They threw a huge party at Ashgabat, but nobody came!

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October 5th 2016
Published: October 26th 2016
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Can you imagine Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or Red Square in Moscow, or Hyde Park in London, being totally devoid of any people in the middle of a bright and sunny day? Well that's what occurs in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. This is a 'model' city, full of beautiful parks, excellent roads and extensive squares - but there is rarely anybody to be seen in any of them!

I'm not very good with my powers of description and Ashgabat needs an accurate description, which perhaps Lonely Planet does best. Take it away, LP:

"With its lavish marble palaces, gleaming gold domes and vast expanses of manicured parkland, Ashgabat (‘the city of love’ in Arabic) has reinvented itself as a showcase city for the newly independent republic and is definitely one of Central Asia's – if not the world's – strangest places. Built almost entirely off the receipts of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas revenues, the city’s transformation continues at break-neck speed, with whole neighbourhoods facing the wrecking ball in the name of progress, and gleaming white marble monoliths springing up overnight like mushrooms. Originally developed by the Russians in the late 19th century, Ashgabat became a prosperous, sleepy and largely Russian frontier town on the Trans-Caspian railway. However, on 6 October 1948, the city vanished in less than a minute, levelled by an earthquake that measured 9 on the Richter scale, killing over 110,000 people, which was two-thirds of the then population."

Thanks guys, I'll take over the commentary now. I'm not sure how much rebuilding occurred between the time of the earthquake and Turkmenistan's independence in 1991, but the pace of rebuilding since then has been massive and can likely be attributed to two main things - the vast revenues from oil and gas that became the country's own following independence, and the massive ego of the then 'President for Life' (or 'Dictator' if you want to be less kind), Saparmyrat Niyazov, who clearly wanted to create a showpiece for the world, and spared no expense to get it. So here we have a whole city comprising virtually nothing but large, ostentatious, white-marble buildings, with government buildings often in some weird shape to reflect the particular ministry housed in that building, eg the Department of Education building is shaped like an open book. I can only do full justice to the city by enclosing a heap of pics of the various individual buildings and groups of buildings and offering you the challenge of finding one not made of white marble.

Added to this, and reflective of the man's ego, he also had built a number of vary large statues of himself. A monument known as the Arch of Neutrality was built in 1998 on his orders to commemorate the country's official position of neutrality. It cost $12 million to construct. The 75-metre high monument was topped at that time by a 12-metre tall gold-plated statue of Niyazov himself, which rotated to always face the sun. The arch was located in central Ashgabat where it dominated the skyline, being even taller than the nearby Presidential Palace. The statue was illuminated at night. However, Niyazov died in 2006 and in 2010, his successor as president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, signed a decree to begin work on dismantling and moving the arch. The dismantling was officially said to be a move to improve urban design in Ashgabat but is in fact seen as part of Berdimuhamedow's campaign to remove the excesses of the personality cult that Niyazov had created in his two decades at the head of one of the world's most authoritarian regimes. Niyazov also named cities and airports after himself, ordered the building of a palace and a 40-metre tall pyramid, but the gold-plated statue has been described as the most notorious symbol of his legacy. Berdimuhamedow has replaced the arch with a 95-metre tall "Monument to Neutrality" which is instead located in the suburbs. The statue no longer rotates, but the viewing platform is popular with visitors, with the elevators inside the "legs" of the monument.

Interestingly, what isn't white in Ashgabat is green. I guess one of the benefits of having a totally planned city is that it gives you the opportunity to break up your buildings with parklands, and in fairness to the Turkmen government, they are doing this in spades. As some of the pics show, they are covering massive areas of the city with parklands and trees, and while many of these are still in their infant stages, they will be very impressive in a few more years. But as mentioned at the start of this blog, they already have some extremely attractive parks in the middle of the city, with well tended grass and gardens, but noone using them (except the many gardeners at work). Similarly, there are some huge squares, such as that in front of the Turkmen carpet museum, that could hold literally thousands of people, and the day we were there, there were two security guards, two policemen and a lone student making her way home across the square.

I'm not going to go into listing the names of all the prominent buildings, as a picture tells a million words if you can be bothered wading through the extensive photo parade below. Items that were of particular interest were the Yyldyz Hotel, where we stayed the night, that I suspect is as grand as anything in the world except perhaps Dubai's famed Burj al Arab. Very close to that, up on a hill, is the Civil Registry office, known locally as the 'Wedding Palace' or 'The Palace of Happiness' (perhaps depending on your perspective!). It was spectacular at night, visible from most parts of the city, as it regularly changed colour.

Equally impressive is the Turkmenbashy Ruhy Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Central Asia. Twenty thousand men and woman can pray at the same time. The floor of the mosque is covered in handmade Turkmen praying mats and an enormous eight-sided carpet decorates the very centre of the mosque. It consists of two floors - on the first floor men pray; on the second, women. It has four minarets and a golden dome sits the central upper part of the mosque. The height of each minaret is 91m, and the dome is 50 m high, covered in gold. The mosque is surrounded by extravagant fountains and gardens. The mausoleum of the first President of Turkmenistan, Niyazov, and his family is located next to the mosque. At the opposite of the entrance to the mausoleum, there is a memorial statute in remembrance of the 1948 earthquake in which thousands of people died.

One of the excursions we did in Ashgabat, which was a pleasant change from touring buildings, shrines and mosques, was a visit to their equestrian complex to watch them training their 'fleet' of Akhal Teke horses. Now I'm not really a 'horsey' sort of person (don't ask my opinion on who will win next week's Melbourne Cup!) but I could see that this was a pretty special breed of horse, and I'm advised they are almost a national hero in Turkmenistan and the subject of many statues around the city. We were fortunate to be there at a time when a whole group of them were being put through their paces, presumably in preparation for some ceremonial occasion.

Lastly, my obsession with certain aspects of clothing continues. This time it is with women's headgear. Turkmen women have traditionally worn loose, heavy, brilliantly-colored, ankle-length silk or velvet caftans with baggy trousers underneath with contrasting colors and decorated bands. But the women wear a variety of headgear. Many tie their hair back and wear a headscarf tied on the back of the head. Some wear a little round hat with a dome ending at a metal point. Older women wear a special hat over their head. Aristocratic women traditionally wore tall, fez-like hats covered by a veil. A 'tall hat' indicates she is married. Single girls wore caps. Belled caps signified they were from fairly wealthy families whose father demanded a high bride price. It is very clear that the woman's hat serves as an indicator of prestige and the degree of social status of a hat's owner. I have included in my pics a variety of the tall hats.

From here, we flew to Dashoguz and visited Kunya-Urgench, which was covered in the previous blog. So my next blog will be from our final destination on this particular tour, Tajikistan.

Additional photos below
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26th October 2016
Arch of Neutrality

Interesting structure
Strange that the people are not in the parks.

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