Unbelievable Facts About Turkmenistan, the Dystopian Dictatorship You Haven't Heard Of

By Rachel Cribby on December 18 2019 in Travel

Turkmen sit on a traditional carpet playing musical instruments in Turkmenistan. Olga Nikanovich / Shutterstock.com.
Turkmen sit on a traditional carpet playing musical instruments in Turkmenistan. Olga Nikanovich / Shutterstock.com.

Oh, Turkmenistan – how we overlook thee. For many in the west, it's hard to keep the countries of Central Asia straight, no matter how fascinating and unique each one may be. However, next time you're trying to remember how to distinguish Turkmenistan, just think of these strange yet riveting facts about the country. After all, it's hard to forget about a place once you know what goes on behind closed doors. 

11. There is a gaping fire hole in the middle of the country

Tourists are allowed to visit the Darvaza gas crater. Just don't fall in!
Tourists are allowed to visit the Darvaza gas crater. Just don't fall in!

The Darvaza Gas Crater is also called "the Door to Hell". This ghastly looking grater covers an area of more than 5,000 km, and was intentionally set on fire back in the early '70s when the Soviet government thought that there was oil to be discovered underneath. Although it's been burning all this time, its future may be limited. The President of Turkmenistan visited the site in 2010 and ordered it to be filled in.

However, as of 2019 it still hasn't been. Actually, the President recently visited the site and drove doughtnuts around it! This was part of a publicity stunt in response to death hoax rumors. However, Turkmenistan is also no stranger to bizarre behavior from its political powers. Which brings us to our next point....

10. They have a President for Life

The resting place of Niyazov is a lavish masoleum made of marble and gold. His funeral was attended by prominent figures from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Thiago B. Trevisan / Shutterstock.com.
The resting place of Niyazov is a lavish masoleum made of marble and gold. His funeral was attended by prominent figures from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Thiago B. Trevisan / Shutterstock.com.

Ok, this gets a bit confusing, so bear with us. Since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has only had two presidents. The first, Niyazov, ruled for 15 years and called himself the "President for Life". Remember him, because we will be talking about him quite a bit. 

Why is he so memorable, you may ask? During his reign, which ended in 2006, he cultivated a cult of personality, and did many things in his time that were questionable to say the least. 

9. ...who renamed the months of the year and the days of the week. After himself

This may be surprising, but Niyazov fancied statues of himself, particularly in gold. Jakub Buza / Shutterstock.com.
This may be surprising, but Niyazov fancied statues of himself, particularly in gold. Jakub Buza / Shutterstock.com.

January? No, that's  "Leader of Turkmen" month. September? That's "Ruhnama", which is the title of Niyazov's book. April? That was switched to be named after Niyazov's mother. Friday was renamed after her, too. 

8. He also once closed down all the hospitals outside of the biggest city

This dental center in Turkmenistan is shaped like an actual tooth molar. A quest to find out if other medical buildings were shaped like organs was inconclusive. Jakub Buza / Shutterstock.com.
This dental center in Turkmenistan is shaped like an actual tooth molar. A quest to find out if other medical buildings were shaped like organs was inconclusive. Jakub Buza / Shutterstock.com.

This meant that anyone living in rural areas had to travel across the country to get medical care (which is vaguely the size of California). While he was at it, he changed the "Hippocratch Oath" to the "President's Oath".  However, this seems a bit beside the point when you realize that people got sick and couldn't access doctors. It's no wonder why Turkmenistan had the lowest life expectancy in all of Central Asia at the time. 

7. Speaking of cities, their capital city is bizarre and made out of marble

Many buildings in Ashgabat are reminiscent of old Soviet blocks, except made of marble.
Many buildings in Ashgabat are reminiscent of old Soviet blocks, except made of marble.

Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the world's largest collection of marble buildings. Vistors to this city describe it as "strange" and "eerie". While the buildings are very well-kept, they are often empty and give the impression of a ghost town. It is hard to get photos of the city because the photographing of public buildings is banned. The city is heavily surveilled by police and so this ban is strongly enacted. 

6. Hardly any tourists come to Turkmenistan

A group of tourists go on a spacious sightseeing adventure around Ashgabat. LMspencer / Shutterstock.com.
A group of tourists go on a spacious sightseeing adventure around Ashgabat. LMspencer / Shutterstock.com.

In 2016, 6,000 tourists visited Turkmenistan. To put this in perspective, 90 million visitors went to France, and 76 million visited the United States. A difficult visa process is one of the reasons behind the low numbers. 

5. The President for Life banned lip syncing

A giant replica of "Ruhnama", the book that was written by Niyazov. Atosan / Shutterstock.com.
A giant replica of "Ruhnama", the book that was written by Niyazov. Atosan / Shutterstock.com.

Apparently, lip syncing was not an activity held in high esteem by Niyazov. During his time in office, he banned the act of lip syncing at public concerts as well as at public celebrations. Niyazov believed that lip syncing was deterimental to the art of making music. 

4. He also banned the opera

Celebrations in Turkmenistan are allowed, but for years certain types of festive activities were not. velirina / Shutterstock.com.
Celebrations in Turkmenistan are allowed, but for years certain types of festive activities were not. velirina / Shutterstock.com.

Maybe it wasn't just lip syncing that Niyazov disliked, but just singing in general? Besides the opera, he also banned ballet and, famously, the circus. 

3. And long hair on men. And beards on men. And make-up

Beardless, short-haired soldiers march in Turkmenistan in 2010. magicinfoto / Shutterstock.com.
Beardless, short-haired soldiers march in Turkmenistan in 2010. magicinfoto / Shutterstock.com.

Niyazov himself had short hair and was clean shaven. One can only theorize that he wanted all of the men of his country to follow suit and resemble him. As for the reasoning behind the make-up ban, anyone's guess is as good as one another's – apparently he believed that news reporter should look "natural". 

2. Oh, and he renamed bread after his mom

As far as we know, the name of fruit remained unchanged. velirina / Shutterstock.com.
As far as we know, the name of fruit remained unchanged. velirina / Shutterstock.com.

There isn't much more we can say about this. He took the name for bread. And changed it to the name of his mother. The highest of all honours. 

1. By the way, there is a giant statue of this President that was constructed to always face the sun

The statue in all of its glory. Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com.
The statue in all of its glory. Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com.

In 1998, President for Life Niyazov ordered the construction of a "monument to neutrality" at the cost of $12 million dollars. While the three-legged statue seemed to have enough grandeur on its own, what really drove the point home was a gold 39 foot statue at the top of the tower of - you guessed it - Niyazov himself. The statue was designed to rotate so that sun would be shining on his likeness at all times of the day. The current president, Berdimuhamedow, ordered the removal of the statue in 2010. However, it still exists, albeit in a non-rotating form, out in the suburbs of Ashgabat. 

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