Ashgabat

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -  (but extra marks on the weirdness scale!)
 
The capital city of Turkmenistan  is one of the strangest cities in the world. It has quite aptly been described as a kind of cross between Las Vegas and North Korea's Pyongyang. The extreme eccentricity of the all-pervading Turkmenbashy cult of personality is today slightly less omnipresent, but it is still a pretty unique place well worth exploring for travellers with a taste for the bizarre. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  

More background info: Ashgabat (population ca. 1 million), capital of today's Turkmenistan, is nestled between the Karakum desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range, which forms the border with Iran. It is a relatively young city – in more than one sense. It developed out of a mere village only a couple of centuries ago, and only really became a city under Russian rule. Heavy development followed during Soviet times.
 
But in 1948 one of the deadliest earthquakes of all time almost wiped the whole city out again. The quake measured an estimated 7.3 on the Richter scale. Almost every brick or concrete structure collapsed. The death toll was also massive, presumably over 100,000, possibly up to 180,000, which would have been two-thirds of the entire population! Exact figures are hard to ascertain, as usual with disasters in Soviet times. Facts were typically suppressed and the casualty figures given way too low – which had the added knock-on effect that aid measures were grossly insufficient.
 
The rebuilt Soviet city of Ashgabat was, typical for any larger Soviet conurbation, dominated by bleak apartment blocks. Many of these still stand, some have been refurbished.
 
The 1948 earthquake also killed the family of future leader Saparmurat Niyazov, making him an orphan. Still, he made it to the top of the Turkmen SSR and, after the USSR's collapse and Turkmenistan's independence, carried on to rule the country for 15 years as one of history's most extreme, "god-like" dictators. This was when he became better known to the world under the assumed title of Turkmenbashy (= 'father of all Turkmen').
 
During his reign, the city was transformed yet again, now taking on its kind-of Las-Vegas-like look. It still is in flux today, fuelled by oil money ... white marble and gold still seem to be the preferred building (or rather finishing) materials these days. That Turkmenistan is an energy-rich country can also be seen in the fact that parks are not only lit up at night, but even during daylight hours! At night, though, the full extravaganza of light installations really come into their own, illuminating all the city's great buildings and monuments in changing colours of the rainbow.
 
Predictably the most eccentric examples of monuments celebrating the unbelievable cult of personality surrounding the deceased leader Turkmenbashy are, or were, to be found here in the capital city.
 
Over the last few years, the new Second President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has curbed the previous OTT cult of personality surrounding the Turkmenbashy. The pinnacle of this was the 75 metre (250 feet) high Arch of Neutrality in the centre of the city. Its massive golden statue of the Turkmenbashy at its top even used to rotate so as to always face the sun! When I visited in November 2010, only the lower tripod-like stump of the monument was still visible, and demolition work was continuing. So I feared it had gone for good. However, I have meanwhile been informed that the monument has been re-erected on the edge of the city in Berzengi. Apparently the golden statue on top is back too – but no longer revolves.
 
Similarly, the monument to the Turkmenbashy's book of wisdom, the "Ruhnama", which used to be – and to a lesser degree still is – treated like some kind of bible in the country. In 2010 I found this monument also fenced off and presumed it may be scheduled for removal. It's actually a giant replica of the book on a massive plinth with golden friezes at the bottom. Originally, the giant book was mysteriously (= mechanically) opened up and video images were projected onto the opened book's double pages, with heroic music playing along, on regular occasions. But no more. The monument as such is still there I've been told. But the opening/projection show hadn't been working properly for years anyway, since the weight of the monument made the engines of the opening mechanism seize up. So it just sits there these days. In any case, it's got to be one of the most kitschy, OTT monuments on the planet ever. Shame the whole show around it no longer takes place.  But hopefully it won't disappear altogether at least for the foreseeable future. 
 
Other examples of modern Turkmenistan's still healthy gigantomaniacal taste in monuments abound, such as the Independence Monument, or the crazily oversized Horse Monument. There are still countless (usually golden) statues of the Turkmenbashy himself everywhere … also beyond the capital city, of course …
 
In addition to the monuments out in the open, there are also the museums. In the National Museum, the signs of the Turkmenbashy cult-of-personality being pushed out by Berdymukhamedov's own version are very clear. However, the Museum of Gifts to the Turkmenbashy remains, for the time being, intact and unchanged.
 
