Ashgabat – Stranger in a Strange Land

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a funny place. But then it’s bound to be, given the history of the country’s leadership since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties. The local Communist party leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, became president at that time and almost immediately decided that being just Mr Niyazov was way too boring. So he declared himself to be Turkmenbashi – Leader of all the Turkmens. He was Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great; he was the All-powerful and Fearless Serdar; he was the Eternal Sun of Turkmenistan and the Great Architect of the Golden Age of the Turkmens; he was the Father, the Prophet, and the President for Life. He then set about renaming the days of the week and the months of the year after himself and his mother. He banned opera, ballet and the circus, but opened a giant theme park based on Turkmen fairy tales. He made his book, the Ruhnama, compulsory reading for all schoolchildren, and made everyone sit an exam on it to get a driving licence. He littered the country with pictures and statues of himself, including one in Ashgabat made of gold, that rotated so that he was always facing the sun. And then in 2006 he died.

The new and current president is Turkmenbashi’s former dentist, and then Minister of Health, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Our guide in Turkmenistan (you must have a guide here unless you are only visiting Ashgabat) jokingly offered a prize for anyone who could pronounce his name correctly. I didn’t even try.

Since 2006 there have been a few changes. The golden statues of Turkmenbashi remain, the more transient elements of his personality cult – portraits on buildings, banknotes, and so on – have been slowly removed, and Berdymukhammedov has instigated his own version of crazy. Ashgabat itself is undergoing a transformation. Old neighbourhoods are being torn down and new neighbourhoods are being built, all in white marble. It seems that the new regime has a particular love for the clean and solid look of marble so all new buildings must be built from it. And the older buildings are either being reclad in marble or something that looks like white marble. In the long sunny days they positively glisten and the whole city now looks like a brand new upmarket shopping mall, albeit with one distinct omission.

There’s nobody there. The giant white marble edifices stand along broad avenues absolutely thronging with nobody whatsoever. It’s a little creepy. In 2011 I visited the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat. It was the closest city to the Chernobyl nuclear plant and had been evacuated in the days following the disaster there. Walking around the empty squares and streets was eerie. Pripyat had been empty for more than 20 years when I arrived, and nature was doing it’s best to take over so the atmosphere was almost literally post-apocalyptic. A lot of Ashgabat looks like it’s been abandoned following some great event, and then occasionally you see someone trimming the grass verge with scissors, or sweeping the path, or there’ll be a soldier stood next to a monument to “guard” it. When our guide was asked about this he offered the unconvincing explanation that Turkmens don’t like to go out in the heat so everyone must be inside taking advantage of the air conditioning. What, everyone?!

(To be fair, we did see 2 people at the monument park, and a small wedding party at another site. Still, it’s a city. I’ve seen more people queuing outside my local Greggs bakery on a Saturday lunchtime).

As for the various sightseeing options, there’s a fascinating mix of hangovers of the Turkmenbashi regime, including the infamous rotating gold statue (which has been relocated recently and no longer rotates), and new builds such as the airport in the shape of a giant bird (with a smaller version next door just for governmental officials). There’s also the largest single dome mosque in Central Asia – constructed out of a combination of white marble (who’d have guessed), gold, and enormous ego (the main room includes quotes from Turkmenbashi’s book on the walls rather than verses from the Quran). Next door is the mausoleum for Turkmenbashi and his family, and in another part of town a statue of his book, the Ruhnama, which supposedly opens at night and lights up.

In 2007 I visited North Korea and saw at first hand what a cult of personality looks like. In Ashgabat I saw it again, just clad in white marble.

Monument Park in rush hour. The only people you see are tourists.

Everyone loves a gold statue

The largest single dome mosque in Central Asia. It was empty.

Some crazy person in a wedding chapel. I’m pretty sure the leader (watching from above) would not approve.

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