Turkmenistan, The Land of The Golden Horses
Few people have heard of Turkmenistan, fewer even know where it is situated on the globe.
When I set my bags down at the check-in at Los Angeles airport the Lufthansa agent looked at my tickets and said, “Where is Ashgabat?” I recall saying, “I wouldn’t worry the pilot will know where to land.” I suppose people can be forgiven for thinking that spending a week there was a risky business, “You’re not really going?” “Will you be safe?” came the typical responses.
But I had been before I knew what awaited me and I could hardly contain my excitement. I had been invited to attend a conference on the Akhal Teke horse.
The weekend of the 27/28 October 2001 had been scheduled to coincide with celebrations for ten years of independence.
The Turkmen are a nation of horsemen. They have been for many centuries breeding horses for speed and endurance. We imported them into Britain in the 1680’s and they formed the basis of the bloodstock that became the English Thoroughbred.
Among the experts gathered there would be Louise Firouz from Iran the world’s authority on the Oriental horse. I was so looking forward to seeing her again.
The Akhal Teke Horse
The Akhal Teke is just one of the horses bred by the Turkomen. Of that breed the golden dun is most prized. The legend of these horses reaches far back into antiquity.
They were known as the purveyor of the gods, the celestial horses. These horses have the most wonderful coats with a golden sheen that is silk to touch, in the sunlight they dazzle. They were also called the heavenly horses, the horses of Ferghana. (Ferghana is north and east of Taskent.) They are lean and greyhound-like, swift and proud.
We were taken to the National Stud where a selection of their best horses was to be led past us. We were to watch a show jumping competition and to see the young stock. Geldi Kiarizov, Minister of the Horse greeted us and cups of tea and delicious sweets were handed around. We were taken outside to where tables were prepared with water and soft drinks so that we could watch in comfort the parade of stallions, mares and yearlings from the National Stud.
The next day was the conference, preceded by an international gathering at the University. A feast had been prepared to greet us after a formal welcome from Mr. Masson, the organizer of the conference and Geldi Kiarizov. The national anthem is stirring and we all stood, Turkmen hand on heart.
On our third day we were taken to the Hippodrome just outside the city. Seated in front of the Presidents box, we were to view the magnificent presentation of one thousand horsemen. Each Khan, in the great traditions of that part of the world, would swear allegiance to his ruler.
I looked across the racetrack; half of it was full of horsemen. They began slowly to file past as they reached the presidents box they were chanting, “Halk Watan Turkmanbashi.”
The people, the fatherland, Turkmanbashi! The loud speakers boomed out across the desert sand. Each Khan let his men past in a salute to their leader. I looked at my colleges seated next to me, they too were spellbound.
This display of loyalty touched me to the core. I was moved to tears. It was an honour to share this celebration with the people of this ancient land of farms and semi-nomadic tribesmen.
Turkmenistan has resources of oil and gas and can grow just about anything. Irrigation systems have utilized the waters of the Oxus and the land is rich. They cultivate grapes, fruits and vegetables, they raise silk worms on mulberry trees and so have the fruit. They grow melons and wonderful aromatic salads and all manner of fruits and vegetables. The people still live in a very traditional manner. Large compounds contain whole families; mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters live within these farms. They may even have a traditional home; know to Westerners as a Yurt. They cook on open fires, boiling sheep in great caldrons and barbequing sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea.
Ashgabat has changed dramatically in the two years since I visited, many of the old houses and markets have been pulled down and replaced with marble fronted buildings.
The outer areas away from the city center where there are still small city farms are being replaced with modern housing.
The center of the city is very Soviet in style, a massive square acres across is set against the magnificence of the Presidential Palace and gardens and fountains have taken up yet more space. There is a new museum of National History, a new Olympic size stadium, and building after building all surrounded by topiary trees, pines and flowers. It vies with Vegas. I have never seen such magnificence.
After the ride past we were taken to the place where all the horses were being kept. A huge nomadic camp, yurts and horses spread over a huge area near a lake, where the horsemen took their charges down to drink and wade in the water. There we were feasted on lamb stew, the national dish and rice.
The yurt will have a hearth front central made of clay and a small fire will burn there and on it the kettle, as tea is central to life in Turkmenistan. Life is about belonging; the old are just as much a part of the family as the children. The women wear the traditional long, velvet dresses with embroidered necklines, and their hair is wrapped in brightly colored Russian print scarves that hang down their backs. As they laugh amongst each other bright gold teeth flash in the sunlight. As Turkmenistan is on the silk road there are many races of people in this hot, desert melting pot of civilization, but mostly they are black haired with oriental dusty brown skin and black eyes. They are a very beautiful people especially when they smile.
Turkmenistan is Islamic, the recorded voice of the Muller rings out to wake the faithful at early in the morning. The Turkmens are relaxed about their faith. Their women are free to follow careers and not to wear the veil. They enjoy their vodka and wine. They all seem to have satellite television. But the average wage per month is about $40. A good wage is $120. The currency has an exchange rate of 21600 Manats to the dollar. 20000 buy you a large bottle of water. A taxi anywhere is about the same. When I asked the clerk at the hotel to change $40 he nearly died. So I stuck to my original $20. Even then I got a wedge of notes back that made me feel like a millionaire.
The Tolkuchka Bazaar
We visited the Tolkuchka bazaar on the first morning. I encouraged my fellow delegates of the value of getting up at four and stopping the first car we saw in the street were taken to this magical bazaar, dating back thousands of years set as it is on the great Silk Road. We arrived at the bazaar just as they were setting up.
Women lit fires and made tea, stalls were nude of goods still in their bags. We watched the desert fill up with trucks and buses and old cars. The stalls began to flush out with wonderful goods. I was in heaven. A KGB man in uniform asking for our passports stopped us on our way out. The others handed their over, but I guessed he was outside his duties and told him mine was in my hotel room and would he like to come back to my room and get it. I smiled sweetly at him. He left. We looked across the crowds and saw a man selling flat bread piled high into a wall reminiscent of an ancient city.
Turkmenistan is not a rich country, but it is prosperous and is strongly attached to its nomadic roots. There is repression and poverty. I see great inequality too. Millions of dollars spent of creating a great city, but little or no assistance to the people who want to take part in world trade and to develop business. But at least here there is work and food and a way of life that does not interfere with their neighbours.
I wonder what will happen when the oil and gas can be exported, will they become like Saudi Arabia or will Turkmenistan become rich for the people who live there and not just the chosen few who govern. We should develop a better understanding of what these countries need and how they survive in the modern world and do what we can in the west to contribute to their prosperity?
For the average Turkmen the buildings they live in are basic. There is some running water, but not all the time. Toilets don’t flush. There are bred oven in the street, a left over from a time when they cooked together sharing as the tribes still do in Iran with basic facilities. But their horses are incredible. So beautiful that whatever the cost they are worth seeing. I felt as if I had stepped into a fairy tale and met for the first time the celestial horses of the orient.
The Ersari, Yomut and Teke make wonderful carpets, they weave silk and do beautiful needle work. They say in Turkmenistan that the water is life, the carpet is their soul and the horse is their heart. They have preserved skills that we in the West have long forgotten. Will wealth when it comes destroy their culture. Maybe it is already is.