As Ashgabat is the point of entry and main base for most visitors, package programmes will most likely include city tours taking in those monuments and museums.
 
 
What there is to see: From the first impressions to the moment you leave, you will be overwhelmed with white marble. Virtually everything that has been built in the city over the last 20 years or so is dominated by this material. It's partly from sources in the country but also imported (e.g. from Italy) – no wonder, given the incredible demand for the stuff here. Apart from government buildings, it's especially the new luxury apartment blocks for the elite that really hammer the white-marble-theme in.
 
But despite all the marble efforts, the initial feel of the city is rather soulless. It's sprawling and there's no real core of city centre life. If anything, that sort of thing is to be found at the bazaars – e.g. the Russky Bazaar in the centre.
 
But the dark tourist will hardly be here for the pleasures of capital city life – instead it's precisely the weirdness of the place that forms the main attraction. And it does deliver this. Not quite as much as it did until a few years ago, but still…
 
One aspect of the "Las Vegas meets Pyongyang"-character of the place is, of course, the gigantic monuments. The prime example is the Arch of Neutrality with its golden Turkmenbashy statue at the top. It's been moved away from the centre and the statue no longer revolves, but at least it's still there (see background info).
 
One rather large golden Turkmenbashy stands close to the Horse Monument. This is a fantastically over-the-top ensemble of bronze horses seemingly running in all directions at once and jumping off rock promontories. It's to be found in the central park just south of the city centre and north of the Luna Park (amusement park – also referred to by some as "Disney Land").
 
Another big golden Mr T can be found just to the west of the grand Independence Monument – which is the largest (or certainly tallest) of them all. This is the dominating piece of Independence Park on the southern fringes of the city.
 
A bit behind it further to the west you can make out the strange shape of the Ministry of Health, which also gave it the epithet "Cobra Building". Apparently its curving blue-windowed facade is supposed to resemble one. This was the original home of President Berdymukhamedov, originally a dentist by trade, in his days as health minister under the Turkmenbashy.
 
The northern end of Independence Park is dominated by the strange pyramid-like shape of the Altyn Asyr Centre, not a monument as such, but a kind of shopping centre with a restaurant and disco on the top floors. Like the rest of the park and indeed the whole of Ashgabat it is garishly lit up at night in changing colours.
 
Along the western central section of Independence Park, the Ruhnama Monument used to fascinate and amuse, but when I visited in November 2010 it was fenced off, clearly not in working order and hardly visible at all.  But I've recently been assured that it is still there at least …
 
Another remaining monument is worth special mention here: the Earthquake Memorial south-east of the Presidential Palace Square (where the Arch of Neutrality used to stand). This bizarre memorial monument takes the rather unexpected and extravagant form of a raging bull balancing a globe between his horns. The globe is probably supposed to be Planet Earth being pummelled by the quake, itself personified by the bull. The most quirky element, however, is the little golden statue balanced right at the top of the globe. No doubt this is to represent young Saparmurat Niyazov, who was orphaned in the 1948 earthquake (see background info) but lived on to become the Great Turkmenbashy.
 
There are also some less flashy aspects of the "Las Vegas meets Pyongyang" theme. In particular the comparatively bland, typical Soviet-era housing blocks that are still about in large numbers. A few have been renovated – well, they received new coats of garish yellow paint – others not yet. A common feature of them all is the forest of satellite dishes on the roofs. (Now here's a stark contrast to Pyongyang!) Allegedly there's a new law now that stipulates that people have to share just one single dish per building – but that's not been enforced yet.
 
One rather sobering site is the huge cemetery in the north of the city, which includes large empty patches: the sites of mass graves filled after the devastating 1948 earthquake, so I was told. It's rather off the tourist trail, though … but you may see it from the road when driving past it towards/from the airport and/or the Tolkuchka Bazaar.
 
Apart from the Turkmenbashy-era/contemporary grand modern monuments there are also leftovers from the Soviet days, including the obligatory WWII memorial, aka "Great Patriotic War 1941-1945" in Soviet terminology.
 
