Last Postcard from the Golden Age (Traveller Magazine)

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 travellers 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