Travel

The Wonderfully Strange City of Ashgabat

Ashgabat Trip

After my short visit to Ancient Merv, I had a simple dinner at the canteen beside Mary’s train station to wait for my 11 pm overnight train to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital 360 kilometers to the west. I asked Sergey*, my tour guide, to book the train tickets instead of driving to the capital since I wanted to experience traveling in Turkmenistan using public transportation but also wary of riding the marshutka as I don’t speak the local language.

Name changed for security reasons.

The train compartment had 2 bunk beds. Naturally, I took one of the top bunks even before the other passengers got into the train.  A set of reasonably clean (at least it didn’t smell) pillows, bed sheet, and a blanket was provided. I wrapped myself in my silk sleeping bag liner for additional comfort. I also took out one of my lavender sachets to smell for a good night’s sleep.

I always travel with my silk sleeping bag liner and it was a lifesaver during the entire Silk Road trip (also helped me a lot in Cambodian hostels). I also bring several lavender sachets because I find them very useful when traveling in small, enclosed spaces. Covering your nose with a thick scarf just won’t cut it sometimes, you know. To pluck something out of my personal experience, flying for four hours in a small plane that smelled of vomit.

I shamelessly admit that I have an elaborate ritual before sleeping at home and I keep some of them when I travel, even when I sleep in trains, yurts, or youth hostels.  I also keep my extensive moisturizing routine while on the road. Obviously, I am deeply committed to, as they say in Manila, “tita-hood”. 

I just can’t do that backpacker thing where they sleep in full travel gear and then fully alert and ready to go at the next second. That’s the kind of thing I used to do as a teenager.  

But I digress. Back to the train.

Although the compartment was full, the trip went great. We just had to make some adjustments to fit everyone’s luggage.  

As for the train bathroom, I purposefully did not use ANY public bathroom in Turkmenistan so I cannot comment on it. 

Arrived in Ashgabat via overnight train
Arriving at the Ashgabat train station well-rested and moisturized

I have a fear of public bathrooms and choose to do my business in hotels, or wherever I am based during my trips. This may sound strange coming from someone who grew up in the poorer part of a third world country but let’s just say my early encounters with horrifying bathrooms scarred me for life. 

Spoiler alert, yes, I did develop a urinary tract infection (UTI) during the trip.

Our train arrived in Ashgabat at around 5 in the morning. We proceeded to the Russian Market for breakfast before going on a short joyride around the city, waiting for the check-in time at the Grand Turkmen Hotel. 

Ashgabat – The City of Love

Ministry of Foreign Affairs building
Game time: this government building with a globe at the top is for which ministry? Ministry of Foreign Affairs, correct!
Ministry of Gas building
This building shaped like a lighter is for…? The Ministry of Gas. 10 points for Ravenclaw!

Many visitors to Ashgabat comment on how weird this city is. Let me add my voice to the chorus: Ashgabat is strange. And if you didn’t have to live there or only has to live there for short bursts of time as an expat or visitor, and if you are a delighter in the absurd, wonderful. 

My immediate thought upon arriving in the city was how similar it is to the old Facebook game, CityVille. If you were ever on Facebook in the early 2010s, you were probably bombarded with notifications from friends asking for city permits, manpower to build their space centers, and water for their crops. 

In CityVille, the dentist’s office was shaped like a tooth. Ashgabat’s new dental center is in the likeness of a giant tooth. I am not kidding. You can tell in one glance what government agency a building serves based on its design, even if you’re a toddler.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a globe at the top. The Ministry of Gas is in the shape of a lighter. The facade of the Ministry of Education has a giant open book for its facade.

The main thoroughfares of Ashgabat have been city-planned to death by people who have no idea how to live in actual communities. Almost uniform white marble buildings with gold trims (aka Central Asian dictator decor, **my new aesthetic**) line the roads. Kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, an office, and a residential building, all in one row. A person can live their entire life and die without leaving that row. But the buildings sure were very pretty to look at.

People in Manila would be catatonic with envy once they find out that living like this is actually possible. 

Visit To Ashgabat

The Turkmenistan government mean business when it comes to making its mark in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2013, Ashgabat was recognized as the city with the most number of buildings made of marble in the world,  built by a consortium of Turkish and French construction companies.

Turkmenistan also boasts the world’s largest carpet, a sight to behold even if you don’t particularly like carpets. And just in case some filthy casuals attempt to take the world record from them, Turkmenistan also has the world’s second-largest carpet, displayed in front of the world’s largest. 

