Central Asia - Turkmenistan - Ashgabat - Part 1

Ashgabat - a showcase city of white marble buildings Credit: Wikipedia

Turkmenistan was a country closed to the rest of the world for a long time. Only around 10-20,000 tourists visit per year - less than even North Korea. We spent 5 days touring through the country, visiting, museums and historical sites, as well as several cities including the capital, Ashgabat.

Map of Turkmenistan. Our tour route marked in pink Credit: WorldAtlas.com

Present-day Turkmenistan covers territory that was at the crossroads of civilizations for centuries. The area was ruled in antiquity by various Persian empires, and was conquered by Alexander the Great, Muslim armies, the Mongols, Turkic warriors, and eventually the Russians. In 1924, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic; it achieved independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.1

The country is incredibly rich in oil and gas - their main customer China with 3 pipelines feeding through to them and a 4th is under way.

The people were a delight and eager to chat, however we were always with Bava, our competent, yet ever watchful guide.

It's a mysterious country with many contradictions, contrasts and weird rules. We were told little TV from the outside world and no internet available, but unlike the locals, as tourists we did have unrestricted access in our hotel in Ashgabat, only in our rooms, not in any of the public spaces. In fact the speed was faster than at home.

It was a thrill to visit a country knowing so little and we tried to soak up as much information and experiences as we could.

President Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan between 1991 and 2006. As an autocratic ruler, after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.

He gave himself the name of Turkmenbashi - which means Great Leader of All Turkmen. As you can tell he had quite the ego and issued weird rules. Some include:

  • After heart surgery in 1997 he was forced to quit smoking, so he forbade smoking in all public places. (He died of a heart attack in 2006).
  • His irritation with beards, lip syncing, and gold teeth led to all three being outlawed. (Those who already had gold teeth had to get them extracted.)
  • He also disliked makeup on TV presenters and, in 2004, mandated that newsreaders had to appear on screen with cosmetic-free faces "the color of wheat".3

Despite his idiosyncroacies, Turkmenbashi initiated some wonderful achievements. In his first 3 years of office he ensured every house in every town and village had gas, electricity and water.2

It was free for many years and I read people would keep the gas on 24/7 as it was cheaper than buying matches! They pay for it now, but costs are reasonable as is the price of petrol.

Despite being a wealthy country most of the people are poor; the country roads are terrible, the regional towns a step back into Soviet times, yet in the capital Ashgabat, its a very different story. Known as the City of White Marble, streets are laid out in a precise grid, avenues with large roundabouts and overpasses - on every one an elegant sculpture - all white and embellished with gold. A few examples below.

Photos: Jane

The roads are so smooth car tyres squeal turning corners. We flew into Ashgabat at night - the city ablaze with beautifully lit buildings - mind boggling colours to rival Las Vegas.

The following evening we toured the city to admire these buildings more closely. It happened to not only be a full moon, but a super moon and what a perfect place to see it.

Some of the buildings by night. Photos: Jane

In 1948 Ashgabat vanished in less than a minute, levelled by an earthquake that measured 9 on the Richter scale. Over 110,000 people died (2/3rds of the population) although the official figure stated 14,000.

This was the Stalin Era - countries didn’t suffer disasters! For 5 years the area was closed to outsiders - the bodies recovered, the wreckage cleared and construction of this new amazing showcase city began.2

I hadn't done much reading on Ashgabat, so it was an unbelievable sight when I opened the curtains of my hotel room the next morning - a city of only white buildings. There are over 500 white marble buildings in Ashgabat, some with colourful murals on each side.

The weird thing though - the streets almost devoid of people and often no cars either - even in the middle of the day. Bus shelters are air conditioned and have TV - in the 2 days we spent in Ashgabat I didn’t ever see anyone waiting for a bus.

Further out of town more white houses, though with green or sometimes red roofs. Asgabat is an intriguing place.

