#874 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The capital of Turkmenistan is one of the most bizzare cities I have ever visited. It feels like a ghost town, and is a frightening example of Totalitarianism at its worst. The longtime dictator of Turkmenistan who liked people to call him Turkmenbashi (father of the Turkmen), created the town from scratch after a 1948 earthquake flattened it, and it is a monument to himself in memory of his family killed there.

The buildings are statuesque and grand, if quite plain. They line the highways in repetition of white glamour. The monuments are bordering on idolatry: there was one in solid gold of Turkmenbashi himself which rotates with the sun so that he is always basking in the glory of light.

A curfew exists, and all tourists are restricted to their hotels and closely monitored. Soviet service (poor) survives, and the obligatory seedy nightclub vies with the in-house Chinese restaurant for tastlessness.

The soul of the city is in the outskirts where you can find the famous Tolkuchka bazaar. There, you can buy anything from a camel to sheep, to a teapot or a cup of tea. Many Chinese goods are imported, but they also have carpets, shawls, clothing, and foodstuff. Turkmen carpets are my favorite carpets in the world. The famous Bukhara carpets actually originate here!

In a spectacular location at the foot of the Kopet Dag mountains, with golden domes of newly built mosques, it is one of the hardest places in the world to visit, and has a long history despite its newness. The impressive Azadi mosque, Independence and Peace Monument, numerous museums and government offices survive, but in August 2010, Turkmenbashi's successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov removed the Arch of Neutrality (the golden Turkmenbashi statue!) from Parliament Square.


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