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Ashgabat in Turkmenistan – Absurdistan or Pyongyang II?

Friday, 16 June 2017

We’re now in Mashhad in Iran on Day 76 of our 102 day Silk Road odyssey by MGB. Our last stop in the Central Asian ‘stans – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – was at Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. None of the ‘stans were what I expected, Kyrgyzstan in particular was a complete surprise: one minute it’s the Swiss Alps, then it’s cosmopolitan European café society, then we’re beside a lake in New Zealand before suddenly horsemen ride by yurts as if this was Mongolia. Deserts? Classic Islamic architecture? They are there, but only part of the picture.

And suddenly we arrived in Ashgabat and it was … well perhaps Absurdistan (with apologies to author Gary Shytengart), or perhaps it was Pyongyang crossed with Dubai. I’ve regularly listed my three weirdest countries as North Korea followed by Saudi Arabia followed by Israel. Perhaps Turkmenistan should elevate itself into that weird company? And Pyongyang was easily the weirdest city I’ve ever seen until I arrived in Ashgabat.

◄ Most of that weirdness was the product of the imagination and overwhelming vanity of the (now deceased) Turkmenbashi, Saparmurat Niyazov. During his rule he renamed himself the ‘Head of the Turkmen,’ built enough white marble architecture to put Ashgabat at the top of The Guinness Book of Records white marble rankings, banned listening to radios in cars, renamed the days of the week after his children, well the list goes on. But most important he dotted the country with gold statues of himself, most notably this one on top of the Arch of Neutrality. During his reign the 12-metre-high statue rotated so that he always faced the sun from sunrise to sunset. It’s now stationary, but the gold still gleams.

▲ The Arch of Neutrality and one of the numerous fountains that surround it. What it was not surrounded by was people, in the daytime it was deserted, like most of Ashgabat.

▲ It’s sheer emptiness is one of the most compelling images of the city. You look down vast avenues lined by white apartment blocks and there’s nobody, the occasional car cruises by, but people?

▲ The Alem Entertainment Centre’s indoor ferris wheel by night – yes ‘indoor’ and, of course, it’s the biggest indoor ferris wheel in the world. This is the view by night.

▲ I was also there by day and from the front you looked out across a vast square and then across the main avenue, Arçabil şayoli, to some government office or ministry and what did you see? Well no people, nobody at all, just emptiness. The only noise was the flapping of flags, the splash of fountains, the chirping of birds, otherwise it felt like some dystopian, post-disaster movie set where the buildings are untouched, but the people are all gone.

▲Statues of heroes, the inevitable gold statue of the Turkmenbashi and the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, known locally as ‘the plunger’ because it was clearly modelled after a toilet plunger. You can imagine the Turkmenbashi handing one to his architect and saying ‘make it look just like this, but 118-metres tall with lots of marble and gold.’

▲ In front of the tower are the inevitable guards, two sentries standing rigidly to attention, rifles in hand, and a third guard whose function is to ensure that you don’t take photographs of the first two guards.

◄  The 185 metre-high Monument to the Constitution at night. One of the pleasures of Ashgabat is discovering what you are not allowed to photograph, which essentially means any government building as a starter. But amongst all those white marble apartment blocks, offices, banks, memorials, libraries, museums and so on how do you know which one is the presidential palace or the ministry of something or other? There are no signs announcing ‘government building, do not photograph,’ but it’s easy to find the wrong building, just take a photograph. If it’s a government buildings a police officer, an army recruit or some plainclothes lackey will instantly jump out from where he’s been hiding behind a bush and yell at you.

As one Ashgabatian commented ‘this is 1984, half the population is employed to watch the other half.’ I only wish I’d had more time to enjoy this utterly crazy capital, the Asian Games will play out in Ashgabat in September 2017, a good time to be there.

◄   Finally the Wedding Palace, a combination of disco ball (Turkmenistan occupying most of the world) and multi-sided star perched on top of the building. In turn it tops a hill which is a good lookout point over the white marble expanse of Berzengi, the new city district of Ashgabat.

Ashgabat in Turkmenistan – Absurdistan or Pyongyang II?

16 June 2017 | Places

We’re now in Mashhad in Iran on Day 76 of our 102 day Silk Road odyssey by MGB. Our last stop in the Central Asian ‘stans – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – was at Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. None of the ‘stans were what I expected, Kyr...

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Silk Road by MGB – Days 63 to 71 in Uzbekistan

11 June 2017 | Places

Kyrgyzstan was a case of continuous culture shock, not what I had expected of the ex-Soviet Central Asian ‘stans when it came to the geography or the culture. The surprises continued in Uzbekistan, when we reached Samarkand and Bukhara with their wonderful Islamic art...

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MGBs on the Silk Road – Day 57 to Day 63

10 June 2017 | Places

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, if I’ve had culture shock in recent years then these two countries have been the places that provided it. They simply were not at all like I expected, scenically or culturally. I was expecting deserts, I got the Swiss Alps. I was expecting t...

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Silk Road by MGB – China & Kazakhstan Day 47 to 57

5 June 2017 | Places

I’m in to Uzbekistan now on Day 65, but here’s a quick catch up from Day 47 to 57 Day 49 – Dunhuang is famous for its Buddhist caves and for the Singing Sand Dunes. The caves were indeed terrific, but after Maijishan it was hard to be impressed. The sand dunes, how...

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On the Road – Part 3

31 May 2017 | Transport

We’re at Day 60 on our Silk Road by car odyssey, out of China, through Kazakhstan and into Kyrgyzstan, but here are some final thoughts on driving in China after covering 10,500km from the Laos border to the Kazakhstan one. ▲ My car, Burgundy, in trouble. It was to...

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Toilets in China

26 May 2017 | Living

One of the pleasures (or at least conveniences) of travel in China today is the huge number of public toilets. Once upon a time they were hard to find and when you found one you often wished you hadn’t. ◄ Toilet sign in Pingyao Now they seem to be everywhere and...

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Curiosities & General Strange & Weird Stuff in China

25 May 2017 | The rest

▲ We had a wonderfully loud and raucous restaurant evening in the village of Duoyishu, in the rice terrace area of Yuanyang. The Chinese group at the next table were ripping in to the alcohol, toasting us, generally getting more and more in to the party spirit, culmin...

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Silk Road by MGB – China Stops Day 30 to Day 46

24 May 2017 | Places

We’re at Day 53 and almost across China in our long trek from Bangkok to London (well to Abingdon, where they once made MGs). Here are a few more of our China stops en route: ▲ On Day 30 we were at Huangshan, one of China’s best known mountain sites and the view fr...

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Silk Road by MGB – China Stops Day 19 to Day 29

22 May 2017 | Places

We’re now at Day 52 of our Silk Road journey and en route through China we made some intriguing stops, here are a few from our arrival in China through to Day 29 of the trip. ◄ On Day 19, between Mengla near the Laotian border and Pu’er, famous for its tea, we visi...

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Xining to Zhangye on the G227 – Day 47 on the Silk Road by MGB

19 May 2017 | Transport

Most of the way across China we’ve followed the ‘highways,’ toll roads where you can cover lots of kms without interruption. About 40km out of Xining heading towards Zhangye the highway ends and we follow the often twisting and turning G227 for most of the day’s 336km...

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