Silk Road Adventure

May 19-23


Turkmenistan borders Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the north and has the difficult neighbors of Iran and Afghanistan to the south. It is eighty percent desert with a population of 5 million, 90% Muslim. The fertility rate is very high – 35% of the population is under 15 years of age and only 4% is over age 65. Economically it has a high per capita gross national product of $8,000 per year (compared to $8,200 for Turkey, $3,300 for Georgia and $4,800 for Azerbaijan) arising from natural gas exports. However, the average annual per capita income is only $1,340, and it is heavily unbalanced. People who work for the government have very high incomes, people who do not work for the government have low incomes, and 60% of the working population is unemployed. A good wage in Turkmenistan is $1,000 per month. The country has the same problem as Azerbaijan and Georgia - it is suffering from a severe Soviet hangover. There is little initiative and very little entrepreneurship in anything other than selling silk and carpets.

We visited three cities in Turkmenistan. The first was Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. We arrived a day late, so only had breakfast at the hotel where we were supposed to have stayed. It was a lavish hotel, and we were the only guests. We then went on to Ashkabad to a hotel near the President's palace, and even though the hotel was excellent, the hotel staff was surly and uncooperative. When asked to mail a pre-stamped postcard, they reacted as if I had suggested taking their firstborn. The third city was Mary. We stayed in what was supposedly a three-star accommodation, but some of the rooms had sewage actually running through them, and the nice bouquet of a pig farm.



After 1991 Turkmenistan broke away from the Soviet Union and was run for a period of time by Saparmyrat Apayevichniyazor. Thankfully, he liked to be called "Turkmenbashi" - translation – "the father of all Turkmen" (not just the men living in Turkmenistan, but ALL Turkmen). Like the other ex-Soviet Central Asian republics (excluding Georgia), he was an ex-communist party chief. He truly had a persona that is larger than anything you can imagine in the U.S. He wrote a book called Ruhnama about history and the fine art of living. The book dictates how people should dress (ladies should wear long gowns down to their ankles), how to treat your parents (Dad is the boss, but he should be respectful to Mom unless she is being disrespectful to him), how to clean the house, the niceties of good manners; and of course, the book includes long discussions on the importance of Turkmen in history. The Turkmen have been tribal people within Central Asia and are not particularly effective city dwellers.

Turkmenbashi has since died, but not before naming his successor. The rumor is that the successor is his bastard son; his legitimate children live abroad. A couple of interesting things that Turkmenbashi accomplished:
•He changed the names of the days of the week and the names of the months of the year to those of his family and friends.
•He created a marble city that has more elaborate architecture than Miami Beach or Naples. The structures are all marble-clad separated with gardens and boulevards. A person can buy one of these fabulous apartments for $70,000 and have 50 years to pay for it – that is a person who works for the right agency of the government.
•He built a stair case, perhaps 10' wide, up a mountain and down again so people would have the opportunity to exercise their hearts. Perhaps he died at a young age because he was not doing what he was telling others to do.

There is a gold statue of him in the central part of the city on top of a high column that rotates with the sun. There is also an interesting statue of him in the city of Turkmenistan (the city on the Caspian) where he is depicted in a suit, but with a conspicuous masculine bulge to let his adoring public know that he was not only smart and a great leader, but also very virile. There are billboards everywhere depicting him in various poses. In all, it is an appalling display.

The Market

In Ashkabad we visited a spectacular market, perhaps 5-10 times larger than Beachwood Place, where virtually everything you can imagine is for sale. It was crowded, and reminded me of a scene of complete confusion from Star Wars. There were masses of people, all sorts of sounds, braying donkeys, bellowing camels being lifted into trucks, smells of all kinds -the bad in the animal section, the good in the spice section. And in addition to over stimulation of all the senses, there was something to buy for everyone.

•For example, one could buy a pair of camels – a lactating female and a small one for $500-$700. Why would you buy a lactating camel? She was advertised as giving 10 liters of milk per day at $2 per liter.
•A two-year old male camel could be purchased for $300-$400. Of the many camels we saw in Turkmenistan, I never saw one carrying or pulling anything – maybe it is the wool or just tradition that they are not used as beasts of burden.
•A motorcycle with a sidecar, vintage 1986, had a starting price of $500.
•A better than average quality rug (9' X 15') was about $1,000.
•There were sheep, goats, tires, lots of 60's era military trucks (which I love but couldn't fit on the back of my bike to bring home). So I settled for a switch to repair the running lights on my wounded motorcycle. I had no luck finding a switch for the horn or a left turn signal.

