On the edge of the barren Karakum Desert, a sprawling city of white marble rises from the dunes like a glistening mirage.

As if plucked from the set of a sci-fi movie, manicured lawns and gold-plated statues decorate the exteriors of futuristic palaces. Ashgabat is a curious spectacle, rivalling Pyongyang for eccentricities and Dubai for exceptional architecture.

While the rest of Central Asia is adorned with ancient caravanserais and mausoleums from the Silk Road, Turkmenistan's capital city is a lavish modern marvel. It should be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Asia. However, just like the sands in the surrounding Karakum, the streets of Ashgabat are completely deserted.

The sun gleamed off the immaculate marble as I walked towards the extraordinary Presidential Palace. The road was devoid of vehicles. A lone worker swept the path ahead of me, polishing the stone as she went about her job in the blistering heat.


I pulled my camera out to take a photograph of the gold-domed structure, amazed that there was no one else around to give the shot perspective. An entire city, all to myself.

Suddenly a whistle screamed, and a soldier charged from behind some hedges. I froze, not wanting to become a statistic on the streets of Ashgabat. He approached me and demanded my camera.

I watched helplessly as he began deleting my images. With a menacing stare, he shouted; "No photos," and pointed at the palace. I complied, but couldn't help but wonder: What is the government trying to hide?

Once under the control of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan seized its independence in 1991, and quickly went about distancing itself from the rest of Central Asia.

Under the guise of leading the new independent nation into a world of neutrality and riches, ex-president Saparmurat Niyazov became a notorious, totalitarian dictator. He set about creating his cult of personality, renaming the months of the year after his family members and declaring that all schools would only teach from his self-penned novel, Ruhnama.

Dogs were banished from the streets and men were prohibited from growing beards or long hair. When he died in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was named the new president. He quickly removed a lot of Niyazov's eccentric laws, and for a time it looked like the nation may return to a level of normality. But this didn't last, and today Berdimuhamedow maintains his authoritarian hold on Turkmenistan.

A vast nation of only five million people, with one million of those reportedly living in the peculiar capital, Turkmenistan has some fascinating attractions. The Silk Road city of Merv, the Darvaza Gas Crater and the Yangykala Canyon are truly sights to behold. But visiting these places is notoriously difficult.

Tourist visas are only issued to those who sign up to strict and expensive group tours. The only option for independent travel is a three-five day transit visa, where your route, dates and exit must be predetermined before being granted access. Even with all the paperwork in order, visas are still denied regularly and without reason.

Internet censorship has been increasing since 2001, with most social media platforms and foreign news outlets banned all over the country. The government is not only trying to hide behind closed doors; it is also keeping its citizens from knowing what goes on outside its borders.

"Turkmenistan doesn't need tourism to support its booming economy," my tour guide, Murat, rebutted when I queried about the restrictions. But critics say it's because Turkmenistan is one of the most oppressive nations in the world.

According to Freedom House, it ranks at 178/180, just ahead of Eritrea and North Korea on their 'Freedom of the Press' 2015 list. This only adds to the curiosity, and the desire to see Turkmenistan led me to the region.

Not wanting to risk the chance of being denied entry, I signed up for an overland tour with Dragoman to explore the country legally. This meant our group would be chaperoned by a government-approved guide.

But it also allowed opportunities to deeper explore the clandestine nation, including a night of camping next to the remarkable Darvaza Gas Crater otherwise known as the "Door to Hell". However it was arriving in Ashgabat where the strangeness amplified.

The design of Ashgabat owes itself to many different influences, but it was a tragedy that started it all. On October 6, 1948 an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale struck just 25km from the centre of the city.

It was 2.17am. When the shaking had subdued, barely a single building was left standing. The earthquake had levelled all of Ashgabat. Due to the USSR's strict media ban on the region, it was barely noted in foreign press.

It was one of the worst events of the 20th century - an estimated 110,000 people lost their lives that night. With a clean slate to reconstruct the capital, Ashgabat first re-emerged with typical Soviet-style concrete blocks, many of which can still be found in the poorer neighbourhoods today. Independence in 1991 changed all that.

With theoretical freedom and riches the concrete was quickly replaced with white marble, and an entirely new city sprung from the sands. An abundance of natural resources helped rebuild the national economy.

The world's fourth largest gas reserve lies just under the surface, with extraction sending huge amounts of funds directly to the government. It is this supply of resources that attracted the surrounding global powers to put their attention on Turkmenistan.

With China to the east, Russia to the north and Europe to the west, Niyazov declared Turkmenistan to be the world's first neutral state approved by the United Nations. With no outside government controlling his rule, and zero internal competition the self-named Türkmenba?y, or "Leader of all Turkmens", began construction of his marble city.

The strangeness of the architecture can be seen all over Ashgabat. The Palace Of Happiness, a twisted globe enclosed in a cube of eight-pointed stars, is the official marriage registry office. The Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre looks like a space-age medallion towering into the heavens. Streets as smooth as an airport tarmac dissect the city, with portraits of the president hanging in every corner.

Perhaps most ironically, gold-plated statues of Niyazov punctuate every city park and street corner.

One of the most powerful images of Niyazov's self-admiration was the Arch of Neutrality.

Created to supposedly honour his official adoption of national neutrality, it cost more than $12 million to build. Standing 75m tall, another golden statue of his likeness decorated the top, and rotated throughout the day so he always faced the sun. The new president had the monument relocated and extended to a height of 95m, however Niyazov no longer rotates.

Ashgabat's flair for strange attractions has seen the establishment of some of the world's "greatest" things - the largest indoor Ferris wheel, the tallest flagpole (now surpassed by four others), the largest carpet, and the highest number of fountain pools in one public place.

Despite all these marvels, a walk in the centre of the city feels like the entire place is abandoned. The few tourists that wander the streets are under constant surveillance.

Security cameras monitor every inch of Ashgabat, and uniformed guards can be found outside all government buildings. Employees shadowed me on a visit to the National Museum of History, who kept a close eye on my actions.

As I walked a lady furiously mopped the ground behind me, removing every footprint I left. One of the few places in Ashgabat that is a hive of activity is the Sunday market.

Altyn Asyr bazaar is an elaborate shelter, constructed on the outskirts of town.

Rural workers flock to the bazaar to sell handicrafts or handwoven rugs. Turkmen carpets are especially famous, but exporting them is a task deemed almost impossible.

At the backside of the market goats, cows and camels are traded and sold in a flurry of mayhem. This may be the only place in the entire city where you get a sense that anyone actually lives here.

Behind the scenes of the vacant streets, life in downtown Ashgabat goes on, with little news of what actually occurs ever making the press. Construction of new hotels is growing, despite fewer tourists being allowed to visit. For the few days I had exploring Turkmenistan's capital, I couldn't help but be in a constant state of awe.

Why is the media black-listed. Why are photos illegal? And why is the government trying to keep foreigners out?

Perhaps the future will bring a change. Turkmenistan is hosting the Asian Indoor Games in 2017, and with that, restrictions may be eased for visitors. But for now, the polished marble and glistening gold remains largely unseen, in what may just be the world's strangest city.

Jarryd Salem is a freelance travel writer and fulltime wanderer, who has been exploring the world since 2007. Documenting his experiences in off-the-beaten-track destinations and adventure travel, you can find more of his stories on his blog, Nomadasaurus.com

- news.com.au