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According to one guide book, only the insane or deeply unfortunate end up in Ashgabat in July or August. The calendar had just flipped over to September and it was still very very hot. Described as the love child of Las Vegas and Pyongyang it was a city I had to see. Unfortunately, this small city population wise covers a large area, meaning a lot of walking and busing. Our mandatory government issued guide wasn’t keen on showing us much in the centre preferring to bus us around to boring sterile sites on the outskirts. With the Asian games just 9 days away the city was at its best; the streets were extra clean and liquor was banned across the country. Cheeky tourists could still buy a beer for inflated prices at some restaurants but these turned out to be non-alcoholic.
I set out alone that afternoon. In front of me lay street after street of white marble buildings, bizarre statues and fountains dotting the way. The trees and plants lining the street seemed too perfect and recently planted. It felt a lot like Pyongyang if it had been designed by an artist. Many of the bus stops I passed had glassed off shelters with air conditioners running full blast inside. Despite this, most of the locals would stand behind the bus shelters in the shade as inside the shelters it was hot and stuffy despite the best efforts of the air conditioners.
First on my list was the Wedding Palace, which is a bizarre building that looks like an owl from a distance. As it was such a far walk, I tried to take a bus but the one I wanted never came so I opted for any bus going in the correct direction. As soon as I boarded, the bus changed course leading me in the opposite direction. Most bus shelters have air conditioning but buses strangely do not. Still, I stayed on watching the city roll by as a bonus this was the only place no one was telling me not to take photos. Although the locals were not keen on interacting they were quite fun to watch as the women were so colourful in their local dresses and bizarre headscarfs. Stories abound of tourists being followed by secret police so it isn’t on surprising locals were polite but keen on not being seen chatting with foreigners. The three ladies that were willing to be caught on my camera with me had enough English to tell me not to put their photos online.
Ashgabat was razed by an earthquake during Soviet times and the resulting rebuild left it very Soviet. When the USSR fell, the local leader took the reins and built a model city in the desert bankrolled by the oil riches of Turkmenistan. Called the Golden Era he even went so far as building a massive gold statue of himself that rotated to track the sun (now removed). He banned everything that wasn’t from Turkmenistan including cinema, ballet and Santa Claus. Furthermore he banned listening to music in cars and smelly dogs (there are still no dogs). He even went as far as renaming the days of the week and months of the year after his family members. To encourage exercise he built a 37 km walkway-of-health along the mountains in the south. Once a year he would make his cabinet walk it. He would fly up in his helicopter to meet them at intervals along the way. His excuse for not walking it was a heart condition which he died of in 2006.
The new and current President, who is a former dentist, has rolled back some of the crazier ideas of his predecessor, but in civil liberties and human rights he has stated “never run to where you can simply walk”. Turkmenistan is still one of the most authoritarian places on the planet. Much like North Korea there is no advertising billboards or signs on the street and pictures of the president stare down at you from almost everywhere you look. It lacks commercialism to the point that walking through the suburbs I couldn’t even find any shops until I realized I hadn’t recognized them. Between every tall building was a shorter, longer building that had what the shop sells written on the top in Turkmen and cutouts of what is sold on the facade; furniture shops would have a silhouette of a bed and a couch, a toy store the silhouette of a small trumpet and a doll etc. It must have been what the USSR had been like. There were no flyers or ads to be seen.
My second goal of he day was to see the massive indoor Ferris wheel on the outskirts of town. I gave up as the sun set. It was still a three kilometre walk along an 8-lane road with zero cars. Every two hundred meters a man with a walker talkie sat watching in the now much cooler 40 degree heat. They seemed to be okay with me being there but I didn’t relish walking there and back in the heat to see a most likely closed Ferris wheel.
Side note – The former president’s slogan was “People, Nation, Me”. In one famous incident he went into the countryside to see a village and had it razed as he deemed it ugly. He never bothered to have the place rebuilt or the people resettled. The concrete foundations can still be seen today.
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