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May 24th 2014
Published: October 1st 2017
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Geo: 37.9502, 58.3802

Happy birthday, Pas!

We landed a little after 7am in Ashgabat. We taxied for a long time, past the old airport terminal (which we learned is called the "old new airport" and looks to be of Soviet vintage) to the “new old airport”. We rushed off the plane and were first in line to buy our visas. The process was very efficient, and the visa officer wished Pas a Happy Birthday! Then we paid for the visas, which was a little confusing, but did not take too long. Then, through immigration, which was easy. We weren't sure what hotel we were staying in, so I showed our itinerary to the officers. Something in it cracked them up … in any case, they seemed satisfied with what I showed them and let us through.

Then, we hit the long, long lines for customs. Our bags weren't out yet, but as soon as they came out, we went and got in line. Most people on the flight were carrying huge cargo loads of boxes, bags, stuff wrapped in paper and tape, even car tires. They had to weigh their loads then have them scanned. Eventually, we were pulled aside and pushed to the head of a line because we did not have large loads.

Fortunately, our guide was waiting for us, and we piled in the van and headed for the hotel. The streets of the city are broad and clean, the traffic relatively calm, thanks to the policemen with the giant brimmed hats. Most buildings on the our route were of old Soviet bones, newly refurbished, but there was also some new construction. Our hotel is near a new park, which looks nice from the road, as is full of inspiring statues of cultural heroes.

We checked into our hotel, then had breakfast and a shower. We tried to connect via wifi, which was free, but it did not work well. Or, really, at all.

At 10:30am, we met our guide in the lobby of the hotel and outlined the program for the day. Our first stop would be the UNESCO site of Nissa, just outside of the town. I'll talk more about the city of Ashgabat later, but at first we drove through the older section of town, which dates from the Soviet era. It is leafy, with concrete block buildings to which an external façade have been added in recent years, to bring more character to the place. The roads are wide and traffic obeys signals and the bored looking policemen who periodically direct traffic. It was a fine, calm drive.

Driving out to Nissa, we passed through the agricultural area that lies between the mountains (and the border with Iran) and the desert to the north. The city of Ashgabat seems to lie along this small strip of fertile land. In addition to growing vegetables, there were plantations of evergreen trees, thousands and thousands of very small, very sad-looking evergreen trees. It was apparently a project created by the first president (and national hero), but we're not quite sure of the intention. We also passed massive blocks of new apartments that stretched for miles – the blocks are designed to be self-contained, with shops, schools, sports grounds. Some are clearly open and occupied; some are currently under construction. Our guide says that as old blocks of homes are torn down, people are relocated to these aparments. She says they are spacious, and she would like to live there if the government decides to raze her apartment in the old leafy area of town. The final strange building project here: the first President (and national hero) gave up smoking after 40 years. He then banned smoking in public spaces throughout the country and decided to encourage fitness by building a “healthy track” in the mountains near Nissa. It is a narrow footpath, all paved, with low wall, that runs up steep hills, along the ridge, and back down in a great distance. We saw no one on it, which was surprising given its location and the heat.

The site of Nissa is small but interesting. It was a Parthian site, established in the 2nd century BC. Our guide was really good about telling us what is well-understood and what is speculation, and the differences between what the Soviets thought and what the Italian archaeologist who is working on the site, thinks. She said it is usually regarded by foreign archaeologists and a palace of the king, but that many will call it the Parthian capital. “It was never a capital,” she says. The site is very eroded, and almost all that remains are some bricks of some of the inner walls and a few column foots. Some of the walls have been covered by recent adobe by the archaeologists, in order to protect the site. It takes imagination to try to see what was there before, but our guide had some artist depictions (apparently created by the wife of a famous Soviet archaeologist), which helped us visualize what was here before.

