The World’s Strangest Forest

Modern Turkmenistan was, for a time, ruled by a madman named Saparmyrat Niyazov. He called himself the Prophet and was wealthy beyond all comprehension, stealing the country blind and building huge monuments to himself throughout the region.

During his reign he banned beards, gold teeth, opera, and forbid education after the ninth grade on the theory that uneducated people were easier to govern. He renamed the twelve months of the year, using his own name for January and names of family members for the other months.

He isolated the country from the outside: no internet, no cell phones, no satellite communications, no international telephones. Criticism was not allowed; anybody who dared either disappeared or was tortured in his prisons.

He made Turkmenistan into a heaven for himself and a hell for his people.

One of his fantastic projects was to create a forest for Turkmenistan. He wanted Turkmenistan-a country that was rocky, barren, dune-covered, wind-swept, a sun-baked plain crossed with ravines and gullies, two-thirds covered by the Kara Kum desert-to resemble Russia with its great pine forests.

“I will build a forest in the desert,” he proclaimed. And so he had millions of Douglas firs and White pines planted, only to have the trees wither in the desert heat and blown flat by the scouring winds.

Niyazov died in 2006. Today, no trace of his fantastic forest remains. His legacy is like that of the poet Shelly’s Ozymandias, a leader whose mad vision was buried by the “lone and level sands’ of time.

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