“It feels like you’re playing a part in a play, but you just don’t know what part you’re playing,” was how Belgian film maker Reizen Waes described visiting the secretive state of Turkmenistan in Central Asia.
I now know what he means.
I first grasped this might be a more than unusual trip as we boarded the plane to Turkmenistan from Turkey and a lady asked us: “Where are you going?”
“Ashgabat,” I replied, referring to the Turkmenistan capital. “You are television – be careful,” she responded.
Only one of my CNN colleagues had ever been to Turkmenistan and that was 20 years ago, which gives an indication of just how secretive this country is – particularly to international journalists.
The 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkmenistan 178 out of 180 countries – ahead of only Eritrea and North Korea.
It’s a country that was molded by its first post-Soviet leader Saparmurat Niyazov. He liked power. And the sound of his own name.
So much so, he wrote his birthday into the Koran. He changed the days of the week and months of the year to the names of his family. He banned ballet, the circus, beards on men – and even sport. He even built a statue of himself that followed the sun.
When Niyazov died in 2006, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took over – and moved his predecessor’s statue from the center of the city.
A U.S. Embassy cable in 2009 described Berdimuhamedov as “vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,’ and vindictive.”
But there’s no mistaking who is in charge of Turkmenistan – there are almost as many portraits of the president as there are white marble buildings.
That’s quite something for a city that has put itself in the Guinness World Records for its number of marble buildings.
The 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Turkmenistan says the country “remains one of the world’s most repressive.”
The report added that it is “virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal.”
The report continues: “The government continues to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation” and that “the release of several political prisoners and the adoption of some new laws that some have hailed as ‘reform,’ have barely dented this stark reality.”
So we wonder how much of the “real” Turkmenistan we’re going to see.
We’d been granted visas for 48 hours, as part of an international media forum being held as the country prepares to open itself up to the world by hosting major international sporting events.
On first impressions it’s hard to comprehend that Ashgabat is a capital city.
True, it has some of the most incredible buildings and monuments – all made of white marble and gold. It’s clean – incredibly clean – with workers out first thing every morning hard at work scrubbing the streets.
But shops are nowhere to be seen; nor adverts for international brands. Even people are hard to come by.
We’d been on Turkmenistan soil for 30 seconds when we glimpse our first Berdimuhamedov portrait. It took just 10 minutes from exiting the airport to be told: “You can’t film that.”
So just how is Turkmenistan – a country seemingly so unaccustomed to international visitors, let alone the media – going to cope with 8,000 athletes and officials from around the world when it hosts the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017?
The National Television and Radio Company of Turkmenistan helps keep the nation in check. It’s based in a Guinness World Record winning star shaped building perched on hillside overlooking Ashgabat.
All channels and newspaper are under state control. Guess whose picture appears on the front pages every day?
Berdimuhamedov has come to the conclusion that sport is not only a way to sell his country internationally, but also improve Turkmenistan internally and he preaches the importance of a fit and healthy nation.
Our student guide Gee tells us: “The first thing that our president always says is that our children, our new generation should be healthy and to be healthy the first thing is to do sports – that is why he is opening new complexes, he is giving us new opportunities, and also we are doing here some kind of new sports.”
Like Russian president Vladimir Putin, Berdimuhamedov is a leader who likes to lead by example.
There are pictures of him taking part in all kinds of sport – from taekwondo to football to shooting.
And like Putin, Berdimuhamedov is a fan of horses, even riding as a jockey at the local race track.
Berdimuhamedov encourages his people to take “The Walk of Health” – a 36 kilometer long stepped path that wends it way through the mountains of Ashgabat.
And the new apartment blocks being built in the city all have sports courts and pitches at the back of them – for tennis, basketball and five-a-side football.
Nobody we met would say anything against Berdimuhamedov. Then again we struggled to find anyone to say very much at all about anything.
We asked to speak to Turkmenistan officials about their drive for sport and their campaign – the “Month of Health” – that coincided with our visit. We were negotiating past midnight to speak to them, but as our trip went on, our interviewees dropped out.
In the end there was a very short media conference – the first for international journalists the country has ever held – with the head of the Turkmenistan Olympic Committee, which marks progress to a degree.
We were told it wasn’t a case of not wanting to speak or open up, but after being so closed for so long, there was a real fear of getting it wrong. Whether that fear is of those inside or outside Turkmenistan we never found out.
There’s no doubt Turkmenistan is visually stunning. As well as all that white marble, there’s “The Gateway to Hell,” a 70-meter wide crater in the desert that’s home to a naturally burning gas fire.
We managed to escape the confines of the media conference to sample “The Walk of Health” that citizens are encouraged to walk every year.
We drove through a village where a lady was walking her cow through a field. We spoke to some children in the old part of Ashgabat, away from the marble-riddled parts of city.
The racecourse and stables where Berdimuhamedov keeps his famed Akhal-Teke horses are very impressive.
We asked to visit these places and although it took a lot of phone calls and manoeuvring we did manage to see them. Off camera we met some incredibly welcoming, hospitable and engaging individuals, people who just didn’t want to get things wrong on it.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where I’ve asked so many questions, but received so few answers.
Forty eight hours after landing, we were back at the airport to return home via Istanbul – armed with some exclusive footage of a country that seems to be taking some steps to open up.
But will we be heading back with a host of colleagues as Turkmenistan plays host to an Olympics? That prospect might be some way off.