Christmas has as many meanings as people you care to ask. For some, it’s an opportunity to freak out and declare there’s a war on the holiday and therefore the American way of life. That particular howl at the moon is now almost as traditional as the day itself, and my personal favorite whine when it gets rolled out every year.
I have spent Christmas Day in many different countries over the years. No matter where I end up, there is one image I can count on seeing: the face of Santa Claus hovering over the Coca-Cola logo.
Yesterday I was in Khiva, Uzbekistan, to visit the restored-to-the-point-of-overkill structures of the old city, which dates back to the brutal days of the Silk Road. It’s quite beautiful in that UNESCO way, where most notions of antiquity are erased in the rebuild. During the three hours I walked in and out of the buildings, it occurred to me that it was like an Islamic Disneyland, or part of the Las Vegas Strip. Still, a lot of original tilework is intact and it is truly awesome.
In front of the main gate of the city walls, men were erecting a large Christmas tree. Not far from that was the image of Santa and Coca-Cola. There is hardly a city block where said beverage isn’t for sale in the Central Asian countries I have been to on this trip. The cockles of Thomas Friedman’s heart are no doubt warmed. They’ve got Coke. Peace be with them all.
The hotels I have stayed in at this time of the year, often in predominantly Muslim countries, almost always give a nod to Christmas. Seeing it expressed without the consumerist bloodlust that is now inextricably woven into Christmas in America, it can be taken as a sincere gesture to perhaps make a Western visitor feel welcome.
In Tashkent tonight, I sat in the hotel bar, drawn by the seductive power of its damn fine caffè Americano, and listened to Dean Martin sing Christmas tunes over the speakers. In the lobby was a truly strange papier-mâché Christmas sculpture that succeeded on a what-the-hell level. Hopefully, it was a school project.
Of all the “this sure enough is a bizarre sight in the middle of all this shit” (to quote Laurence Fishburne’s character in Apocalypse Now) Christmas-abroad experiences I have ever had, the most bizarre happened days ago during a stay in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat.
Ashgabat is easily the single strangest and ugliest city I have ever visited. No other place I have been to comes close on the big-budget/no-taste scale. Ashgabat is in The Guinness Book of World Records for the density of white marble used in its buildings: “543 new buildings clad with 4,513,584 m² (48,583,619 ft²)” of the stuff, according to the Guinness website.
One after another, massive white marble monstrosities tower crudely over the streets and fairly leer at you as you pass. Mirrored windows with gold frames on almost all of them make the structures look simultaneously overpriced and incredibly cheap.
A lot of these ghastly buildings belong to the government. I was on one road where there were several city blocks of these things. I asked the guide what was what. “Ministry of Finance, Transportation, Agriculture, oh, I don’t know what that one is?…?.”
I asked her if there was anyone inside. She said they were all fully staffed. I asked where their cars were, and why weren’t there any people outside the buildings besides armed soldiers and cops? She didn’t know.
The buildings were so huge, it made me wonder if there was anyone in the city who didn’t work for the government. It was a perfect Big Brother setting. How big is the government? You’ll never know. All you get to see are the omnipresent cops, uniformed and otherwise. The rest of the gang is behind the mirrored glass, doing who knows what. No asking!
The guide didn’t have much to show me, because besides the government buildings, there isn’t much to see.
When we got to a statue of Lenin, I had to ask the guide how the hell can they have an image of this shitbird still standing when they celebrate their independence from Russia so proudly? I wasn’t trying to jam her up, but it begs the question. It would be like having a statue of Genghis Khan almost anywhere in Central Asia, to never forget those thrilling days of the 13th century when ol’ Genghis came a-ridin’ into town, saddles blazing.
Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, runs the country with an iron grip. It’s like the bad-dad syndrome where the whole family trembles in fear, clinging to the moments when bad dad smiles.
The guide said that everyone is happy here and things are just fine. But the way she said it sounded as if she really wanted to change the subject.
In two of the parks we walked through, we were trailed and confronted by plainclothes police. In the different cars I rode in over the few days I was there, we were pulled over eight times.
Most sites I tried to access on the Internet were blocked. Sitting in the lobby alone would draw up to three security people, who just stood around me.
In the midst of all this white-marble clampdown, workers were erecting Christmas trees and other Western holiday affectations. The Coke ads were all over. Have a Coke and a smile! You’re smiling, right? You’d better be.
The messages were so well mixed it was stupefying.
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Ashgabat is a perfect example of the total tradeoff of freedom for security. Not very merry.
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