20 bizarre facts about Turkmenistan, the world's weirdest dictatorship

If you thought the Hell's Gate was the only astonishing thing about Turkmenistan, here are 20 weirdest facts about the weirdest dictatorship in the world.

 |  9-minute read |   17-01-2022
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First, where is Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan, a land-locked country, is the least densely populated country in Central Asia. The country came into existence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1925-1991, it was part of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan, since 1991, was ruled by President Saparmurat Niyazov until December 20, 2006, when he died of a heart attack. The incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was his successor and has ruled as the dictator-President of Turkmenistan since then.

The country stands as one of the most repressed countries of the world, with a one-party government and President Berdymukhamedov's dictatorship style of working. But one accidental point of sight-seeing, the Darwaza Crater or the Hell’s Gate makes Turkmenistan a centre of attraction (we will come to the tourists' part in a bit though).

However, President Berdymukhamedov is now planning to close Hell's Gate citing negative effects on the environment.

Apart from the the Hell’s Gate, the country has one of the most bizarre set of rules and living conditions for its people. Young can’t grow beards, no black cars, a record-breaking fascination for setting world records are some of the weird facts about Turkmenistan.

Here are 20 such weird facts about Turkmenistan:

1. ONE OF THE LEAST VISITED COUNTRIES

A complex visa regimen makes Turkmenistan one of the least visited countries in the world. At any time, you won’t see tourists in high numbers in the country. In 2012, the country had an average of 8,900 visitors annually, which makes it one of the least explored countries in Central Asia. One of the reasons why the country sees a low number of visitors is also because for a long time, the country was closed to the outside world.

2. 80 PER CENT DESERT

The land of Turkmenistan is 80 per cent desert and the life of Turkmen (citizens of Turkmenistan) is mostly nomadic. A remarkable fact about the country is that it was home to a giant sea 30 million years ago. Deserts and sand form the prominent part of the geography of the country today as it is home to Karakum desert. However, most of its area is inhospitable to plant and animal life.

It is the second largest land-locked country in Central Asia next to Kazakhstan; and Turkmenistan's capital and largest city, Ashgabat, shares its southern border with Iran.

3. THE HELL’S GATE, A MAN-MADE DISASTER

gettyimages-11542636_011322043020.jpgA picture of the Hell's Gate or the Darwaza Crater. Photo: Getty Images

The Darwaza Crater or the Hell’s Gate as it is famously known, is not a natural phenomenon but the result of a natural gas drilling expedition going horribly wrong. In 1970, the Soviet scientists were drilling for natural gas, but accidentally their equipments fell in the sinkhole, causing the escape of natural gas. The geologists decided to light it up in the hope that it would burn out after a few days. That was more than 50 years ago... and the fire is yet to be put out. It has also destroyed the wildlife around it.

4. SHUT THE GATES OF HELL

gettyimages-62969538_011722055140.jpgThe Darwaza Crater or The Hell's gate. Photo: Getty Images

In 2018, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had renamed Hell's Gate as the 'Shining of Karakum', but four years later, now, he wants it to be shut. According to the state-run newspaper Neytralny Turkmenistan, the President has ordered his Cabinet ministers to find a way to close the earthly gates of hell. The reasons cited for this are the negative effects of fire on the health of people living around it, and also the enormous environmental damage it has caused.

As per the newspaper, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkmenistan has been asked to gather scientists, and if necessary, foreign consultants, and find a way to extinguish the fire. President Berdymukhamedov had visited the site in 2010, and back then too he had asked for the closure of the site.

5. ASHGABAT IN THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS

gettyimages-16195013_011322043106.jpgA picture of capital city Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Getty Images

In 2013, Turkmenistan's capital city Ashgabat entered the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest number of white marble buildings in the city. As per the record, the city has 543 white marble buildings covering an area of 4.5 million square metres (with no one living in them, by the way).

Prior to this achievement, it was in the Guinness Book for having the world’s tallest flagpole (133 m), the largest fountain complex, largest architectural image and largest Ferris wheel in an enclosed architectural design. Point to note: Turkmenistan has a record-setting inclination towards setting Guinness records and regularly invites folks from the record-keepers to make a note of the newest record set by the country. Not to mention that most of these records are, of course, thought of and executed by only - and we mean, really, only - Turkmenistan.

The Turkmen people are descendents of the nomadic Oghuz tribe that moved into the region in the 7th century. Telpek, a large sheepskin hat worn by men is one of the signs of the nomadic tradition. The cap is designed in such a way that it maintains a stable body temperature in scorching summers or cold winter nights of the desert.

6. RUHNAMA, THE BOOK OF THE SOUL

gettyimages-58391090_011322043319.jpgFormer President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov. Photo: Getty Images

Saparmurat Niyazov was the President of Turkmenistan from 1991-2006. The autocratic ruler had declared himself as the President of Life and even wrote a book in 2001 called Ruhnama (The book of Soul).

He made the book mandatory to be studied in schools, universities and government offices. Even the new job applicants in their interviews would be tested on the book. Not only this, local bookstores, government offices had to display it prominently. The locals were ordered to recite Ruhnama every day.

7. RUHNAMA IN MOSQUES

Niyazov was also once quoted as saying that God himself told him that anybody who will read the book will directly enter heaven. Niyazov had ordered the book to be kept in all the mosques. If the imam or the cleric of the mosque refused to obey his orders, the mosque would be demolished.

He even went to the extent of inscribing the verses of Ruhnama and Quran on the largest mosque of Turkmenistan, Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque. He was heavily critcised by the Muslim population, but none dared to do so openly.

