Saturday, 13 October 2012

Day 184 – A City of White and Gold: The Dictator’s Dream. (Turkmenistan)



With only a five day transit visa, we’d spent our first day dealing with the border and finding Darvaza (Blog Day 182 – TheBurning Gates of Hell), the second day got us to Kow Ata (Blog Day 183 – Kow Ata), and now we had three days to get ourselves to Ashgabat, explore the city, and cross the border into Iran.

Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan, an ex-Soviet state that has been run as a dictatorship since 1991. Turkmenbashy was the first President of the independent nation, and still revered by his people, is the classic supreme leader. When he died in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (who rumour has it was Turkmenbashy’s dentist) assumed power and followed in the great leader’s footsteps. Ashgabat is the current President’s project so it is still in the processes of construction.

We stopped at Tolkuchka Bazaar (the main market) on the way in to town. From the highway we were directed down an immaculate boulevard, lined with billboards of all things Turkmen and gated by a magnificent banner of the President. We parked the car and made our way into what we assumed to be the heart of the market. It was a very peculiar place; worlds apart from the lively, overcrowded, haphazard bazaars that we’ve become accustomed to, this felt more like an abandoned show ground. There were still a few people milling around the overly spacious grounds, and we ate in a more than satisfactory cafe where we enjoyed the fact that no one tried to rip us off. The shops were all open, the place ticked the boxes of being a regular and functioning market place, but it was so obviously purposely set up, and as a result lacked the heart and soul that most bazaars ooze. We were very excited though when we found Turkmen tracksuits and decked ourselves out with a matching kit. 

We hoped to make it back to this bazaar at some point, but when we did everything was closed. It was only then that we lapped the grounds and discovered the full scale of the market place. It covered several km, and laid out in neat sections, each building numbered and mapped out on the giant billboards, it was an eerie sight. 

Arriving in Ashgabat by mid-morning, we planned on finding accommodation quickly – we weren’t going to be fussy and were prepared to settle for the sake of making the most of our time in this unique capital city. We couldn’t believe it though when we were greeted in every single hotel/hostel/guesthouse with either “nyeto, nyeto” or “full”. We even tried the very top end hotels, including the Nissa which is owned by the President’s son and is located across the road from the President’s Palace. Aware that all hotel rooms inhabited by foreigners are required by law to be bugged, we came to the conclusion that there are only a few, if any, bugged rooms available for foreigners in each hotel. Eventually we found a dump where the sheets seemed to have been washed in head cat, but having wasted so much time we were glad just to have found somewhere that would take us in. 

Although we were on the outskirts, the way the city has been developed by the President in the last five years has a sprawl of white and gold buildings and monuments spread out along flat, wide boulevards, fanning out from the city in the direction of our hotel. So we drove along one of these avenues towards the city centre, taking the compulsory detour around the President’s Palace as the 6-lane road circling it is manned by policemen ensuring that the road not be driven on. We can assume it’s for security purposes, though I highly suspect it’s because the President would prefer to have a view of an unused, clean road out of his bedroom window.

Our first stop was the Lenin statue which we are led to believe is a meeting place for young homosexual Turkmens. We’ve seen plenty of monuments to Lenin in our time in Ex-Soviet Central Asia, but this one was particularly ornate. Unfortunately we didn’t stumble across any unconventional social meetings.

A bronze monument depicting a bull carrying the world on his horns had caught our attention on the way into town, so we revisited it and discovered that it’s a monument to a devastating earthquake that flattened the city in 1948 and took 110,000 lives, making it the 12th largest earthquake ever. The Soviets who were in power at the time brushed the incident under the carpet and denied the extent of the damage. Only in recent times have pictures and stories started coming out. It’s almost a humbling and tasteful monument, except for the golden baby Turkmenbashy held by his dead mother, rising out of the crack caused by the quake.

Ashgabat is certainly a city like no other I can imagine – the huge television screens flashing pictures of white buildings we were driving past, the favourite horses, carpets, flags and of course, the ever present President; surveillance cameras every one or two hundred metres; monuments to peace and independence on every second street corner; the manicured shrubs lining the perfect streets; gold statues and busts of the President and Turkmenbashy in roundabouts and squares , on buildings and banners; glamorous water features and above all the continuous white and gold that was every piece of architecture in the city. The Turkmenbashy House of Free Creativity is a building shaped like an open book with a golden bust of himself placed neatly in the top corner. Another building was decorated with golden carvings of the rugs on the Turkmen flag. Another has a giant globe suspended above it, Turkmenistan highlighted in gold and represented as approximately the size of China.

We stopped at Independence Park to take a close up look at Independence Monument, a large golden Turkmenbashy statue which used to rotate to face the sun, and the only statue of a book we’ve ever seen. We’d seen the giant Ruhnama from the road, but up close it was something else. Set amid a circular water feature, the pink and green book really stands out in the sea of white and gold. Turkmenbashy wrote the Ruhnama as a bible for the Turkmen people, and it is said that if it’s read three times (or 100, we’ve heard conflicting ideas), the reader will be granted access to heaven. The interesting thing about the Ruhnama as opposed to most other books of religious guidance (Bible, Khoran, etc) is that it is directed exclusively towards Turkmen people.

We really couldn’t find much in the way of evening/night life, so for dinner we made the slightly ironic decision of eating at the British pub, which we found to be quite satisfactory. It was quite surreal being inside this very British feeling establishment, knowing that we were in fact in the midst of one of the most unusual and repressed cities in the world. At about 10.30pm we had to come back to the bizarre reality that we were part of and make sure we were home in time for 11pm curfew.

