Dictator orders ice palace to be built in central Asian desert

Undeterred by temperatures of 50C, President known for bizarre decrees says he wants children to learn to ski
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Turkmenistan's President, Saparmyrat Niyazov, already has a well-earned reputation as one of the world's most eccentric megalomaniacs, but "The Great Turkmenbashi", as he likes to be known, appears to have laid down a new marker in neo-Stalinist oddity, even by his own bizarre standards.

Allegedly anxious to please the five million long-suffering citizens of his Central Asian fiefdom, one of the world's hottest countries, Mr Niyazov has ordered that a palace made of ice be constructed in the mountains outside Ashgabat, the capital, despite the fact that temperatures in the region can reach up to 50C. "Let us build a palace of ice big and grand enough for 1,000 people," he enthused on national TV. "Our children can learn to ski and ice-skate. We can build cafés and restaurants."

Apparently oblivious to the dangers of the "palace" melting into the desert sands below, and eager to defy mother nature, Mr Niyazov has already ordered construction to begin. The palace will supposedly be finished within 10 months. The 64-year-old dictator wants a giant aquarium stocked with tropical fish to be fixed atop the palace and has ordered that the building be linked with Ashgabat by cable car.

The cost of the grandiose project has not been disclosed. Turkmenistan, though rich in oil and gas reserves, is one of the world's poorest countries.

Unsurprisingly the plans have attracted ridicule and bemusement among those beyond the reach of a man who has run Turkmenistan with a rod of iron since 1985, when he was the Communist Party boss there. "A palace of ice is not Turkmenbashi's first ambitious project," quipped the Russian daily Izvestia. "But it probably is his most extravagant. Nobody in the former USSR has tried to build such a technically difficult structure in such a hot climate. Mr Niyazov will become the first head of state in a post-Soviet government who has promised to teach children to ski in the desert."

Mr Niyazov has repeatedly set new standards in dictator eccentricity. Eager to encourage a neo-Stalinist cult of personality around himself, he has scattered his capital with posters and statues depicting the likeness of the chubby-cheeked "Father of the Turkmen".

The days of the week and months of the year have been renamed after himself and his relatives, and the Turkmen word for bread has been replaced with the name of his late mother, Gurbansoltan, whose statues also litter Ashgabat.

Following in the footsteps of China's Mao Tse-tung, Mr Niyazov has also published his very own version of the Little Red Book. Called The Ruhnama, the tome of spiritual musings is said to be "a moral guide" for Turkmens. It is required reading on school and university curricula. A detailed knowledge of its contents is a must for any citizen who wants to get ... a driving licence.

Indeed, there appears to be no facet of daily life too small or trivial for Mr Niyazov's ludicrous decrees. His latest order was for TV presenters to be banned from wearing make-up because, he said, he found it difficult to tell male and female presenters apart and wanted Turkmen women's beautiful "wheat-coloured" skin to be on show.

Long hair, beards and gold teeth have also been outlawed, and Mr Niyazov, who has compared himself to a deity, has stipulated what exactly it means to be "old". Childhood lasts until 13, he has decreed, adolescence until 25 and youth until 37. Old age, he insists, does not begin until 85.

When forced to undergo major heart surgery in 1997 and made to quit smoking, he ordered all his government ministers to follow suit and imposed a ban on smoking in public places.

Elected Turkmenistan's first post-Soviet President in 1991, he was appointed "president for life" by the country's supreme legislative body in 1999. Turkmenistan is thus a de facto one-party state: opposition has been stamped out and the media are muzzled. Human rights groups claim that Mr Niyazov uses torture, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, house demolitions, forced labour and exile to keep a lid on his desert kingdom.

He is a self-styled poet, but his words often chill rather than entertain. "I am the Turkmen spirit reborn to bring you a golden age," reads one poem. "I am your saviour ... My sight is sharp - I see everything. If you are honest in your deeds, I see this; if you commit wrongdoing; I see that too."

All-seeing, maybe. All-knowing, alas not - especially when it comes to the melting point of ice.