In the realm of fantasy

    Next he finds the camera, and asks me to show him the pictures. I was ready for this. Starting at the end of the memory card, slowly, deliberately, I begin clicking through all the images I didn’t mind him seeing. There’s me in front of the fifth-civilisation ruins in Merv. There I am in Ashgabat, looking up at the Arch of Neutrality. And that’s a Turkmen woman I saw in the street. I thought she was very beautiful. All your women are very beautiful, Mr Guard. He smiles at that. Shoves the caviar and the camera back into my bag, and waves me on. I’m through.

    A couple of clicks further and he would have found my picture of the presidential palace. And he wouldn’t have liked that. Hadn’t I heard that it was illegal to photograph the big gold palace? And what’s this? Me with a silly grin on my face gurning up at a giant pink statue of the book that the president wrote. Didn’t I know that making jokes about the president’s book carries a five-year mandatory prison sentence? Actually, I did.

    But the guard didn’t have the patience to get to the end of my memory card. Or perhaps he suspected what he might find there, and chose to ignore it. Perhaps he wanted me to find out more about his country and his president. Perhaps he was sending a message to the world, through me. Anyway, I was out. And just 300 yards up the road was the Uzbek border.

    My heart was thumping against my chest like a raging gorilla as I trudged along the scruffy desert path. I’d done it. I’d gotten into Turkmenistan, and out. Behind me, I could see that the rest of the crew had got through as well. Secreted about their persons, a tape here, a cassette there, were the various bits of the first film to be made for British television about one of the world’s most bizarre and impenetrable societies. With 100 yards to go, my mouth started twitching, and a foolish smile began muscling its way onto my face. Not just because we’d done what nobody else could do. But also because, to my utter amazement, I had actually grown to enjoy what I was leaving. I liked Turkmenistan. My feelings about the president had changed too. I had gone in there assuming he was the devil. Now I wasn’t so sure. Which is exactly how the devil operates, right?

    You must have noticed that dictators aren’t what they used to be. A couple of decades ago, when Saddam was just starting out and Gadaffi was still awake in his tent, you could easily locate a decent crop of monomaniacs in action around the globe, abusing their nations. Pinochet was misplacing large chunks of the population in Chile. Milosevic was perfecting his removal skills in Serbia. Dear old Kenneth Kaunda was robbing Zambia blind. Go back a few years further, and there’s a positive cornucopia of rights-abusers and poster-hoggers to choose from. Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti. Marcos in the Philippines. Noriega in Panama. Ah, the good old days.

    Compare this rich cast list of demented governmental soloists with the feeble array of dictators currently on show in the world. Castro is in an old people’s home. Assad junior in Syria is – perish the thought – being talked of as a peacemaker in Iraq. Saddam is locked away, and about to hang. So thin on the ground are the authentic tyrants that even one-party lightweights like Mubarak in Egypt and Musharraf in Pakistan, who are only technically dictators, have managed to wheedle their way into the global count. Among the real totalitarian McCoys, the hardcore one-man governments of our times, we are, I suggest, down to the last three examples.

    There’s Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Kim Jong-il in North Korea. And my man, Saparmurat Niyazov, the one who calls himself Turkmenbashi, the Leader of the Turkmen, or, as he recently enhanced his title, Beyik Turkmenbashi, Turkmenbashi the Great. Here at least is a proper despot.

    You may be thinking: where is Turkmenistan? Most people wouldn’t know because it’s deep into Borat country: south of Kazakhstan, west of Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan, and east of Iran. In short, right in the middle of the central Asian cross wires, where nobody in their right minds would wish to be. But instead of tiptoeing around the Afghanis, or cowering before the Iranians, Turkmenbashi has adopted the fascinating foreign policy of pretending they do not exist. And acting accordingly. In 2002, he decided his country needed a new calendar. So he invented one. January was renamed after himself: Turkmenbashi. April was changed to his mother’s name, Gurbansoltan. And September became Ruhnama, the title of the large pink philosophy book he wrote, the one you have to answer questions on to pass your driving test. With the months done, he turned to the days of the week. Tuesday became Young Day. Wednesday is now Favourable Day. The other Main Day, formerly a Monday, he noticed that a woman speaker at an agricultural ceremony he was attending had capped her teeth with gold, as Turkmen women are apt to do. So he sent her off to his health minister – a dentist – to have them fixed. From now on, he decreed, Turkmen women must have white teeth. And the best way to maintain them was to do what he’d seen dogs doing when he was young: gnaw lots of bones.

