I returned a couple of weeks ago from the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan where I worked as Photo Manager for the Equestrian Events and as part of the Official Photographer team for other sports. An ‘interesting’ experience for sure as I got to photograph a few sports that I had never seen before, even after 35 years+ as a sports photographer. In fact, when I found out I was going to the Games I actually had to look up several of the martial arts as I had never actually heard of them.
After an incredibly long journey of almost 40 hours I arrived in Ashgabat – pity my baggage did not also arrive! (It would be three days before it was found at JFK and another day before it arrived in Ashgabat). Fortunately my essential photo equipment was all carried as hand baggage. The first thing one notices on arrival, apart from the heat, is the incredible whiteness of the city. Ashgabat was entirely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948, one of the most powerful ever recorded, with reports varying between 110,000 and 176,000 deaths. This resulted in a rebuilding programme that has seen every single building clad in white marble. More marble here than any other city on earth. What is remarkable is that this tragic event was not reported to the world until after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991.
The sports facilities constructed in the centre of Ashgabat are truly remarkable – worthy of any world class event, and again completely clad in white marble. Spent the first few days getting to know my way around before the Games actually started.
Opening ceremonies were of the highest order featuring a wide range of Turkmen culture and ending in a spectacular firework display.
Unfortunately the following day I came down with a bad bout of ‘Turkman Tummy’, a condition shared at some point with just about every person working at the games, and which, unfortunately lasted to some degree throughout the two weeks of competitions and even after I got home.
However, I continued to be able to work and covered a range of interesting competitions, including weightlifting, belt wrestling, kick boxing, sambo and even snooker.
The final day allowed myself and a colleague to venture out with the aid of a local taxi driver (read Government minder) to see some of the local colour and architecture. One must be extremely careful photographing in this country, no images with police or military personnel, and great care when photographing certain monuments – if in doubt ask and if told no accept this without question.
A little background
Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, very much a desert country mostly dominated by the Karakum Desert. It is certainly subject to an authoritarian regime, ruled closely by current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (a self avowed sports fanatic), who’s photo appears in just about every room of every building, bus, taxi, and sports facility. I’s an Islamic state, although fairly moderate, and was once an important stop on the silk road. It declared itself a state of permanent neutrality in 1995, a state recognized by the UN.