Turkmenistan is a central Asian country roughly the size of California bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.
The country achieved independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 under the eccentric leadership of President Niyazov who ruled as dictator until his death in 2006. Niyazov took autocratic narcissism to heights unscaled by even North Korean dictator Kim Ill Jung. He renamed Monday after himself and decreed that bread be referred to by his mother's name. He famously insisted on being referred to as Turkmenbashi ('Father of all Turkmen'), and erected a 49 foot (15 metre) high gold statue in the capital that rotated throughout the day to face the sun.
Turkmenistan has a subtropical desert climate with long, hot summers and cold and dry winters. Much of the country is desert, but the small portion of the land that is arable is extensively irrigated, allowing Turkmenistan to be one of the top 10 producers of cotton in the world. The real wealth, however, lies under the ground in the form of extensive oil and gas reserves.
The capital city Ashgabat was almost totally destroyed by a 1948 earthquake. The rebuilt modern city has been conceived in the grand Soviet style with plenty of monuments and statues to Niyazov.
Although Turkmenistan is a young state, this region is one of the oldest inhabited areas on earth. Dekhistan is a considered a lost city of the Silk Road. Today its remote 10th century ruins make for a fascinating excursion into the desert. Near the city of Mary are the ruins of the ancient Persian town of Merv. With over 4,000 years of history, this is the oldest and best preserved oasis city on the Silk Road.
Despite these intriguing attractions Turkmenistan still receives more business travellers than tourists. With Niyazov's demise there are signs the country is opening up a bit, Turkmenistan will, in all likelihood, remain an off-beat destination with limited appeal.
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