    The president is lucky to have seen a dog. In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s spotless white capital that he is building in the desert out of unfeasible quantities of imported Italian marble, dogs are banned. Turkmenbashi doesn’t like their smell. Also banned are foreign newspapers, journalists, opposition parties, and, apparently, women’s make-up, because, according to the president, Turkmen women don’t need make-up. They’re beautiful enough already. Cinemas, circuses and ballets are illegal too, on the grounds that they are un-Turkmen. So are video games, lip-synching on television, car radios, and recorded music at weddings. On the face of it, therefore, if you believe all the stories, we have here a reincarnated Ceausescu, Caligula revisited, a new Idi Amin. But are the stories true?

    With hardly anyone allowed in or out of there, it’s almost impossible to be sure. Tons of hilarious hearsay about Turkmenbashi swirls about the international ether, but not much evidence. Several of the best-known tales can be traced back to their unreliable origins in fun-poking American magazine reports. Most can’t. To prove or disprove the tallest tales, you need to get into Turkmenistan and see for yourself. And the only way to do that, is my way. Apply for a tourist visa. Concoct a story about why you want to go there. Cross your fingers. And wait.

    Our cover was that our director was getting married, and wanted to go to Turkmenistan for his stag week because he had been fascinated by the place ever since he was a boy. Ridiculous, I know. But you try thinking of a better reason why a film-crew-sized group of men of assorted ages would wish to go to Turkmenistan and take pictures of it. The stag-week story seemed to explain our excessive need to film, pose, question, cheek the police, and scoot about the country.

    I’d also noticed that the president had been unusually active in the field of hotel building. Ashgabat has more five-star hotels in it than London. There’s a street in the capital along which are positioned no less than 22 five-star hotels in a row. Since the only tourists we saw on the entire trip were us, and we were only pretending, there clearly exists a sizable gap between the president’s unrealistic holiday hopes for his country, and the actual touristic situation. Into this sizable gap we sneaked. With all these empty hotels to fill, Turkmenistan needed us.

    Bizarrely, the only guide book to Turkmenistan has been written by the British ambassador here. And in the section on accommodation, the ambassador insists that all the hotel rooms allotted to foreigners are bugged. So are the restaurants. Since this was our ambassador talking, we believed him, and maintained the stag-week cover whenever we were indoors. This meant lots of excessive drinking and carousing through the night with the Russian prostitutes who crowded into the disco at the Hotel Nissa where we were staying: a hotel owned, we found out, by the president’s son.

    The tastiest vodka in town is the president’s own brand. There’s a picture of him inside the bottle, smiling at you. As you pour yourself another biggie, Turkmenbashi’s grinning face pops up to wish you good cheer. After the third shot you begin imagining that he might not be such a bad guy after all. By the end of the night, he’s your best friend and you’re wishing more places had an interesting president like him.

    The morning after was spent driving around the surreal new capital that Turkmenbashi has been building in the desert. It falls to few men in history to build on this scale, however they fancy. And the day the opportunity landed in his lap, the fates must have been on Benzedrine. Back when the Russians owned Turkmenistan, and Niyazov was an up-and-coming communist apparatchik loyal to Gorbachev, he was put in charge of town planning in Ashgabat, and clearly developed a cavernous appetite for urban remodelling. Imagine a Saudi sheikh’s bathroom turned into a capital city. That’s Ashgabat.

    Someone has already described the president’s preferred style of architecture as “postmodern Ottoman”, which is close-ish. There is, indeed, a touch of Istanbul about the place, crossed with Stalin’s Moscow, and dipped in the moods of the Taj Mahal. Every new building erected since independence has been clad in identical white marble tiles that are exactly 80 centimetres long and 40 centimetres wide. Wherever possible, this marble gets topped off with gold, notably in the president’s palace, an enlarged Parthenon upon which sits the world’s biggest nugget, a particularly huge golden dome.

