Guest Column: John Kropf’s Unknown Sands

unknownsands.jpg (Ed: If, like me, you know sensationally little about Turkmenistan, you may be interested in this excerpt from John Kropf’s Unknown Sands, an account of the two years he spent living, working, and travelling through this closed country.)

For centuries, Turkmenistan was the world’s most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured and carried off by the fierce Turkmen to be used or sold as slaves. Europeans avoided traveling through the area at all costs. It was not until the late 19th century that Turkmenistan– the last of the wild Central Asian territories–was finally subdued by the Russian Army. Now, an independent country strategically located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, it sits atop one of the planet’s largest natural gas reserves. Still, Turkmenistan is virtually unknown to the outside world.

The country had always been subsumed as part of larger indefinite, geographical regions with names like Khorezm, Tartary, Transoxus, Turkmenia, Transcaspia and Turkestan. Before its conquest by the Russians in the 1880s, the territory was never considered a country in political terms. Its boundaries were undefined and its people were deemed ungovernable despite repeated attempts to subdue them. While the Turkmen tribes had been the last to submit to Russian rule, it came only but only after a terrible cost. There are some who doubted it should even be a country at all; that it should instead be returned to its natural, pre-Russian existence that was nothing more than a harsh desert sparsely occupied by fierce nomadic tribes. The country represented the southernmost reach of the Russian Empire in the Great Game with Britain.


At Turkmenistan’s center is the Kara Kum Desert, or Black Sand Desert, which dominates eighty percent of the country. The Kara Kum is a land of graceful windswept ridges of Arabian gold sand about which T.E. Lawrence might have romanticized–the Desert instilled fear and melancholy in Europeans. In the 1880s while traveling the Transcaspian railway, a young Lord Curzon pronounced it the “sorriest waste that ever met the human eye.” Intrepid British traveler Fitzroy Maclean, a historian of Central Asia and a man used to hardship, described it as a “vast expanse of stony wasteland stretching away as far as the eye could see in every direction varied only by occasional scrub, by low stony ridges or by dunes of soft, shifting sand, shaped by the wind.”

The legends of the Turkmen were as forbidding as the landscape.

Described as “fierce tribes of marauding nomads,” by Maclean, he said that they were “notorious through Central Asia for their cruelty, rapacity and treachery.” Marco Polo had a bad first impression reporting that the “Turkomans are a rude people and dull of intellect, they dwell amongst the mountains and in places of difficult access.” His uncles, who had made the Silk Road journey from Venice to Peking once before, had taken the “northern” route through Turkmen territory, stopping in Merv. On their second trip with Marco, they avoided the Turkmen, preferring to go the longer, southern route through Afghanistan. By then, the armies of Ghengis Khan had obliterated many of the Turkmen cities of the northern route.

As if geographic oblivion, an ethnic identity crisis, and bad travel reviews were not enough, the rulers of this remote territory had long sought to keep the land closed and its people isolated. After independence in 1991, the Turkmen regime, like their tribal predecessors, held an even greater suspicion of foreigners than the Soviets had. Saparamurat Niyazov, who since the Soviet period had been the First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party, had become the first president and still remained the supreme decision-maker. He returned the country to a strict Stalinist-style of rule, adopted the title Turkmenbashi (leader of all Turkmen), and bestowed on himself the official title “the Great.” Niyazov ordered that a special government committee be formed by the security apparatus to monitor the movement of foreigners and diplomats. Entrance to the country required a letter of invitation approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Journalists were routinely denied visas. Turkmenistan was effectively a closed country.

This was where my wife, Eileen, and our two-year old daughter, went to live and work for two years that included September 11 and a war in next-door Afghanistan. The move seemed like a questionable idea at the time but it became one of life’s great surprises. It was the beginning of an adventure.

John Kropf served at the American Embassy in Turkmenistan as the Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Because of his work with the Embassy, he was able to travel extensively through Turkmenistan. His writing credits include creative non-fiction and humor articles that have appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Marco Polo Magazine and the online humor magazine Flak. He also contributed a story to Sports Car Illustrated (now defunct) that detailed his grandfather’s 1919 cross-country trek in a FIAT roadster (“Tales of the Mudbound”). Professionally, he has served as an lawyer for the U.S. Department of State specializing in international law as well as an Honors Program attorney for the Department of Justice. He is currently the Director of International Privacy Programs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He lives outside Washington D.C.

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