That time we spend 3 days in one of worlds weirdest capitals: Ashgabat.
Clean, white, empty and very very weird. Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenista
We already wrote about Ashgabat briefly in our blog From Ashgabat to Mashhad. But Ashgabat is so extremely weird that Elisa decided to write a bit more about Ashgabat.
Few facts about Turkmenistan:
Turkmenistan is the least populated of all of the central Asian countries with just about 5.6 million inhabitants. It possesses the fourth largest gas reserves of natural gas resources. Most of the country is a gas covered desert. Until 2017 its citizens did not have to worry about paying for gas, the government provided it free of charge. The countries economy is under complete state control, which in turn it is in complete president control.
Ashgabat has the highest concentration of white marble buildings in the world. There are 543 buildings covered with 4.5 million cubic meters of Italian marble.
Bit of history on Turkmenistan:
Turkmenistan has only had two leader since they separated from soviet rule. The first one, Turkmenbasy, was the leader of the country from 1985 until his death in 2006. During his rule he was regarded as the most totalitarian and repressive dictators of the world. He was an eccentric, egotistical man and many of his decisions reflected that. Such as renaming the months and days of the week after his family members. He closed all libraries and hospital in rural areas and exclaimed that if people were sick, they ought to come to Ashgabat. He banned men from wearing beards and banished dogs from the city (why someone would want a beardless and dogless city is beyond me!). After the fall of the soviet rule he declared that now was the golden era of Turkmenistan. – Quite literally, golden: He erected a 12$ million dollar golden statue of himself, that rotates to always face the sun.
Obey the law:
To give you an idea, below are some of the rules imposed by the president:
– Cars must be white.
– Cars must be clean at all times.
– All buildings are white.
– Dogs are not allowed in the capital.
– Men are not allowed to have long hair and beards.
– Gold teeth are not allowed.
– You have to know the book: the Runhama written by the previous president by heart.
This list goes on and on. Also all social media, youtube, google and VPNs are blocked. You might understand why Turkmenistan is ranked on the bottom of the Press freedom index list. Even below North Korea: https://rsf.org/en/ranking
Day 1 – Arrival into the city
We left of when we were in the taxi from the gate to hell. The taxi ride was very normal until the driver suddenly stopped at a car wash station and washed his car. This was very odd to us, we‘d never seen a taxi driver clean his car with us in it. But oh well, maybe it was just time to clean his car. We had read that only Ashgabat registered cars were allowed in the city, so we knew that we would stop soon in a taxi park where we would change taxis to go into the city. We found a city taxi, after some haggling and stepped inside. It was spotless, and i mean completely spotless inside. This was a first in a Central Asian taxi – or actually taxi’s in general. We drove towards the city and we got a glimpse of the madness that we were about to experience. Among which was the Ashgabat airport, that – of course – has the shape of a giant eagle.
We read that the hotel prices in Ashgabat were quite high, so we went with another route of Airbnb to get a better, more authentic feel of the city. There are only a handful of hosts available in Ashgabat, due to the iffy legality of it, but we highly recommend staying with a local rather than at an overpriced hotel.
Our Airbnb host had given us an address of a park and a name of a coffeeshop where we would meet before going to her apartment. We walked a bit in the park and found the building where the coffeeshop was supposed to be in, but it had no signs, the windows were one way glass (so we couldn’t see inside). Like all buildings in the city.
But we went inside and to our surprise it was a super nice, western looking cafe with delicious coffee and cakes. This city was off to a great, weird start. We soon met up with our host and went to her apartment. After a small conversation with her about life there we realized that life in Ashgabat is quite different and its citizens are forced to follow the strict, bizarre rules made by their leader.
We became excited to explore the city in front of us and headed into the city to explore Independence park. This was a great introduction of what was about to come. We were greeted with giant statues of warriors, protecting the Monument of Independence.
Throughout the park there were guards making sure we did not break any rules (i.e go somewhere we were not allowed). Other than us, there was no one there, no locals and no tourists. Just us, the guards and the giant warriors looking over us. The park also featured a big golden statue of Turkmenbashi and a giant statue of a book written by him called Ruhnama, that apparently opens up during certain times of the day. Sadly, we did not see it open when we were there. During the rule of Turkmenbashi, everyone were supposed to learn this book by heart. If one wanted to become a doctor, a teacher – or basically anything, they had to prove that they knew this book by heart.
After exploring the park we got to witness the “Las Vegas” side of Ashgabat come to life. Slowly the lights came onto all of the buildings and it was quite a sight because all of the lights were coordinated. This is right next to the Olympic village, Turkmenistan never hosted the Olympics. But they hosted the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017.
Our host then picked us up and we enjoyed a home cooked meal and shared stories until it was time to sleep. What a day.
Day 2 – President neighborhood and wedding palace.
This morning we went out to explore the presidential “area”. This guy gets a whole neighborhood for himself basically. The president palace is there, amongst multiple other government buildings. It is strictly forbidden to photograph these buildings, they claim it’s due to security reasons. The area is completely free of people and cars – only the guards and us. We were not allowed to take any pictures and preferably they wanted us to have our phones in our pockets. Because we are a couple of rebels, we of course had to take a picture of the buildings. Marc managed to be sneaky and take a picture of this forbidden fruit.
After the thrill of picture taking we continued walking, until we noticed that one of the guards was trying to get our attention, asking us not to go in this direction – for some reason we were forbidden from walking there. We obliged and decided to grab a taxi and head over to the marriage palace. Once again we noticed how empty these streets are:
I wish every country had a marriage palace – this place was an architectural wonder. This is the place where people in Ashgabat go to get married and have their wedding parties. Since, like other places in Ashgabat, it was completely empty we were able to get a close look at this peculiar building. On top there is a giant star shape, with a rotating golden globe in the middle. Quite a place to get married! It is placed on top of a big hill, so it stands out and gives a good view over the white marble city. Unfortunately we did not get to see any weddings there, we heard that Turkmen weddings were a huge event where people dressed up in traditional outfits and performed traditional ceremonies. We will have to do that next time we’re in Ashgabat!
Day 3 – Rainy day
The weather was extremely bad this day and it pretty much rained all day. So we decided to take a drive around the city. Looked at all the weird buildings and over the top decorated wedding cars. The rest of the afternoon we spend drinking coffee and eating cake at the coffee shop.
At the end of the day the weather cleared up and we decided to go to the Nisa Ruins. The ruins of an old fortress dating back to 250 BC–211 BC. Build by the Parthian empire (ancient Iranian empire). Definitely worth go to, since they have recently started rebuilding the ruins and discovering more and more historical artifacts.That are literally just lying all over the place.
Now 3 days is way to much to spend in Ashgabat. But spending those 3 days with a local, gave a good insight on daily life in Ashgabat – Turkmenistan.
Before coming to Ashgabat we visited probably one of the coolest places on our trip: The door to hell:
Our next stop will: Iran.