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Turkmenistan's National Cycling Day: Traditionalists, Penny-Pinchers and President-Pleasers

If you are a citizen of Turkmenistan, you had better be ready to don the Lycra and mount a bicycle: September 1 has been slated as National Cycling Day.

In Turkmenistan people face regular surprises in the form of strange initiatives dreamed up by their authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. Berdymuhamedov, dubbed the record-breaking president by Global Voices last year, often attends and invariably wins many sporting events in the country. Early in August, the president held his right arm aloft when he crossed the finish line in a cycle race filmed (and edited) for Turkmen state television. Shortly afterwards, the republic's “protector” ordered citizens to purchase bicycles for National Cycling Day.

State media tries to represent the authoritarian president as fit, active and healthy – Berdymuhamedov has been shown fishing, jet-skiing, and riding a scooter on holiday in the past. The August bicycle race was far from Berdymuhamedov's first triumph. Altyn-asyr, a government media outlet, covered him winning a horse race in the capital Ashkhabad in May. While state television cut to the crowd, the hidden video camera of a foreign tourist proved that the “master jockey” had actually fallen off his horse shortly after the win.

Gurby off a horse

Berdymuhamedov kept his kingdom after falling off his horse, but will he manage to stay on his bicycle? (screenshot from video uploaded by anonymous tourist)

Berdymuhamedov's predecessor, Sapurmarat Niyazov was also keen on enforcing healthy habits among his citizenry, with one of his most famous exhortations to exercise being the Walk of Health, a concrete stairway built into the Kopet Dag mountains. But while the Walk of Health was free, bicycles are a significant outlay for the majority of Turkmen families, who typically earn less than $200 per month. .

Moreover, Chrono-TM.org, an independent news and blogging outlet set up by Turkmen expatriates reported:

Prices for bikes have sharply risen in the country. By any means, all able-bodied individuals, pupils and students should have bikes by 1 September

People are getting ready anyway

But people are purchasing bicycles regardless of rising prices. Chinese-made bicycles previously cost 300-500 Turkmen Manats (equal to 110-175 US Dollars), and have now increased to 350-550 TNMs. Vendors of helmets, gloves, eye wear and clothes are also doing a fine trade. Interviewed in an article for RFE/RL's Turkmen service, bicycle seller Daýanç said [Tm] happily:

Öňler bir günde 5-10 sany tigir satan bolsam, şu günler 20-25 tigir satýan mahalym hem bolýar. Meniň dükanym kiçi, köplenç alyjylaryň isleýän görnüşi gutaryp galýar. Beýleki käbir söwdagärler has köprägem satýar.

It has been really good for me and for my fellow bicycle traders. I used to sell 5-10 bikes in a day. Now, I am selling 20-25 of them. Sometimes I can't meet the demand.

But many women have opposed the initiative, since in Turkmen culture, adult women are not supposed to ride bicycles. This has created tension within families given that all government agencies are expected to supply men and women in equal numbers. The husband of one reluctant female cyclist, Bagul, gave [Tkm] her an ultimatum regarding her participation in cycling day: 

Welosepid sürmeli edildim diýemde, meniň adamym hem ýa – welosiped ýa-da – men diýdi

When i told my husband that i had been forced to attend cycling day, he replied “choose either one, the bicycle or me”

Finally, women face the very real threat of losing their jobs if they do not participate. RFE/RL's Turkmen service reported [Tkm]:

Paýtagt Aşgabadyň 1-nji saglyk öýüniň özüni Gyzylgül diýip tanadan işgäri öz islegi boýunça işden çykmak barada arza ýazanlaryň biri. Emma, mesele ula ýazansoň, onuň deregine başga biri welosiped türgenleşigine iberilipdir

Gyzylgul, a worker at No.1 hospital in Ashgahbat, deliberately resigned from her job. But it didn't make a difference. She was merely replaced by someone else prepared to take part in the cycling.  

As usual, the initiative led to a lively debate on Chrono-TM.org.

On reader, using the name Citizen said [ru]:

 Жалко, если эта акция будет одноразовой. Может обяжут чиновников ездить на работу на велосипеде?

Such a shame it is a one-off. Could we force state officials to go to work on bicycles?

While Vladimir chimed [ru]:

Ничего плохого в этой акции нет. Вот так и надо маленькими шажками и приучать народ к здоровому образу жизни. Через 5-10 лет , если хватит смелости ,еще спасибо скажете. Такие и подобные вещи надо постоянно , но ненавязчиво внедрять в сознание народа .А затем процесс приобретет необратимый характер, войдет в привычку.

There is nothing wrong with this initiative. It is necessary to teach the people a healthy way of life through small steps like this. In 5-10 years, if you are brave enough, you will say thank you [for the initiative]. Things like this are needed on a regular basis to gradually change people's outlook. Then these processes will take on a permanent character, becoming ingrained habits.

But an anonymous poster took issue [ru] with Vladimir's vision for a healthier Turkmenistan:

Как только вы станете спонсором закупок всего этого спортинвентаря, так мы сразу скажем спасибо.А пока, простите, я не имею лишних пятиста долларов, чтобы покупать ненужный мне металлолом, который после поездки сгниет в гараже. Я лучше на эти деньги смотаюсь на неделю в Турцию, позагараю, покупаюсь в море, здоровья больше прибавится, чем буду рысачить по солнцепёку на китайской поделке.

As soon as you become the sponsor of such sporting initiatives, we will immediately say thank you. But for the moment, excuse me, I don't have a spare $500 to buy a hunk of metal that will waste away in the garage after the trip. I would better spend this money on a week in Turkey, get a tan, swim in the sea, and benefit my health a lot more than I would cycling under the baking sun on a Chinese imitation [bicycle]

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