It was a walled compound, with several main buildings, which were constructed at different time periods. One is square and is considered the residence of the king. Almost all that is left is half-walls, but you can see small bits of plaster that once held fabulous murals. Another building is round, which is interesting. It was described as a Zoroastrian temple by the Soviets, but the current archaeologists are less certain that it was either a temple or Zoroastrian. Throughout the site, there are a few column foots, most of which have been covered by mud to protect them, and some tiles with architectural detail. But, on the whole, it was challenging to visualize the palace in its full Hellenic glory. We spent about an hour walking around, which was certainly sufficient, especially given the heat.

Our next stop was the mausoleum of the and the neighboring mosque, which is the largest in Central Asia (this will be a recurring theme). The mausoleum was built to refer to the tomb of Napoleon at Invalides in Paris. Outside, the gardens are manicured, and there are many fountains with Hockney blue bottoms. Two full-time guards are posted out front, remaining rigid (but their eyes drift). You climb up a wide staircase, leaving all bags and cameras behind, and enter the second floor of the mausoleum. Ahead of you is a railing, constructed of Carrera marble, and you peer over it and below to see the tomb of the first president (and national hero), as well as symbolic tombs of his father (who was killed in World War II), and his mother and two brothers, who all died in the 1948 earthquake. As we learned about the life of the first president (and national hero), three young men arrived and chanted prayers above the tomb, which was actually quite lovely. Maybe the cult of personality has its upsides.

Nearby, we walked to the mosque, which is the largest mosque in Central Asia. It is again surrounded by fountains. We were the only visitors, and we were allowed to walk down the runner to the center of the mosque. It is large, and attractive.

But we had seen a wedding party drive past, and we wanted to see if we could catch them in the park. So we didn't linger at the mosque but drove to the park where we found not one but three wedding parties. A huge group of family and friends followed the bride and groom, who were in a elaborately decorated car. In the park, at the foot of the statue of the first president (and national hero), they played music, danced, and took photographs. The brides were all dressed in the traditional marriage costume: a very heavy dress and robe, and a headdress with long silk threads hanging down as a veil. The costume can weigh close to 40 pounds, and it looked excruciating in the heat. The brides staggered as they walked and had to be supported by other women. The grooms looked shell-shocked, but the families were happy and invited us to join in the dancing and photographs.

(As an aside: Our guide told us that marriage usually happens at a young age – as early as 18 years is common. The wedding ceremony is considered the second biggest single expense of raising children, after education. Marriage is obviously a huge deal, and the giant Lego block building seen around is a marriage hall. In other towns, like Turkmenabad, we also see giant marriage halls.)

We then went to the tour office to hand over the cash for our trip. We bought good borscht at the commissary for $2 a bowl, and the director of the tour company treated us all to some wine, in honor of Pas' birthday. It was a good red wine, not sweet. We paid, then trooped down the heavily broken stairs of the Soviet-era building for our next move.

Our next move is to drive out to the museum, and then we get the real flavor of the new Ashgabat. What a crazy city. So, there apparently is not an ancient city: it was a camp for nomadic tribes and a small stop for Caravans, but no real city, so no real ancient town center. The Russians were the first to build here, as it was a stop on one of their railways. In 1948, there was a huge earthquake that destroyed most of the city. It was rebuilt by Soviets, and they built concrete blocks on square streets. After independence, and with bushels of petro dollars available, the first President (and national hero) embarked on a program of building. There are new governmental buildings for every conceivable ministry, new massive blocks of flats, strange new hotels and convention centers. But none of it was designed with real living in mind. This is apparent as we drive out the massive, wide boulevard that leads to the museum. Lining the boulevard are a series of large buildings, most around seven to nine stories high, all faced in white marble from Vietnam. They represent various ministries, but, periodically, there is a hotel or building with another purpose. The buildings are all remarkably isolated from one another, with wide manicured lawns, massive entrances, and large gaps with no real purpose. Running down the center are a series of fountains, all on, all spewing out water to an audience that does not exist. Because that leads us to the truth of the matter: the site is empty. We saw no one on the streets – in fact, it would be nearly impossible, especially in the weather, to walk from one building to another, and it's hard to tell why you would do so. Most busses were empty, or nearly empty, and while there were a number of cars on the road, no one seemed aimed for a local destination.

