Useful Notes / Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan (Turkmen: Türkmenistan), formerly known as Turkmenia, is a Central Asian nation and a former republic of the Soviet Union. It is bordered by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north, Afghanistan to the east, Iran to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. Its currency is the New Manat, its official language is Turkmen (not to be confused with Turkish, although they share a root dialect), its predominant religion is Islam and its capital is Ashgabat. The Turkmens, while related by virtue of shared ancestral culture, are not related to the Turkmens of Iraq, which have more in common with Turkish and Azerbaijani peoples.

Geographically and topographically, it's the lowest and flattest of all of the five Central Asian republics, and the stereotype of the Muslim-majority countries in Asia being all desert has some grains of truth here: the country really is 80% desert, even more so the farther west you go, and there's no major highlands or mountain ranges to counter it. That said, it should be stressed again that the population is not Arabs, and the stereotype definitely didn't apply to the surrounding countries (read: Iran and Afghanistan).

Turkmenistan's history can be summed up as continually being taken over by other armies on their way to bigger and brighter targets, culminating in its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1924, thus turning it into the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR). It declared independence in October 1991, which was recognized two months later as part of The Great Politics Mess-Up.

However, things got worse from there. The first post-Soviet president, Saparmurat Niyazov, installed a cult of personality rivaled only by North Korea or the Stalinist USSR. He renamed all months and days in the calendar (including one named after his mother), built a gigantic golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, tried to build an enormous Ice Palace (in a country covered by desert), banned things like the opera, circuses, video games and even gold tooth fillings and news presenters using makeup (because he was "having trouble telling them apart"), gave himself the title "Türkmenbaşy" (Leader of the Turkmens), renamed Krasnovodsk to that title, shut down all hospitals outside Ashgabat, arguing that sick Turkmens could "come to the capital" for treatment, wrote the Ruhnama, a book which was required to be memorized perfectly to hold government positions, apply for higher education, or even to own a driver's license and passed off as a text mosques were required by law (on penalty of having the mosques shut down at best) to treat on the same level as the Quran - all despite Niyazov being "somewhat illiterate", and eventually declared himself president-for-life.

Fortunately, that "for-life" part didn't last long. Niyazov died of a heart attack on 21 December 2006, and was succeeded by Gurbanguly Mälikgulyıewiç Berdimuhamedow in an election two months later. Ironically, Berdimuhamedow previously served as a dentist whose pension was taken away by Niyazov before he died; Berdimuhamedow returned the favor by restoring pensions to 100,000 affected doctors. To this day, Turkmenistan still qualifies as a People's Republic of Tyranny, being a single-party state (and that one party used to be the Communist Party), but Berdimuhamedow has taken steps to dismantle Niyazov's cult of personality in favor of his own.

Till the present day, Turkmenistan is still by far the most isolated and unknown of the Central Asian republics, and this is after saying just how unknown Central Asia is to common people. This goes both ways since the internet is strictly controlled by the government; common Turkmens largely don't know the current conflicts faced by the world, or even the wars that are happening right next to their doorstep (read: The War on Terror). So don't be surprised if they only give you funny looks when visitors tell them about the recent issues like Islamic fundamentalism, because to them, their faith has always been as it was: "folk Islam" involving pilgrimages to the graves of local saints that no puritanical Muslim would ever approve. This sadly makes the country, or the interesting sights like the Door to Hell, rarely mentioned by media.

The Turkmen flag
The flag's green field and crimson stripe are colors long held in importance by the Turkmen people; the crescent is a Turkic symbol, used here to symbolize hope for the future; the five stars symbolize its provinces: Ahal, Balkan, Daşoguz, Lebap and Mary; in the stripe are five guls, symmetrical carpet patterns common in Central Asia, symbolizing the five major tribes of Turkmenistan (top to bottom): Teke, Yomut, Saryk, Chowdur and Arsary; and below the guls are a pair of olive branches of neutrality.