At the government-run Book Shop of Spiritual Legacy in the centre of Ashkhabad, the coffee-table books about Turkmenistan, featuring the late president Saparmurat Niyazov, smiling and wearing a tracksuit on the cover, go for US$3 - while copies of the Ruhnama, the 'holy' book he wrote and made required reading at all levels of education, are US$2. But the hottest selling items are photos of the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, at a relatively steep US$1.25. 'They're very popular,' the proprietor said. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan was known as the home of the weirdest cult of personality this side of North Korea. Niyazov renamed himself 'Turkmenbashi' - or Father of the Turkmen - and then gave the same name to the month of January, the country's main port city and its tallest peak. Statues of him, usually in gold, sprang up across the capital, Ashkhabad. When Niyazov died in December, many wondered how his legacy would be treated. The United States, Europe, Russia and China, eyeing the country's large natural gas reserves, were watching keenly for signs of change. The difficulty of doing business with the eccentric Niyazov had left the gas deposits largely untapped. That may change under Mr Berdymukhammedov, who visited China this week and sealed huge deals to sell 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas to China National Petroleum Corp over the next 30 years. But an eerie familiarity is also emerging under the new president. Mr Berdymukhammedov, 50, is a former dentist and minister of health who was little known even in Turkmenistan until early this year when he was thrust, via Soviet-style internal manoeuvring, into inheriting Niyazov's mantle. In recent weeks, massive portraits of Mr Berdymukhammedov have begun to appear on public buildings, next to fountains, in classrooms, on billboards and anywhere else Niyazov's portrait used to hang. The silhouette of Niyazov's profile that used to constantly appear on all local television stations has been removed or replaced with a clock. On at least one news broadcast, the studio features a large portrait of Mr Berdymukhammedov that is always visible. But the change is not always obvious. Mr Berdymukhammedov closely resembles Niyazov and many locals who have lived with Niyazov's portrait have a hard time distinguishing the two. For the many people in Turkmenistan who supported Niyazov (there were of course no polls, but most estimate that close to half of the population were loyal Niyazov supporters), the changes chafed at still-raw emotions. 'A lot of people have told me 'it's too early',' one teacher said. 'We were all shocked by it,' said another local, Irina, who declined to give her last name. 'You're used to seeing one portrait everywhere and now you see another one. Everyone is talking about it,' she said. Asked whether she believes a new personality cult could be developing, she said: 'Maybe, yes. I think they are being more careful about it, because the government got so much bad attention for the Turkmenbashi cult of personality. But you see the same kinds of things in the newspapers now, the same kinds of pictures.' And diplomats are watching the ministries that change their photos faster or slower than others, trying to use a sort of neo-Kremlinology to track the opaque internal politics of Turkmenistan. 'The danger of a personality cult is here again, unfortunately,' said one western diplomat. 'He has to be careful not to overdo it.' To be sure, pictures alone do not foster blind devotion. And while government news includes fulsome praise of Mr Berdymukhammedov, it was more focused on his new programmes than him personally as was usually the case with Niyazov, said another diplomat. 'Even though you see a move from Turkmenbashi to Berdymukhammedov, there's not as much mythologising,' he said. Still, an elaborate 50th birthday celebration for the new president was held at the end of last month. A biography has already been published and his quotes appear on banners in the street. 'Some people are already calling him 'the new Turkmenbashi',' another teacher said. The appearance of the Berdymukhammedov photos is, however, taking place against the backdrop of a very slow opening up of this very isolated country. People who work or associate with foreigners, who were once treated with deep suspicion and followed closely by internal security forces, are harassed less now. The government has announced it will recognise foreign university degrees and has reinstated the year of high school that Niyazov eliminated. Foreign languages are once again part of the curriculum. Tour companies say more tourists are being granted visas. And highway police checkpoints between cities have been greatly reduced. However, in most spheres little has changed. Opposition political parties are still banned and the media is censored. And although locals and foreign residents of Turkmenistan say that people are starting to feel more comfortable talking openly, there is still a significant fear of speaking in public or to journalists. No political prisoners have been freed, and Turkmenistan has the highest per capita incarceration rate in Asia and one of the highest in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. But there are reports that families of some prisoners have been able to send packages or even visit loved ones in prison whom they were not allowed to see before. 'It's going to take at least a couple of years to see what kind of government this is,' Irina said. 'When Turkmenbashi came in it was great, there were so many changes and he seemed like a liberal. And then you see what happened.'