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My Silk Road The Piglet stumbles across the continent

46 - Ashgabat - Ken and Barbie and Big Brother

TURKMENISTAN | Monday, 5 November 2012 | Views [818]


Ashgabat "Eye" monument

Landed in Ashgabat past midnight last night after 20 hours of travel, with stopovers in Beijing and Urumqi (and had to take out my luggage and re-check in at each leg... though that meant some certainty that my luggage would reach the next destination, so that was fine though exhausting).   With a HKSAR passport, I got my visa quickly on landing on payment of US$97.  Yes, this is very much a USD-denominated country.  My hotel was thankfully just 15 minute drive from the airport, past brightly lit up monuments and gigantic government buildings.  Even at night, one could tell Ashgabat is a new capital with "scripted" roads and buildings dictated by a grand plan.

The impression is even stronger during the day.  My hotel seems to be located in the centre of a hub of government complexes, at a junction opposite a series of large white buildings of classical design, all with gold trimmings and black and gold gates, spanning several blocls.  I'm told this is the Ministry of Defence and it comprises not just office buildings, but an academy and dormitories.  The impression is that the military is very important in Turkmenistan. 

The roads in the capital are wide and smooth (and incredibly clean), laid in a grid, with a key street leading from the Presidential palaces to the Arch of Neutrality.  Intersecting this artery is another road dotted with various ministries - such as Oil and Gas (shaped like a cigarette lighter), Foreign Affairs (with a large globe on top on which the country of Turkmenistan is picked out in gold), Construction, and monuments to Turkmenistan's statehood - the Independence Tower and the "Eye".   All of the buildings are in a similar classical style with similar white facades and gold trimmings.  Even the decorations on each building are similar, mostly riffs on the Turkmen national symbol, the eight-pointed star.  

Everywhere are photos or paintings of the Eternal President who had passed away in 2006, smiling the same smile.  Even the mosque at the outskits of the city (the largest in Central Asia, I'm told) is called the Mosque of the Spirit of the Eternal Leader.  And he and his immediate family is buried in a mausoleum next to the mosque.  It is a sad story - the story of all dictators - humble beginnings, family died early (in the great 1948 earthquake which killed 90% of Ashgabat's population) and he struggled on a solitary path to the top.

The stylistic sameness of Ashgabat is very impressive.  It's not as OTT as I had been led to believe from reading articles in western press, but more a bright and shiny Ken and Barbie nouveau riche effect.   But it is also oppressive.  I was assured earnestly by my guide that Ashgabat is very safe, that I could leave my camera and backpack anywhere in the street and would be able to find it in the same place an hour later.  But still, I somehow feel unsafe, perhaps not in terms of theft or physical security, but more that there is an all-seeing Big Brother watching me.  There is barely anyone on the streets during the day, but maybe that was because today's a sunday.  I pass by a few impassive large white blocks and mistake them for hotels but am corrected - they are apartment blocks built by government ministries for their staff (heavily subsidized - one only pays half the market price and even that is financed by a 1% interest morgtgage).  No life is visible at the apartments.  They could have been abandoned blocks for all I know; no one sitting by the window, nobody going in or out, no children playing at the building grounds.  Articles on the Internet talk about silent men lurking about in hotel corridors.  I didn't see that (maybe I haven't been vigilant enough) but there were certainly few unsmiling men silently gliding out from nowhere who "just happened to be there" in a few of the monuments that I visited.  Perhaps to monitor that I wasn't taking forbidden photos (photos of government buildings are not allowed).  Certainly, I felt nervous enough this morning to have triple-checked that I have locked my luggage and taken my passport and various IDs with me before leaving the room.  Still, my sense is that they (whoever they are) could probably have easily picked the standard travel lock and left no trace. 

Ashgabat is not all inhuman though.  The locals are inordinately and probably rightly proud of their modern artifice of a capital, but there are pockets of everyday existence - the Russian market is busy-ish, selling clothes, everyday plastics and white goods, fresh fruit and vegetables as well as Russian produce (sturgeon and caviar - so-called).  About 15 minutes drive away from the city is Old Nisa, the capital of the Parthians who inhabited the region from 3BC to 3AD.  The Parthians were crafty warriors; they impressed Alexander the Great who passed through the area and even defeated the Romans, until they eventually grew weak and were defeated by the Sassanids.    Old Nisa is now just ruins but many interesting artifacts have been preserved beautifully and on view at the National Museum in Ashgabat.  As usual, the Museum imposes a guide on visitors; my guide was very knowledgeable and pointed out with pride the highlight of the Museum - the intricately carved ivory rhytons (a horn-like vessel) found at old Nisa.




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