    His masterpiece, the Arch of Neutrality, built to commemorate the exceedingly smart Swiss-style decision taken in 1995 to keep Turkmenistan out of any war or allegiance that could lead to war, in perpetuity, is vaguely Eiffel Tower shaped, except that on the top is a golden statue of the man, 12 metres tall, which revolves throughout the day to face the sun. The cloak he wears is exactly like the one preferred by Superman.

    Occasionally, the president gets in touch with his playful self and allows a small architectural joke to pop up. The Ministry of Oil and Gas is shaped like a cigarette lighter. The health ministry is a coiled cobra. And everywhere there is running water, gallons of it, fountains, canals, ponds, a permanent river of H²O cascading crazily through the marble. The world’s largest fountain is in Ashgabat. It’s a multi-storey shopping centre with water spurting out the roof and pouring to the ground in a ring of waterfalls. We had lunch at the rooftop restaurant, where you can’t help but feel a constant need to visit the toilet. In a country that is about 95% desert, where the temperatures regularly top 50C, the world-class wastage of water is clearly an act of outrageous despotic symbolism. Turkmenbashi vs the desert.

    Nobody will ever know exactly how much of the country’s income from its huge reserves of oil and gas is being spent on the rise and rise of the folly in the sands, but there can’t be much change. The British ambassador in his guide book tut tuts at the madness of it all, and would rather see long-term plans being enacted to irrigate the entire country. But that’s why he’s a minor ambassador with an obscure posting, and why Turkmenbashi is Turkmenbashi.

    The tour of Ashgabat was an eye-popper. Here, undoubtedly, was some of the world’s silliest architecture. But the most surprising spectacle for me was not the giant marble puppet theatre that has replaced all the cinemas. Or the deeply unlikely theme park going up devoted to the Turkmen fairy story. More surprising is the atmosphere of the city. Which I would describe as jovial. Our taxi driver, Vlodya, seemed delighted to show us the craziest sights. We knew this was madness. He knew this was madness. But he wasn’t going to tell on us if we weren’t going to tell on him. The same went for the whores at the hotel. The vodka girls didn’t give a damn.

    They giggled, they haggled, they popped out of their dresses. And something crucial was missing from their demeanour. Fear.

    One of the most popular tales being passed around the internet about Turkmenbashi concerns a palace of ice that he is supposed to be building in the desert. In a country that heats up to 50 degrees in Arp Arslan (August), the building of a palace of ice is clearly an act of insanity. So I ask Vlodya where it is. Over there, he points, towards another of Ashgabat’s cakey-white marble creations. It’s a skating rink. Called the Ice Palace. That’s the trouble with sealing a country off as successfully as this. People will always suspect the worst of you.

    Amnesty International has Turkmenistan down as a place to watch. There are the usual stories of dissidents getting locked up and never heard from again. Large slabs of the desert are out of bounds, and nobody knows what is really going on in them. In 2002, someone tried to shoot the president as he drove past in a motorcade, and the resulting clampdown was deemed suspicious by many. They reckon Turkmenbashi set up his own shooting in order to explain away the clean-up. Maybe he did. 
    But what if he didn’t?

    Turkmenbashi’s favourite photo of himself shows him wearing a sporty blue jacket, his head resting casually on his hand, a grin lighting up his podgy face. It’s on the wall of every cabin of every aircraft operated by Turkmenistan Airlines, and had stared at me all the way from Heathrow to Ashgabat, as well as from inside my vodka bottle. It’s plastered across the marble city too. On posters, plates, placards, plaques, billboards and rubbers. There’s also a statue in front of every government building, or a photo. And it’s nearly always this same unlikely likeness of the chipmunk-cheeked president in a Dean Martin pose, smiling and attempting to ooze some croonerish charm.()

    Personally, I’ve never understood the thinking behind sinister personality cults of which Turkmenbashi’s is, apparently, a vivid example. What exactly is it that these dictators are trying to achieve when they stick themselves across everything? Is it an act of possession? An ubiquitous reminder of authority? Some branding? If so, why is he smiling so cherubically in his favourite photo. Shouldn’t he be looking stern, powerful and not to be messed with?