Also going back to those olden days is Ashgabat's Lenin monument. This is less remarkable for its Lenin statue itself, which is a mere life-size specimen in the typical pointing-ahead-to-show-the-path-of-progress gesture. What really makes it different is its plinth. This consists of a stack of upright (sic!) Turkmen carpets with their typical patterns. This rather stunning monument is a bit hidden behind a theatre building in central Ashgabat between 1984 and 1994 streets. Taking photos of it can incur the wrath of the soldiers on duty, who may demand you delete your pics again. (We found it easy to fool them, though – just take a whole series of pics, mixed with other images, then delete just the last Lenin pic, that'll do the trick). Why the fuss? The official explanation I was given by a tour guide I asked was that there's a government building nearby and that it's this that the guards don't want photographed. But why, then, would they still mind so much if you point your camera away from that building towards the Lenin statue? I don't know.
 
Of the contemporary objects you're not supposed to take pictures of, government buildings and in particular the presidential palace are amongst the most obvious examples. The same applies to military installations, as usual. At least I found a remarkable, oversized poster celebrating the military in town that was safe enough to take pictures of in lieu of the real thing.
 
Overall, it's just cool to roam the cityscape of Ashgabat, which at least you are allowed to do freely here (another contrast to Pyongyang!), and keep looking out for quirky things. There are certainly plenty.
 
The more commodified aspects of Ashgabat sightseeing apart from the "official" monuments are, of course, museums. The one that will be of particular interest to the dark tourist, or indeed anybody after the weirder aspects of this country, is so extravagant that it is given its own separate entry here:  
 
 
Somewhat similar is the National Museum, which lies rather forlornly on the south-western edge of the city on Arcabil Sayoly. This museum also has elements of the former Turkmenbashy cult of personality; here, however, the "competition" with the second president is evident. In fact, Berdymukhamedov appears to have taken over here. The exhibits related to him outshine the Turkmenbashy relics in this museum. These must be more recent changes then. In contrast the enormous carpet in one section must still date from the previous president's reign – given that it is inscribed with a Turkmenbashy slogan. Apparently it's the second largest carpet in the world (the very biggest, aptly, is in the carpet museum – see below).
 
I particularly liked the oversized framed photo poster of Berdymukhamedov wearing a white lab coat over his suit and holding up a bottle of cooking oil and a pack of butter – apparently taken on a visit to a fat factory. It was very reminiscent of all those on-the-spot-guidance pictures you see of the Kims in North Korea!
 
The second president's writings are also on display, in green covers too, just like the Turkmenbashy's Ruhnama, although somewhat more modestly entitled "To New Heights of Progress". On then!
 
Outside the museum stands a huge flagpole which is allegedly the world's tallest free-standing one, at least so we were told. Azerbaijan may recently have trumped this, though (see Martyrs' Lane, Baku).
 
 
Location: roughly in the centre of southern Turkmenistan, on the edge of the Karakum desert, about halfway between the Caspian Sea to the west and the border with Afghanistan to the east, by the foothills of the Kopet Dag mountains, just 15 miles (25 km) or so from the border with Iran.

Google maps locator: [37.94,58.385]
  
 
Access and costs: bureaucratically restricted, but not too difficult to get to; relatively inexpensive.
 
Details: For the bureaucracy involved in getting into the country see under Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is by far the most likely entry point for tourists, as it has the country's only international airport, which is named (guess what?) "Turkmenbashy The Great Airport". Crossings of land borders are more awkward to negotiate.
 
Most visitors will be on some kind of organized tour, so will most likely be picked up at the airport after immigration. These tour groups will usually also see to transport to/from hotels and the main items on the tour itinerary.
 
Getting around independently isn't too difficult either. Negotiating public transport (buses, trolley buses, marshrutkas) is a challenge, but longer distances can also be covered by taxi, or rather: private cars doubling up as taxis. As in many former Soviet places it is perfectly normal to just stick your hand out to stop a private car. You can then negotiate the destination and price. Hitching a ride for free, on the other hand, is NOT customary. Usually a few Manat will get you almost anywhere within the city limits. If you don't like the look of the car or the driver (e.g. if he appears drunk) it is also perfectly acceptable to reject the offer and try another one.
 
Of course you can also walk – but note that some of the more quirky, interesting parts of the Ashgabat experience are located quite far from the centre, esp. to the south, including the vast Independence Park.
 
