From 2005 to 2016 I worked in the Caspian Sea state of Azerbaijan.
The company that I worked for were based in Baku the capital, but I would normally spend my six weeks at work on a diving vessel offshore from there.
On occasion, our employer would be required to provide personnel for short jobs in Turkmenistan, which is directly across the Caspian Sea from Baku.
Like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan is an ex-Soviet Republic, ruled by a president for life, an ex-KGB hard man, similar to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Heydar Aliyev, the original president of Azerbaijan until he died in 2003, ruled the poverty-stricken oil and gas-rich and grossly corrupt country with an iron fist.
A very similar situation existed in Turkmenistan; huge wealth to be plundered was generated through oil and gas revenue.
Everything in there used to be named after its dictator president Saparmurat Niyazov, who eccentrically ruled Turkmenistan from when independence was achieved in 1991 until he died in 2006.
His predecessor Gurbanguly Bedimuhamedow had seemingly been working hard to dismantle the cult of Niyazov, which had reached eye-watering levels of ostentatiousness during his two decades in power, but as it turned out Bedimuhamedow merely replaced one cult of adoration with another.
Regular ferries ran the 179 Nautical Miles from Baku to Turkmenbashi, the main Turkmenistan seaport. But when we, as essential workers, were required to go across, we flew from Heydar Aliyev (everything in Baku is named after the first president) to Ashkhabad International airport in Ashkhabad Turkmenistan.
I went to Turkmenistan three times in my early years in Baku.
Two of us from the ROV team would be told that we were going across, once our work visas came through.
Whilst in Turkmenistan, everything was paid for with cash, so the supervisor would be given up to $5000, to cover hotel bills, taxis from and to Turkmenbashi, and meals in Ashkhabad.
If the job went on longer than anticipated and we ran out of cash, somebody from the Baku office would fly across with more.
I worked as an operator (pilot) and technician of remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) which are electrically powered underwater robots, controlled by the ‘pilot’ from the surface, and capable of carrying out underwater tasks such as inspection by built-in cameras or sonar, and light construction tasks with the hydraulic manipulators.
The job in Turkmenistan was usually to assist in a Jack-up rig move offshore from Turkmenbashi.
A Jack up rig is a movable oil rig, with a floatable platform and three or four retractable legs. They are usually used during maintenance on permanent platforms, or for drilling.
The ROV is required to give the rig operator a video and sonar picture of where the legs of the rig are coming down, once the rig is in position.
If one of the legs came down on top of metallic debris or rock on the seabed, it could be a dire situation for the rig in question.
So the ROV would check the touchdown area, and then watch from a safe distance as each leg was wound down.
When I worked there we went out to the rig on a decrepit old workboat, but thankfully we didn’t have to stay out overnight, so in the evening we would go back to Turkmenbashi, take a taxi to Ashkhabad and spend the night in a luxurious hotel, where members of the staff offered us up to double the value of our American dollars for Turkmenistan Manats. That sounds like a great deal, but nobody actually wanted Turkmenistan Manats, so unless one was collecting exotic paper money, it was in reality, a terrible deal! I did buy a few for my collection, but I never engaged in currency speculation.
The hotel was a luxury personified building of five or six stories, certainly five-star but with very few guests; actually, during the times I was there, I would swear that we were the only ones in the place. There were always lots of staff, so drinks in the bar, meals and room service were delivered quickly and by a perfectly polite young staff member, who gratefully accepted a two-dollar tip as if it were twenty.
The city of Ashkhabad is almost entirely built of white marble and gold and rises from the surrounding desert like a mirage.
Billions of oil revenue dollars were surely spent on bespoke high-rise hotels meticulously manicured public parks, fountains, heroic sculptures, museums, art galleries, mosques and public buildings. The whole place shines so brightly that even on dull days sunglasses are required when walking around taking in the sights.
In fact, the only thing that was noticeably absent from a metropolis so obviously designed and built with an eye for the spectacular, was people, particularly tourists. Many times, it appeared that my companion and I were the only customers at coffee shops, in the hotel restaurant or in the bar.
It often felt like we had been caught up in an episode of Rod Serling’s twilight zone.
Of course, there were people around, but really not that many for such a visually striking city.
I found out later that tourist visas were notoriously hard to get, and were only issued once the aspirant tourist agreed to undertake, and pay for, some very, very expensive tours.
So while seemingly keen to encourage tourism with the provision of plush hotels, museums and beautiful boulevards with grassed parks and sculptures, the authorities discouraged it by charging huge amounts of money for obligatory tours, however, because we were working there, we were allowed to forego the de-rigueur’ circuit of must-see sites.
One notable tour destination that one could hardly avoid seeing was a truly gargantuan gold-plated statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, ‘Turkmenbashi’ (father of the Turkmen), which sat atop the monstrous ‘Neutrality’ arch in the centre of Ashkhabad.
The heroic statue not only towered above everything in the vicinity but, in order to further underpin his omnipotence, it rotated during the day to follow the sun.
On one trip to Turkmenistan, the rig’s movement was delayed by nearly a week because of bad weather, so we wandered around Ashkhabad taking in the sights.
At a restaurant where we stopped for lunch, my colleague warned me that it was quite normal for foreigners to be followed and recorded with listening devices hidden in bushes and behind statues.
I can’t imagine that the ‘spooks’ who listened in on us, gleaned any important information from our discussions of the Caspian carpet industry, the museums or the phenomenally tidy aspect of the city.
The museums that we visited at that time were replete with examples of the exquisite workmanship of Turkmenistan’s carpet weavers, and the archaeological artefacts from the many sites around that ancient country.
I eventually bought two carpets in Azerbaijan, one was from Afghanistan made of silk and wool, and the other from Azerbaijan made of wool. They were very expensive and difficult to carry home, but I managed.
There were leaflets in the hotel rooms and lobby, urging tourists to visit dozens of archaeological and geological sites throughout the country.
Even though those tourist sites would be far more interesting to me than the garish architectural ones in Ashkhabad because we were at work, I could not go off for the day, in case we were required.
It is quite a shame because having almost had that opportunity to see the truly wondrous (it seems) natural and man-made phenomenon, and then reading about them later, I was truly sorry.
In 2010 the contract I was working on in Azerbaijan changed, and trips to Turkmenistan were no longer on the itinerary.
Travelling to that strange country had been interesting, and my interest in it had certainly been piqued, encouraging me to learn more about a place which I had barely heard of, before going to work there.
Saparmurat Niyazov was a truly eccentric character. One of the many laws that he instituted during his totalitarian reign was that women’s make-up was not sold in Turkmenistan because the Turkmen women were beautiful enough without it.
He also tried to rename the months and days to reference the eccentric ramblings in his autobiography the Ruhnama, a sickly pink-coloured book detailing Niyazov’s fantasies about himself, and his family.
It became mandatory reading for schoolchildren, university students and governmental organisations.
Applicants for government jobs would be grilled on its contents at interview and, an actual written exam became part of the application process for a driving test.
In 2005 he closed all hospitals and libraries outside the capital, announcing that if people are sick or in need of a book, “then they can go to Ashkhabad “this, in a country overwhelmingly rural!
Under his ruthlessly totalitarian rule, Turkmenistan had the lowest life expectancy in Central Asia.
In terms of his kleptocracy, that was an area unaffected by his eccentric behaviour. He understood perfectly that the money looted from his country was his own personal nest egg, and it was estimated that he held as much as US$3 billion in Western European accounts, controlled directly by him up to his death.