    Back at the bugged hotel room, I have the TV on all the time, and the volume up, just in case. All the official channels sport the president’s profile in gold in the corner as their logo. One of them seems to specialise in interviews with labourers working on the new Ashgabat. The second caters to farmers, and is chiefly about the national fruit, the melon. The third is a music channel on which Turkmen women in traditional costumes belt out rousing renditions of songs that the president has written about himself.

    The other day, he sacked the chief weatherman for getting the forecasts wrong. Before that he got rid of the cameramen who were making the women singing his songs look fat. Turkmen women don’t get fat. Recently he banned female newsreaders from wearing studio make-up as it made their faces unnaturally white. Didn’t they know a Turkmen woman’s complexion should be the colour of Turkmen wheat?

    The Ruhnama, or Book of the Spirit, explains the thinking behind all this. The president took 10 years to write the national book, and everyone taking any sort of exam, from schoolkids to prime ministers, is required to answer questions on it. You can’t miss the Ruhnama. It’s lollypop pink and lime green. To my eyes it looks as if it should contain a collection of Telletubby stories rather than the collected thoughts of the world’s most eccentric dictator.

    I buy myself the English version and begin reading it on the long journey into the desert that we risk on the third day. In the middle of the country there are enormous holes in the ground, gaps in the Earth’s crust, bubbling into which is an endless supply of natural gas. Turkmenistan is the world’s fifth largest exporter of gas. It’s where the president gets most of his building money. But the desert can’t hold all the propane there is down there, so it comes hissing out of the sands in these huge holes. When the Russians were here they made the mistake of setting fire to the biggest of them. Forty years later it’s still burning.

    The plan was to 4×4 it into the middle of Turkmenistan and spend the night in a tent next to the damn thing. When Dante was envisaging his Inferno, the burning gas crater must have been the kind of hell he had in mind. Gas is noisy when it escapes from the ground. And what with the fear of choking to death in this outdoor oven, and the constant licking of the flames, I couldn’t sleep a wink, and finished the president’s book. Bring on the driving test. I’m ready.

    The Ruhnama is a quest book in the Harry Potter mould that jumps between the Turkmen middle ages and now. It’s about an orphan, Saparmurat Niyazov, whom Allah has sent to Earth to fulfil his destiny. The orphan has lots of adventures during which he finds out about his parents and his past. Every man has two homelands, is how the president puts it in the chapter on being a Turkmen: his country and his mother’s lap. That’s why he has erected all these statues everywhere of his mum and dad.

    Niyazov was born just outside Ashgabat in 1940. When he was two, his father was killed by the Germans. The rest of his family perished in 1948 in an earthquake in Ashgabat. The city was flattened and thousands were killed. Brought up in an orphanage, and looked after by the state, he joined the communist party in 1962, and by 1985 Gorbachev had made him first secretary of Turkmenistan. The thinking was that with no family to be loyal to, he’d be loyal to Gorbachev. Which he was. Until independence in 1991.

    My guess is that independence wasn’t what he was looking for. That he’d rather have stayed within the Gorbachev family. But the Turkmen gods had thrust him into this strange position at the head of a nation that had never existed before, and so set him the task of inventing one. In 1992 he began calling himself Turkmenbashi: the Leader of the Turkmen. In 1999, he accepted a promotion to President for Life. In our world, Harry Potter is forced to remain a work of fiction. Here in Turkmenistan, he gets to rule his country.

    Driving back to Ashgabat, through mile after mile of sandy emptiness, you quickly accept that everything here has had to be created out of nothing. The cities. The history. The nation. Its rituals. Ashgabat was celebrating the first Spirit Day of Sanjar, or as the oldies call it, the first Saturday of November – Health Day. On the city’s outskirts, Turkmenbashi has built a concrete path into the hills that he calls the Health Walk. Every Health Day, government ministers are expected to complete the eight-kilometre climb, while Turkmenbashi flies to the top in his helicopter and meets them there. Those who take more than 90 minutes to finish get a chiding from their president on national TV.