Accommodation options include a number of international hotels, such as the (former Sheraton) Grand Hotel – which is, at least in some rooms, a lot more faded than the name and its five stars would suggest, but it's alright. Another hotel that I was told was good is the Nissa Hotel – which was undergoing refurbishment at the time of my visit in November 2010. If you are on an organized tour, your accommodation will be arranged for you in any case and will be part of the package price.
 
Living costs can be quite low, unless you intend to splash out on luxuries like imported alcoholic beverages or seafood. The latter obviously has to be a pricey commodity this far from any sea. If you stick to local goods and simple eateries, you won't have to spend much. I spent the equivalent of 200 USD in a week, and that included souvenirs. Some meals, lunches especially, were also included in the tour price.
 
As regards shopping, popular souvenirs include bottles of vodka or brandy (the latter is rather nasty, though) Especially in demand proved ones with the image of the Turkmenbashy on the label, or even "inside" the bottle on the back of the label. His "holy" book, the "Ruhnama" is also sold in various language versions. But you can get this just as easily at home over the Internet. Posters and the like relating to the Great Man's reign were also still easy to find when I was there. Classic souvenirs such as little figurines of architectural landmarks were on offer too, including the Arch of Neutrality in a snow shaker!
 
More mainstream touristy goods include, most obviously, carpets – highly regarded but lower priced than in some other typical carpet-selling countries ... in fact many import their carpets from Turkmenistan! Textiles are popular too, also those big traditional furry hats, as are more typical tourist tack such as little fluffy camels etc. Note that more valuable items such as carpets or antiques need to have the proper paperwork if you want to take them out of the country.
 
Admission costs for foreigners are routinely more expensive than for locals (often quite significantly so), as is so common in eastern countries. What can really bore a hole into one's wallet are the extra charges for photo permits, but then again, it's probably worth it …
 
 
Time required: two or three days minimum to see the main monuments and museums. But you could easily "mooch around" this bizarre city looking for weird details for a couple of days longer. Add extra time for day and/or overnight excursions to sites outside the city, for which it serves as the ideal base.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Ashgabat functions as the base for most foreign visitors in Turkmenistan. And it is from here that various excursions to destinations outside the city are offered by tour operators.
 
One such excursion will take visitors to the mausoleum of the Turkmenbashy, next to a massive new mosque built at the same time.
 
This is often combined with a visit to the Kov Ata cavern and underground thermal lake, where you can enjoy a dip in year-round warm sulphurous waters in a (former) bat cave.
 
A more extreme excursion, typically with overnight camping in the Karakum desert, takes tourists to the country's most spectacular sight: the flaming gas crater of Darvaza. This, however, is doomed, unfortunately, so may soon no longer form part of the Turkmenistan experience, which will be a great shame when it comes to that.
 
Other destinations in Turkmenistan require internal flights and/or long drives in the desert, e.g. as far as Garabogazköl.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The capital city also forms the hub for mainstream tourism in the country ... as far as there is anything really mainstream here.
 
Much of this is ancient history tourism revolving around the legacy of the famous Silk Route. Merv is usually regarded as the highlight of the country on that front. But the northern monuments at Konye-Urgench, near Dashoguz, are a close second (cf. under Darvaza and Turkmenistan in general).
 
Another important historical/archaeological site is Old Nisa Fort, a former Parthian city, now a World Heritage Site, which is located some 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Ashgabat, not far from the Turkmenbashy Mausoleum.
 
Another rather eccentric (though not really dark) sight that can be seen from there is the so-called "Walk of Health" – a paved track (with various small monuments dotted along the way) leading from the outskirts of Ashgabat over the foothills of the mountains. In the past, the Turkmenbashy made his subordinates "do this health walk regularly – while he himself preferred to take the helicopter … Now the walk appears to be rather deserted, but it's still a striking landmark!
 
Within Ashgabat itself, classic attractions beyond those described above include the Hippodrome, where you can watch races of the highly-acclaimed Turkmen horse breeds. It is very much a horse country! Apart from the live horses there are also plenty of horse-themed posters about. When I was there this included ones with the Turkmenbashy on horseback, now, so I'm told, replaced by a mounted Berdymukhamedov.
 
