Page last updated at 07:42 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 08:42 UK

Rare glimpse inside hidden Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has remained largely closed to the world since its independence from Soviet rule in 1991. The BBC's Rayhan Demytrie took advantage of a Silk Road car rally to see the country.

Truck in Silk Road Rally, Turkmenistan
The Silk Road rally went from Russia to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan

Welcome to Turkmenistan: "Passports, please. Put your bags on the scales," said a bossy customs officer at Ashgabad's airport.

This was our fourth passport check since arriving at what is officially called Saparmurat Turkmenbashi International airport.

But his expression soon changed.

"Oh... journalists, here for the rally? Welcome to Turkmenistan!" he said with a broad smile.

Turkmenistan is Central Asia's most isolated country. But it has been hosting an event the government wanted to publicise.

The Silk Way Rally was a week-long car race of professionals and amateurs beginning in Kazan in Russia, winding its way through the Kazakh steppe and into the deserts of Turkmenistan.

It was an opportunity for natural gas-rich Turkmenistan to show how well it is doing - and for journalists it was a rare chance to visit a state that has been largely closed to the outside world.

White City

Every morning an army of street cleaners sweeps, scrapes and washes the central squares and avenues of Ashgabad, Turkmenistan's capital.

The city looks spotless. Smoking is banned outdoors and the penalty if you're caught is a steep $50 (£30).

There are enough policemen in the streets to ensure citizens obey the rules.

Building in Ashgabad
Turkmenistan is a great country - look at our capital
Tursun, Ashgabad street cleaner

In fact, there is one policeman every 100m, even in the quietest of places.

"I am kind of used to it, and I think it is not that bad," said one resident who did not want to be named. "At least we always feel safe."

Ashgabad has been under redevelopment for years. The building was begun under its former leader, the authoritarian Saparmurat Niyazov.

Nothing has stood in the way of Turkmenistan's construction boom.

Dubbed the White City, Ashgabad is full of high buildings with white marble facades.

All major public buildings, including government ministries, palaces, museums and schools, have been given the marble treatment.

Many residents are proud of their new city.

Gas pride

"Turkmenistan is a great country - look at our capital," says a street cleaner named Tursun.

"If you work hard, you earn money and live well. I work six days a week, clean the tiles of these fountains and trim rose bushes. I get paid about $100 a month. We are happy, thank you to our president, he says."

The country's leadership claims the country has not been affected by the global financial crisis.

Tolkuchka market in Ashgabad
Turkmenistan has had little contact with global markets

There is some truth to this, as Turkmenistan has had little contact with international markets.

An independent audit carried out in 2008 claimed the country has the fifth-largest proven gas reserves in the world.

Unsurprisingly, the international community has been courting the country, hoping for a stake in Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon wealth.

Only recently President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced his intention to join the Nabucco pipeline, the EU-backed project that would deliver Caspian gas to Europe, bypassing Russia.

Wind of change?

But rights groups have long warned that, seduced by gas, the international community has not put enough pressure on the country regarding political and social freedoms.

"It is much better now, we can travel from one region to another without special permission," says a woman in Turkmenistan's largest market, Tolkuchka, in the outskirts of Ashgabad.

Books by Turkmenistan President
There are signs the new president is building a cult of personality

Many here inevitably compare the recent past under Mr Niyazov - who pursued a cult of personality - to his successor, President Berdymukhamedov.

He has made a number of reforms, adopting a new constitution, restoring the country's parliament and reintroducing traditional names for days of the week and months.

He even restored the opera and circus - both pronounced alien to Turkmen culture under Mr Niyazov.

Today Mr Niyazov's pervasive legacy is fading away. The statues to him remain, but the golden paint is slowly peeling.

Repeating history

But three years into President Berdymukhamedov's rule, his portraits are increasingly replacing Mr Niyazov's.

In March a new mosque named after the president opened. A new modern school has taken his grandfather's name.

At the expense of foreign reading material, bookstores are full of the president's own works.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (L) with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Ashgabad - 7 September 2009
Turkmenistan has been courted by the international community

These include a colour compendium on the Turkmen national horse and a book about herbal medicine.

There is no independent media in Turkmenistan. State television channels and newspapers praise the government.

People prefer not to discuss politics. Any question which deviates from the positive makes them feel uncomfortable.

There have been worrying new developments, including restrictions on the right of Turkmen students to travel abroad.

Over the summer many were taken off planes as they were leaving to pursue studies at foreign universities.

At the departure lounge in Ashgabad international airport the majority of outbound passengers are students. They clutch papers that are being checked by state security officers.

Some are turned away.

Turkmenistan wants to show that it is slowly opening up to the outside world. But for many of its own citizens the country's borders remain closed.

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