A fascinating look inside

North Korea isn't the only closed country with a wild personality cult:
A scruffy, miserably inhospitable patch of desert with nothing much going for it, Turkmenistan is watched closely by the rest of the world due to the vast reserves of gas – the fourth largest in the world – that lie under its arid sands and off its Caspian coast. With the cash that flooded into the country as the gas flowed out, Turkmenbashi built possibly the oddest city in the world.

Ashgabat is not simply bizarre. It's world-class nuts; Olympic-Gold-level bananas; truly and utterly bonkers. For years it provided pithy news stories written from Moscow or London (it was rare for anyone to gain access to check for themselves). Turkmenbashi renamed the days of the week and the months of the year after himself and his mother. He banned opera, ballet and the circus, but opened a giant theme park based on Turkmen fairy tales. He made his book, the Ruhnama, compulsory reading for all schoolchildren, and everyone needs to sit an exam on it to get a driving licence.