Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto

Turkmenistan, particularly the capital Ashgabat, is a very odd place. I felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City.

I kept expecting to see Toto pull the curtain back and reveal the former self-endorsed ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (deceased) pulling levers and gears and bellowing into a megaphone.

He was known by his self-given title ‘Türkmenbaşy’, meaning Leader of Turkmen. Bold.

As vain dictators go, he’s pretty high up the list. There’s an enormous gold statue of him that revolves so it’s always facing the sun.

A picture of it is above. To give you an idea of size, if you click on the photo, the two small sheds you can see at the front? They contain a guard each.

Turkmenistan is number 7 in the list of least visited countries.  It is the hottest country in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the northeast and east, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest, and the Caspian Sea to the west. Talk about a rock and hard place, there’s nowhere to run or hide from here!

manicured-gardens-and-street-lamps-ashgabat-turkmenistan

Manicured gardens in the hottest country in the Central Asian region. Hmmm….

Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth large natural gas reserves and substantial oil resources. Energy clearly isn’t an issue as the place is full of street lamps. For a desert country, I’ve never seen so many fountains, or such green grass.

manicured-gardens-ashgabat-turkmenistan

I reckon someone measures each blade of grass so it’s all the same height. By the way, remember, this is a desert.

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A reminder, it’s a desert here. A desert.

Many parts of the city are manicured to within an inch of their life, yet you could still get occasional glimpses of its Soviet past. Turkmenistan only became independent in 1991, after being tethered to the Soviets for 69 years. And so began the vanity projects, and curious attempts to enter The Guiness Book of Records.

Whilst there, our guide informed us they had an entry for the world’s largest book, but I can’t find a record of it. Shame, because I got the impression it was something they were proud of, particularly as the book in question was of Ruhnama, written by Türkmenbaşy.  Surely we weren’t being told a fib?!  It was pretty big.  I give it that.

We saw their entry for the world’s tallest flagpole.  Unfortunately for Turkmenistan those pesky Tajiks took this particular crown from them, although it’s since been taken from the Tajiks by the Saudis. Who knew there was such competition to be crowned country with the world’s tallest flag pole?

Recently Turkmenistan was awarded the esteemed honour of having the ‘largest indoor ferris wheel’ and the ‘most white marble buildings‘.  A true honour.

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We did an organised tour by coach in the morning – there was no opportunity to do anything but this.  We asked to go to other places that weren’t on the day’s agenda, but (unsurprisingly) it was not possible to deviate from the agreed route, and it was hard to take photos from a moving vehicle.  Handy that.  So, I’m afraid my photos don’t really represent the city.

The BBC has recently made a short film of the city, which you can view here, and read more about the ‘climate of fear’ in this article.

We visited the Independence Park which is full of enormous statues of past scholars, leaders, philosophers.

And of course, fountains.  And gold.  You gotta have fountains and gold in Ashgabat.  Probably somewhere there’s a fountain of actual gold. I wonder if that’s in The Guinness Book of Records?  Better not tell the Tajiks or the Saudis.

We were whisked out of town to visit the Palace of Happiness.  This is where weddings take place.  I think it is the most kitsch, gaudy place I’ve ever been.  Of course, you get wed under a picture of the President.

The city and almost all it’s inhabitants were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1940s and was rebuilt, but I think a lot of this has gone now to make way for super, shiny buildings.

There were odd glimpses of post 1940s soviet era apartments, but I got the impression these would soon be razed to make way for stadiums for the Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games in 2017, the building of which was edging ever closer to the remaining old-style apartments.

Where the people living in these buildings would go we weren’t told, but something made me think they wouldn’t be getting keys to the shiny new apartments or utilising the air conditioned bus stops.

apartmentsI’m honestly unsure if people actually live in the shiny new apartments or if it was a facade. It reminded me of the film, The Truman Show.

Or perhaps a dream where I’m transported into an architect’s model of a perfect city.

The roads are perfect.  The apartments are perfect. The bus shelters are air-conditioned, and perfect. (Though we never saw a bus, or anyone in the shelters).

The statues gleam, and are huge. All the offices are modern, with underground car parking.  There are hospitals, schools, cancer specialist, Ministries for sport, health, education, gas, energy.  You name it.  The list is endless.  Yet barely a soul around.  In Ashgabat’s defence it was Sunday.

We didn’t see another place in Turkmenistan that seemed to get even close to the ‘magnificence’ that is the super city of Ashgabat. I wonder if there is anywhere else that compare to it in the world – perhaps this could be another entry for the Guinness Book of Records.  Superist of all Super Cities.

It’s an eery place, but I’m very conscious that we were only shown what was on the agenda (and Agenda).

bootI arrived a few days earlier than the group and went out for a wander from the hotel.  There wasn’t much to see in the area, small shops, some houses.  Small businesses, all looked like normal life.  But it was different to the modern part of the ‘model’ city.

Several miles out of the city the lovely tarmac roads disappear.  I’ve written more about my time in the desert of Turkmenistan here and here.

Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I think if I’d been in Ashgabat for much longer I’d liked to have clicked my heels and gone home too.

 

Important Travel Information:  Turkmenistan classes Tramadol (available in the UK on prescription only) as a Class A drug.  Arbitrarily they have a similar view about other drugs, such as codeine, even though there is no ban on this.

If you’re found to have codeine on you, you will most likely face a lengthy time of questioning, even if you can provide evidence of a prescription from your doctor.  Though not everyone carrying codeine will encounter problems.  Like I said, it’s pretty arbitrary, but the chances seemed high that in a group, one person will be singled out.  We’d heard that it happened to the group before us, and a group after.  This was when crossing into the country by land.  Coming in through the airport I was not searched.

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