A weird and wonderful World!

Ashgabat Travel Blog

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People i met here, who contributed to and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Luka and Stasha (Slovenia), Milenko (Bosnia)

It was a relief to step off the train at Ashgabat, after a rather restless night, spent trying to get comfortable on the luggage rack! I was in no mood to try and discover the ins and outs of the public transport system and our Hotel was too far to walk to, so we stood on the roadside and began flagging taxis down. Every car that stopped quoted a price that exceeded what we had paid to travel 14 hours by train, so we laughed them away and kept trying. Finally one guy decided not to be so greedy and settled on a couple of dollars to take us on the five minute journey.

Arriving at Amanov Home stay, we were shown into a box room, barely big enough to fit two people and this cost us $20. Turkmenistan really is a cheap country with the exception of the Hotels, but you need to be paying $50 and upwards to get anything resembling comfort. The big plus of where we had chosen to stay was that it was very sociable, as it attracts everyone who comes to the country that isn't rich. A Slovenian couple called Luka and Stasha greeted us and we chatted for some time, before they headed off for the day and we went to get freshened up.

Sunday is the main day to visit Ashgabat's sprawling Tolkuchka bazaar, so we caught the public bus seven kilometres out of town, to see what all the fuss was about. I'm not really a big fan of bazaars, but having read LP's review, i was looking forward to it.
This early enthusiasm soon faded as it began to sink in that the place was pretty much like any other bazaar. Most of the stuff here was complete junk and all the people seemed thoroughly miserable and incapable of smiling.

Not to be put off, I decided to look for a shirt that would come in useful for our trip to Iran, but been quoted $12 for something that looked like it had been stitched by a blind man, didn't seem wise. Instead, i diverted my attention to buying some flip flops, but they only had them in sizes that would fit giants feet. What was good though, was the food, and we tried the Turkmenistan version of samosas, which were excellent.

After an hour ducking between the tarpaulin roofs of the stands, trying to shelter from the searing desert sun, we decided that enough was enough and made a move for the exit.
Every bus was choc-a-bloc and nobody was offering any help at pointing us onto the right vehicle, so we ended up taking a taxi back to town, which cost a reasonable 30,000 Manat ($2).

We were dropped off at the Russian bazaar, located in the centre of town and this place was far more interesting in my opinion. The people were friendlier, the prices fairer and there were countless confectionery shops, selling incredibly delicious cakes. In fact, my lasting memory of Ashgabat will be the cakes, they really were excellent and very cheap too.

The main site that everyone has read about before coming to Turkmenistan, is The Arch of Neutrality. Located at the top of a tripod structure, there is a golden revolving statue of now deceased President Niyazov, which rotates to constantly face the sun! it really was quite a bizarre site.
To complement the quirkiness of this, there is another statue at the base, which is called the Earthquake Memorial. A split globe sits on a bronze bulls horns and in the middle there is a woman holding a golden statue of the baby Niyazov. Its hard to know whether you should cringe or laugh.

As we were taking photos, Luka and Stasha turned up, so we took the elevator up to the top of The Arch of Neutrality together. The views of Ashgabat were superb, as we had a birds eye view over the entire City. Particularly impressive was Independence Square and the Parade Ground, which were surrounded by the Palace of Turkmenbashi, the Ministry of Fairness, the Ministry of Defence, the Ruhyyet Palace and the Majlis (Parliament). The four of us joked that Niyazov had missed a trick, as he could have had the elevator ride into his body, so as you would get to view the City through his eyes!

All of us were feeling a bit peckish, so we wandered back to the Russian bazaar and found a nice little cafe to have lunch in.
I had a really tasty kebab and a Chocolate snickers cake for dessert. Having walked around a little more, we came to the decision that we would catch a taxi out to the Turkmenbashi cableway for sunset. The cable car system cost an astonishing $20,000,000 to build and only charges $0.07 per journey, so it could be a while before it actually pays for itself! Sadly it was closed when we arrived, probably because there were not enough people there to use it. We asked our taxi driver to wait for a while so as we could look at the ludicrous 'Walk of Health', a 8km or 37km road (depending on fitness) that Niyazov built for his Parliament members to walk along once a year. Rather than participate himself, he chose to take a helicopter from the start and greet them at the finish! Sadly we couldn't stay for too long, as the drivers Mum was expecting him home for his Dinner!

As the sun had still not set, a new game plan was reached, that we would get dropped off at a large square that had some pretty fountains and monuments and enjoy the end of a blistering day from there.
Once darkness set in, the area became beautifully illuminated and all we were missing was a beer! Nearby was the $50,000,000 Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales, where rides cost a staggering $0.04. I'm sure this money could have been more wisely spent, on lets say education or health care - or maybe some more marble hotels! Also in view was the $17,000,000 'House of Free Creativity', which is shaped like a book and houses up to 200 journalists. Seems rather ironic in a society which bugs hotel rooms, offices  and restaurants and also suppresses and murders people for speaking their mind.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed another statue of Niyazov and one with horses. At the Parade ground, some grumpy soldiers told us not to take photos, which was thoroughly ridiculous, as we jumped back into the elevator at The Arch of Neutrality and took all the photos we wanted from there! Stupid bureaucratic bullshit like this has no place in any society, but these former Russian states seem to just love it! Back at the hotel Luka, Stasha, Julia and I enjoyed knocking a few beers back and chatting the night away.

It had been an eventful first day in Ashgabat, surely one of the most bizarre places on Earth. Revolving gold statues, Walks of Health, multi million dollar theme parks and cable car rides, when there hardly seemed to be a soul living in the City! As for all the marble hotels, this really put the icing on the cake � why have hotels and make it so hard for people to come to the country!? Oh and did i mention the $63,000,000 artificial waterway that was built through the City? It had dried up when we passed over it. And i won't even get started on the Karakum Lake that is been constructed in the middle of the desert in the North West of Turkmenistan, at a staggering 8 BILLION DOLLARS!!! I wonder if they will be renting pedal boats at $0.
10 an hour to pay it off!? Turkmenistan, and Ashgabat in particular, is a place that has to be seen to be believed!

