Cycling’s most-loved dictator has written a new song

From cycling icon to musical marvel, is there anything this retired tyrant can't do?

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 16.03.2023 Photography by
the famously neutral, independent, and impartial Turkmen state media.
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As a reporter, sometimes you seek out a story and sometimes a story comes to you. When it comes to retired Turkmen dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, it can be a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. 

Over the years, we’ve watched him manoeuvre his way into the hearts and minds of cycling’s institutions. He’s picked up awards from the UCI. He’s furthered successful business relations with the sport’s #1 oligarch. He’s ridden one of his fleet of fatbikes down enormous boulevards, surrounded by thousands of his countrymen who definitely aren’t forced to be there. He’s been awarded World Championships, and then lost them.

After all of that advancement of Turkmen cycling interests, it stands to reason that Berdimuhamedov would be a little weary – so, a year ago, he announced that he was standing down, with his son Serdar installed as the new president after a landslide of a fair and free (?) democratic election.

In the year since, our guy has enjoyed a fruitful retirement being the power behind the throne. But this week, I feel we have hit a particularly important milestone that’s worth some broader attention: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has written a new song. 

Now, while this fact is undeniably pretty odd, it’s not without precedent – Berdimuhamedov is something of a renaissance man. If he’s not writing books (he’s credited with 60 titles, including his recent smash hit Electric Power of Turkmenistan), he’s jamming with his grandson in a song about his favourite horse. He can rap, he can twiddle knobs, he can pretend to rip a guitar solo, and he has a long documented history of doing all three in extremely nationalistic ways.

But even against that backdrop, none of those facts came close to preparing me for the latest entry to the Berdimuhamedov canon –  a song called ‘Congratulations to the Youth’, possibly written in honour of his favourite grandson Kerimguly’s wedding.

What, you don’t remember Kerim, a keytar hero of our age? Here, have a picture taken from a very good news report titled “Berdimuhamedov and his grandson walk in the mountains and make a snowman”:

Want the play-by-play of what’s going on in this badly photoshopped picture? Here we go: “On reaching the southern outskirts of Ashgabat, the Turkmen leader did physical exercise and told his grandson about the powers of nature and inextricable links between nature and humans. Then they headed to the aerial tramway. On their way, Kerim took pictures of the surrounding landscapes … On arriving at the aerial tramway terminal, the president and his grandson made a snowman. Kerim took a couple of pictures of the winter sculpture.”

Despite Escape Collective’s best efforts, we were unable to secure a photo of the snowman in question.
Here’s Kerim behind his sweet DJ setup …
… and here he is out for a bike ride with his grandfather and several hundred non-coerced friends. Nice one, Kerim! Look at them go!

Anyway, we digress.

Kerim got married, Gurbanguly got writing, and now – because Turkmen media is a notoriously batshit phenomenon – the debut performance of ‘Congratulations to the Youth’, is immortalised in full in a bulletin of the daily news program, Watan Habarlary.

Döwlet Amanlykov, a crooner in a too-small suit, handles the vocals at the centre of an enormous white stage, surrounded by a nine-piece band. “Sweet music from the curtains / I chose you!”, he intones, according to a translation. “May the light of love shine upon you / The smile you love! / A heartfelt statement / I told you!”

Here, have a look:

As you will have noted, there are some curiosities to this performance.

For starters: the audience. In direct contrast to the all-male band, there’s an all-female crowd – possibly in celebration of International Woman’s Day, which was commemorated with a decree from the president that almost all women (but specifically not housewives or “individual entrepreneurs”) should receive a government handout of 60 Turkmenistani manats (US$17/AU$25). That’s just one example of Serdar’s loving embrace of the female populace; another is how he has forbidden hair bleaching, eyelash, and nail extensions, among other measures policing women’s bodies.

But on this glorious day, bygones are bygones, and hundreds of Turkwomen have been assembled in a hotel ballroom to listen to a bad song. Most of them are wearing traditional garb, and many of them are enjoying a viscous glass of peach juice.

Much like that peach juice, their response to Berdimuhamedov’s latest banger is somewhat mixed:

Take, for instance, this withering stare.
This onlooker, meanwhile, has disassociated herself to the point that she’s barely even clapping.

And the clapping? Oh, the clapping. There’s clapping on the beat. There’s clapping off the beat. There’s clapping in different time signatures. There are people standing next to each other, clapping along to the same tune with an apparently completely different understanding of what point the tune is up to. This video is a minor cultural artefact that asks major existential questions, such as “is Turkmenistan a nation without rhythm?”

There are quite a lot of close-ups of the below central figure, who actually seems to be enjoying herself. She intersperses claps with a twirly hand thing, which is a bit of fun, but mostly, she just reminds me of The White Witch from the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She has Big Theatrical Energy, and – from past appearances on Turkmen news bulletins that I cannot understand a word of – seems to be a famous singer. To her left is another national treasure; in 2020, she was the centrepiece of an interminable Watan Habarlary segment in honour of her 80th birthday.

Maybe she’s an actor. Maybe she’s someone’s mum. Whoever she is, she’s certainly in attendance.

Other highlights include the enormous smile that breaks across the lady in white’s face when there’s a rude guitar solo segueing into a key change that would make a Eurovision Song Contest blush:

And the decor? Understated, but with a quiet dignity:

Also of note – the way that the performance seamlessly slides from out-of-time clapping to the song, to an in-time standing ovation when it stops:

And the vulture-like way that the camera operators zoom in on anyone showing the slightest shred of emotion:

All told, it’s one of my favourite glimpses behind the Turkmen musical curtain since the magnificent ‘Sport sport sport’ (2020).

And what of Sport³? Well, since Serdar ascended to power, Turkmenistan’s enthusiasm for cycling on the world stage seems to have cooled somewhat. The country was touted by state media as the future host of the 2026 Road World Championships – and both Serdar and Gurbanguly personally lobbied UCI president David Lappartient to further those aims – before the event was instead handed to Montreal at the most recent UCI Congress.

That snub aside, however, there are signs of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s passion for cycling becoming an enduring domestic legacy. Nation-wide parades for World Bicycle Day continue, documented in exhaustive detail. There are always new Guinness World Records to be gained, and bicycles to be given to small children by Turkmen Santa on the nightly news. (No, I don’t know what the deal is with the cow and the leopard.)

And that just about brings us up to speed with the latest and greatest in Turkmenistan – a neutral, democratic country where everything is cool, and normal, and perfectly in sync with everything else, clap after clap after clap.

Got an unquenchable thirst for Berdi Bangers? See here for the author’s carefully curated top 10 Turkmen musical moments.

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