Even today, when most of us are used to seeing photographs of empty cities in lockdown, images of Turkmenistan still manage to leave an impression of total, eerie stillness. Its capital, Ashgabat — populated by expensive marble buildings, uncanny American-style suburbs, and record-breaking attractions — while built to stun visitors, is also almost as remote and unreachable as any fairytale kingdom. Not only are visas to enter Turkmenistan hard to come by; there are no more than three ATMs across the country that accept foreign cards. Internet access is blocked outside the capital city, and tourists must follow itineraries set by a state-authorised travel agency when visiting the country.
Awaza is a tourist resort on the Caspian Sea envisioned by Turkmenistan’s former president, Saparmurat Niyazov (who served as the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006), and finally conceived by its current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. At present, Awaza boasts six hotels with more in the works, despite the fact that visitors are few and far between. In fact, the majority of hotels stand empty in high season.
In 2019, Bulgarian photographer Konstantin Vulkov travelled Awaza to cover the First Caspian Economic Forum, attended by Bulgaria’s Prime Minister. His photos show Awaza’s glitzy exteriors and hint at the emptiness behind the extravagant and well-maintained facades. We asked him about his experience as a photographer in Turkmenistan: is it possible to find artistic freedom when shooting under strict supervision?
I’d wanted to visit Turkmenistan for the longest time, especially Awaza. Recently built in the middle of nowhere, full of ultra-modern skyscrapers and five-star hotels, most of which stand empty, Awaza is probably the least-known and most peculiar beach resort in the world.
I travelled as a journalist covering Bulgaria’s Prime Minister’s visit to the Forum. It was relatively easy to get to the country, as we arrived on a government jet. However, on route to Awaza, we were not allowed to step outside of the bus. No other cars were allowed into Awaza for the duration of the Forum, and the roads leading to the resort were picture-perfect, just like the airport where we’d landed and all of the other architectural landmarks. Turkmenistan holds the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, but the country is practically bankrupt. The fences of the houses we drove past were covered with large posters for the Forum, so that no one could peer through into the reality beyond. Our bus passed a newly-built children’s playground, but there were never any kids in sight.
Turkmenistan’s restrictions on reporters and photographers meant that I had to appear more as a tourist than a journalist. I was accompanied by a guide and a driver at all times. It was impossible to make any requests: several times I tried asking my driver to stop at random places to take photos, but there was always a good reason not to.
Taxis do not accept foreign customers, which meant I couldn’t visit the nearby city of Turkmenbashi. Our driver could only drive us around the resort. As President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was in attendance, the whole city was under tight security, allegedly because he was riding his bike around town. We could walk from time to time, but much of the resort was empty and the beaches were deserted, except for the president’s yacht. This wasn’t just down to the Forum: the waters of the Caspian sea are cold, and very few locals apart from a few government workers can afford to stay in the resort. The newly-built airport in the capital city was built to host 17 million passengers per year, yet just five to six thousand people visit Turkmenistan each year.
The only people I came across were the staff — the waiters, the drivers, the women cleaning the country’s state-of-the-art air conditioned bus stops. It was a strange phenomenon, running into the cleaners twice daily, even when there were no buses in sight.
I was shooting with a Leica M Typ 240, a relatively small camera; a large format camera, by comparison, would have made me more suspicious. I wanted to convey the solitude and loneliness of the town without any exaggeration. I didn’t have any officials looking back through my photos, but there were always two representatives of their Foreign Ministry with us, and the driver was instructed not to take us anywhere else than the previously discussed and approved route.
If I have an opportunity to go back, I think I’d focus more on documenting Turkmenistan’s personalities: the football referees, the museum attendants, the railroad workers. I believe that you can document Turkmenistan with ease if you are curious enough.