Thursday, 1 August 2013


Is this the same man? Look carefully at these two photos. An obvious impostor, or simply a hair cut since the passport was printed in 2004?  

Does adding this piece of evidence change your decision? The identification details are identical to the passport, but the hairstyle matches the more recent photograph supplied. Is this the same man??

If you answered “Yes” to this question, I am thankful for your trust, but I am sorry to inform you that you would not be given a position in the Visa Issuing Office of the Republic of Turkmenistan in Ashgabat. (With what I’ve heard of the recent job cuts in New Zealand, I hope none of you were holding this possibility dear).

With what we had heard of the legendary bureaucratic hoops, quirks and absurdities of the Central Asian nations, we had been mainly quite pleasantly surprised with the success of our travels here so far. But yesterday it happened. We fell on the wrong side of the quirks. The authorities in Ashgabat sent back their response to our Turkmenistan visa application: Denied. The helpful man in the Embassy here in Dushanbe gave us the news, although it stretched his English to the maximum. “Oliver. Problem.” And resorting to mime, he gestured the differing hair lengths. The problem, we gathered, is the hair. Or the current lack of it. “Ashgabat...” he said, and raised his crossed arms in a decisive “X”. It was a no go.

Yes there was cause for disappointment, but not for absolute surprise. After all, this was a country led from 1991 to 2006 by a man who demanded to be always addressed as “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of the Turkmen), who erected giant gold statues of himself in all the cities and plastered buildings with his image, who changed the Constitution so that he could remain President for life and renamed the months of the year after members of his own family. Even though his successor is allegedly more moderate, and has lifted the ban on ballet and car stereos, maybe he does not approve of shaving one’s head? Or of dramatic hairstyle changes of any sort? A person capable of such dramatic changes of appearance must surely pose a threat to the stability of the nation, and even the generous five-day visa granted to most foreign travellers would in this case be much too risky to allow.

I had had high hopes that even a short visit to this mysterious nation would furnish a wealth of fascinating and absurd stories, observations and pictures that we could report to you all. Instead, we are to have only one astounding story to tell, this one. Our one run-in with Quirkmenistan. Brief as it is, it is still enlightening.

Oliver is considering applying to the Human Rights Commission for redress of this discrimination based on (premature) age-related hair loss. Meanwhile we have booked flights from Tashkent Uzbekistan to Tbilisi, Georgia, and will continue our cycling in these fascinating parts of the world as we head through the Caucasus, Iran and Turkey.  


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