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Ashgabat - The Marble City

Summary: Turkmenistan is still very much closed to visitors. In 2014, one needed a letter of invitation to get a visa. Some travel agencies may be able to arrange this, for certain areas. Some areas of Turkmenistan are closed to visitors. Internet is difficult to get, and Facebook and YouTube are not accessible from Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is an eccentric country, with a governance system reminiscent of North Korea. The worst manifestations of authoritarian rule - like the golden statue of the former president that turned with the sun - have been moved to inconspicuous sites out of the centre of Ashgabat. But there are still other golden statues of the late president.

Turkmenistan is rich in gas and much of the nation's wealth is invested in the white marble buildings of Ashgabat. It is not clear whom they are to impress other than the loyal government employees who can buy apartments at good conditions. The calculated gross domestic product of Turkmenistan is about 7000 Dollar per person, but it is not evenly distributed. Gas for heating households is more or less free; petrol costs 25 cent a litre, and many bus stops in Ashgabat are air-conditioned and have TV - which doesn't show much, or much of interest. Though taxis are cheap (the equivalent of 2 dollars to anywhere in Ashgabat) we recommend to try the bus. Enter any bus, and when you leave, throw the equivalent of 10 cents into a bin near the driver.
Ashgabat is a fantasy vision of the late president of Turkmenistan and of the golden age he claimed had started. There are plenty of marble buildings and golden ornaments and statues, but we haven’t seen a single street café or places that people can enjoy. Restaurants are difficult to find, and the best bet is to seek out a restaurant in one of the (expensive) hotels. The ubiquitous water fountains defy the fact that Turkmenistan is a desert country; all water is diverted from the rivers feeding the dying Aral sea. While there is certainly need for some amount of water, the extravagance of the water use and water display in Ashgabat is discomforting.

In the vast surrounding of the city, along the health trail and further towards the northern desert are huge forestry projects. Tuja and fir trees have been planted with the aid of a vast drip irrigation system. Banks and business have taken guardianship of plots that they plant and perhaps maintain. The actual state of the trees signifies the dedication of the sponsor.

Central Asia’s largest mosque is a magnificent structure of white marble with a golden dome that can house 10.000 people. It was inaugurated by then President Sapurmarat Niyasov in 2004 in Kipchak, his place of birth and the site of a major earthquake in 1948. Nearby is a mausoleum for the late president’s family, in particular for his mother and two brothers who were killed in the earthquake. Symbolic numbers abound: Under the cupola is a ring of 48 windows in reference to the year 1948. The four minarets are 91 meters high referring to 1991, Turkmenistan’s year of independence. We were unable to detect whether verses inside were appropriately from the Koran, or possibly from Niyasov’s book “Rukhnama” (Book of Soul) that caused some controversy.
We were however allowed to take pictures and admire the huge carpet that covers the entire floor and has the form of the eight point Seljuk star. The carpet is in the Guinness book of records as the largest carpet ever woven by hand. Another Guinness book entry is for the largest indoor Ferris Wheel, in Ashgabat. Too bad this is an oxymoron, as observations wheels work best with unobstructed views.

Ashgabat has a cable car, which we used during one of our hikes. It is a worthy undertaking considering in only costs something like 50 cents a ride (Swiss and Austrians and Germans take note!). One is not allowed to walk outside the perimeter of the top station, and the restaurant was closed in November.

It is not allowed to take photographs of the President’s palace, which was newly built as the old Palace a few hundred meters away was no longer good enough.

Also don't miss out on the excursions to the Darvaza Crater and the underground lake at Köw-Ata!