Day 2 – Ashgabat in depth

8 May

An earlier breakfast allowed me to meet the rest of the group who had arrived early that morning. They appeared far more awake than I could ever have imagined. Max started off with some yerba mate – made from a relation of the holly bush and drunk like tea,  but through a metal straw.

The couples know each other and are friendly indeed.  Both farmers.  One of dairy cows and smoked bacon (Dorset). The other of beef cattle and lavender (Kent).

After a few brief notes from Max, we headed firstly to the mausoleum of Turkmenbashy, the first post soviet president of Turkmenistan. He had the foresight to build it a year before he died unexpectedly. Golden domed, it was indeed an impressive spectacle. Photo guarded by three soldiers. There was an imaginary line past which photos were prohibited.  They’ve never heard of zoom lenses.

Next door however was the Turkmenbashy mosque. Built near his home town which is now almost deserted.  Apparently holds 20,000 people, but only twice a year on special days. There is a large 8 pointed star shaped carpet in the middle which is brightly coloured – the biggest one in the world – until Dubai made a bigger one! Again an impressive place, but utterly deserted.

Max advised us to view the toilets underneath. Wow. No expense spared.

Back in our little mini van, we travelled on to Nisa, 18km from the centre of Ashgabat, but still officially part of it. They are hosting the Central Asian indoor games next year and wanted a city of over 1 million inhabitants. Easily achieved by redrawing the city limits!

Nisa is the site of the Parthian empire (300BC). Today it is little more than some mud bricks and reconstructed walls.  The earthquake of 1948 destroyed a bit but the Russian method of conservation is to cover everything with earth leaving only some pictures above ground. 43 hillocks marked the site of forts on this 15 hectare site.  The Italian and Russian architects had substantially different ideas on what the original site looked like. Two drawings for most were available.  The Italians lost.

It was within sight of the “walk of health”, an 8km walk up into the Kopet Dag mountains (bordering Iran) which Turkmenbashy made his ministers walk every year, but which he took his helicopter to the other end of. Wonder why he died early.

We drove back towards the centre, passing all the government ministries – 12 storey blocks clad entirely in white Italian marble, each with a unique design on the roof e.g. a book for the education ministry. We also passed the world’s largest, and potentially only, indoor ferris wheel – the building being the shape of a ferris wheel.

Neutrality monument was next on the list of sites. Looking like a rocket, it was possible to go inside – if the lifts had been working. Careful to avoid photographing the guards, we asked and were granted permission to take a photo of the commemorative stone. Many pavilions lined the park next to it. All empty.
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We finally found some people when a wedding party turned up. Carpets on the outside of Toyotas where traditionally camels would have been. Thankfully they were riding inside. The bride was heavily carpeted with bells on her legs and a huge veil. She must have been ugly. I think she was also mannacled as she could only shuffle back and forward. The family were happy to pose for photos for us and their own cameraman.  Three youths wanted me to take their photos and provided a memory card to put it on!

Apparently the men in the family will never see the new bride’s lips. It’s forbidden. Just because. They wear scarves over their lips.

We stopped off for lunch at one of the many marble encased blocks. Blue tinted windows didn’t give away anything about the interior and there were no signs that indicated a restaurant.  Inside was a complete contrast with soft furnishings with rough rope finish, giving a very contemporary feel that wouldn’t be out of place at home.

Lunch consisted of a salad to start. Slight confusion because I’d mentioned my dislike of raw tomatoes resulted in me getting a beetroot, carrot, pea and potato salad which I tried to share out. This was followed by cream of lentil soup and then a small portion of chicken and chips.

Smoking wasn’t allowed in the restaurant but it’s also illegal in the street.  That means that the two smokers in the group managed to sandwich themselves in the entrance way next to the fake log fire.

We drove on to Independence Park and got out to take some photos of the large monument commonly called the “plunger”, as that is what it looks like. There was also the compulsory gold covered statue of Turkmenbashy and several 5 headed eagles – one head for each tribe of Turkmenistan. Lots of other large black and gold statues were also around.  Dates were not necessarily accurate, if Turkmenbashy preferred a different date, that was the one used.

The months and days of the year have now been renamed since he died – he had renamed them after members of his family.
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We drove on to the national museum which had the largest flagpole in the world outside.  At least it was the biggest when it was built. Now it’s only the third biggest.  Anticipate an extension soon.

We had booked a 40 minute tour of the museum with Anton, the museum guide.  It lasted 50 minutes and took us on a whirlwind tour of ancient Turkmenistan. No photos allowed.  Lots of the objects uncovered in Nisa were on show here including Rhytons – carved ivory wine holders that are now synonomous with the region.  As well as pictures of all the archaeologists that had helped. And of course pictures of the current president that didn’t look at all photoshopped. The natty hat (gift) shop was rather overpriced.

Back to Independence Park and we stopped again at another monument. There were so many we could have spent a week doing this.  This one was in the shape of a book, the Ruhnama, which Turkmenbashy wrote to replace /supplement the Quoran and which everyone was indoctrinated in from a young age. The phrase is “personality cult”. It’s available in English. Apparently.

Further on we passed even more of the marble buildings under construction. Workers are given homes which they can sell only after 30 years, presumably with some kind of government backed mortgage scheme.

They have air conditioned bus stops!

The presidential palace is a definite no photo area and we drove swiftly past the golden domes.

After a quick freshen up at the hotel we walked to a nearby restaurant for a barbecue meat meal. Chicken, lamb and beef. Passable indeed. The vodka came out after that. Not such a great idea!

Walked back via the corner shop for some supplies and a mango ice cream.

Tried to get an early night in preparation  of an earlier start tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the disco was just below my window. The tobacco smoke coming through the air con didn’t help either.

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One Response to “Day 2 – Ashgabat in depth”

  1. mukul chand June 12, 2016 at 7:07 am #

    great post

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