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Turkmenistan's incongruous 'City of Love'

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The proliferation of waterfalls in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat come at the expense of the fast-shrinking Aral Sea. Photo / Jill Worrall
The proliferation of waterfalls in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat come at the expense of the fast-shrinking Aral Sea. Photo / Jill Worrall

Waterfalls are cascading down the walls of a vast marble-clad shopping mall. At its base is a park densely planted with trees and dotted with such a diversity of fountains it looks like a giant water-feature warehouse.

In the distance the sun glances off a gold-plated statue of a rather portly man that rotates slowly on top of giant tripod tower. There are construction cranes and stockpiles of marble everywhere.

This is Ashgabat - possibly the world's weirdest (and somewhat sinister) capital city.

Anyone not involved in the oil or natural gas industry could be forgiven for not being exactly sure where Ashgabat, or even the country it serves is. Turkmenistan, after all only came into existence in the 1920s and even then only as an autonomous state of the USSR.

Prior to this, Turkmenistan was a land of nomadic herdsmen for whom tribal alliances and not nations were of paramount importance (as was a lucrative sideline kidnapping Russian soldiers and selling them into slavery in the neighbouring khanates (kingdoms) of Khiva and Bukhara.

Which makes modern-day Ashgabat (which means City of Love) even more bizarre.

Turkmenistan is nearly 90 per cent desert but in the capital the waterfalls almost never seem to stop flowing. They do so at the expense of the fast-shrinking Aral Sea, one of Central Asia's greatest environmental disaster zones.

The fountains, marble monuments, palaces and apartments, buildings and the gold statues were all the work of one man, Turkmenistan's ruler Niyazov, who had been the communist party secretary (leader) of the country from 1985.

When the USSR collapsed he simply changed the party's name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and carried on in power, creating an increasingly weird personality cult in the process.

Renaming himself as Turkmenbashi (father of the Turkmens) he even renamed the days of the week and months in honour of, among others, himself and his mother.

He died in 2006, much to the secret relief of many Turkmens (behind Ashgabat's Las Vegas of the Steppes facade there was iron control of political opposition, communications and free speech).

He was succeeded by his former dentist (and also a deputy leader) Berdymukhamedov, who looks extraordinarily like Niyazov.

Rumours are rife that he is in fact Turkmenbashi's illegitimate son. That's perhaps doubly convenient because the gold-plated statues of the latter that are ubiquitous in the capital can at a pinch be easily mistaken for the current ruler. Which must be a bit of a saving when you are importing thousands of tonnes of Italian and Indian marble for apartments for a people who less than 100 years ago were living in yurts.

This is my second time in Ashgabad and despite a certain degree of familiarity I still spend my days here having to remember to close my gaping mouth at the sheer audacity, incongruity and appalling extravagance of the city of love.

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