Monday began with a trip to the Russian bazaar, where we had arranged to meet Luka and Stasha for lunch. With this out of the way, Julia and I had some errands to run, whilst Luka and Stasha needed to buy their train tickets, so we split up and arranged to meet a couple of hours later. The meeting place was a Lenin Statue that was situated on a gaudy looking platform, which was in a nearby park. From here, the four of us walked to Tekke bazaar, from where we caught a bus to the colossal Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque, located at Gypjak, the birthplace of Niyazov. This is also sadly the place where his Mother and two brothers met their maker during the 1948 earthquake, which killed almost 110,000 within the City and left Saparmurat Niyazov an 8 year old orphan.

Now where do i get started with this place!? Niyazov built the Mosque with part of the Ten Billion Dollars that he received in aid from Saudi Arabia and in return, he made Islam the national religion of Turkmenistan. It was constructed by a French company between 2002-4 and has a capacity of 10,000 people, making in the largest Mosque in Central Asia. The 91 metre minarets symbolise Turkmenistan's Independence in 1991 and the 48 windows remember the 1948 earthquake. The dome has a diameter of 50 metres, making it the largest in the World, whilst the cupola soars to an impressive 55 metres. The crescent moon atop this stands at 63 metres, which was Mohammed's age when he died. 8 doors lead from the Mosque and these are the 8 doors to heaven. The lower level is reserved solely for men, whilst the balcony is where the women go.
On the floor is the Worlds largest carpet, which took 100 women 153 days to make and it weighs in at a staggering 1 tonne and 350 kilos.

Whilst all the symbolism and grandeur may have impressed the Saudis, one thing certainly wouldn't. Ever the egotist, Niyazov could not resist plastering quotes from his own book, the 'Ruhnama' on the minarets and also 'Ruhnama is a holy book; the Koran is Allah's book', on the main arch. Niyazov claimed that anyone who read his book 100 times is guaranteed a place in heaven, whilst a copy was also blasted into space and will leave rather a messed up idea of the human race to any Alien life forms that may stumble across it! By all accounts, having Ruhnama quotes on a holy structure is about the least appropriate action that Niyazov could have done and i would have loved to have seen the look on the face of the first Saudi who came over to see how their money had been spent - priceless!

Having had a very informative guided tour of the Mosque, we went into the neighbouring mausoleum, which housed Turkmenbashi, his mother and two brothers, and a ceremonial plaque for his father, who had perished in World War II.
I was a little surprised at the elegance and style here, as there wasn't a statue in sight! Not to feel too down beat, we walked over the road and saw a giant golden statue of him just to put things back in the balance!

In the late afternoon we took a taxi out to Independence Park, where colourfully clothed school children were gathering to celebrate their first day back at school � lucky devils! In the Park there was the biggest fountain in the World and The Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, which has gained the nickname of the 'plunger', for obvious reasons when you see it. There were also plenty of interesting statues and a massive photogenic palace in the area. As dusk arrived, all the buildings were lit up, some with style and some without! We walked down a road that was lined with empty marble buildings, supposedly apartments that nobody could afford to rent, what a waste.

Back at the hotel we sunk into some beers and were joined by a Bosnian Serb guy called Milenko. It was interesting to talk with people from the former Yugoslavia and get their views on what their countries used to be and what they have become. Add in a Russian (Julia) and an old Armenian guy that was staying there and we really did have quite the cultural mix. The conversation (and beers) were so enjoyable that we didn't make it to bed until 03.30.

On Tuesday we woke up at 10.00 and sat in the courtyard of the hotel chatting with the other guests, which now included a guy from Wales and one from the West Indies, what an odd group! At lunch time we wandered down to the Russian bazaar with Luka and Stasha for lunch and then Julia and i went to get a haircut.
After this the four of us took a long walk to a large shopping mall, but it was pretty expensive, so we just window shopped. None of us were in the mood to walk home, so we caught a taxi back to the bazaar, so as we could buy a huge cake, which Julia wanted as a (very) late birthday cake! As i knew that i would get my fair share of slices, i had no objection :)

Luka and Stasha left on the evening train and it was sad to say goodbye, as we had really enjoyed their company. As they left, two guys from the Czech Republic arrived and we sat chatting to them for some time, before i took the opportunity of catching up on my blog. Milenko arrived back from his day out and after nattering away to him for a couple of hours, i finally went to bed.

All that was left to do on Wednesday was catch a taxi to the border.
The driver charged us a pretty extortionate 80,000 Manat ($5.70) for the 15 minute ride and then we were forced into paying 150,000 Manat ($11) each, to take a shuttle mini bus across no mans land, which stretched for about 25kms. Procedures at the border were straightforward and nobody even questioned us about crossing at a different point to that which was listed on the visa, which was a real relief. It brought to an end a short but fascinating stay, in one of the Worlds wackiest countries.

Deats says:
Certainly one of the most intriguing countries I have ever visited. Definitely worth a visit.... if you can be bothered with their embassy that is! :/
Posted on: Jun 12, 2012
jenniferhibbard says:
You make it very appealing to go...what a study in lunacy and grandiosity, though! The monuments are incredible...
Posted on: Jun 12, 2012
Deats says:
Because we didn't have tickets for the train and bribed a guard to stay on the train. The other option was sitting on a hard seat. In comparison, the luggage rack was comfortable!
Posted on: Feb 23, 2012
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photo by: Vlindeke