A city of white buildings viewed from my hotel room, a bus shelter, city outskirts - buildings with green roofs, a large square - only people are our group. Photos: Jane

Join Drew in the 5 min video below to experience a little of Ashgabat and some of its wacky elements.

Serdar Berdimuhamedow, aged 40, was appointed the 3rd and current president of Turkmenistan in March 2022, after moving quickly through a series of increasingly prominent posts within the government of the 2nd president, his father, Gurbanguly.2

We didn’t hear too much about him, but his posters were all over the place and in one of the museums we visited a whole room was dedicated to him. A shame no photos were allowed without a $US10 camera fee.

We were getting used to these strange rules. At all of the museums our own guide was not permitted to accompany us. We could pay for a museum guide at a cost of $US15 per person, which we all considered excessive and hence declined.

Views of Yyldyz Hotel from many parts of the city. The foyer and lift doors feature the hotel's tear drop shape. Photos: Jane

We were very spoilt staying in one of the best hotels in town - the Yyldyz Hotel. As you can see above, a fabulous tear drop shaped structure overlooking the town which we saw from many vantage points during our time in Ashgabat. It’s owned by the state - built in 2013 by a French engineering group and able to withstand serious earthquakes. About 7,000 tons of steel and more than 14,000 square meters of glass were used.

The rooms and public areas beautifully appointed and breakfasts delicious. The mini bar prices were exorbitant though - a small coke $US15!

During our stay in this fascinating city we visited the Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex honouring those killed in the Battle of Geok Tepe in 1881, WWII & the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake. It was mid-morning and not a soul around, just the 2 soldiers guarding the eternal flame We were told not to approach the guards.

Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex Photos: Jane

There are plenty of other sculptures and monuments scattered about town - they are all big and impressive.

Photos: Jane

Above Top: 2 sides of a Silk Road Globe - a salute to Turkmenistan’s significance on the Great Silk Road;
Bottom Left: Monument to the Turkmenistan Constitution the 2nd tallest building in Turkmenistan at a height of 185m;
Bottom Middle: world’s largest Indoor Ferris wheel as recorded in the Guinness Book of Records (which Drew visits in the video above);
Bottom Right: Arch of Neutrality Monument, a tower crowned by a 12m tall gold-plated statue of Niyazov, (1st President after independence) recognising the UN General Assembly declaration of Turkmenistan’s international status of permanent neutrality on 12 December,1995.

The government buildings are also an amazement - I’m not sure who designed them all, but architects must vie for a commission here.

Photos: Jane

Above Top: The Department of Education resembled an open book, The Ministry for Carpets, a roll of carpet, The Ministry for Oil and Gas, an oil rig.
Above Bottom: The Dental Hospital a molar, and the Department of Foreign Affairs has a globe on the top. The United Nations Building is a little plain though!

The country has a fixation with the Guinness Book of Records - entries include: the world’s tallest flagpole, the largest fountain complex, largest architectural image and the largest Ferris wheel in an enclosed architectural design and the greatest number of marble buildings in a city.

Monument of Independence Photos: Jane

The Monument of Independence takes up an expanse of 84,500 m2 (910,000 sq ft), surrounded by green landscaping that encompasses a cascaded pool and 27 heroic statues of Turkmen leaders, centered on a golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the 1st President of Turkmenistan.

The design was inspired by traditional Turkmen tents and traditional headgear worn by Turkmen girls. Elements of the building commemorate the independence date of Turkmenistan which is 27 September.

These elements include a 91-metre (299 ft) reinforced concrete tower with a 27-metre (89 ft) high golden gilt steel construction on top of the tower, along with an observation terrace with a diameter of 10 metres (33 ft). Within the building, there are exhibition halls where important works of art representing Turkmenistan history are displayed. 2

As I said everything in Ashgabat is of an enormous scale. Join me tomorrow to continue exploring this fascinating city.

1 www.cia.gov
2 Wikipedia
3 slate.com