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Poised at the arid heart of Central Asia, land-locked Turkmenistan borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. Fiercely nationalistic, the country traces its ethnic roots to Turkic-speaking Oghuz tribes, who arrived from Mongolia in the 8th century: etymologically, the name ‘Turkmen’ refers to desert-dwelling nomads who converted to Islam.
The nation evolved as a centre of trade and Islamic culture, its present-day state boundaries roughly corresponding to the province of Transcaspia, created by Tsarist Russia after it was annexed in 1865. In the 20th century, the Soviet era did much to disrupt and destroy the region’s traditional tribal lifestyles, but many facets of Turkmen culture have survived, including raucous music and dancing, and exceptionally fine carpet-weaving.Read more
Steeped in obscurity and intrigue, the post-soviet Republic of Turkmenistan has been a single party state ever since its formation in 1991. ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Niyazov ruled the country unchallenged for the best part of 17 years, until finally dying of natural causes in 2006. His cult of personality - not to mention his eccentric edicts, such as renaming months of the year after Turkmen heroes, ordering the construction of a desert ice rink, banning lip syncing at live concerts, and banishing all dogs from the capital – will live forever in national memory.
Prospects for Turkmenistan’s future look mixed. More than 80% of the country is cloaked in the scrubby sands of the Kara Kum desert, severely restricting agricultural output and limiting options for development. In recent years, international powers including Russia, China, US, Iran, and Turkey have begun moonlighting the regime with an eye on its substantial natural gas reserves – the fourth largest in the world and the commodity currently driving the nation’s economic growth into prodigious double digits.
For the most part, however, Turkmenistan remains impoverished and isolated, overly bureaucratic and deeply entrenched. Press, travel, and personal freedoms are restricted, but those who persist in exploring the troubled Central Asian state will discover a land rich in mythology and ancient architecture, a place where ruined sand-coloured fortresses blend imperceptibly with desolate desert landscapes.
Places of interest in Turkmenistan
Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a fantastical place long lost in the Soviet past. Constructed in soaring...