It gets stranger: there is an amusement park that covers many hectares, visible from the road but closed and isolated on a Saturday night. Then there are the shops: a series of shops – maybe 10, maybe 12 – all in three story identical buildings, all separated from one another, each selling a specialist item, recognizable only by the neon signs on the side of the building. One shop sells furniture, one toys, one shoes, one car parts. None have windows on the ground floor, nor any way of drawing in the customer. They are separated by 100s of meters, and each has a set of wide steps that lead up to it. While you would need to drive to reach the building, there is no parking, and you would really need to drive from shop to shop, given their distance. It would be an incredibly inefficient way to go about shopping, and, so without surprise, there was no one visible except the guard for each shop, who stood on the pavement below the steps, looking very bored – or probably did; they were too far away to tell. I half-wanted to go into the shops to see how they were laid out, if anyone was inside, how many shop girls and attendants were waiting to assist customers. Maybe they were all closed, and there would be a surge of activity tomorrow.

But our destination was the national museum, so we went there. It is a super-massive building, with the world's largest flag, or fourth-largest flag out front. The building is faced in white marble. We parked in the large bus parking area, our little van the only vehicle there. Inside is a massive central hall, circular, with pillars and fountain. On the first floor are galleries dealing with modern Turkmenistan or a changing exhibit; on the second floor are galleries dealing with historical and archaeological topics. We were assigned a guide and set about seeing the museum.

I have to say the visit was excruciating. We were exhausted, and our guide tried, but his memorized speech at every case was way too long, and his English was halting, slow, and repeated and revised himself constantly, which made everything way too drawn out. It was nice to see some of the artifacts that had been recovered from Nissa, but I could have seem them easily in 20 minutes. We also spent much time feeling sorry for the room attendants who leaned against the wall, texting. With no visitors, their life must have been incredibly boring. As we were leaving, a larger tour group arrived, so at least there might be someone to follow around. At the end, we were taken to the gift shop, but we had no interest in shopping, and, again, I felt sorry for the gift shop attendant. On the way out, we did enjoy a glimpse of the many photos of the current President being Turkmen and manly, but we certainly did not want to indicate that we were interested in seeing them, or we might have been there another two hours.

We had one final stop to make: Neutrality Ark in some park. Keegan was excited, because this is the statue of the first President (and national hero) that is massive and once spun to follow the sun. It stands in an open rocket ship – there is no other way to describe the monument – in its glory. Around it is a huge park, with large pyramidal fountains, and grassy knolls, reaching far into the distance. We were actually stunned by the distance, and the size of the fountains, and the complete and utter lack of people around. No one, except the police officers on guard.

Despite the offer to go to another park, we said we were tired, which we were more than. Wiped or exhausted would have been better – the jet lag and lack of sleep was hitting us hard. So we were returned to our hotel to nap.

Around 7pm, Paul, the kids, and I set out again for a walk around town. We walked through the park near our hotel, which was pleasant. At least families and groups of friends were out, enjoying the cooling fountains and trees. Statues of various writers and politicians look on benevolently. It was twilight but felt very safe. There were underpasses for crossing major boulevards, and, unlike in the States, one actually uses them, without fear of violence and without being greeted by the stench of urine. This was a pleasant change. We also walked along another main boulevard to the University, where groups of young people, in their University uniforms, were leaving.

While we had a restaurant destination in mind, pointed out to us by our guide, we were intrigued by the seeming lack of shops, cafes, restaurants. We passed one café on our walk, and we had seen few places with shops and cafes on our drive – the ground floor of most buildings on the main boulevards seemed to be devoted to living space, not commerce. We were able to get a table at the café, but the music was loud, the service was very slow (typical of ex-Soviet states, according to Keegan), and people were smoking nearby (despite the ban on smoking since given up by the first President (and national hero)). So we left, went back to the hotel, and had a perfectly reasonable dinner for not much money. Then to bed.

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