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Halfway Around the World

The Marble City

TURKMENISTAN | Sunday, 1 June 2008 | Views [914]

It took us almost two days to get from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The road was the worst we had been on yet, at some points we had to creep along at about 20 kph. We had a welcome break halfway through the second day when we went for a dip in some underground hot springs. We reemerged into the sunshine refreshed and smelling slightly of rotten egg. We arrived in Ashgabat around 1800 and I got my first look at the strangest city I have ever seen. Gaudy, tacky, mind-boggling are just some of the words I would use to describe it. Ashgabat is a mixture of empty Vegas and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Huge white marble buildings, topped by golden statues of the previous president, Niyazov, or large smiling portraits of the current dictator, Berdimuhammedov. Massive fountains line the roads and at night the city is lit up by white spotlights and neon. The whole place is kept immaculately clean by an army of street cleaners, no litter anywhere. Despite all this no one ever thought to install a proper drainage system in the roads and when it rained they were all completely flooded! The whole city has a very Orwellian feel to it. There are no locals in the downtown area apart from government ministers scurrying from one building to the next. There are cops and soldiers on every corner who won't let you take photos of any of the buildings. A 2300 city wide curfew makes it is illegal to walk the streets at night. All the high end hotels, restaurant and bars are bugged. Internet access is almost impossible to find, most sites are blocked and all emails are read before being send through. There is a Ministry of Fairness and a newly built House of Creativity, large enough for two hundred journalists. Ironic considering Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan third worst in the world as far as restrictions on freedom of the press. Let me not forget the Turkmenistan Land of Fairytales, an amusement park where empty rides run all day with prerecorded laughs and screams playing in the background. Oh and my personal favorite thing about Ashgabat, it is illegal to smoke outside, but you can smoke inside all you want! Our first day we visited a market on the outskirts of the city where there were actually people. We ate freshly baked meat pies and perused the silk and carpet stalls. Back in the city we went up the Arch of Neutrality; a large three legged tower, with yet another golden Niyazov statue this one pointing at the sun, to get a view of the entire city. We took shelter from the rain in a traditional Turkmeni restaurant. The menu that included fish cum and Salad "For Men", which consisted of mayonnaise, shredded cheese, mystery meat and one small piece of lettuce. Our second day we took a trip outside the city to see the old Fortress of Nisa, a collection of low mud and stone buildings. On the way out we stopped off at Niyazov's Mausoleum which sits next to an immense gold and white Mosque that he had built to commemorate himself. On the towers of the Mosque in huge gold letters are not the words of the Quran but his own personal poetry! We also visited the Walk of Heath, an eight kilometer long set of steps build into the mountainside for no apparent reason other than every year Niyazov would make all his ministers walk up it in full suit and tie while he met them at the top via helicopter! After two days in this most bizarre of cities we headed North early on Saturday the 24th across the Karakum Desert towards Uzbekistan.

Tags: ashgabat, overland trip, pushmorphine, silk road, sunshine bus, turkmenistan

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