Turkmenistan Visit Renders Bleak Look; History Lost in Barren Landscape

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Turkmenistan Visit Renders Bleak Look; History Lost in Barren Landscape


Byline: John Kropf, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan - It was February when I visited Dashoguz, at the far end of the Earth. I had been assigned to visit the northern town and its outlying regions to check on prospects for agricultural development.

I started out early morning at the Ashgabat airport terminal. After about half an hour, a Russian ticket agent was sent out to attend to the crowd. Under a shock of white-blond hair, she had the physique of a body builder turned Hell's Angel. A mob of fur hats and scarved heads pushed forward in a melee, thrusting tickets toward the agent.

After about eight or nine customers had been served, there was a sharp, huffy exchange between a Turkmen woman and the ticket agent. The ticket agent stormed away, behind a door not to return. When it was clear the agent was not coming back I went to the gate to show my ticket but was told that the flight was not boarding and that I should go home. Instead, I went to the empty lounge reserved for international flights. They helped me board after I paid a "customer service fee."

I was the last to board the Soviet Yak-40, workhorse of the Turkmen air fleet. The plane ride lasted an hour. During the flight, I had time to look down on the Kara Kum Desert. Translated as "black sand" it looked more like a pair of wrinkled khaki pants.

When I arrived, the end of the Earth was occupied by a provincial city of dusty concrete-block buildings. Bordering Uzbekistan, Dashoguz was a forbidden zone, part of a sensitive border region that required me to have a special travel permit from the Turkmen government.

That evening, I decided to call home.

You just don't decide to pick up the phone in Dashoguz and call the outside world. I had to "order" a phone call. The process started a confusing 10-minute exchange with a man who came to my door.

I gave him 40,000 manat - about two dollars - to walk to the state telephone exchange and phone my wife, who was then supposed to call me. Twenty minutes later, the plastic phone in my room emitted a series of distressed buzzing sounds. It was Eileen.

We talked long enough for me to shout to her: "I'm alive" before the line went dead.

The next morning, I hired a driver and interpreter for my two-hour drive to Turkmenbashi Etrap (etraps are the equivalent of a U.S. county). The morning was cold and gray. The driver, Atamurat, was a stoic, serenely confident man wearing the Turkmen trademark headgear, the tall woolly hat and a heavy overcoat.

Like many of the Turkmen, it was hard to gauge his age. He could have been in his 20s or 40s. The interpreter, Maral, was an English teacher in a Turkmen elementary school who spoke with a slight British accent she said she picked up from her English language teacher. Her English was outstanding.

Atamurat drove northeast out of Dashoguz. The cement block apartment buildings quickly disappeared and gave way to barren countryside. It was not so much a void as a half-finished landscape with rudimentary human settlements made of sandstone-colored blocks that blended in with the dusty-brown color of the land.

There were occasional reminders of active human habitation, a lone figure walking through a muddy field on the way to some unknown errand or a bare light bulb shinning in a one-room house. Much of the landscape was scarred with trenches for gas pipelines or irrigation. Mud was everywhere. The roads in the small villages were unpaved.

* Scene 1: Old men with white, iridescent beards, wearing oversize galoshes as they shuffled along the muddy thoroughfares.

* Scene 2: The driver of an old, squat, Soviet-era bus stood in front of it trying to start it with an iron hand-crank.

* Scene 3: A woman in heavy robes and kerchief rode sidesaddle on a motor scooter behind her husband.

* Scene 4: A donkey, led by a 6-year-old boy, pulled a cart overloaded with mulberry branches. …

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