8. RUHNAMA STATUE

 

President Niyazov got the statue of Ruhnama made and installed at the capital city of Ashgabat. Every day at 8 pm, the covers of the statue would open and the audio passage of the Ruhanama was played for the citizens with the video. The statue stands till date and has not been removed by the incumbent President Berdymukhamedov.

9. RUHNAMA IN SPACE

The autocrat even got the book launched in space, in August 2005, so that the book could conquer space as well. The book is supposed to orbit earth for the next 150 years.

10. RUHNAMA FOR A DRIVING LICENSE

In most countries, getting a driving license requires a fair understanding of driving. Somewhere, a bit of greasing of the palms of the license-givers. Not Turkmenistan. Here, if you want a driving license, your skills with the steering wheel don't matter as much as your rote-learning of the Ruhnama. You are asked questions from the book. If you can't answer correctly, no driving license, sorry.

11. END OF RUHNAMA

In 2013, seven years after Niyazov’s death, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered the removal of Ruhnama from all public schools. A year later, Berdymukhamedov declared that the Turkmen universities would no longer test students on the knowledge of Ruhnama.

12. NO BEARDS FOR YOUNG MEN

gettyimages-12191560_011322043211.jpgA Turkman. Photo: Getty Images

One of the many weird rules framed by Niyazov in 2004 was that young men were barred from having beard or long hair. Only men above 70 could keep a beard. The strange thing is that the rule similar to one in Tajikistan still exists. It was not changed or repealed by Berdymukhamedov.

13. NEW MONTHS AND WEEKS

gettyimages-64229661_011722070733.jpgGold Statue of Former Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov. Photo: Getty Images

In the year 2002, Niyazov decided that every day of the month and week would be renamed after his family members. Thereby, January was renamed as Turkmenbasy, meaning Leader of the Turkmen, February as Baydak after the Turkmen Flag, April as Gurbansoltan after his mother. The month September was also named after his book Ruhnama. Check the full list here.

14. PILOV, THE STAPLE DIET

gettyimages-63970402_011722071027.jpgPilaf, the staple diet of Turkmenistan. Photo: Getty Images

Pilov is the staple diet of the people of Turkmenistan. It is made in compounds of rice with chunks of meat, carrot, and spices, fried in a large pan or a cauldron. It is one of those dishes that you will see everywhere, from family picnics to wedding celebrations.

15. NATIONAL HOLIDAY FOR MELONS

gettyimages-53532173_011722070909.jpgTurkmenistan's Melons. Photo: Getty Images

The country produces sweet, juicy melons, for which it has even created a special day. It is a public holiday. Melons of Turkmenistan are famous all throughout the region. Every second Sunday in the month of August is celebrated as the National Melon Day by the people.

16. NO DIRTY CARS IN THE COUNTRY

One of the most bizarre laws from the incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is that you cannot have black cars in the capital city, Ashgabat. Also, dirty cars are not allowed. This is also why there are a number of car-washing stations on the outskirts of the city, so that people can get their cars cleaned before entering the city.

17. CARPETS IN TURKMENISTAN

gettyimages-51683009_011722071045.jpgCarpets of Turkmenistan. Photo: Getty Images

Carpets hold such prominence in Turkmenistan that there is a Ministry of Carpet in the government. There is also a National Carpet Museum in Ashgabat with more than 1,000 carpets on display. Moreover, there is also a carpet on the national flag of Turkmenistan.

18. HORSES AS IMPORTANT AS CARPETS 

turkmenistan1-1_011722024812.jpgTurkmenistan is right up there with North Korea as far as weird dictatorships are concerned. Illustration: Seemon

The local horse breed of the Turkmenistan Akhal-Teke is also considered as one of the rarest and most beautiful in the world. In fact, taming of horses is one of the most respected jobs in the country. Kids in Turkmenistan get to horse training centres at a young age to become horse trainers.

The Akhal-Teke horse also appears on the national emblem of Turkmenistan. The emblem, however, is of the living horse and once the horse dies, the new Akhal Teke horse will be chosen and the national emblem will be updated.

19. THE PRESIDENT'S OBSESSION WITH HORSES

screenshot-11_6447_011722061656.jpgTurkmenistan's Akal-Teke horse. Photo: Drew Binsky Youtube video

 President Berdymukhamedov is obsessed with Akhal-Teke horses. He loves them so much that his office has only one prominent motif all over the furniture - yes, horses.

20. THE ONLY NEUTRAL COUNTRY IN THE WORLD

screenshot-13_011722063346.pngIndian PM Narendra Modi met Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in July 2015. Photo: Narendra Modi Youtube Channel

Turkmenistan is the only country in the world that has been recognised as neutral by the United Nations. In 1995, all 185 members voted for Turkmenistan to remain neutral and in celebration of this, an olive branch was added to the flag.

Since 1993, the people of Turkmenistan have been given free water, electricity and gas. This was a rule brought by President Saparmurat Niyazov who introduced subsidies for the people. Interesting to note that every person gets 25 kilowatt of electricity, 50 cubic metres of natural gas, and 250 litres of water every month.

In 2008, President Berdymukhamedov added a new subsidy, of giving 120 litres of fuel to every individual every month.

Given that there is an abundance of natural gas in Turkmenistan, people never switch off the gas. It is cheaper to let the gas burn than spend money on matchboxes.

Writer

Mohammad Bilal Mohammad Bilal @bilalzhere

Bilal loves to write on politics, cricket, health and cinema. He is an IIMC alumni and Sub-editor at DailyO.

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