    The only person wearing shorts on the climb is me. The ministers are in trousers and ties. I had hoped to hear the presidential chopper hovering above the hills, but it’s not there. He’s taken this Health Day off. It’s a luxury his ministers are not allowed, and a long line of large black Mercs parked outside the Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Eternally Great Park, where the Health Walk begins, tells me they got here before me.

    Everybody else seems to be a student in a tracksuit. Thousands of them are careering up and down the hills, giggling, flirting, cheeking each other, and trying out their English on me. They confirm the impression I have had since I arrived here, that the Turkmen are a jolly bunch, and that if they are being repressed they hide it perfectly. Everyone in the country gets free electricity, free water, and free gas. Petrol costs two cents a litre. Vlodya is happy to drive us wherever we want in his huge Russian gas-guzzler because driving a gas-guzzler is as cheap as walking.

    Rest Day, or Sunday, finds us jetting off to the Caspian Sea in one of the new Boeings that the president has presented to his airline. The two-hour journey costs 80p. The main Turkmen port on the Caspian used to be called Krasnovodsk, but its new name is – yes, you’ve guessed it – Turkmenbashi. Which is also the name of the hotel we’re staying at. That’s how I came into the possession of a Turkmenbashi shower cap.

    There’s not much to see in Turkmenbashi, the town, unless, that is, you are an appreciator of caviar, in which case you must go directly to the market where burly Turkmen fishwives with spectacular mouthfuls of gold teeth sell beluga, osetra and sevruga from plastic bags, and dollop out their delights with a tin cup.

    The president has a house on the Caspian, and the place we were taken for a swim has a good view of it. The house is on a promontory sticking out into the sea, and must offer a 360-degree vista of water. It’s the perfect spot, I imagine, to retreat from the pressures of desert dictatorship.

    The next morning we see him. I could tell on the drive to the airport that something was up. Gangs of Turkmen women had been sweeping the road all night, and tidying the flowers. At the airport, the airline announces a delay. After an hour, a roar in the sky announced the arrival of a large plane. And there it is – $130m of flying palace. The presidential Boeing 767.

    As soon as it landed, three helicopters parked up around it, and a bunch of flunkeys rolled out a red carpet between the plane and the whitest of the choppers. He clumped down the stairs in a white shirt and tie. No sleeves. No smile. No wave. Across the carpet he trudged, and into the chopper without a look at anyone. All of us reached for our cameras but the locals had beaten us to the window, and there was no way through them. “Turkmenbashi, Turkmenbashi,” screamed an excited kid at the front, as if it were Christmas, and he’d just seen Santa Claus. His president.

    Turkmenistan: past and present

    Formerly part of the Soviet Union, this nation built on sand has a chequered history — as revealed below

    Turkmenistan is the fourth largest of the new states that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only Russia itself, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are bigger.

    Stretching east from the Caspian Sea, most of the country is featureless desert, and Turkmenistan is by far the hottest of the central Asian states. But beneath the desert are huge reserves of oil and gas that western companies have been eyeing up.

    Eighty-five per cent of the population are ethnic Turkmen, a nomadic tribe with little-known history. Closely related to the Turks, the Turkmen appeared in the region in the 11th century and soon developed a reputation as warriors and horse-breeders. Uninterested in statehood or settlement, they terrorised the Russians who came down from the north in the 19th century to ‘civilise’ central Asia. The Turkmen’s response was to capture as many Russians as they could and sell them to the Uzbeks next door as slaves.

    The Russians finally laid claim to the region in 1881 when the Turkmen territories were incorporated into the Russian empire after a series of notorious massacres.

    In 1925, the Bolsheviks created the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, a mainly administrative division founded on racial lines, in an attempt to discourage pan-Islamicism in the area. Islam and Orthodox Christianity remain the two national religions. After independence, many Russians left, but some have returned and now form around 5% of the population.