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Red Corner: Harsh, but Intriguing Turkmenistan
All this talk of Central Asia has gotten me all excited about revisiting this strange corner of the planet. I spent a few months in the area but only a couple of hours passing through the least visited country of this rarely visited region: Turkmenistan. The main highway through Central Asia initially disregarded frontiers since all of the Central Asian republics were within the Soviet Union. So, my only glance of Turkmenistan was through the dusty windows of a bus as we detoured briefly (and illegally for me, without having a visa) into the country before heading back into Uzbekistan.
With the hope of going back to experience more of this country, I found a recent and fascinating article in the Independent (London) that paints a bleak, but realistic account of the challenges and rewards facing travelers who venture into this part of the world. Journalist Lucy Ash experienced the horror of visiting a local dentist, marveled at the surreal capital of Ashgabat (which she describes as "a cross between Stalinism and Las Vegas"), and relished in the joy of wandering through Merv, a 2,500 year old town that was once a major stopping point on the ancient Silk Road.
For me, the most attractive draw of Turkmenistan would be the opportunity to visit one of the few remaining countries where a Cult of Personality is still actively practiced. President Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-appointed "Turkmenbashi" has littered the country with countless portraits and statues of himself (see photo above). He has renamed towns after his mother and requires those taking driving tests to recite his poetry. Check out this hilarious BBC account of just how crazy this guy is.