Our new guide is called Rustum. An accompanying guide is mandatory for all tourists in Turkmenistan – can’t have people wandering about photographing the statues of the President at will, after all. In fact photography is also banned in places that seem superficially uncontroversial, like the vegetable market or the spiffing new railway station in Ashgabat. Rustum is young and fashionable, and fun to be with. He’s wearing combat trousers with complicated ruching, the latest Salomon trekking boots, a draped leather jacket, a baseball cap and Raybans. He’s very interested in watches and cars – his second question is what make of car do I drive? Luckily the answer seems satisfactory. Rustum hasn’t heard the story that is the basis of Arnold’s poem – fair enough, my acquaintance with Turkman epics is nil – but for me the association gives him a sort of literary-heroic glamour. We enjoy our time in his company.
On the way from the border we crossed the Oxus at last, via a pontoon bridge constructed by the Soviets. No photography. Downriver is a much older bridge carrying the railway line from the Caspian to Tashkent. Lord Curzon passed across it on his way to Kashgar, long before he became Viceroy of India. It was sad finally to leave the river and its history and turn our faces westwards.
The first visit was to the ancient city of Merv, once known as the Queen of the World, and a thriving place even in the late nineteenth century. Now it’s just ruins, and the reconstructed – very beautiful – mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. The next day Rustum and a pair of mad Russian friends of his in a 4WD took us on a three-hour drive into the desert to visit Margush, another ruined city, dating back to the Bronze Age. Acres and acres of unexcavated remains lie under the sand, and a fort and necropolis that have been dug out and studied. The burial sites feature animal sacrifices – the skeleton of a magnificent stallion, donkeys and camels and lambs, interred with the king and his ceremonial artefacts. This huge site is almost unvisited – I wish I could have stayed and wandered for a week.
We ate our picnic lunch under a tin canopy erected to shade the archaeologists, while the rain poured down. One of the Russians stopped smoking for long enough to murmur, ‘Just like England’. It was my birthday – one I won’t easily forget.
The next day we came to Ashgabat, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s eerie white marble capital city. What with Rustum’s hipness and the archetypal Russians and the general friendliness of everyone we met, even the dismal familiarity of rundown ex-Soviet hotels, Turkmenistan had seemed quite accessible. But once we got to Ashgabat all that changed. It’s the capital: I imagined there would be internet, mobile phone signal, general availability of connection and dissemination. But no. Facebook and western social media are blocked, and the internet is so slow as to be not worth the bother. Phone and text are mysteriously askew. There are police and military and men in black with earpieces to enforce the No Photography rules, and no doubt all other infringements. Of course this is a police state, unreadable and impenetrable. Even Rustum must have signed off on it at least nominally, or he wouldn’t have a job in tourism. And then the city itself! A shiny mirage bursting out of the sand, where giant white buildings tower over deserted motorways. It bristles with absurd monuments like the vast Arch of Neutrality, a giant tripod topped off with a golden statue of the previous President, and multi-billion edifices constructed to reflect their function – the national Library in the shape of an open book, the dental hospital as a colossal molar, a grotesque new hotel as a drop of water, the most precious commodity in the desert. In all these white marble expanses there are hardly any actual people to be seen. We toured the excellent National Museum, three floors spreading over three wings, and were the only visitors.
The whole of Ashgabat was like a sci-fi city in a film, or a version of paradise glimpsed in a queasy dream. I didn’t mind leaving it behind to go camping.