A standard item on regular itineraries is also the Carpet Museum – since Turkmenistan is as proud of its carpets as it is of its horses, this is probably comes as no great surprise. For my taste, however, the Carpet Museum was an extremely tedious and yawn-inducing affair. So unless you're really into this sort of thing I'd say don't bother. When I was there as part of an organized group tour I soon zoned out and rather spent the time chatting to fellow travellers in the back who had as little interest in the museum as I had. One part of the Carpet Museum which, it has to be admitted, does impress after all is the section with the really big ones. This includes the biggest hand-woven carpet in the world – it's truly massive, something like 20 by 15 metres (65 feet by 50 feet) and is one of Turkmenistan's several entries in the Guinness Book of Records. In this case size really matters. But still, it's hardly worth it coming here just for this one exhibit …
 
A particular highlight of Ashgabat used to be the Tolkuchka Bazaar, said to be the largest such bazaar in the world (or at least in Central Asia). When I was there in November 2010 I found it indeed amazingly sprawling and enjoyed its bustling chaos – in fact it got rather pushy in places, so it's probably not necessarily something for everyone. But I found it cool. It was also good for souvenir hunting, including old relics from Soviet days.
 
Alas, though, the whole market has now been moved to an entirely new location. It's still held at least Thursdays and Sundays. But it is now a much more sanitized affair, without the fascinating anarchy of old. Gone too, so I'm told, is the famous "camel winch" in the separate animal section next to the main bazaar. This was basically a crane by means of which camels that had changed hands in a transaction were hoisted onto the back of a truck. During this process the camels used to emit a very annoyed sounding loud growl when lifted off the ground in this manner. It was probably more entertaining for onlookers than for the camels, so from an animal-welfare point of view it's probably not such a bad thing that it is no more. Still, shame that the character of the old bazaar has disappeared.
 
  • 01 - Ashgabat at dawn01 - Ashgabat at dawn
  • 02 - first and second president facing each other02 - first and second president facing each other
  • 03 - Berdymukhamedov as if swatting a dove03 - Berdymukhamedov as if swatting a dove
  • 04 - former Arch of Neutrality being torn down04 - former Arch of Neutrality being torn down
  • 05 - the great golden Saparmurat Turkmenbashy05 - the great golden Saparmurat Turkmenbashy
  • 06 - you get the point about first and greatness06 - you get the point about first and greatness
  • 07 - horse monument07 - horse monument
  • 08 - Independence Monument08 - Independence Monument
  • 09 - cobra building seen through the golden half moon09 - cobra building seen through the golden half moon
  • 10 - Cobra building Ministry of Health10 - Cobra building Ministry of Health
  • 11 - earthquake monument - photo courtesy of Lucas Klamert11 - earthquake monument - photo courtesy of Lucas Klamert
  • 12 - shiny new Ashgabat12 - shiny new Ashgabat
  • 13 - view over Soviet housing blocks13 - view over Soviet housing blocks
  • 14 - Soviet era blocks of flats14 - Soviet era blocks of flats
  • 15 - Great Patriotic Fatherland War monument15 - Great Patriotic Fatherland War monument
  • 16 - theatre building16 - theatre building
  • 17 - Lenin statue on top of Turkmen carpets17 - Lenin statue on top of Turkmen carpets
  • 18 - military poster in Ashgabat18 - military poster in Ashgabat
  • 19 - oversize flagpole19 - oversize flagpole
  • 20 - Berdymukhamedov has visibly taken over20 - Berdymukhamedov has visibly taken over
  • 21 - redundant Turkmenbashy memorabilia are also still revered21 - redundant Turkmenbashy memorabilia are also still revered
  • 22 - Berdymukhamedov giving on-the-spot guidance on fat production22 - Berdymukhamedov giving on-the-spot guidance on fat production
  • 23 - new presidential writings23 - new presidential writings
  • 24 - Ashgabat park at dusk24 - Ashgabat park at dusk
  • 25 - Ashgabat by night25 - Ashgabat by night
  • 26 - globe column monument in Ashgabat26 - globe column monument in Ashgabat
  • 27 - Russky Bazaar27 - Russky Bazaar
  • 28 - approaching Altyn Asyr Centre28 - approaching Altyn Asyr Centre
  • 29 - Turkmenbashy bust in front29 - Turkmenbashy bust in front
  • 30 - past the post and past Turkmenbashy propaganda30 - past the post and past Turkmenbashy propaganda
  • 31 - Tolkuchka Bazaar31 - Tolkuchka Bazaar
  • 32 - the famous camel winch32 - the famous camel winch
    
  
 
  
  
 

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