Ashgabat: A Week in a Most Unusual City

Ashgabat: A Week in a Most Unusual City

Travel offers us many pleasures. We see sights we’ve always wanted to, natural or man-made, and tick them off our bucket list. We bring some perspective to our lives by taking a break from our normal routine, and seeing and doing new things. By sharing these experiences, we strengthen our bonds with those with whom we journey. We challenge ourselves, and are forced to open our minds, when we move beyond our comfort zone. 

High on the list for many of us is meeting people in other countries, seeing how they live, gaining some understanding of how their lives differ from ours and discovering what we have in common.

This is particularly true when the country is very different from your own. So when you’re given the opportunity to travel to Turkmenistan and spend a week in the capital, Ashgabat, you jump at the chance.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed societies. Since gaining its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled, it’s been ruled by two dictators in succession, each surrounded by a cult of personality.

Ashgabat’s white marble buildings. Image: © Alan Williams

Reporters Without Borders ranks it 178th out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, above only Eritrea and North Korea. Social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are banned. There’s an 11 pm curfew in the capital. Most residents have limited contact with the outside world.

Getting a visa can be complicated. It’s easiest to obtain if you’ve booked through a tour company and are on a journey through Central Asia, or if you’re attending an international meeting hosted by a state organisation, as I was.

Ashgabat lies between the Kopet Dag Mountains to the south and the Karakum Desert to the north. It’s a city of white marble buildings, hundreds of them, paid for with the country’s plentiful oil and gas reserves.

They include government offices, university buildings and apartment blocks. Scattered among them are grand monuments and well-manicured parks. The buses and most cars are white too.

The Kopet Dag Mountains outside Ashgabat. Image: © Alan Williams

This marble city is clean, photogenic and safe to walk in but at times seems largely deserted. The roads are uncrowded but traffic can sometimes be halted by a policeman for half an hour without explanation.

Ashgabat has seen two huge changes over the past 70 years. The original city was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948. It was rebuilt as a typical Soviet city, and when the Soviet era ended, then President Saparmurat Niyazov began the white marble construction spree.

You know that with just a week at your disposal, you’ll be hard put to gain an accurate impression of this most unusual of cities, or to pick up on all the nuances. Your experiences will necessarily be personal and some may not be typical of life in the city.  

Foreign visitors who travel outside the capital are required to have an official guide, who also serves as a minder who restricts their movements. You’ll be remaining in Ashgabat, and when you discover that large teams of guides have been assigned to your meeting’s participants, your initial feeling is that they, too, are minders. They certainly look the part, in their uniform black suits and ties. 

Students at a university in Ashgabat. Image: © Alan Williams

After a while, though, you realise they are students working as unpaid volunteers – the black suit is standard student dress – and that many of them have a genuine interest in meeting and assisting foreign visitors. This is when the trip starts being fun.

Whether they are instructed to restrict your movements is anyone’s guess. There’s no doubt they steer you away from places you’re not allowed to photograph, such as the presidential palace and security buildings. But this seems largely to ensure you don’t inadvertently find yourself in trouble.

The volunteers are genuinely friendly and cheerful. They arrange outings in and around Ashgabat and accompany you if you ask them to. And if you want to spend time on your own, say for shopping or walking, they’re happy to leave you to your own devices.

Your initial expectation may have been that people living in a restrictive society would be subdued, suspicious of outsiders and perhaps even downtrodden.

Lunch break outside the Berkarar shopping mall. Image: © Alan Williams

This quickly gives way to a realisation that – as far as you can tell from an all-too-brief visit – they are friendly, good-natured people who are simply getting on with their lives. This is true of the volunteers and of others you meet.

It can’t always be easy to live in such a controlled society, especially for young people with inquisitive minds. But you feel their approach is that nothing lasts forever, politically or otherwise. They are at their most animated when talking about their families and their careers.

From your guides you glean interesting snippets. Women are rewarded for having three or more children, and receive a free house when their eighth child is born. Students pay no fees and instead receive a monthly stipend of 400 manat (about US$110). Ashgabat’s population is nearing 1 million and when it does, the plan is to build an underground railway system.

As you explore Ashgabat’s tourist attractions, you’re unlikely to meet many fellow visitors. Turkmenistan doesn’t encourage tourism. Those you see will mostly be older travellers; this isn’t backpacker territory.

View of Ashgabat from the Neutrality Monument. Image: © Alan Williams

The attractions include several large monuments. Among them is the Neutrality Monument, a giant tripod on the outskirts of the city. Atop it is a gold statue of the former president. The monument is worth visiting for the striking views of Ashgabat it offers.

There are also monuments to, and large outdoor portraits of, the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who came to power in December 2006. In some he poses with his horse, of the Akhal-Teke breed, and his dog, an Alabai or Central Asian Shepherd Dog. Both breeds have become national emblems.

Ashgabat’s Olympic Complex is worth strolling through, and you’re likely to have the place almost to yourself. Built on a grand scale for the September 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, its centrepiece is a white stadium over which the head of a giant horse towers.

The large Independence Park contains the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan (nicknamed ‘the plunger’ because of its shape) as well as a golden statue of Mr Niyazov and statues of nearly 30 Turkmen heroes.

Ashgabat’s Russian Market. Image: © Alan Williams

Ashgabat’s main shopping mall, the Berkarar centre, lays claim to being the largest in Central Asia. It has a wide range of shops, a supermarket and many places to eat, from local restaurants to western-style cafes. The national dish, pilav or plov, consists of lamb, rice, carrots and onions.

Also worth a visit is the Russian bazaar, which sells all kinds of food including a wide selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Just outside Ashgabat are the ruins of the ancient settlement of Nisa. This was an early capital of the Parthian Empire, well over 2,000 years ago. A visit to Nisa also provides good views of the Kopet Dag Mountains. And just over a small ridge from the ruins lies a typical Turkmenistan village: a cluster of single-storey houses, most with green roofs. It seems a world away from the nearby marble city.

Header image: © Alan Williams

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