Modeling a matching ensemble -- green helmet, black-and-green gloves, green eyewear, and long white pants, the signature colors of his personality cult -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is shown getting out of a car in the early morning hours of August 3 and hopping on a green mountain bike as dozens of government officials -- themselves all dressed in matching blue tracksuits -- follow dutifully behind.
The Turkmen leader's predawn ride, broadcast on state television, was the kickoff to a monthlong campaign called "Security Of Traffic Movement On The Road And The Well-Being Of Our Life." (Trust us, it sounds more poetic in Turkmen. Elaborately poetic descriptions of official state holidays and state events are a staple of Turkmen bureaucracy.)
In the state TV report, a less-than-enthusiastic television presenter announces Berdymukhammedov’s new initiative:
"The cycling should be part of the regular activity of people. Sport schools in the capital and provinces should prepare a road map for improving cycling activities."
According to a decree issued by Berdymukhammedov, mass cycling will take place on September 1 across Turkmenistan and continue for the rest of the month. Until then, people should practice as much as possible. (Sadly, the roads probably won't be closed to car traffic, as they obviously were for Berdymukhammedov's televised ride.)
According to the state television presenter, the decree spells out a plan to increase the participation of Turkmen citizens in all sports, but with a special emphasis on cycling. Berdymukhammedov has made physical exercise a distinguishing feature of his rule.
It's certainly not coincidental that a mass bike ride took place on the outskirts of Ashgabat the day after Berdymukhammedov’s August 3 ride. As is the case with all government-sponsored events, the majority of participants were government employees and students.
Atamurat, a 52-year-old government worker, told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
that he was happy that at least he didn’t have to purchase a bicycle for the event.
“Despite this being a holiday, workers were called in to participate in the event. Those who came were given bikes to participate," Atamurat said. "Usually people who participate in state events have to purchase their own equipment, but I am glad that they didn’t ask us to buy the bikes."
Another government employee who declined to give his name told RFE/RL that the bikes were imported and cost around $200 each -- the average monthly salary in Turkmenistan
A correspondent for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service says participants cycled until 5 p.m. and that some fainted due to Turkmenistan's subtropical desert climate. (Temperatures reached 39 degrees Celsius in the capital on August 3.)
Perhaps the new cycling initiative signals a move by the Turkmen leader to a safer pastime after his spectacular fall
from a horse during a race in April.
-- Deana Kjuka & RFE/RL's Turkmen Service