Three Weeks in Central Asia (Part 13): Turkmenistan – A City of White

A city that knows what it likes – white and gold.

Ashgabat. Turkmenistan’s capital and largest city has a reputation of being strange and deserted, and it definitely was. A sea of white, grand buildings dominate the urban landscape of Ashgabat and while there were people on the streets, its emptiness was extremely noticeable.

After a 3.5 hour drive from the Dervaza Gas Crater, our little motorcade of cars had to pull into a car wash because it is illegal to drive in Ashgabat with a dirty car. A strange law considering the city is basically a white marble oasis in the desert and is subject to dust storms. Regardless, it is law and thus we got to see what a Turkmen car wash is like. Spoiler: it’s like any other car wash.

Ashgabat

With over 1 million people living here, Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s largest city. The city was founded in 1881 and was made the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR) in 1924.

It was completely destroyed in 1948 by a huge 7.3 magnitude earthquake that killed over 110,000 people – 2/3 of the city’s population at that time. The secretive Turkmen SSR government kept it quiet and so the Soviet Union as a whole was unaware of the event could not contribute to any rebuilding efforts like in Tashkent. What information the Turkmen government did reveal was further censored by the Soviet government. Of the casualties, was future President Niyazov’s mother and siblings. Niyzaov was left an orphan after the event.

Niyazov’s mausoleum which is also where his other family members are buried.

Turkmenistan’s first President, Niyazov, radically changed the landscape of Ashgabat as he transformed it into a city of white. Every single building in Ashgabat is constructed out of white marble which makes Ashgabat the Guiness World Record holder of the highest concentration of white marble buildings.

Does it look weird?

Absolutely. But it is also kind of beautiful in its own way.

In summer, the city can have temperatures as high as 47°C. When I was there I enjoyed temperatures of around 33°C. It is for this reason, I can only assume, why they thought it necessary to build the ‘World’s Biggest Indoor Observation Wheel’!

Interestingly, the largest group of people on the streets I saw was a workforce of individuals sweeping the streets, with a hand held broom. Considering the city is subjected to dust storms this seems kind of futile and bizarre. But hey, this is Ashgabat.

Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque

Located 7km’s outside the city is the main mosque of Ashgabat. Designed by Niyazov and built opposite his mausoleum it is a topic of controversy because passages from Niyazov’s spiritual guidance book, Ruhnama, are inscribed within the walls next to passages from the Quran.

Now, when I visited I was told we shouldn’t take photos inside. Although, some people did and I have since seen photos from other travelers who have visited. But I, for one, was not going to risk breaking any rules in Turkmenistan!

National Museum of Turkmenistan

A grand museum with extensive exhibitions explaining the mysterious early history of Turkmenistan right up until the times of the Silk Road, the Soviet era and independence.

When we arrived we were slightly behind schedule and the museum had closed but they did open to us and we had a lovely English speaking guide that took us through the exhibitions. We also had a tail. Someone, from the museum, watching our every move.
Were her motives sinister?
A police office secretly spying on us? After all it is common knowledge that there are secret police everywhere in Turkmenistan, monitoring the lives of citizens and the few foreigners who visit.
Or was she just a museum staff member watching us because none of us paid the extra fee to take photos?
More than likely the latter, but honestly, you never know.

Independence Monument

The monument was designed with a lot of symbolism to commemorate the independence date of Turkmenistan, 27 October 1991. There is a 10m in diameter observation deck on top of a 91m tall concrete tower that also features a 27m tall golden top.

In front of the monument is a golden statue of Niyazov. As part of the city’s urban renewal project, former President Niyazov had, controversially, built several golden statues of himself including one on a rotating platform that was to always face the sun.

Now, I know what you may be thinking – that’s a little over the top. But, hey, if I was president of a country, building golden statues of myself is exactly what I would do. Disclaimer: fear not, I have no political ambitions.

There are also 27 statues of Turkmen heroes that guard the President, which is an iconic image associated with Ashgabat.

This monument is situated in the aptly named Independence Park. A huge park in the middle of the city. It seems quite normal until you remember it is right in the middle of the desert and so therefore is kind of dry and brown.

At the other end of the park is the restaurant Minara. Favoured by locals it offers decent food and some amazing views over Ashgabat. Watching the sunset out on the rooftop terrace bar, enjoying some chilled out tunes, whilst admiring the view of this strange city is a definite highlight of Ashgabat.

And at night when the lights turn on you can see it gives off a Las Vegas like vibe.

After our dinner, the group decided to take an unescorted mini detour to the city’s shopping mall. It was around 8pm and the shopping mall was as grand as to be expected and as we walked in it seemed deserted – not unusual.

But then we walked further either up a couple of floors or down the corridors and it was actually full of people – food court, the cafes, the shops, the supermarket, the ice skating rink (yes… you read right) all of them filled with people. It seemed like a very European vibe.

A day trip to Nokhur

On Day 2 of our stay in Ashgabat, we went on a trip to the Nokhur, one of mountain villages of Turkmenistan. Here, the villagers believe they are descendants of Alexander the Great and are therefore, distinct from the Turkmen. They speak a dialect that Turkmen don’t understand and still follow Ancient rituals and belief systems that have evolved from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions that was dominant in the area of Central Asia believing in the duality and cosmology of good and evil.

Tree worship to help bring durability and strength

Nokhuri graveyard, adorned with the horns of rams to fight off evil spirits.

Kow Ata Underground Lake

Swimming in 35°C water, whilst breathing in the distinct smell of sulfur, 60m underground in a cave that is also home to largest bat colony in the country is probably something you can only say you’ve done in Turkmenistan.
And I did.


After a long descent down I entered the water for a warm, rejuvenating swim. There was a cable that signified a “no go zone” and I looked nervously beyond it further into the cave, into the deep, dark abyss wondering what unknown things are down there. All whilst casually ignoring the sounds of bats hanging above us.

Yep.

This underground lake contains a high amount of minerals and salts contributing to the sulfuric aroma of the cave. It is Ashgabat’s very own thermal spa.

Accommodation

My home in Ashgabat was the Hotel Nusay. It is a fantastic, luxurious, comfortable, luxurious, beautiful and did I mention luxurious? hotel in the centre of Ashgabat. Complete with helpful reception staff, ATM’s, two small souvenir stores and a carpet store, a fantastic restaurant, a deserted bar, and a relaxing pool area.
The negative?
It is opposite the Presidential Palace. There are a lot of plain clothes and I assume undercover police on the streets. The hallway windows that face the palace are blocked out by curtains and the windows are monitored by security cameras. Photos of the hotel outside are not allowed as the police think you’re taking photos of the Palace.

Ashgabat was the last stop in this epic three week journey across Central Asia. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, with new friendships formed from across the world, new foods tried and some experiences had that definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I absolutely recommend this treasure of a region as a must visit on your travels.

Farewell dinner at the Hotel Nusay

The below photo was taken at Ashgabat airport, which itself is shaped in the form of a bird.
I got a FlyDubai flight out to Dubai, while everyone else in the group got a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. No-one flew Turkmenistan Airlines.
The airport fits in very well with the rest of the city’s buildings. It is also very strange in that there are lot of gates but not many flights – perhaps planning for the future? The schedule of flights for the whole day, from my 4am flight time to Dubai, to the end of the day could be seen on one page on the display screen.

Have you travelled to the strangest ‘Stan’ and the world’s eleventh least visited nation, Turkmenistan?
What were your thoughts?
And is Central Asia now on your bucket list?
Did I open your mind a little bit more to the Five Stans?
So many questions, let me know your thoughts.
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