The city at night was something else. All the white and gold and glamour that we’d spent the day taking in was set to dazzle come nightfall. Each building was spot lit in white, each water feature was flashing and colourful, and the magnificent streetlights glowed on every street. The aforementioned road circling the President’s Palace though was the most spectacular with not only the usual array of lights, but the white road markings also lit up. An incredible and ridiculous sight.

The following day our first stop was the Arch of Neutrality, which used to be in the centre of the city but has now been moved to the very edge of town. Set on the side of the hill to the South of Ashgabat, it is visible from most of the new city. A heinously wide divided boulevard leads up to the monument with large car parks on either side. Other than us, the boulevard and the car parks were empty. This was the case at each attraction we went to. I’m not sure whether the infrastructure has been constructed to host a future onslaught of tourism, or whether the President just enjoys large, empty car parks.

The Monument to the Constitution was our next visit – another white and gold phallic structure, surrounded by deserted car parks. And then the very exciting Wheel of Enlightenment which we were all looking forward to. White and gold as is the trend, this one was particularly exciting because it is a building in the shape of a wheel, and inside is the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world. It cost us 13 Manat ($5) for all of us to get into the complex and ride the wheel, and it was 13 Manat well spent. 

The young man who was manning the entrance to the wheel asked Denner if he was Jewish. We giggled at the assumption and corrected him, at which point he got very embarrassed and in some sort of effort to dig himself out of his hole, made it bigger by going on with “I hate Jews”. A little shocked and confused, but mostly just wanting to get on with our activities, we got into one of the air conditioned cabins. Through the white and golden framed windows we got a grand view point over the city, enjoying the sense of Enlightenment as we completed the circle. As we disembarked, our very humiliated friend made an awkward and unnecessary effort to apologise for his previous mistake.

The wheel itself wasn’t the only attraction inside the building. There was also a children’s game room, a teenagers’ game room, a souvenir shop and a food court. The souvenir shop was for display only – it is never open and nothing is for sale. The game rooms and food court were spotless and well staffed, yet void of customers. 


We spotted a bookshop and thought we’d take a look inside, hoping to find some Turkmen gems. Which we did. Amongst other things, Tom Unkles bought a delightful hardback depicting the President in all his glory riding horses and flying aeroplanes, but when Ben decided he wanted to follow Tom’s footsteps, he was devastated to find that that had been the last English copy. The ladies were very apologetic and gave him directions to somewhere that they were sure would stock it.

With the help of a friendly policeman, we found the Exhibition Centre which we had been directed to, and parked Trevor amidst the shiny Lexuses and spotless Landcruisers out front. Apprehensive as to whether we were about to try and enter an invite-only event, we approached the doors. Tom Unkles was turned away because he had shorts on, so he waited by the car while we went in to look for Ben’s book.

We had stumbled upon a Turkmen/Presidential exhibition, as I imagine they all are. When we realised this I went back to the car for my camera and to rescue Tom Unkles who donned a pair of jeans and joined us inside. Stalls selling the President’s many publications lined the walls along with carpet and traditional dress displays and a model of a proposed new building. Ben found the book he was looking for but decided to go with “The Leader”, the newest Presidential publication which the centre of the room seemed to be set up as a book signing area for. It’s hard to imagine the President actually sitting there in the midst of his people, but the scene would make an exceptional backdrop for a Photoshop job that can maybe be used for his next book.

When we’d had our fill of the “VII International Exposition-Fair: Book-Way of Collaboration and Progress”, we continued on our drive around the shining streets of Ashgabat. A bit hungry by this point we were hoping to find some sort of convenience store and spotting a building with advertising at the front that resembled a supermarket, we thought we’d hit jackpot. As we emerged through the front doors though, we realised we had found ourselves at yet another exhibition. This one was much smaller, but mostly along the same lines. Aside from the usual book and carpet stands though, there was an entire section dedicated to Uzbek products. The beer stand offering free samples took our fancy and we got chatting to the Uzbek stallholder, who didn’t bother to hide his disdain, about how tough it is trying to do business with Turkmens. As expected everything is overly controlled and he finds it very frustrating working with people who refuse to think for themselves. He’s hoping his reasonably priced Uzbek beer will do well because of the Soviet mind-set that Turkmenistan is still hung up on where imported goods are always better than local goods. 

Still hungry, we went to look at the convenience store at the corner of the exhibition hall. While I was considering whether to get crisps or biscuits and which soft drink I fancied, Ben was trying on an un-badged police hat. Thinking that could be another brilliant souvenir we asked the lady how much it was, and were greatly disappointed to find out that this was also display only. We’d seen their exhibitions, and the souvenir shop at the Wheel of Enlightenment, but this was a convenience store on a street corner in the city! Incredible! 

We hoped to visit Disneyland and the Presidential Museum, but Disneyland was closed and the Presidential Museum was expensive, so we went to have a closer look at a big ball on top of a hill that had caught our eye while we were driving around. The big ball was the Palace of Happiness, a globe inside a box of stars, which depicted Turkmenistan in the same light as the one on top of the previously mentioned building – huge, golden and central. 

As we drove back to our hotel the weather began to set in. The last and only other time we’d experienced rain in Central Asia was on our first afternoon in Astana – another dictator’s masterpiece; an eerie coincidence. We tried eating in a different establishment, but couldn’t find anything satisfactory so ended up back at the British pub again.

Before leaving the hotel, we’d carefully backed up all our photos, prepared for them to be rigorously checked and possibly deleted on exiting the country. We were glad we hadn’t been picked up saying anything inappropriate by the bugs in our rooms. 

Having such a short time in Turkmenistan made us really focus on appreciating it and although we don’t like the idea of having to wake up early and rush around like Japanese tourists on a tour bus, we did find ourselves oddly elated by the whole concept. The fact that Turkmenistan has such strict visa requirements is part of what made it such a unique and memorable country.

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