Needless to say, they have a Ministry of Carpets. They also have a Ministry of Horse. Turkmen do not f**k around when it comes to carpets and horses.  If you ever visit, make sure to buy at least one. Carpet, I mean. But if you have a spare USD 2 million then I’m sure you can buy an Akhal Teke horse and fulfill your dream of riding your own Shadowfax like Gandalf. 

Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality is usually mentioned when people say Ashgabat is weird. Imagine a space shuttle-like building in the middle of the city, its golden statue in the likeness of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov facing and following the sun. 

I’m not saying it’s megalomaniac-y, but it’s sort of megalomaniac-y. 

Turkmenistan observers weren’t really surprised when the arch was built. Niyazov, who ruled his country since Soviet times, consolidated his rule after Independence, and relinquished control only in his death in 2006, was considered – apart from dictatorial, authoritarian, and their synonyms – eccentric. 

His autobiography, the Ruhanma, is a mandatory subject in schools and is still relevant in large swathes of Turkmenistan life, including getting a driver’s license or joining government ministries.

Arch of Neutrality
The Arch of Neutrality and the Kopet Dag mountains in the distance

I passed by the giant mechanical statue of the Ruhanma in Ashgabat but was unable to take a photo. 

Niyazov also renamed everything after himself, his deceased parents, and to be fair, after famous Turkmen generals, sultans, and poets. 

He banned gold teeth, a popular practice among the Turkmen. I even saw several elderly locals sporting gold teeth in the Russian market. I wondered how they hid those in Niyazov’s time. 

Originally located in the center of Ashgabat, Niyazov’s successor moved the building in the outskirts of the city, in the middle of its own park.

At the time of my visit, the caretakers were preparing for the visit later in the day by Vladimir Putin. Luckily, Sergey was able to convince them to let us ascend the Arch.

View from the top of the Arch
View from the top of the Arch of Neutrality

At the top of the arch is a museum of gifts from all the world leaders who visited the Arch as well as other building miniatures in gold, marble, and other precious stones.

As in the Turkmenistan custom, everything was in gold that my eyes watered. No photos were allowed, naturally.

Independence Monument

Independence Monument
The Independence Monument, or as locals call it, “the plunger”

The Independence Monument was designed with Turkmenistan’s cultural symbols in mind. For instance, the base was based on tents and the gupba, a type of headdress worn by young girls.

Surrounding the monument are statues of famous Turkmen heroes, kings, generals, and poets surrounded by a beautiful park and numerous fountains. I have been told that families hold picnics in the park but honestly, I can’t see that happening. 

Golden Statue of Saparmurat Niyazov
Niyazov’s golden statue in the Independence Park

The only people I have seen wandering around the monument were elderly Europeans on tour and cleaning people studiously scrubbing absent dirt from the floor.

It is also in the Independence Monument park grounds where foreign leaders perform the ceremonial tree-planting to commemorate their visits. The sapling planted by Chinese President Xi Jinping was pointed out to me by Sergey, who has since found out that I like these kinds of details.

From the Independence square, you can observe many of Turkmenistan’s most important government buildings such as the Majlis (Parliament building) and the Ministry of Defence. Surprisingly, the Ministry of Defence building is not shaped like an AK-47 or something similar. 

Trees planted by visiting heads of state
Trees planted by visiting foreign government leaders
Park of the Independence Monument
The path to the Independence Monument flanked by rows of Turkmen soldiers

Constitution Monument, Wedding Palace, Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center

Ashgabat is of course well known for its eccentric, geometric, and fabulous structures. The Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center houses the world’s largest indoor Ferris Wheel. 

Unfortunately, it was closed during the time of my visit and the crew was unable/unwilling to tell us when they will open the Ferris Wheel. Booo! It would’ve been a treat to ride the world’s largest Ferris Wheel. And in case I die because of machine malfunction, they can put in my epitaph that I died by falling off from such a crazy thing. That’s the kind of death worthy of me.

Golden statue of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
The Constitution Monument and statue of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov atop a Golden Horse
Wedding Palace
The geometric 8-pointed Turkmen star gracing the Wedding Palace
Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center
The Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center which houses the world’s largest Ferris Wheel

I also visited but didn’t enter the Wedding Palace, where Ashgabat’s couples register to get married and actually be married under the Turkmen 8-pointed star. 

The Wedding Palace is located on top of a hill and overlooks Ashgabat. The park in front of the building is a great place for picnics and for just generally lazing around. But then again, I haven’t seen anybody else hanging around there, as it is far from other buildings and the main thoroughfares. 