The Oasis at Merv

We visited the Merv Oasis that dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was once a huge oasis surrounded by farms. An underground river welled up in this area and irrigated everything around it. Now it is absolutely raw desert, there is not a stitch of water anywhere. This is a reminder of what happens with global warming and climate change.

Speaking of climate change – we drove through the Karakum Desert for several hundred miles – lots of drifting sand, some over the road, and absolute desolation. Now and then there would be irrigation that appeared to come from nowhere – a clumsy form of irrigation where the fields are flooded periodically so that in the low areas, salt collects making that land infertile. With all the gas revenue available, it would not take a lot of imagination to develop and build a sprinkler system that would irrigate thousands more acres with the same amount of water.

The Young

There are very few opportunities for smart young well-educated Turkmen, and even less for those who have not had an education. They do not go abroad like the people from Georgia. They must have a connection in government to get a job. They live at home with their parents because they can not possibly afford anything else. There is an enormous disparity of income. In Russia, the oil oligarchs took over the country, grabbed the money and took it abroad. In Turkmenistan, the government owns the oil and gas (the Soviets had expropriated it) providing largess to the government employees.

The opportunities for young women are much less. In Georgia, women work because men do not want to work the "little jobs" that are available. In Turkmenistan, men run things on the backs of the women. One manager bragged about his ability to have personal access to the women who worked for him. This degree of abuse of young women would not happen in a Turkish or Georgian urban family.

There are only 2,000 Internet addresses in Turkmenistan (and 5 million people). The government checks all emails, and they check all cell phones.

Turkmenistan as a Strategic Area

Turkmenistan is in the center of the vast undeveloped gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea. Currently most of their gas is exported to Europe, but through Russia with suitable margins and transportation charges. All of these countries - Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - are keys in providing energy to Europe. They keep the Europeans from being dependent on Russian energy, and thus out of the Russian political sphere of influence.

Problems of Uzbekistan

The central Asian republics are tough on women, tough on democracy, distribute income unevenly, and are not investing their energy largess in diversifying their economies. But this does not mean that we do not need them, or that we don't have to work with them. There are some simple things that could be done to help their situation. The first is to publicize metrics that illustrate good government. I am referring to metrics such as:

•The cost of running the government per capita
•The cost of running the government as a percent of GNP
•The ratio between per capita GNP and average personal income

This data could be produced effectively by the World Bank, the United Nations or by a suitable non-profit devoted to establishing good government in Central Asia, but not necessarily democracy. Many of these countries have good leaders, even though they are not democratic leaders, but it takes some moral suasion to entice them to follow the right goals and objectives. Most of these leaders are ex-Soviet planned-economy leaders. They need skilled, goal driven middle managers. Potential exists for a school just for educating Central Asian middle managers.

If tourism is a goal, they need to develop the western concept of service. The existing level of service is so appalling in these countries that it is difficult to describe. The bathrooms alone are inconceivable to a westerner. Within the safety of keeping their regimes afloat, they should also develop a global prospective, so they can at least keep up with what is happening in the world around them.

Finally, they need to become focused on economic development. They have 1-2 generations of oil monies left that could be invested in expanding their infrastructure and diversifying their economies. But to be successful, they must start now, before it is too late.

Getting Sick

More than half of us have contracted a peculiar sort of dysentery and flu (Marco Polo's Revenge) that has been really difficult to manage while riding a motorcycle at the same time. We are struggling through, and if it were not for Cypro, this trip would be over for most of us.

The Motorcycle

The repairs to the motorcycle are still in progress. The parts arrived for the turn indicator and the horn, but they were the wrong parts. The anti-lock brakes still do not work, and it is hard to get used to a different braking system when I have not been using it. The panniers don't close, so I hope it doesn't rain. But all in all the group's motorcycles have held up very well. There has not been a serious problem with any of them that has not been rider inflicted. Michael, one of our leaders, cracked the frame on his sidecar rig and broke an axel. I'm sure it was because the road conditions are appalling. Some have 3-4 inch dips in them and many of the group members ride between 80-90 mph. Tomorrow Marge will arrive with my mirror and my new GPS, so I can break away from following the crowd.

We leave Turkmenistan with a wonderful feeling about the people. Not having met any government bureaucrats, I make no judgment on them. But we see one class of people living poorly, and one class living well amid largess that truly should belong to everyone. There is vast corruption and exploitation of people. The Turkmen are all unusual people, and as Turkmenbashi says in his book, they are unique and will rise above their problems. They will overcome the limitations of their tribal traditions and their Soviet hangover, and Central Asia will join the rest of the world.

That's all for now

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