- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

UNKNOWN SANDS: JOURNEYS AROUND THE WORLD’S MOST ISOLATED COUNTRIES

By John W. Kropf, Dusty Spark Publishing, $26, 210 pages

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, some of its components quickly embraced democracy. Some did it fitfully; some not at all. One of the latter was Turkmenistan, a little-known land in Central Asia, sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on the north and Iran and Afghanistan on the south, and with a short stretch of Caspian Sea shoreline.

There,Saparmurad Niyazov decided that president-for-life would be a good job and proceeded to develop a personality cult, calling himself “Turkmenbashi” (head of all Turkmen). Larger-than-life billboards of him lace the capital, Ashgabat. There are golden statues of him, and every time he feels a military parade coming on, he has a neighborhood bulldozed for a new monumental boulevard.

Turkmenistan’s government behaves as if the Soviet Union still existed: The press is controlled, foreigners are shadowed by the secret police, criticism of the president is forbidden, the “command” economy is as inefficient as ever.

Into this landed the Kropf family in 2000. The author’s wife, a Foreign Service officer, had been assigned to be the political and economic officer at the American embassy there. The author, a government lawyer, left his job to accompany her and their 2-year-old daughter.

After a short stint as a house-husband, he was engaged by the embassy to be country director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which had a number of projects in various parts of the country. Over the next two years this job afforded him the opportunity to visit the remotest corners of this remote nation. This book is the result.

Turkmenistan was the home of Genghis Khan’s fierce Mongol warriors and their descendants. So fearsome were they that it was not until 1884 that Russian forces were able to subdue the five tribes of the country. Today, outside the capital, the people are politically passive, centering their lives around family, clan, tribe and centuries-old traditions. Some are still nomadic herders, moving their yurts as their herds seek greener grass. The grass is not that plentiful, for 80 percent of the country is consumed by the Kara Kum desert, where the summers are blisteringly hot.

Moscow, with its penchant for gigantism, decided years ago that Turkmenistan would be the cotton bowl for all of the U.S.S.R. They built a 900-mile canal to divert the waters of the Amudarya River (a project which nearly killed the Aral Sea) in order to grow cotton. The Turkmen government has since extended the canal, though much of the water is lost because it is not lined. Mr. Kropf visited parts of the river and canal rarely seen by outsiders and gives us a vivid picture of them, set in the otherwise dry and dusty landscape.

The author gives us a modern-day Baedeker of the country, visiting many crumbling, mud-walled castles and forts along the Silk Road, as well as shrines and mausoleums. It is the people he met who come across most touchingly. The warm welcomes and hospitality he encountered made the country unforgettable for him. His account of the Tolkuchka Bazaar, the largest open-air market in Central Asia, puts the reader right in the center of its varied, noisy and colorful activity.

A dividend that comes with this book is the knowledge that the USAID has many small but useful projects in such remote places. The author saw them all, from water monitoring stations working toward cleaner water supplies (to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis) to an American-supplied computer in a tiny village in a far corner of the country. The computer is kept in a locked building and used every day by its one trained operator to record all the village’s vital statistics and to write letters for its citizens. The local people appreciate every one of these projects and give full credit to their American origin.

The simple but textured life of the towns and villages of Turkmenistan stands in sharp contrast to the cloud-cuckoo-land quality of the capital, Ashgabat. There, the president is working mightily to create lasting monuments to himself. The billboards won’t outlast him for long, but perhaps several hundred years from now travelers will come across a crumbling golden statue and wonder about it, as the author did of the crumbling mud castles.

Peter Hannaford is senior counselor to the committee on the Present Danger.

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