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Bread and Circus
I firmly believe that any place you travel to and any person you meet teaches you something somehow. Sometimes the lessons are bigger, sometimes they are smaller, and sometimes you leave confused, not really knowing how your impressions fit into the bigger picture. Yesterday morning, I left Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, strangely puzzled by what I have seen. Since, have been incapable of figuring out how and where to place my feelings about this country twice the area of the United Kingdom and roughly the population of Singapore. A country that, to me, was a totally blank spot on the map and I dare to say it is intended as such.
Ashgabat was not only a place full of strange, monumental angular marble structures brightly lit with LEDs at night, however, empty of people, it was also a place full of bizarre contradictions.
Coincidently, the night I left was the end of the Asian Indoor and Martian Arts Games (AIMAG) that were held in Ashgabat over the past 10 days. Still, I am strangely fascinated by the fact that 6,000 athletes from 65 countries in Central Asia and Oceania, and a team of refugees from South Sudan, competed for 10 days in a sports competition that cost the country at least $7.3 billion (!) for brand new, bombastic sports facilities and a never seen before international airport (and I can say I have seen a fair share of airports). Reportedly, Turkmen citizens were given a 10-day mandatory holiday to go and attend. They and their self-financed clothing had to be state-approved in order to be allowed to the stadium.
It might be just me being totally ignorant and not necessarily an international sport scene aficionada – but did anyone else know these games were taking place? An Iranian weightlifter broke an 18-year world record – am I the only one who did not hear about this? Even while being there I would not have become aware if there weren’t Ashgabat 2017 displays all over the city and by my guide who – only mildly excited – told me why some of the streets were blocked. Otherwise, I would have been even more confused by the incredible firework finale that woke me up thinking Riverdance would do a dry run the storey above.
The main thing that puzzled me were that these games were produced to shed light for ten exclusive days on a country that usually – in my humble opinion – flies absolutely under the radar. Turkmenistan is extremely difficult to get a visa to and is known for its neutrality in international matters. The government has also reportedly stopped subsidizing utilities for the first time since its independency from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Instagram surely is not the ideal platform, nor does it offer enough characters, for in depth discussion. However, I believe this is not only a place for pastel coloured images and holiday selfies, but also a place to share thoughts and knowledge of any kind. My thought today is if an extraordinarily version of panem et circenses (bread and circuses) is really worth it, if it will leave your country poorer than before, if it will leave your population facing shortages. Especially in exchange for a price tag equivalent to 21 brand new Boeing 747-8 for which you get pretty much zero international attention. The AIMAG was nothing compared to the Olympia spirit in Rio last year, or soccer World Championships. I know it is a different target audience, but even if you put it into Google all you stare at is a shockingly low amount of articles written by second class news outlets.
Neither I nor Google have any more fundamental information about how the internal political situation really unfolds. However, after what I have seen, my impression challenges me to doubt what I read on the internet. To me, visiting Ashgabat was a coincidence which I take as an eyeopening reminder that there is an incredible amount of things that – in spite our bubblewrap of freedom of speech and press diverstiy – I don’t even remotely know a thing about. It is nice to believe in what is reported in the media, however, we won’t know for sure unless we step out of our comfort zones and go discover with our own eyes.