the ‘mother of cities’ where the last Zoroastrian king of the Persians had fought the Muslim invaders was now a giant mud pancake. Still other ancient mud-citadels, a thousand years dead, stood slowly melting by the side of the road. The greatest lost metropolis of all was possibly Sumerian, discovered by chance in the late Soviet period. Archaeologists had excavated the street plan, and I walked along its avenues. Had its citizens also enjoyed a Golden Age? Suddenly a mummified child fell out of the wall. These ancients had buried their offspring under the floors they walked on.

Turkmenistan was almost utterly intractable, and yet countless generations had struggled for thousands of years to build cities and lead lives here, and more than that transform the few scattered oases within the desert into the centre of something. Each time a civilisation disappeared beneath the sands, someone else would come along and start all over again, forging a new world out of the burning dust. At the very edge of the country I found the first step in this sequence, evidence that the cycle of construction and destruction had started long before humans arrived on the scene. The Yangykala canyon was an immense, soft landscape of pink and white mud; empty save for the occasional prehistoric shark’s tooth. The surrealistic carcass of an evaporated ocean, its grooves and folds had been formed by God’s finger.

In fact, although neither he nor I knew it at the time, Turkmenbashi only had a few months left to live: his Golden Age was almost complete. Two years later the era he began stumbles on, but nobody is convinced, least of all the country’s leadership. How long will it be before another inspired visionary—or deranged tyrant—appears, and out there in the desert, surrounded by all that space and sky and emptiness, hears a voice telling him to create a new world, against the burning heat, against the sun, against the drought, against the earthquakes?

From Traveller Magazine, Winter 08-09

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