Exploring Turkmenistan's enigmatic capital

Monuments to poets and writers on Ashgabat's 'Inspiration Alley'. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikipedia user ILMur
Monuments to poets and writers on Ashgabat's 'Inspiration Alley'. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikipedia user ILMur

"Ashgabat", our guide Dima said slowly, choosing his words carefully between mouthfuls of steaming meat pie, "is paradise".

"I pay one per cent tax. Education is free. Healthcare is free. We have marvellous hotels. I work five months of the year, and for seven months I hunt, fish and relax. Paradise," he concluded emphatically.

Hot liquid fat from my own pie spurted onto my hands, lap and legs as I bit down sharply, surprised by Dima's comments.

Ashgabat. Capital of Turkmenistan, an obscure Central Asian dictatorship governed, until recently, by a man who named himself "Turkmenbashi", or "Father of all Turkmen".

Ashgabat. A city of water fountains and marble monuments in the middle of a desert, the epitome of money in the hands of a few.

Ashgabat. A city with an 11pm curfew, where photos are forbidden and the streets are patrolled by military police.

Until Dima's assessment of the city, the reviews I had heard about Ashgabat had not been favourable.

"I'd been told that it made North Korea look like Disneyland," lilted an overweight Englishman in Bhukara, "and I couldn't have said it better."

Each traveller we met seemed to have a bad experience or terrible description of Ashgabat to offer. Now, we were due to arrive in the city the next morning for a two-day break, providing us with the perfect opportunity to draw our own conclusions about Ashgabat.

What would it be? Paradise or Pyongyang?

"XXI Century - Turkmen's Golden Century" boasted the label on the bottled water I studied in my hand. I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room. My hotel was one of thirty-two hotels erected side by side.

"Turkmenistan receives approximately ten thousand tourists per year," I recalled Dima saying the day before. With further questioning, it appeared that these ten thousand were primarily Iranian men sneaking across the border on "sex trips" to the more liberal Turkmenistan.

Thirty-two hotels in a row, and that was just on one street... the thought crossed my mind: are all the hotels full?

And not just the hotels - there are hundreds of new high-rise apartment buildings dotted across the city. Ashgabat's marble towers had stood to attention like a parade ground drill as we rode into town earlier that day.

"Dima," we had asked curiously, "only ten thousand tourists, only six hundred thousand locals, and yet there are more hotels and apartment buildings in this city than in any other we have seen. Who lives in them?"

"The local people use them to relax, of course!" replied Dima quickly. Yet, as we walked past gleaming marble buildings scattered across the city without logic or connection, we could see no signs of life.

No cars outside on the polished curbs. No windows open, no washing hanging out to dry. No smiling women carrying shopping, or loitering teenagers hanging around entrance ways. No one.

We wandered from monument to monument in sweltering heat. Traffic was slim, and pedestrians scarce.

Ashgabat's fountains and statues are undoubtedly intended to impress.

A huge gold statute of the former president, designed to rotate throughout the day so that it always faces the sun. A monstrous copy of a book (the "Ruhnama") authored by the former president, his creative re-interpretation of Turkmen history to be studied vigorously by every citizen. And fountains - fountains everywhere.

"We have the highest fountain in all of Central Asia," our guide's agent, Olga, proudly informed us.

We took an internal elevator to the fifth floor of a restaurant built inside the fountain, and emerged to three pretty, bored girls on the front desk and a schoolboy waiter. Otherwise, the restaurant was empty.

The staff allowed us to walk around the finely laid tables, taking in the views of Turkmenistan's capital. From such a height, it was clear what a desert city Ashgabat was - surrounded by sand, despite the president's project to plant millions of trees around the city every year.

Standing on top of the city, one word sprang to mind: "lifeless".

Was there a heart to this stone city at all? Tom commented: "It's like a rich bloke that's played too much Sim City on the computer when he was a kid, and now he has the chance to build his own city."

Except that in Sim City, you can see little people walking around on the streets.

"It's not a curfew," we were scolded by Olga later that day.

"It's simply a recommendation. You are obliged to be back at your hotel at 11pm. Please do not walk the streets after this. Of course, Ashgabat is very safe. There is almost no crime, no stealing, no killing."

With Olga's words ringing in our ears, we set out that evening to see the city at night. We found our way to an overgrown park, messier and more disorderly than I had expected from Ashgabat.

Among the shadows and dim lights, we found our first signs of the city's beating heart: locals sitting on plastic chairs drinking Russian beer, bubbles of laughter drifting from table to table, and a young couple kissing secretly in the darkness.

At 11pm, however, the dim lights were switched off and the tables quickly emptied. We were alone again in a lifeless city. We had been told that Ashgabat comes alive after midnight, but we did not stay out long enough to find this life.

The next day, spurred on by our experience the previous evening, I set out to explore Ashgabat with fresh eyes.

Finding my way into an older, less-visited part of the city, I saw further signs of life: satellite dishes hanging from every balcony, along with stained washing and musty carpets. These were Soviet-era apartment buildings, not gleaming marble pillars, but they were clearly overflowing with people and activity.

Unexpectedly, however, my most intimate encounters with Ashgabat came in a highway underpass. As we descended into the immaculate, polished emptiness, we stumbled across a young man and woman locked in a passionate embrace, bodies pressed closely together.

He was wearing modern jeans and a designer t-shirt; she was in traditional dress: long, simple and flowing. They pulled apart abruptly when they sensed our presence. He grinned at us, struggling to suppress an awkward laugh; she was embarrassed, shy.

What was their story? I would not find out, but the sight of two lovers doing what lovers do, in such a repressive environment, was like finally feeling the pulse of the city.

Toward the end of the underpass, we found a veiled lady sleeping on a mat laid out on the clean smooth surface. Cleaning products and mops were neatly propped up beside her bed: she appeared to be the local cleaning lady. Intrigued, I looked around further. A broad, slatted door in the wall of the underpass was ajar. Gently easing it open, I peered in, and found further sleeping mats, dining utensils and other everyday items. A city of empty hotels, and this lady slept in a... cupboard?

The cleaning lady's children were playing happily nearby, a boy around two years old and a girl around four. The boy shrieked with glee as he climbed over a chair which his sister was hiding under, and she shook with quiet laughter.

As we re-emerged to the dazzling greeting of the sunlight above, the shrill sounds of playtime followed us up.

Climo turned to me, thinking aloud: "I reckon that's true happiness, eh. Those kids back there: 'I'm playing with my sister, and I'm having a great time'. That's all that matters to them, and they're too young to know the rules, and the inequalities, and to realise that they're living in a cupboard in a crazy city."

We leave Ashgabat at night. The city is silent and white, the outside of each marble building lit up with flood lights. I try to decide what to make of Ashgabat.

Paradise or Pyongyang?

It is undoubtedly a bizarre place, largely the creation of a dictator made rich by his country's oil and gas resources. In the end, though, amidst the gold and marble, floodlights and flowing water, live normal people, trying to live normal lives as best they can.

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target for the Living Hope charitable organisation in Vladivostok and for more information on their journey, click here.

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