strange and fascinating ashgabat, turkmenistan

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Imagine yourself in a grand and shiny new city, built to resemble ancient Rome, with Bellagio-style fountains everywhere. Huge public parks dot the cityscape. Within them can be found more fountains along with golden statues of ancient heroes and modern leaders. Now imagine that this city has suffered some kind of plague, and that all of these grand structures, while pristine and new, are completely devoid of life. This is Ashgabat.

No, this capital city of Turkmenistan has not suffered from any plagues, but despite its 650,000 or so inhabitants, the grand personality-cult-inspired building projects of Turkmenbashi [“leader of the Turkmen], the country’s President until his death in 2006, lay almost vacant. The monuments, palaces, and parks are all quite new, mostly made of white marble and gold, and include many that pay honor to the former President, and some that celebrate Turkmenistan’s little-known position as a neutral country, something the country is quite proud of.

One grand building project, a mosque named for the former President, located next to his family’s shrine, can accommodate 8000 or more worshipers at once. However, according to the locals, this muliti-million dollar structure is rarely used and rarely visited. Another, a huge ferris-wheel structure on the outskirts of the city, built in a central Asian style, is rarely open. Grand museums are empty and their gift shops and cafes are rarely if ever open. A huge US$50 million theme park in the center of the city, the “Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales” also known as Turkmenistan’s Disney, is apparently rarely open despite it having over 50 rides and attractions. It is all quite grand and fascinating.

If you travel to Ashgabat, be prepared to be off the grid, as 3G and wifi are nonexistent. My mobile phone [from North America] didn’t even get signal much of the time. Ironically, despite the local currency being the Manat [approx. 2.8 to the U.S. dollar], one can use U.S. dollars everywhere. There is really no reason to exchange money if you are carrying dollars. But do bring cash, there are few if any ATMs.

In Ashgabat I was also struck by the lack of advertising, which further lends the visuals to the narrative of a grand ancient city. Even when I knew the address of a cafe or restaurant, it was quite a challenge to find them, as there are no signs and very few if any street names posted throughout the entire city. What can be found are image after image of the former and current Presidents along with the ubiquitous and quite beautiful flag of Turkmenistan.

All of these strange and fascinating facets of this capital city of Turkmenistan located just north of the Iranian border will compel the more intrepid traveler to visit. But if you do, remember to respect the culture and customs of this neutral nation no matter how strange or foreign they may seem.

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