I’d never seen so many fountains. During our afternoon jaunt, taking in many of the Turkmenistan capital’s mammoth monuments, the fountains far outnumbered pedestrians.
“Where are all the people?” we inquired, wondering why the immaculately kept gardens and parks weren’t teeming with locals. It was a Wednesday, so many were at work or school, we were reminded. But it was a bit unnerving.
I’d come from a city that wasn’t the most densely populated in Asia, but one that you could easily get lost in the hustle and bustle. This place, however, was a bit eerie and sterile, at least at first glance.
It was like a new shoe – all shiny and clean and without odour. Not a speck of dirt. But it had yet to feel right.
But why were we seeing these things in the first place? Apparently, Turkmenistan was preparing to open up to the world.
The usual near impossibility of gaining a visa had been waivered for us. We were special invitees of the gas- and oil-rich nation’s esteemed leader, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, all under the banner of sports journalism.
The president was keen to show off his latest multi-billion-dollar investment, the Ashgabat Olympic Complex, which is to host the Fifth Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games in 2017.
We were booked on a three-day visit from November 27 to the county bordered by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north, Iran to the south, Afghanistan to the east and the Caspian Sea to the west. So now you know.
Last year, Turkmenistan was rated second worst only to North Korea on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Censorship was still evident by the blocking of Facebook despite a reasonable Wi-Fi connection at the hotel.
Were they hiding something? Would we be kept on a very short leash inside the confines of the newest parts of the city – in all its white marble and gold-trimmed splendour – unable to witness the conditions of the general population? Not quite.
Sure, we were given a police detail – a fair few Agent Smith look-alikes replete with earpieces, black suits and sunglasses. But we were allowed glimpses of the poorer sections of the city, the Soviet-era built apartment blocks, as well as a trip out of town to Nisa, the ancient capital of the Parthian Empire.
A housing estate right next to Nisa was in stark contrast to the opulence of the newest parts of the city, but it was certainly no slum.
Numerous local people confirmed to me that the government subsidised almost their entire amenities; $5 per year (you read that right – per year) was what one girl told me she paid for bills.
Free gas, free water, free petrol tokens, free quotas of electricity, even free salt. Free for every citizen since their independence from Russia in 1991, state reports say. So you couldn’t exactly lambaste the ruling elite for a lack of social welfare, at least to the city dwellers.
Was there mass unemployment and poverty? Not that we could make out. Were the fountains being left on all day just for our benefit? Probably not.
Your average Turkmen appears humble and shy at first glance. But as a nation, they show great pride in their horses and carpets – the two main industries other than lucrative gas and oil exports.
Turkmenistan boasts the world’s fourth largest reserve of natural gas.
Akhal-Teke horses are some of the most valued and respected breeds on the planet. Their natural athleticism, speed, endurance and intelligence make them suitable for use as a sport horse in competitions such as dressage, show jumping and eventing. We didn’t see any of the majestic creatures, mind you.
Carpets, on the other hoof, we saw aplenty, visiting the Turkmen Carpet Museum, home to the world’s biggest carpet – an enormous effort over 300 square metres in area hung up on a wall.
Almost every picture of the president plastered across the country has a carpet design as its background. The traditional red patterned silk carpets are even marked on the nation’s flag, which shows a strip containing the five medallion-like designs, called guls. These symbols and the eight-pointed star of Turkmenistan are replicated all over the new urban developments.
Anyway, I wasn’t there as a social commentator or political analyst. I was there as a sport journalist. The president has shown his intent to open up his nation to the international community through sport and the hosting of sporting events.
He was quoted as being keen to help increase participation in sport and promote health and fitness among his people, signing the 2017 host city contract with the Olympic Council of Asia in Kuwait on December 19, 2010, to become the first Central Asian country to host the Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games.
There were about 45 members from the world of sport attending the 2013 Turkmenistan International Sports Media Forum, which marked the first time any foreign journalists have been invited to Ashgabat.
The first day of the forum featured a welcoming ceremony at the National Sports and Tourism Institute, featuring, among other things, some highly entertaining and combative little people.
We were also treated to two sessions of talks from some of the most influential and experienced people in sport media, including many who have worked on Games bids and last year’s London Olympics.
The following day was all about the Olympic Complex, dubbed “the world’s best kept sports secret” by Jon Tibbs, chairman of the sport media forum organisers JTA.
The 157-hectare park project is contracted to Turkish construction giant Polimeks, which has built almost all of the new city including monuments, ministries, medical facilities and highways. It is also working on Ashgabat’s new international airport.
We were given a short presentation on the complex by project coordinator Osman Karakus of Turkey, who hit us with a variety of eye-opening stats to highlight the scale of the operation.
The marble used for the buildings’ façades was enough to cover 16 football pitches and had to be sourced via Istanbul. Distances travelled by the trucks bringing the materials, including all the steel work, from Europe totalled 40 million kilometres, or 103 trips to the moon.
The original main stadium of the park, which had been fatally flawed in a number of ways including a sprint track measuring less than 100 metres, was being demolished when we visited and was set to make way for a brand new 45,000-seat venue slated to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2017 Games.
However, a monstrous 6,000-seat velodrome was in the final six months of its construction, and we were given a tour of its interior. Berdimuhamedov is reported to be an avid cyclist, as well as horse rider and rally truck driver, and personally gave the green light to build the facility, the world’s largest indoor cycling track.
It is three times the volume of London’s Olympic velodrome and will likely accommodate other martial arts competitions during the Games. The wood for the track is a new type, different to the Siberian pine used in London, allowing for cooler venue temperatures and easier installation and maintenance.
With standards meeting UCI Category 1 requirements, the arena will be capable of hosting world championship and Olympic cycling events.
Indeed, all of the venues are being completed to an Olympic standard, with the view of bidding for major sporting tournaments in the future including the Youth Olympics, the Asian Games and even the
Construction of the park, which began three years ago, is said to be on schedule and when completed will include a 15,000-seat and a 5,000-seat indoor arena, a 5,000-seat athletics arena, a 5,000-seat indoor aquatics centre, a 4,000-seat indoor tennis arena, outdoor sport pitches with spectator stands, an 800-bed hotel for media personnel, a 450-bed hotel for VIPs, a medical centre, training halls, a business centre, a 12,000-capacity athletes village, an international broadcasting and media centre and a five-kilometre monorail servicing eight stops.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t impressive. With essentially a clean sheet to work off and backed by considerable government finances, it seems highly unlikely that work is not completed in good time ahead of the Games. Five billion dollars has not been misspent.
Covering the tournament would undoubtedly be a fantastic experience. The press hotel is superb, the infrastructure will be top notch and I’m sure Ashgabat will impress a lot of people with its Olympic Complex and hosting capabilities come 2017.