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President driving. How was the rally raid in one of the most closed countries in the world

98% of visa denials for foreigners, a ban on leaving the country for men under 40 years of age, a total personality cult – this is what Turkmenistan represents in the European and Russian press. In the fall of 2018, an international rally raid took place in the country – for a week, the country forgot about restrictions and let in hundreds of foreigners: riders, mechanics and journalists. Forbes Life tells how it was
The sand extends tens of kilometers around. In the middle of a bumpy desert with bushes sticking here and there, a village suddenly appears. The first thing you notice is a wicker hedge for livestock. The second is a row of identical gray houses with the inscription “2014” on the facade. Apparently, this is the year of construction. The third is solar panels that supply homes with electricity. A camel sitting on the ground is tied to a rod, a small flock of sheep roams nearby. We are in Turkmenistan.

Strictly speaking, the group of journalists accompanying the participants of the Amul-Khazar-2018 should not have been in this village. In an attempt to cut the road, we have gone astray, and now we are wandering in the very middle of the Karakum, trying to get on the trail of riders who have gone ahead.

But if it were not for this, we would not have seen the true face of rural Turkmenistan. Countries where in the farthest corner of the desert people will have a modern home with a renewable energy source, and the locals will always feed, prompt the road and even lead through the dunes. On the “Zhiguli”, a motorcycle or a camel – as lucky. All three types of transport are of comparable popularity in Turkmenistan.

Spend all on sports
Turkmenistan’s revenues increased sharply as gas prices rose. The country produces methane on the Caspian Sea shelf off the coast of the city of Turkmenbashi, which locals call Krasnovodsk by Soviet habit. The ease of extraction of natural gas, coupled with low salaries of local residents made the Turkmen gas cheap, and therefore very competitive in the world market. The main buyer is China.

Surplus gas exports allow President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov to actively invest budget money. Sport has become one of the first priorities of the leader of the nation. In 2017, the Asian Games took place in the capital, Ashgabat, in 2017, as the Olympic sports for the countries of the Asian continent are called. At the end of 2018 at the same site will be the world championship in weightlifting. And in September a global race was held in Turkmenistan.


For many years, Berdymukhamedov has personally advocated a healthy lifestyle by example. The president runs, participates in bike races, arranges horse racing and drives a racing car. In 2009, the president came up with an international rally-raid following the tracks of the Great Silk Road – the historic route that connected Europe with China a thousand years ago.

In the west, the Great Silk Road went through Russia, so Berdymukhamedov addressed the Russian functionaries. The embodiment of the idea took up the racing team “KAMAZ-Master”. Motorsport legends, multiple winners of the Dakar rally-raid have long raved about organizing their own race, so the Berdymukhamedov project turned out to be most welcome. The first ever rally-raid “Silk Road” was held in the fall of 2009 along the Kazan-Ashkhabad route. And then the parties did not share something: the Silk Road brand remained with Kamaz, and Turkmenistan disappeared from the race route. Everything has changed this year.

Mini for president
In May 2018, Turkmenistan with fanfare presented a new project – a weekly rally-raid across the country. Participate should have been SUVs, all-terrain vehicles and trucks. The marathon was named “Amul Khazar” – in honor of the ancient names of the start and finish places.

The race began in Turkmenabad (until the 15th century – Amul, in Soviet times – Chardjuj), and ended in Avaza, the newest tourist cluster, which consists of hotels 100%. In Avaza, there are not even residential houses: employees of local hotels come to work from the neighboring Turkmenbashi. The Khazars, a Turkic people associated with Turkmen history, once lived in this area.

The race was organized by Jean-Louis Schlesser, a cult figure in the world of rally-raids and perhaps the best marathon racer in the history of sports. The Frenchman twice won the famous “Paris-Dakar”, and then he organized the race on the same route. This marathon is simply called “Africa”. Today, Schlesser, nicknamed “Desert Fox” is 70 years old, but Jean-Louis is still sleeping in a tent, storming dunes on an SUV and flying over the desert in a helicopter in search of the best places for off-road racing.

To create a rally-marathon in Turkmenistan, Schlesser brought from his “Africa” his entire team – a dozen French retirement age, who know everything about cross-country races. It is not known who introduced Schlesser to Berdymukhamedov, but their first meeting clearly became fateful. Now Schlesser is sitting in the presidential box, and his new friend gives a solemn start to the rally-raid “Amul-Khazar” as a racer: the symbolic 10 km of the first special stage Berdymukhamedov personally rides.

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