The Monument to the Constitution of Turkmenistan was built to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence, and like other structures in the city, is made of white marble. 

National Museum of Turkmenistan

National Museum of Turkmenistan
The facade of the National Museum of Turkmenistan, in marble and gold

I’m a nerd so I always make it a point to visit museums when traveling abroad, and the National Museum of Turkmenistan did not disappoint. 

I originally went there on a Tuesday but I had to go back the following day since it’s only open from Wednesday to Sundays. 

Artifacts from the archaeological sites in Ancient Merv, Old Nisa, Geok Depe, and Konye Urgench are deposited in the museum, showing the multicultural past of the country. 

Among my favorites were the ancient horns used by the Parthian/Zoroastrian/Hellenic kingdom in Old Nisa for drinking wine. All along I thought only Vikings drank from horns (I read Hagar the Horrible comic in the newspapers as a kid). 

As in other major museums in Ashgabat, visitors need to pay to take photos and videos. If I remember correctly, the museum charges 50 manats (around 15 USD)  for the privilege. Asking my well-dressed museum guide it if it’s worth it to pay, he pooh-poohed the idea.

Chess set made of onyx and precious metals
Chess set made of onyx and precious metals. My tour guide let me take photos of this for free

Turkmen Carpet Museum

With the world’s largest handwoven carpet. In front of the world’s largest handwoven carpet is the world’s second-largest handwoven carpet.
Outside the Turkmen Carpet Museum
In front of the Carpet Museum
The second largest carpet in the world
Three of the largest carpets in the world, plus the only place where you can take photos of carpets for free inside the museum

Even if you think you won’t be interested in seeing a lot of carpets, be sure to visit the Turkmen Carpet Museum. It has several floors of Turkmenistan’s finest carpets, displaying the best samples from the country’s five regions, who all have their distinct styles. 

I was particularly impressed with the fireproof carpets on display. According to the museum guide, the reason the carpets were fireproof was due to how tight the materials were woven. One display was from a great fire that ravaged Ashgabat in the 40s, complete with documentation and pictures of its authenticity. 

There were also carpets with the likeness of famous celebrities. There was a Mickey Mouse carpet and a carpet with who I was assured was Charlie Chaplin and not Adolf Hitler. 

For those who wish to buy Turkmen carpets, they can have their purchases from other, unaccredited stores, be certified here. This is where the elusive ‘expert commission’ on carpets is based, who will value, tax, and issue proper documentation for your carpets, allowing you to take or ship them home. 

But carpet prices in the museum is at least twice more expensive compared to other vendors. I bought my carpets from the boutique located in the lobby of the Grand Turkmen Hotel and I got 2 carpets for the price of 1 carpet sold in the museum.

Impressions of Ashgabat

Ashgabat 2017

The main streets of Ashgabat are ostentatious but it is on the side streets where you will witness a piece of life in the city and see and meet regular people going about their business: well-dressed students wearing the traditional small hats on their way to school, be-suited men and women in traditional dresses on their lunch breaks, small children following their parents to the supermarket (I greeted a child привет while shopping in the supermarket and was answered with a barrage of Turkmen. I just smiled because I didn’t understand him.). I think Ashgabat citizens are the best dressed in Central Asia. 

Magnificently eccentric buildings and statues litter Ashgabat that it’s impossible to visit or take photographs of them all, especially with the ever-present guards who will demand that they see the photographs you took and tell you to erase them. 

The streets are also filled with surprises even at night. For instance, there were several LED light shows all over the city, among them, a herd of LED Akhal Teke horses racing. 

The best way to take pictures of Ashgabat, including government buildings, is from a moving vehicle. Be also be mindful of CCTVs almost everywhere. And speaking of cars, local drivers really hate it when you close car doors like a regular person, producing sounds. Make sure to do it really quietly. 

One thing that really spoke of how much control the President has on its people is the fact that the Turkmen State University is right in front of the Presidential Palace (Sergey absolutely forbid me from taking a photograph, even from inside the car. Guards, and I assumed CCTVs,  were everywhere). 

It is usually in top universities where the seeds of discontent are sown and nourished, and prudent autocrats usually make sure that the disaffected youth have a hard time reaching their seats of power as much as possible. The fact that students only have to cross the street to get to the President and, you know, potentially depose him (they certainly have reason to revolt, many of which are reported in the Alternative News of Turkmenistan), speaks of how confident President Berdimuhamedov of his hold on power. I was in awe, although Sergey didn’t get why I was making such as fuss.

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