Clare Nuttall in Astana -
After an embarrassing fall from his horse in front of an audience of thousands, Turkmenistan's eccentric president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has taken up cycle racing instead and ordered his country's 5m citizens to get on their bikes for weekly mass cycling events.
Undeterred by the fact that few Turkmens own bicycles or summer temperatures that regularly top 40Â°Celsius in the desert country, Berdymukhamedov's officials organised weekly events through August, culminating in a presidential order that all Turkmens turn out on their bikes on September 1.
According to opposition website Chronicles of Turkmenistan, this triggered a spike in the price of bicycles, with citizens of the authoritarian republic scrambling to comply with the order. While government workers were issued with imported bicycles worth around $200 - close to the average monthly salary - in the final days of August, Chinese imports were changing hands for up to $500.
Well known as a horse-racing enthusiast, Berdymukhamedov is now keen to show off his prowess in the bicycle saddle. On April 28, Berdymukhamedov fell off his horse seconds after winning a national race to take $11m in prize money. His horse Berkarar (The Mighty) stumbled after passing the finish line sending the president flying over its head.
Eyewitness reports say that Berdymukhamedov remained lying on the race track for several seconds before being taken away by ambulance. However, he reappeared, apparently unharmed, around 40 minutes later. A video of the incident was smuggled out of the stadium and broadcast by Eurasianet, despite efforts by security to prevent footage from being carried out of the stadium.
Now, Turkmen television broadcasts frequent footage of the president winning cycling races instead. He has also approved a four-year government programme to encourage cycling. "This campaign will help to boost health, ensure environmental security and promote cycling," Berdymukhamedov said, according to the BBC.
The plans are reminiscent of the "Health Walks" organised by Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, the late Saparmurad Niyazov, on a specially built 8-kilometre-long concrete staircase built into mountains near Ashagabat. On one occasion, Niyazov ordered government officials to make the walk - joining them at the summit by helicopter.
Berdymukhamedov has gradually got rid of the remnants of Niyazov's personality cult, including removing the gold-plated rotating statue of Niyazov that topped the Arch of Neutrality in central Ashgabat on the outskirts of the city. He has also initiated economic reforms, and allowed the creation of a second political party. Even so, the president's whims are still law in this isolated and authoritarian country.
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